As long-time readers may remember, my grandmother passed away this year on Valentine’s Day after a long fight against ovarian cancer. The loss we’ve felt as a family is nearly impossible to describe. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. I miss her so much I can hardly type this.
Today would have been her 92nd birthday. I think it should now be declared a national holiday. I know she would have told me to honor her not by making such a fuss on a blog but by living a good life, fighting for my family above all else, helping others every chance I can, and being true to who I am. I’d add to that kicking as much butt in life as possible.
This year has been hard. There have been many weeks where it’s just been grinding things out. While I started the year with many goals of diving headlong into the autism world and making a difference not just at home but everywhere else I could, it hasn’t really worked out the way I’d hoped. My efforts for this year have turned more toward something that has felt at times like survival, something deeply personal. My posts have become much less frequent, my ability to keep up with comments and correspondence greatly lessened. So many of you have been supportive, and that means more to me than I can say. In recent weeks, I’ve tried to focus more on what’s going on in our house, taking better care of us and myself, and trying to rein in my not-so-great health problems.
She was our matriarch, our cheerleader, our safe and welcome place. I’ve thought a lot about Mamaw being a 20+ year survivor of breast cancer before she died from ovarian cancer this year. I’ve thought about her entire life, all of her challenges, everything she overcame, and how she did all of it to the very last with honor, dignity, and grace. She was tireless, relentless, irrepressible, and just plain tough. It would take several internets to describe everything I learned from her.
Lately one of those lessons has been present almost constantly in my mind. The combination of determination, hard work, faith, time, and love can overcome most anything, but it’s up to you to do what’s necessary because nobody is going to do it for you. She’s physically gone now. She imparted all the wisdom to me that she could. Now it’s up to me to live like I take that seriously. You’d think at almost 37 years old that I would have figured that out by now, or perhaps figuring it out and living it out are two much more different ideas than I realized until now.
I’ve gotten back into running again and am actually eating a lot better. I’m treating my body less like an abused machine. I’ve lost about 10 pounds so far, and while my knees are barely hanging on, running has been like opening up my windows and airing out all the stale parts of myself. I think about her a lot when I’m out running. I think about how much my body hurts, and I think about all the physical pain she endured, that she endured with such toughness, will, and dignity. Then I straighten up and lift my pace.
I’m running toward something; I get that now. You can only bemoan life and circumstances and feel sorry for yourself but so much until it drains everything from you and leaves you no further along than you were. She always kept trying to tell me that. I’m now running toward a me who is strong enough to be a good dad to two perfect boys and a good husband to the love of my life.
I printed the original post I wrote two years ago in honor of her and gave it to her before she had surgery to try to remove her ovarian cancer several months before she died. She said she kept it with her all the time and read it almost every day, and more often on days she wasn’t feeling well. As I go back and reread it now, some things are hard to believe. I really did think she’d live forever. The last time I saw her as I was getting ready to leave and make the long drive home she asked me, “Do you really believe all that about me?” I said, “Every bit of it, and so much more.”
After she died, I brought home a couple of boxes of things we’d given to her over the years, cards and letters I’d sent her from as far back as when I was very little that she’d actually saved, pictures, other items I’ll always treasure, and that printed copy of that blog post she carried around with her until she died. Below is that post in its entirety.
I miss you terribly, Mamaw. I love you. You’ll always be my hero.
September 29, 2008
“What My Hero Taught Me About Parenting an Autistic Child”
For our big trip recently, we went to my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. To say she is our family matriarch is a profound understatement. Four generations of our family piled into her house to both celebrate her and how triumphantly she has lived through everything she has overcome.
She looks about as much like 90 as our cats look like giraffes. I fully expect her to live to be 125. It was only a couple of years ago that we finally talked her out of cleaning her own gutters. She was talking at the party about needing to get out and powerwash her siding.
She lost her first husband to health complications from him being a coal miner when she was only 25. She became a widowed single mom to two kids – my dad who was six at the time and my uncle who was only a few months old. She became a waitress and sometimes walked to work with a pistol in her pocket. The Kentucky coalfields were rough places. She literally walked uphill both ways to work and home again.
She kept a couple of pigs that became meat during the winter and traded molded butter she made for groceries. They lived off that, biscuits, and whatever they could grow or raise. I doubt she ever slept. And still, poor as dirt as they were, if any of the neighbors’ kids were hungry and stopped by, she would feed them without thinking twice about it.
Throughout my family’s struggles growing up, she always fed us and bought us clothes to wear and made sure we got to school. We’d play cards after school and I’d feel completely content with the world. When I was in college, she would give me everything in her house when I came to visit. My car would be packed full of groceries, things she had canned, a hundred rolls of toilet paper, and anything else that she thought I’d need.
But more than anything, I always knew – and still know – that whenever I’m at her house, I am always safe and loved. Whatever we’ve needed, she’s been there for us. I don’t know how she’s afforded half of it. She’s treated everyone like family. She’s done so much for people that the only person who knows even half of what she’s done is her.
Many years ago, she had breast cancer. Watching her go through chemo was painful, though obviously nothing like all she herself had to endure. To watch such a formidable woman struggle that hard made the gravity of her fight clear. She had fought off so many challenges like a black belt karate master that seeing her go near the brink was uncharted for all of us. My heart ached for her. But she won the fight, and won triumphantly – because that’s how she does things.
There is no gift I can give her to adequately express how grateful I am that she is my grandmother, and how happy I am that she lived long enough to see me become a father and try to emulate as a parent as best I can some of the lessons she embodies. These past three years, I have drawn on them a lot as I have tried to understand how best I can be a good parent to our little autistic wonder.
There are so many lessons I could share, but here are at least some. I hope her wisdom means something to you too.
- Your children deserve everything you can give them. You do whatever it takes to make sure they realize their full potential, even if hell itself should bar the way. Nothing is more important.
- Make your home a safe, loving, warm place for your children. When they walk through that front door, they need to feel that everything is OK and that everything they need is there.
- When an obstacle appears between you and what you’re working toward, you take your fists and beat it down. Turning around isn’t an option. Kicking butt is.
- If God made it, you love it. God don’t make no mistakes.
- Making mistakes, failing, and generally making a mess of things is fine. Giving up isn’t.
- If someone you love screws up, the best way to help them through it is to love them that much more.
- You can’t fix the past. It happened; make your peace with it and move on. Your family needs you in the present, not in the past.
- Whoever comes through your front door, you welcome them and hand them something to eat. Make it to where if a guest goes hungry, it’s their fault. Food for her is a symbol of welcome, respect, and care.
- Most problems in your life can be solved by hard work and time. Most of the rest can be solved with harder work and more time.
- Be direct, constructive, and honest. There’s no need to dance around something when being direct would make the situation much better off. Life’s too precious to waste time talking around stuff.
- Be generous to the point of extravagance and expect nothing in return. Somehow it seems to work out that you get repaid manyfold. She’s both generous and thrifty and somehow makes it all work out fine.
- Be someone people feel they can turn to without hesitation and without shame. Be someone who accepts others right where they are.
- One of the best signs that you’ve lived your life well is that the children surrounding you at your 90th birthday turned out fine.
- When in doubt, go have a cookie and a cup of coffee and you’ll feel right as rain. Hot biscuits, gravy, and some apple butter work just fine too.
(90 years old my foot.)
Happy Birthday, Mamaw!!