Thursday, May 17, 2012

Time never stops

It's been an introspective few weeks. Tim's grandmother passed away last Tuesday after a long battle with cancer and many other serious health concerns. While her illness allowed enough time for everyone to say their goodbyes, it was tough watching her be in so much pain. She did live to be 90, which seems like such an amazing thing to me. Tim now has no living grandparents. I have my mom's mom, and that is all.

I can remember my dad's grandmother vaguely, but I do have strong memories of all four of my grandparents as well as three of Tim's grandparents. That's truly a gift. It got me thinking about how each of them has passed away on different terms.

My mom's dad passed away when he was 74. It was not an easy few weeks--he had several heart attacks, and there was much contention about whether to let him go or try heroic efforts in ICU to potentially let him live less than a full life. It tore my mom's family apart for many years--my mom came in on the not at all popular "let him go" side--and I still think things are tense sometimes because of the rift that formed. I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, but of the 14 years of memories I have of my grandfather, I honestly can't think of a happy one. Most are neutral; he would sit at the kitchen table by himself, watching his shows, while everyone else congregated in the living room. Some memories are negative; he had a mean temper, and some of my older cousins got on his bad side on more than one occasion. Still, he was my grandpa, and we shared a birthday, so his death was a sad time.

I remember being 14 and thinking that 74 seemed old. My grandmother was a widow at 69. At the time, that didn't seem so strange. It was the first death close to me that I was old enough to remember. I do remember my grandmother being so upset at his funeral, and I remember thinking that I wouldn't be so upset at the loss of a man who had basically been a nasty alcoholic his entire life. Remember, I was 14 then. Things were very black and white for me.

I think back now, and many things strike me. One, love is a strange thing. It's not black and white. Someone can hurt you over and over, and you still love them--you still miss them when they are gone. And now having some experience with alcoholism (and Al-Anon) in my own life, I understand how alcoholism as a disease affects families. My mom's family is textbook for the family of an alcoholic. I can see that now; I couldn't see it then. Each person deals with the struggles of the disease in different ways, and that isn't always obvious to outsiders. As a young teenager, I couldn't see it.

I also think about the ages of my grandmother and grandfather differently now. 74 and 69 are no longer old--they are young. Tim's parents are in their mid-60s. They are thankfully healthy and full of life, but I can't imagine losing them any time soon. And my grandmother--she has had almost 18 years of living as a widow. She initially stayed very involved with her church and her friends, but that waned. And then she was in an accident and could no longer drive. And then her church closed. She's had multiple cancers and serious health issues, and her memory has been declining. But now my aunt lives with her, my mom and her sisters pitch in to keep her company, and the family tries to visit as much as we all can. Still, she has had a tough life. No one knows how much time they have left on earth--I hope it is still years for her--but I'm learning it is what you do with the time that counts.

Tim lost both of his grandfathers while we were dating. His dad's dad, who I only met a few times, was a fiery Irishman. Tim's dad's family isn't close, but his grandfather always seemed very nice on the occasions I saw him. He died suddenly of a heart attack while I was on vacation with my family, so I missed his funeral. What I remember most about his passing is the aftermath--Tim helping to clean out a house that could've been on Hoarders, the contention about whether to include one of Tim's uncles in the will, etc. It seemed very stressful, and it was one of the first times that I thought about making sure I didn't leave a mess behind when I left this earth.

Tim's other grandfather, the husband of his grandmother who passed last week, died in 2001. I was at the NIH for a semester, and when I came home for Thanksgiving, Tim's grandfather was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I never heard what kind--though now I can guess--and he died less than two weeks later. My biggest memory of that time is taking all of my finals at NIH early, packing up my part of the three person apartment into my little Chevy Cavalier, and setting a land speed record to get from Washington, DC to near Cleveland in about 5 hours. I had just enough time to change and switch cars before calling hours. I was 21 then and old enough to be a little more savvy about love and loss than I was at 14. I remember Tim's grandpa as a kind, quiet man. He didn't talk a lot, but he was always smiling and friendly. There was so much sadness at his funeral. Everything had progressed so quickly with the cancer that no one really felt like he was gone. He and Tim's grandma had been inseparable--Tim's grandma didn't even have a driver's license. And Tim's grandma had been the one with health issues for many years. While sadness was the number one emotion at his funeral, worry about his grandmother's future was the number two emotion. She ended up living 10+ years without him, but she eventually moved from their apartment into an assisted living facility in the same complex. That was an absolute godsend for her--it kept her social, kept her memory sharp, and kept her chronic medical diseases in check. And when it was time for hospice, she could stay in her room and get the care she needed.

I lost my father's parents in the span of about a year. My dad's dad--my Pop-Pop--was exactly what you think of when you think of a grandfather. He was warm and loving. He lit up whenever the grandkids came around. He had special habits that were all his--getting us to eat vegetables by calling them "racing beans," telling us crusts of bread are what make hair curly, sharing his butterscotch candies, showing us the moon...there are so many things that I remember. Most of all, I just remember how much my grandparent's house was always filled with love. My grandfather developed Alzheimer's when I was a teenager. I think he was officially diagnosed about 7 years before he died, but the signs were there before his diagnosis. It was heart wrenching to watch him progress in the disease. He could still smile and nod when you talked to him, but he wouldn't be able to tell you your name if you asked. Initially you could tell he still knew who his family was, but as time went on, we all became strangers to him. The last few years of his life were especially difficult on my dad's family. Everyone wanted to keep him at home--no nursing homes--but he was wandering off and could occasionally become aggressive. My dad and his siblings each took one night a week at my grandma's house so she could at least get some rest. It was draining on my grandma, my dad, his siblings, and all of the families, but the unspoken word was that you did what you needed to do because of family.

My grandpa passed away in May 2005. He was in hospice with pneumonia for only a few days before he passed, but it gave everyone a chance to say their final goodbyes. I think we all had mixed feelings. It was such a heartbreaking loss to lose Pop-Pop, but we had lost him years earlier to Alzheimer's. We had been mourning him while he was still alive. It was so hard to watch such a wonderful, dignified man become a child again. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease. We all dug into our faith--which had been modeled for so many years by my grandparents--and realized that if you truly believe in heaven, you have to be happy that he is finally in a place where he was no longer contained within the prison of Alzheimer's. I knew that my grandmother believed that; she had the strongest faith of any person I've ever met. The most heartbreaking thing I have ever seen was when she accepted the US flag at the veteran's cemetery for my grandfather's service in WWII. That strong, vibrant women looked pale and fragile. Just watching her try to be the matriarch in the face of all of her pain made me sob.

Although she would absolutely never say it, we all felt like taking care of my grandfather had to be a burden to my grandmother. She was a vibrant, active women. She had been going next door to my dad's family's church nearly every day before my grandpa got sick. They used to sit on their front porch and say hi to everyone who passed--and she knew just about everyone in their town. I thought that returning to her social life after my grandpa passed away would restore the twinkle in her eye that had dwindled with his illness. Instead, she always seemed a little sad. She would light up whenever she had visitors--and a chance to cook a big meal--but I always felt like there was a little part of her missing.

The last time I saw her was at Easter in April of 2006. We were at my aunt's house, and she seemed so happy to see all the grandkids looking for Easter eggs. I have pictures of her on my aunt's front porch smiling widely at the chaos in the front yard. We talked briefly about her upcoming back surgery. She called it a minor surgery to relieve a pinched nerve. She was looking forward to being able to be active again without dealing with all of the pain.

I was in the lab when my mom called and said she had passed away. She had the back surgery, but then she coded in the recovery room, and they couldn't bring her back. The thought is that she probably had a heart attack. We were all in complete shock--she had no major health problems, and no one expected any problems.

I posted about her here. One year to the day that my grandfather passed away, we buried my grandmother. That was by far the hardest funeral I have ever attended. She was the center of the family. I had thought she'd be around to see my kids. She left about a year and a half too soon for that. She was in her late 70s but seemed so much younger. I still miss her--I think about how much she would've loved to see all of the great-grandkids that have been born. If I can give 1/10th the love that she gave to her family, I would consider my life a success.

When we were at the veteran's cemetery on Friday morning for Tim's grandma, my dad came down to help with Noah. We hadn't brought any of the kids to the calling hours or the memorial service the night before, and the big two went into daycare on Friday morning. Noah was pretty well behaved, but my dad took him just in case so Tim and I could say goodbye to his grandmother. After her service, my dad took us to the place in the cemetery where his parents were laid to rest. I showed Noah their names on the wall and told him how much they loved babies. I wished her a happy mother's day and said goodbye. When the kids are older, we'll take them to see their four great grandparents buried in that cemetery. We'll visit the other great grandparents too. We'll tell them about how much they loved their families. We'll look at pictures and tell stories. I want them to know that these people meant so much to us. Saying "family comes first" means much less than showing them people that lived for their families.

I can't believe how quickly time is moving. I remember events from ten years ago like they were yesterday. Tim and I have been together for 16 years--we started dating in 1996--and I still remember those early years. Now we've been married for almost 10 years. We have three kids--one of whom will be five this year!! Noah will be four months old at the end of the month. He no longer looks like a newborn. He's filled out--he's definitely an infant now. He rolled over multiple times yesterday (tummy to back), so he's officially mobile. Where has the time gone? Even being home with him most of these last few months, I still don't know where time is going.

Every time Noah hits a milestone, I get a little sad. While I would love for him to sleep better, I love the baby stage. I put the 0-3 month clothes away a few weeks ago and got choked up. That is likely the last time we'll use those clothes. This is probably the last time I'll have an infant learning to roll over. I know a few posts back we talked about maybe having another, and that door hasn't completely closed, but each day has us thinking we are done at three kids. There are lots of reasons, which I won't go into today, but I think the little baby days are quickly moving behind us. Being sad about it isn't a good reason to have another one--at some point (unless your last name is Duggar), you have to be done.

I love our little family. I am exhausted, but already I see that Noah at 3 months is easier than newborn Noah. And I look at Sophie and Josh, who (pretty much) sleep through the night, and I know the sleepless phase doesn't last forever. My kids are getting so big--I look at Sophie and am awed by the little person she has become. Josh's speech has exploded in the last few months, and his impish grin makes my heart melt. I know my time is going to be tight in the coming years. I signed up for that willingly, and I do have mommy guilt over it more than occasionally. We may not have the quantity of time together that I want, but I want the quality of that time to show them how much I love them. Both Tim and I came from loving families, and we've had great models of love in our grandparents. I want my kids to be close to their grandparents--I want them to have the same feelings of love, security, and comfort that I had. And I want them to grow up knowing the importance of family. If I can do that, I'll consider my job as a mom a success.