Anything goes at Grandma’s. But that’s not why my daughters delight in their time with you. Oh, don’t get we wrong, it’s part of it. Telling secrets, eating M&M’s, snuggling back-to-back-to-front in a multigenerational sandwich… All part of “anything goes.” A grandparent’s prerogative.
No, they love grandma’s house because you live there and they love you. It’s safe and it’s warm. It’s non-judgmental and silly. Sure, there are rules, but only to be broken. Like French toast for dinner – our secret meal when I was just a boy and daddy worked late in the city. A little bending of the rules never hurt anyone. In fact, it makes anything seem possible. Breakfast for dinner? Preposterous. And delicious.
There’s a stretch of time between leaving the nest and building one’s own when a young person forgets what adolescence was like. A solid decade thinking little of what your parents did for you and caring even less about what’s happening in their lives. Parents, you see, don’t really become people until you have a child of your own. They’re walking, talking ATM’s, co-signers on loans or perhaps landlords. They’re advice-givers when solicited, droning nags when not.
Amazingly, parents learn all sorts of new things when their children enter adulthood, because they clearly knew nothing beforehand. Even if they claim to possess knowledge of a subject, it’s likely incomplete, outdated or flat out wrong. Just ask us.
Then when your baby has a baby, something happens. Parents become people again. Mind you, it doesn’t happen right away, it takes a few sleepless months for this revelation to settle in. It happens late at night when the world is still and the only light in the room as you hold your newborn daughter peeks in from the moon. Feeding her and rocking her gently your thoughts are consumed with what her life will be like. You whisper your hopes in her ear, blow gently on the top of her head and beg Father Time to slow his hands so this moment can last forever. And as she coos and stares unblinkingly up at you with her tiny hand exploring your face it hits you.
I was once a baby too. Rocking gently in your arms washed only by the light from many, many moons ago.
As the years passed, we rolled all over this Island, bombing around in Betsy singing 70’s country songs at the top of our lungs. “You could be a professional singer, mommy,” I would say. “You can do anything my baby boy, pride and joy,” you would say back. In the evenings I would yammer away in the backseat until we were minutes from home then magically fall “asleep” so daddy would have to carry me upstairs and you would have to tuck me in. I was sure you were fooled. Now I know that you weren’t, because my girls do the same thing.
In the morning I would dilly-dally. Sitting on the bed in just my underwear you would tell me to lie down so you could shimmy my pants on and get me ready for school. At this, I would shoot upright and giggle when you pushed me back down. Over and over again until we laughed so hard it hurt. I remember this well because I play the same game with my girls.
They’re at the age now when my wife and I have begun shuttling back and forth to practices and parties, play-dates and rehearsals. In the car we sing at the top of our lungs and they tell me I could be a professional singer. And I tell them they can do anything.
Sometimes they’re quiet, especially in the morning on the way to school. Occasionally, I tilt the rearview mirror down and watch them silently stare out the window, fixing their gazes alternately between their own reflections and life’s passing parade; wondering what they are wondering and winking slyly when their eyes catch mine. Just like ours did when I was their age. The years have changed but the eyes are the same.
In these moments I question what exactly they will remember. Will they remember all that we do for them and ever know how much we break inside over every scratch and every tear? Will they remember how little we slept and how much we did and does it matter so long as they are healthy and loved?
What will they remember?
They’re too young to realize just how much their mother and I love them above all else in the world. Too young to possibly comprehend how much sacrifice and dedication goes into building them piece by piece, moment by moment, in the hopes of cementing a masterpiece hard enough to take on the world and beautiful enough to get it to notice them. And yet I know it’s the tough stuff that will remove the innocence from their eyes like a sculptor who pulls back the cover from his art for all to see, come what may.
Every year we speak on the anniversary of that day in September my cover was pulled. The day we found out you were ill. It was the beginning of doctors with needles, black liquid, and pills – leeches and wigs, indignity and tears. So many tears. Infections and reactions, weight loss and then bloating. These are my memories from high school. I remember the day you welcomed me off the bus at the back door like you always did. Stooped over in your pink robe, cold but sweating. Bald. Too tired that day to lift your battered arms to cover your head. That was the day I said goodbye to you in my mind. That was twenty-four years ago.
When I was seventeen I left you for college. I remember how you didn’t make the trip. Couldn’t make the trip. And as I watched daddy’s car wind down the road from the hill where my freshman dormitory was, waving long after he disappeared, I wept at the poignancy of my life beginning while yours was coming to an end. That was twenty-two years ago.
Shortly after my graduation, you had your graduation. The bachelor’s degree you never got because college wasn’t a possibility for a poor working girl from Brantford. Nineteen years ago. And then a master’s degree in Victorian literature, the first in the family to get such an advanced degree. Seventeen years ago.
Through love and through heartbreak, you were the touchstone I could always return to. And when the time was finally right, when I had met the woman I would spend the rest of my life with, you knew before me. That was fifteen years ago. When we had our first child ten years ago, you were there and the center of the universe became visible to us all. And when the heavens opened once again and delivered our second daughter, seven years ago, you were there.
Three years ago, the doctor’s aide told daddy and me that it had been a “good run” and asked if we needed to pray. We declined to do so because you declined to go, quietly, stoically as always. There are graduations to attend and weddings to plan. Girls who will be women. Girls who will need a place to retreat; a place where anything goes.
Though illness continues to haunt you, no one would ever know. That’s not your way. All of your efforts and all of your attention are reserved for your family. Today, nearly a quarter of a century has passed since I first said goodbye to you, a Canadian goodbye if ever there was one.
Would I have such an appreciation for life had I not grieved for the one who gave life to me? Would I be grateful for each passing day had you not redefined the concept of borrowed time? Would I possess such deep optimism that quiet determination bests unfortunate circumstances had you not proven it with such grace and humility? I should think not, on all counts.
You are my great and powerful Oz, the human miracle worker who reveals what already exists by allowing us all to be and believe. You gave me a heart that allows me to feel and pumps blood to the brain that allows me to write. My courage comes from witnessing yours. And you are, and have always been, home.
When I asked you what you would like for your birthday this year, you said “just one kindness” and left it at that.
I’ve though a lot about it. Why is it the simplest requests are the hardest to fulfill? How could one simple kindness be enough? Perplexed, I marshaled my heart, brain and courage and sat down to write as I frequently do when faced with a problem. And, as always, it has produced the answer. The above is prologue to my gift, my way of explaining the “one kindness” you should know.
I remember. I remember it all.