How to Tell, Part IV

How to Tell if You Are Loved Unconditionally

(This post is based, in part, on a much earlier blog post, here)

Six years ago this week, I lost my grandfather, who was my favorite person in this big world, and I am confident that I was his.  I called him “Bop” because when I was a baby, he would pinch my little nose between his fingers and threaten to “bop” me on the nose.  And I would squeal with delight. 

I find grief to be a very strange animal.  And I thought that it would have subsided at some point over these six years.  Instead, it is still very present, very fresh.  It has changed, morphed, shifted, but it is still a part of me in a way that I didn’t expect. 

I had a wonderful relationship with my grandfather.  He was stern sometimes; he laughed easily at things I said at times when I didn’t want him to laugh; there were times when I thought I looked fantastic and he was at the door holding up a tissue demanding I take my lipstick off.  Even when he was laughing, he made me feel like everything I said was perfect, clever and like the most amazing thing that anyone had ever said.  Even as he demanded that I wipe off my lipstick, he still made me feel like I was the most beautiful girl on the planet.

For a girl who has lived with the voice of perfectionism pounding, screaming, yelling unrelentlessly in her head — that was powerful stuff.

When I was in law school, he was diagnosed with nasopharangeal cancer, which is typically quite curable.  But he was in his 90s then, and when you are a nonagenarian, “cure” means the same thing as “palliative care.”  So our phone calls got shorter, and few days before I was to graduate from Georgetown Law, I got a phone call from my mother telling me that it wouldn’t be long.  I was on a plane to Florida shortly thereafter, but I was already too late.

It was, needless to say, not the series of phone calls I had expected to receive leading up to my law school graduation.  I think I was “too late” by his own design, but I have this very strange feeling of lack of closure over the whole thing because there was no funeral; there was no “End.”  It was just “over” — someone I had loved so ferociously disappeared without so much as a goodbye, and there was no place for me to go and honor that grief, save for a small marker in a mausoleum in central Florida.

In the early 1990s, my grandparents had moved to a town in Florida about an hour or so outside of Orlando.  In the interest of full disclosure, and without any offense to anyone, I cannot stand Orlando.  I do not like anything about Disney.  My then-future inlaws were Disney fiends, and consumed all things Disney like gluttons at a Sizzler.  I, on the other hand, used to call the airport, “God’s Waiting Room” — all the snowbirds arriving at their 179-days-a-year homes; all the Babyboomers making their Last Trips, or their Second to Last Trips — their faces drained of color and devoid of emotion. 

And then, sprinkled in there, you had a heaping serving of over-sugared, screaming children; parents too tired to fight anymore; families at the brink.

I knew that I would one day make a Last Trip.  I just didn’t ever want to consider that. 

So when I arrived in Florida, in between finishing a Partnership Tax final and walking in my law school graduation, I was tasked with going through some of my grandfather’s things.   My grandmother, then in her mid-90s, was there to greet us when we arrived.

Each of us in the family fell off to doing whatever it was we had been assigned to do — returning cable boxes; putting stuff into or taking things out of storage; sending things to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

I fell into a trance taking items out of boxes and drawers and sorting them.  As I went through my grandfather’s stuff (and the man was a packrat), the only pictures I found in his room were the ones of me.  In his box of personal papers, I found a copy of my high school graduation speech and newspaper articles about me and letters I had written him.  Each souvenir had stayed with him throughout almost 20 years of moving to successively smaller places–from Philadelphia to Florida–and they were clearly the things he thought were the most important.

I also found shoeboxes full of every drivers’ license he’d ever had; his registration card and his YMCA card from his days at the University of Alabama; prescription pill bottles containing those quarters with the state emblems on them.  My mother pressed a few of the bottles into my hands as I left the next day — “Your inheritance,” she laughed. 

A year later, almost to the day, I got another phone call, telling me that I was needed in Florida.  It was time for my real Last Trip; my grandmother was dying.  I happened to be in California for a visit, so my mother and I made the trip together.  And we sat in rooms, and we did the work of mothers and daughters, and we waited.

We had gotten there in time this time, and we stood, three generations in and around a bed, for days, keeping watch, until the end.  That was five years ago yesterday.

My grandmother, for her part, loved  me unconditionally; made me laugh; made me smile; called me “Lovey;” was the kind of woman who always dressed up for dinner, even at the very end of her life — typically a blazer, usually red, and lipstick; always with the lipstick.

So to honor my grandparents, and this wonderful love that they gave me, I put a photo of me with them in the one empty frame on the wall in my apartment that is covered with family photos.  The picture had been snapped during their last trip to California; they had come for my high school graduation.

I hadn’t looked at the picture in many years — we were all laughing.  It had been taken before my grandfather had gotten sick; before my grandmother had given up completely.  And of course, my grandmother was wearing  her red blazer.  That night that the photo was taken, my grandmother had whispered, “They say that you are not supposed to have favorites, but you have always been mine.”  She said it once more after my grandfather died, and while I probably shouldn’t write it or say it, and maybe she said it to all her grandchildren…I always held on closely to being the favorite.

They say love cannot be proved, but in the things my grandfather kept, and in the words my grandmother whispered, I found empirical evidence of how much I was loved. 

So this grief that I thought would go away…it has not ebbed, just changed.  But I am constantly reminded in these small gems of love left behind — if you have loved and been loved unconditionally, you have been given courage; strength.  And I know that this deep grief is merely one expression of this deep love, all around me.

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