Love is not a zero-sum game. And yet we often act as if we have a finite capacity to love, holding back, controlling, doling it out little by little as if we were paying off a large debt.
Yesterday morning my paternal grandmother died in her sleep. She had been diagnosed with cancer in several places a few months ago (though we learned of it last week) and was just beginning her chemotherapy. I wish I could say that she touched me in some way, but I would be insincere if I did.
You see my grandmother was the master of love as a zero-sum game. She held back, kept us all, including my dad at arm’s length. And now she has passed and from all accounts it was peaceful. I suppose that’s the least we can hope for someone who led such a miserable existence.
When my dad told me the news I didn’t really react one way or another. She was a mystery to me, a stranger. He seemed to understand, saying that she kept us away by her own choice. She doesn’t know my children at all, and she certainly doesn’t know me. I’m not sure what she ever thought of me or of my two brothers and sister. I’m not sure if she bragged of us to her friends at the VFW.
But I do know that she missed an awful lot. And that makes me sad, for her, my grandfather (always such a sweet and kind man) and especially for my dad. For most of his adult life, my father has been trying to please a woman who could not be pleased.
When my dad was 13, he found his younger brother, Dick, dead, facedown in a ditch of water after he had been hit by a car while riding his bike. I don’t pretend to know what agony losing a child brings and, God willing, I never will. But I do know that at that moment, my grandmother lost any joy and verve she ever had in life. In essence she, too, died that day.
From then on, she was bound and determined not to allow anyone to get close to her. Aside from grandfather, she succeeded. I’m sure in some way it was her own form of self-preservation. But what she missed was a lot. She missed my dad, one of the most creative, intelligent, convivial people I know. And loyal to her, despite her coldness toward him. She missed my mom, who has been a dutiful daughter-in-law, taking her lumps and keeping her mouth shut. She was willing to be so much more for her. Earlier this week, my mom — herself a cancer survivor — had offered to take my grandma to the wig shop to help her select a wig.
I wish I could solve the mystery of her. There’s a photograph of my grandmother from her early twenties that always sat in their house. She was a beautiful, fiery redhead. An Appalachian Maureen O’Hara. When my sister and I were admiring it once, my grandfather explained that she was a model then, and I pictured her full of moxie and mischief, smoking her Pall Malls and throwing her head back with uproarious laughter.
From time to time, her fun-loving side would emerge, quite unexpectedly. As her grandchildren, we knew to just go along for the ride and enjoy it while it lasted. She was a Rosie Riveter during World War II, a single mother supporting her two (and later three) boys. And in recent years she would tell us stories (especially after a few drinks) of her early days. The writer in me was so hungry to learn more, to understand that side of my family’s life. But the stories would only go so far and then they would abruptly stop.
There are two days that stand out for me as especially beautiful. And now that she's gone, I choose to remember those. One was my dad’s 40th birthday party. I was 14 and joined both my grandmothers, my mom and some aunts around the kitchen table. Grandma was pretty tipsy (she even bummed a smoke off my aunt) and had us laughing so hard that our sides and face hurt. She was recalling stories about my dad as a little (very mischievous) boy and those stories were filled with love and joy.
Three years ago my dad turned 60. We had somehow orchestrated a surprise dinner and later came back to my house for cake and ice cream and presents so that all the grandkids could also celebrate with grandpa. Dad was flying high and would literally be later because we bought him flying lessons as a gift. Then he opened my grandparent’s card and read it aloud. He was crying (Charlie’s a very emotional guy, something we all absolutely LOVE about him.) and I realized that so was my grandma. They hugged for a very long time and I heard her say she loved him.
In that one moment and with those three little words, she held the power to heal so many years of love withheld.
I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I woulda loved more. — Toni Morrison