Seven days ago, my 84-year-old grandma left this world for a better one after eight long years battling Alzheimer’s Disease. It was so painful to watch her fade away over the years. She lived the last three of them completely unaware of who she was, where she was, who her loved ones were and why she was here in the world.
She had many challenges in this life. As a child, her beloved sister fell ill to an incurable disease and passed away. Fearful of losing their two remaining daughters, Grandma’s parents were understandably overly protective. Then she brought eight children into the world and then lost her beloved husband at an extremely young age to alcoholism. My mother was only 11 years old when she watched her father die on the living room floor due to a brain aneurysm and complications related to his addiction.
My grandmother cared for ailing, elderly family members until their fading moments. She cared for all us kids, grandkids and great-grandkids – through the good times and the bad – with extraordinary love. She was among the sweetest and kindest little ladies ever, despite a heap of challenges including being the wife and mother of alcoholics.
What I found the most remarkable about Grandma was her dedication to self-improvement. This lady who had so many tough times could have easily giving up and been satisfied with her contributions to the world. After all, raising eight kids as a widow is a huge job. But my grandmother never, ever stopped looking for ways to be a better person, even as an old lady. She put in the time, energy and belief in the power of learning – even when it was entirely not convenient to do so. For years, she took buses across town and arranged rides with friends to attend Al-Anon meetings because she never learned how to drive a car. She read hundreds of books about self-improvement and spirituality. She prayed every day, sometimes for hours, for herself, for all of us and for those who suffered. She believed in her ability to impact the world and her ability to heal from painful things. She gave so much for those who needed it. She never passed a Salvation Army red kettle without giving what she could, even though didn’t have much money at all. She never gave up her responsibility to strive to be a better person and to heal from the pain caused by grief and loving people with addictions.
About 10 years ago, I told Grandma that the cycle of addiction in our family would stop with me and my cousins.
She said, “I pray you are right.”
My grandma, a devote Catholic lady, attended Mass almost every week throughout her life.
“I don’t understand why people leave Mass before the final blessing,” she said once.
“There are only a few minutes left anyway,” I said.
“No, it’s the most important part,” she said. “The priest blesses you and reminds to go forth and do good.”
For Grandma, attending Mass was how she renewed her energy and dedication to being a better person. She believed in each person’s ability to shape their futures – no matter their age.
One memory replayed several times this week as I thought of my early days with Grandma. I was about nine years old or so and I had just read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was recreating Anne Frank’s world with my cousin. On the front porch, we built a tiny house with makeshift resources to protect us from the war. It was elaborate. Grandma watched quietly and then said, “Jody, why don’t you pretend to have a castle and be a princess and have a happy world?” I said, “That’s totally unrealistic.” She said, “No, it’s not. You can create whatever world you want.”
Those words stuck with me – some of the many things from Grandma I carry with me, among them this lesson by her example: No matter your age. You can – and should – keep trying to be a happier person and create a better life, no matter what challenges you meet in the journey.
My grandma never gave up on herself.
I won’t, either. I promise, Grandma.
I hope the same for you, my friends.