At this moment, I am sitting on a black pleather chair at LAX waiting for my flight home on Southwest. My mother is next to me, though it is my father’s mother we are returning from visiting. My mother’s relationship with her ex-mother in law, though tense at times (starting with my grandmother’s horror at the fact that my mother would be willing to occasionally buy clothes for herself or for a baby me at the thrift store and ending with my mother’s refusal to submit to tasting even one bite of gefilte fish), has grown close in recent years. When my mother’s husband passed away, the two spent many hours over months on the phone mourning their partner losses, my mom’s current, my grandmother’s nearly twenty years ago but still a source of daily tears.
This trip, now at its close, was a quick two night jaunt to say goodbye to this grandmother who though still relatively sharp, has COPD and could die at any moment, suddenly. My mother and I converged and joined forces with my father, who flew in from NY, at my aunt Lori and uncle Mark’s house. I had not seen said aunt and uncle in twelve years, not been to their house in twenty-two. Both Lori and I were pleased and touched this trip by meeting each other’s older self. By the fact that we quite liked one another as people and not just as family.
As you can probably already tell, this post is about dying.
My grandmother grew up in poverty. She married my grandfather young and saw him as a savior, someone to pull her out of the sadness and struggle. Her life was simple. She had three children, she smoked and watched her soaps, she went for rides in Grandpa’s Cadillac, she got her acrylic nails painted (gold) frequently, she cooked traditional Jewish meals, and she complained. A lot.
It was hard not to judge my grandmother her choices. She never learned to drive a car or balance a checkbook. But she always was and still is kind and sensitive. She’s also sarcastic and funny as hell. My father believes it was her that trained him, through her communication style, to be a therapist. So I guess that would mean I got mine from her as well.
Family. I lament semi-frequently about feeling adrift and alone when it comes to extended family. I have a wonderful partner and son, and two amazing parents whom I am very close to. I have one cousin that I speak to regularly and she and I feel close. As I write this, it seems to me like that is actually a lot. But somehow I have associated family with more… more quantity. Grandparents, aunts & uncles, cousins, nieces & nephews. Holidays for the last twenty years have been three people or less and that’s just not how it’s done in the movies. This trip was special in part because I was reminded of the fact that I have an aunt and uncle that are pretty damn awesome. Two of the kindest and shockingly in a strict break with family tradition, two of the most happily married people I have every met. Being together in a home with them, my father, and my mother (who divorced when I was eleven), was pleasantly powerful. Comforting and strange. There was a lot of laughter, full laughter, belly laughter, from all. And a pinch of good old fashioned regression. At age thirty-seven, I found it hard to not feel like a child, being by far the youngest of the group and therefore “the kid”.
Though I had some fleeting fantasies about catching some rays of sunshine or sneaking away to the Getty, the trip was spend between my grandmother’s care facility and my aunt’s house. The care facility is a good one, the employees compassionate and respectful, the food edible, there are activities aplenty But nothing can ever disguise the fact that everyone there is elderly and dying. And while I understand the enormous amount work involved in caring for the elderly, I will never be comfortable with the way our country seems to hide them away or the presumed benefit of those still young and healhty in a tradition of fucked up priorities.
Anyway. My grandmother was terrified of life and is now terrified of death. She doesn’t want to talk or think about it. She is scared. She is angry and she is hurt. It is anything but graceful.
As I said earlier, my granmother has 3 children. My father, Lori, and she-who-cannot-be-named. The bad seed. The rotten apple, Arlene. My aunt Arlene is not a nice person. She is greedy and cruel and try though everyone did to locate a soft core, a redeeming quality in her, none could ever be found. Arelene found and married an equally awful husband following the death of her first husband, who was actually quite nice. Together with her second husband she stole money and eventually the identity of my grandmother. Far from ever showing accountability and remorse, her conversations over the phone with my grandmother once the betrayl had been exposed, were nasty, vicious, and blaming.
There are many things that my grandmother is holding on to; her fears that both my father and my mother remain single and alone. That none of us will ever be financially stable. That I am going to fuck up my future marriage (I may be reaching a bit on that one but it’s definitely what she was implying). That we won’t be happy in our lives. But the thing that she is holding out for most of all, the thing she wants most desperately, is an apology from her daughter. This is something that sadly, she will never get.
Interestingly enough, my other grandmother, the one I was closer to, the one who passed away five years ago, also had a son who was an emotional exile from the family and who too, blamed her for all of the failures and the disappointments in his life. And she too, though a much stronger woman, died with a sadness deep and vast despite living an extraordinary life and doing profound things.
So how do you let go of your child?
I see all the time in therapy someone wanting so badly something that I know they are not going to get. Always it is because this something, this apology for words said or actions done, this different relationship with a loved one, this friend or partner to not hate or vilify us and to see us how we see ourselves, this something… is dependent on another person. And there is only so much we can do to influence another person. Sometimes, there is nothing at all.
In my grandmother’s case, what she needs to find is forgiveness for her daughter in order to make peace with what can only be described as a terrible situation and let go. Forgiveness. That elusive internal emotional state, that noble concept, that obvious solution to so many problems that is so damn hard to find. It’s possible that we don’t do the work it takes to get there because we are not convinced that is going to do the trick. And it certainly doesn’t feel as good as feeling vindicated, validated, seen and heard. But sometimes, it is all we are going to get. And if we don’t take it, we remain stuck. Paralyzed in a young and vital life, paralyzed in a frail and dying body.
Our trip went well and my father and I alternated at times between roles of loved one and of professional, something we do with everyone in our lives. Something we can’t avoid or help. We all left feeling like we had helped move my grandmother further forward in her process. We promised her we would look after each other and assured her that we were happy now, and would all be okay when she was gone. I told her that I would take care of my parents when they age, a reality that, being an only child of divorced parents living on opposite ends of the country, never drifts too far from my mind. But the rest of the journey is up to my grandmother. And I don’t know where she will take it. That, I guess, is the final choice we make.
As I hit publish I am now in Oakland, sitting in the same black pleather chair. Sitting across from me is a different stranger but next to me is still my mother. I miss my father already, as I always do when we part. I am looking foward to returning home to my fiance and my child. To a home that we chose and decorated together, to the life that flows in and out of one another’s, some movements seperate, some together, but all with some level of intention, involvement, and contribution from me.
There are a lot of things I still want to do before I join the other apples that have fallen beneath our already sparse family tree. But I love my life. All of it. And I feel fortunate that I have a head start in understanding the significance of forgivess in part because of what my grandmothers went through. For it frees you in death just as it frees you in life.
Alyssa Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on January 27, 2013.