11 Years Later

My mom is an avid believer in the “strong-willed child” versus “compliant child” dichotomy. As someone who identifies more with collectivist sociological ideals than individualist ideals, it’s not hard to guess which category Mom put me into. Through my 23 years on this earth, I can say that one of my sincerest wishes, perhaps the driving force behind my morals and goals, has been to make my parents proud. This is a particularly difficult accomplishment since 11 years ago today, one of them died.

I would like to pause here and say that my father has never been a parent to any of his children (except, arguably, my baby sister). My second parent had the dubious honor (and subsequent acquired wisdom) of raising two generations. Her name was Wanda, and a few years after she finished raising my mom, she stepped in to raise me and my sister, KaLynne.

Grandma and I got along okay, better than Grandma and KaLynne (see the first two sentences of this post and then use your critical thinking skills to figure out why that might be). Grandma was a proud product of the Great Depression (“Eat all of your food, there are starving children in Africa;” “When I was growing up, we had to go pick our own switch from the tree in the yard;” “You can play inside or outside, but this air conditioning costs money so if you open that door one more time you’re going in the corner”). I should mention this came in handy because we were broke as hell.

(Note to self: ketchup does not make Grandma’s meatloaf taste any less like a landfill.)

(↑The reason I hated ketchup until about 2 years ago.↑)

Grandma was a Bible-thumping Baptist who insisted we attend church every Sunday (Sunday School at 9, worship service at 10:30, home for lunch and a Baptist nap, back at 6 o’clock for the evening service) and Wednesday (6 pm sharp for Junior Church with Miss Tanya). My sister and I knew who set the rules in the house, and who we were crossing if we broke them. I became very familiar with the various corners of our little home–my favorite was the one by the garage door because I could use the oil from the hinges to paint on the walls when she wasn’t looking. I also became familiar with the phenomenon of how everything starts to itch as soon as you have to stand perfectly still because you’re in time out.

Grandma and I had a good dynamic for a couple of reasons:

1) I was raised to believe that children should be seen and not heard, which is still the mantra in my head any time I enter a new situation. I am extremely quiet when I am first introduced to new people, particularly friends’ parents, because I’m a child and therefore, I am not to speak.

2) Grandma was a repressed creative (painting, sewing–the stuff I have exactly zero patience for) and she read something like a book every two days (Harlequin romances; I already said she was repressed). I was a budding creative and I showed an interest in basically everything art-related. She set me up with needlepoints (of which I finished 1) and ceramics (I have several of her pieces hidden around my bedroom). Around the age of 8, I gravitated to music, drawing, and writing, which endeared me to her in a different way: these were the things my granddad loved. The bizarre thing was that he passed away 15 years before I was born.

Media tells you that you want to remember your parents as they were, before they got sick, before you knew what was coming. That’s fine, for people who were older than 12 when they lost one. My memories of her are sketchy most days. My clearest memory is from just a month or so before she died. She’d been really sick for about seven months. She was having an “episode:” the ammonia levels in her blood were through the roof because her liver wouldn’t process the toxin. Grandma was being unresponsive, similar to an autistic child who can’t make eye contact or find a way to communicate, and Mom couldn’t get her to drink the putrid-smelling orange Laculose. Mom was frustrated and tired. I happened to go downstairs and see what was going on. I felt helpless–what use is a 7th grader against a stubborn 72-year-old? While Mom distracted herself by cleaning Grandma’s bathroom, I noticed that Grandma kept licking her lips because they were dry. I grabbed the capful of medicine and knelt by Grandma’s bed for what felt like an hour, tipping the cap against her bottom lip and waiting for her to lick the thin layer of medicine off. Slowly, so slowly, she finished the dose. An hour or so later, she was back to normal.

This is my favorite memory because I was able to be the caretaker and she the child. I was able to repay her in a very small way for all the time and patience she put into raising me. I am not a patient person, except when it comes to the people who mean the absolute most to me (I’m talking a maximum of 5 or 6 people ever), and that is a quality I get from her. This is why I choose to remember her at the end, when that love and patience came full circle.

(Quick aside: If you’ve taken the time to do the math, you’ll notice something about my greatest obsession. I started writing VHAMA in January 2004, less than a week after Grandma died. In addition to being basically everything that my soul is made of, VHAMA was my coping mechanism, a world to lose myself in after she was gone.)

Today, I was sitting at work when it suddenly hit me that she had been gone for 11 whole years. I had to excuse myself from the office for a few minutes while the old emotions washed over me. As I sat against a cinder block wall, I wondered if Grandma would be proud of me. Would she like the people I hang out with?   Would she like the person I want to become?

As I sat on the cinder block wall, trying to catch my breath, trying not cry, I realized that Grandma would not approve of a lot of the things I have done, but she would approve of the way my life is going. She would approve of my pursuit to publish this story. She would approve of my desire to become independently successful. She would definitely approve of my closest friends and inspirations; that was probably the most emotional revelation of all.

After 11 years of searching for who I’m supposed to be, fumbling for the right path, failing and succeeding again and again, I finally feel certain that my parents, both of them, are proud of me.

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