Got a call from my Mum today. She has this way of telling me bad news. She asks how I’ve been, listens, and sighs heavily when I finish. That’s how I know its going to be bad news. I don’t often pick up on social/emotional ques but Mum is a creature of habit (like the rest of my family). Its nice (in a way) to know that bad news is coming before its said.
My grandmother has (probably) less than a year to live. She’s 85 years old and for the last ten years or so her health has been failing. Its only been in the last five years that she’s begun to actively die. It started with a heart attack that led to a stroke that lead to her losing sight in one eye and experience full body muscle weakness. She has low blood pressure and osteoporosis. The osteoporosis leads to abnormally high levels of calcium in her blood which is not just bad for her bones but also her heart. Three years ago she was diagnosed with a kind of cancer of the blood. The only way she will ever be cancer free is if she has a bone marrow transplant but she wouldn’t survive such a harsh procedure. Her heart muscles are atrophied and her heart is actively leaking blood. A pace maker could be put in but it would only stop sudden cardiac arrest. It wouldn’t really solve any problems. It might extend her life but no one can say for sure. She doesn’t want to have the surgery and I respect her decision.
My grandmother has been a fixture in my life since the day I was born. I was very jaundiced at birth and had to be put in a light box immediately. No one could hold me. My grandma prayed and sang to me. Both my parents worked long hours and if me and my siblings weren’t at school we were at my grandmother’s house. When we’re sick she gives us Sprite and eggs and refried beans. Tortillas were her specialty. Her tamales were a Christmas treat I looked forward to all year. Spanish rice, picadillo, and conchas overflowed at her house. She’d bring home a peppermint for each of us when she came home from work. She never forgot and she never miscounted. She was the first person in my life to respect my food sensitivities. She’d make my portion without onions. It took a few minutes more but it wasn’t a burden for her. She knew what I liked to eat. She would challenge me to try new things.
“Try a bite mijita,” she would instruct. “If you don’t like it I make you some eggs.”
Sometimes I liked it. Sometimes she’d make me eggs. She never got mad at me for being a “picky eater”. As long as I tried and didn’t waste food in her house everything was okay with her. As long as I was eating I was healthy.
“Jita,” she would say. “Don’t shake your hands at the table. You’ll get food on the floor.”
No yelling about quiet hands. Just a direction and a very logical reason for it.
“Jita,” she would say. “You need to listen at school. You need a high school diploma to go to college and I want to see you walk the stage.”
I was still mad at my teachers and confused by my classmates but Grandma wanted to see me on my special day. So I learned to put up with it.
“Mijita, when others are mean to you show them your beautiful smile,” she instructed.”They want you to be mad or sad. If you smile you confuse them. Then you come tell Grandma about your hurt.”
And it worked. Bullies stop picking on you if you just don’t care. I would tell Grandma if I was hurt or mad at their words. And it would be okay because Grandma loves me. And Grandma would always love me. There are so many of us (me and my siblings) but she had a way of talking to you that made you feel like you were the only one in the world. Because to her, you were. There was no other granddaughter like me and she thanked God for me every day. My birthday is in December but she would always buy me two presents. Because my birthday was as special as everyone else. Sometimes she would buy me a small one person cake. it would have reindeer and Christmas trees on top. It was my little cake. Just for me. Only for me. And she always remembered my favorite was chocolate.
When I left for college she was sad and scared. But she smiled and cheered me on. I was going to get my degree, the first in my family. She prayed to Jesus that my “school mind” would be open and that the library would be too. The first time I came home from university I went to visit her as usual. She looked so much smaller than I remember. So much weaker, so much sicker. For the first time I realized that my grandmother was going to die. That one day she simply wouldn’t be there anymore. I was so sick with the knowledge that I could hardly stand to look at her. My grandmother had been strong her entire life. She raised her sons alone after my good-for-nothing grandfather abandoned his family. In a time when women had no voice she and her sister worked menial jobs to buy their own home. Any obstacle could be overcome with hard work. Everyone had a skill that was special and could be used. Everyone’s life was important because they are a child of God.
She is a very, very religious woman, my grandma. Pious and as true a believer as there ever was. But her belief was never a weapon. She never tried to put the “fear of God” into any of us. Not even the time I nearly burned her house down. She just reminded us that God loved us. She wanted us all to be Catholics but she loved us no less if we never joined the church. She prayed her rosary quietly while we would nap when we were young. She thanked God for each of us by name. We were the sum of all her prayers, her reward for faithfulness, and proof, if only to her, of the loving God she leaned upon.
I joined the Catholic church in my early twenties. It is a fact that surprises many as I am generally logical and rational and religious beliefs tend not to be. Grandma brought me to the church. I saw the peace and joy it brought her. I saw the comfort religious beliefs could bring. I hoped to find that for myself and I very much did. My faith wavers often but that is just the nature of the thing.
My grandmother faces death with a serene smile. She is comforted by the love of God and His promise. She has lived all her life to be able to go home to His Kingdom and knows that the family members who have gone before her wait for her there.
I want her to go there. I know that she is tired of being in pain and she is tired of being sick. She is tried of hospitals and doctors and needles and pills. I want her to be at peace. Much of who I am today is because of her. Much of the peace I find in my life is because she so patiently taught me how to get there. She has always accepted me exactly for who I am. I have never been strange or weird or tiring to her. I have always been her Janna and I always will be.
I just really, really wish she could stay here with me always. Because I’m not done needing her to remind me that I’m perfect and wonderful and that I am a precious gift from God. I’m not done being her granddaughter. I don’t want her to go. But I know she’ll be waiting for me.