Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Being There

Family is a funny thing. Sounds like something Forrest Gump would say. It's true though. 

*****

I woke up last Monday morning with a pretty clear schedule and a stress free day. The girls went to a sitters house in the morning so I could get some work done, and when I picked them up I was excited to surprise them with an afternoon of baking Martin Luther King Day cookies (peanut butter cookies with white, butterscotch and semi-sweet chocolate chips) and a viewing of the new American Girl movie that takes place during the civil rights era. I figured this was a great way to learn and discuss civil rights with three young girls. 

I put Zuzu down for a nap and sent the other girls to their room for a short quiet time. My mom had texted me earlier in the day that my grandma was in the hospital. And while my grandma is in her 90’s with a heart condition, it didn’t sound too serious. But I thought I’d give her a quick call at the hospital before we started making cookies...

Before Zuzu would wake up, I would be out the door with my bags packed and a plane ticket purchased, babysitters arranged, school pick-ups and drop-offs managed and somehow meeting my brother in Denver where we would then drive 3.5 hours away to western Nebraska to hopefully see our Grandma.

*****

As a kid I remember too many Sunday School lessons on families. Families. We were always talking about families. And how we can be together forever. In Heaven, if you’re good, you can be with your family for-ever. I can’t remember how old I was when this idea started to put a knot in my stomach each time it was proclaimed, but I wasn’t that old. 


“Don’t you want to be together with your family forever?” A teacher would ask. While all the other children nodded in earnest, I too nodded but with less vigor. Sunday school was a common place to hear this Heavenly doctrine, but deep down inside the idea of living with my family forever sounded more like hell.
*****

When I called my brother he was in Houston. Business Trip. He had woken up and had breakfast in Utah, flown to Texas and had lunch in Houston and somehow that evening, he would have dinner with me in Colorado. By 7pm we were in a car together driving the well-worn path of our childhood from Denver, Colorado to Gering, Nebraska. 

By now we knew that our Grandma had made it safely out of surgery, and we even started to question our impulsive decision to jump on a plane. I wouldn’t describe either my brother or I as impulsive. But if there was anyone we would drop everything for, it was Grams. 

My brother and I know all too well about the importance of showing up. Or as the case may be, the silent, persistent sting of not showing up. If love is showing up, what is it when people don’t show up? 

When I had spoken to Grams on the phone earlier in the day, I asked her what I could do. It felt shameful to ask because I knew the answer. I was just surprised she said it out loud. “Nothing Amy… you’re too far away.” 

 It stung. 

***** 

Family is as much of a crap-shoot as anything. You don’t choose your family and your family doesn’t choose you. The one shot you get at this choice is with your spouse… and even then this is not true for all cultures and it is still a giant leap of faith. 

In the best circumstances a family is tied by bonds of love that start even before birth. It's often thought that the strongest bonds of love are between a mother and child. But why? Because we carried them? Because we birthed them? Because we take care of them? 

"I now know that not all mothers love their children," said a friend of mine once who was a social worker. 

Family bonds are strong, but they're not unbreakable. As a kid, they felt completely optional. 

******

We get to the hospital late that night and my grandma is awake. She's happy to see us. Maybe even overjoyed, but it's hard to tell in her medical state. We stay with her for a while, talk with my aunt and uncle and I push myself through time changes and a desire for sleep. I congratulate myself for the sacrifice. Not because it is great, but because I'm doing it at all. 

My Grams is doing remarkably well for being 94 years old with a heart condition who just had major surgery. The recovery process is going to be long, but the doctors are impressed with how well she's doing. We spend time with her, but we also spend time running errands, taking care of business around town and letting her sleep. She hardly sleeps the first day, but is hardly awake the next two. 

My brother and I have the unique distinction of being the oldest grandkids by nearly a decade and the only grandkids that lived with our grandparents for several years when we were children. Therefore, our dynamic in the family is an interesting one--more adult than grandchild. Confirming this idea my grandma says to me last week, "You lived with me for so long, you're more like my children." 

And then we talk about some stuff. Family stuff. It's a good talk.

*****

So why do we love our children? They don’t give us anything upon arrival, they take. They’re takers. Babies are the biggest takers in the Universe. They take time, money, sleep, sanity, food, and on top of it all they ruin your nice stuff. 

But we love them. 

Ideally, parents are the givers, and children are the takers. This is especially important in the beginning. Gradually, over long stretches of time we transition our takers (children) into givers (adults). Naturally, we are all a bit of both, but that initial balance of parents being primarily givers and children being primarily takers is important. Really, really important.

*****
Being in Nebraska with my brother is like being in a time machine. Since both of our parents (and one of our step-parents) hail from this small Midwest metropolis we are inextricably tied to this land. For better or for worse. It is both beautiful and barren, tenacious and forgotten. 

We drive out to an old family farm one day that I had never been to before. The house is crumpled to the ground, the yard strewn with old glass jars, barbed wire and even an old broken down hand-turned washing machine. 

Yep. Looks about like a farm my family would own, I think. A moment later I soften. The view is beautiful and even though there's a decrepit, old broken down house with stuff strewn everywhere, I see my brother standing there. And he sees me. Decades and decades ago our ancestors stood on that land, and now here we are. 

Here we are. 

*****

I play cards with Grams, only one game, but I hope it's enough. She's sleepy a lot and we want to let her sleep. I hold her hand and put lip balm on her lips and hope it's enough. We wash her car and pay some bills and hope it's enough. 

We talk to doctors and nurses and I make sure they know to talk directly to my grandma because she might not be able to move her body 2 inches on her own, and she can't hear you very well but speak up because she's still all there upstairs! 

We can't do much, but we do what we can. And mostly we're just there. Being there and showing up is part of being a giver. And in this moment, it really does feel like enough.

*****

Common refrains in my church include families are forever, remember who you are, I am a child of God, and one more that has hit me quite hard over the years... you love those you serve. 

If you believe in God, then you might believe that it is by grand design that we come to earth as babies and require constant service. Babies are the biggest takers in the Universe and if we love those we serve,  then this is not a coincidence. A baby's need for round-the-clock care is part of what shackles their little heart to ours. You love those you serve. 

In my experience and in my observation, the families where this giver and taker balance is out of whack, is where you often find a lot of discord as well. Giving is more than just food, clothes, and money. Giving is also time, presence, and attention. And to take this even further, giving is more than mere time, presence and attention, giving is compassion, vunerability, kindness and trust. Showing up and being there is not about presence. It is about vunerability. Yes, you can be a good giver and things can still go wrong, but if that basic balance isn't there, I'm not sure that things can go much right.

Not because the takers are being neglected--but yes, that too--but mainly because the givers aren't learning how to properly love.  

*****

Nebraska. The golden years of my childhood, I always say. But when I come back here, now there's a little dullness to those golden years. It's a mirror of the town itself. As a child this place was my Mayberry. It was Small Town, USA and I can't tell you how lucky I felt to have lived out my younger childhood years there. 

The older I get, the less golden it becomes. The safety and security I felt as a kid, has morphed into complacency and stagnation. Where I once only saw gardens in every yard and summer days spent at the pool, I now see the hardship of living in a small town with ever dwindling resources. But it's more than the land itself, its my childhood as well. However, like most things in life, I don't see my family or my childhood or Nebraska as either/or I see it more and more as and/both.

Beautiful and broken.
Golden and tarnished.
Nourishing and neglectful. 

I also see more clearly who were the givers and who were the takers. And if you haven't caught on by now, that balance was a little out of whack.

But Grams? She was always a giver. 

Love you Grams. 
Hope you get better soon.

18 comments:

  1. Anonymous3:46 PM

    "In my experience and in my observation, the families where this giver and taker balance is out of whack, is where you often find a lot of discord as well."
    Oh my goodness. Why has this never occurred to me before?? I've always been puzzled by the discord and tension in my family of origin - I was a freakin' rockstar daughter who went waaaaay above and beyond - where was the warm squishy family I'd worked so hard for? Wow. That family is pretty much disintegrated, but I have my own now, and the balance you mentioned is pretty close to perfect, and guess what - I made my own warm squishy family!
    I can't believe I'm having this epiphany at my age. . . I'm so glad I stopped by. Thank you. And a speedy recovery and lots of prayers for your Grams.

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    1. So glad to hear you have your own squishy family. It can be hard to break patterns and and even just believe that things can be different, but it can be done. Best to you!

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  2. I really needed to read this today! Thank you!

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    1. So glad. Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. I love the way you write! And this totally ties in with a video I watched today where the speaker said, "We can feel the spirit when we hold a newborn baby, or hold someone's hand who is dying, or connect with someone we serve." I like the vision of sometimes being givers and sometimes being takers...newborns to grandparents, all coming full circle.

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    1. Yes! I too love that image.

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  4. Loved reading this, Amy. ❤️❤️❤️❤️ I also know this too well:
    In my experience and in my observation, the families where this giver and taker balance is out of whack, is where you often find a lot of discord as well. Giving is more than just food, clothes, money...it's time, presence, attention. Showing up and being there. Sure things can still go wrong, but if that basic balance isn't there, I'm not sure things can go much right.

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    1. How do you do emojis in a comment? Geeze I'm behind, but imagine me sending some blowing kisses emoji's back. ;) <---- see what I have to do? that's as good as it gets!

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  5. your words are perfect. This one got me in the heart. you're wise. and your instastory about the gloves----made me think you could be a great actress;)

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    1. Ha! Thanks! I sometimes wish I had done more acting as a kid. :)

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  6. Loved this writing today. You, girl, are inspired and your words spoke to my heart and soul. Beautiful, and wise, and uplifting. Thank you.

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  7. Anonymous11:56 PM

    Beautiful, meaningful, thoughtful words. Thank you.

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  8. Tack, så fint du skriver. Stämmer även i mitt liv. Hade en mormor och morfar
    Som var verkliga givare, älskvärda. Önskar bli av den sorten rästen av mitt liv, med barn
    Och framtida barnbarn. Låter som FU gör ditt bästa du finns där.😊😘 Kram Lisali

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  9. This was beautiful. Made me miss my Gram.

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  10. Anonymous3:26 AM

    You are a good writer. I enjoyed your photographs too. Hope your Grams is recovering nicely.

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