It’s not often I talk about my childhood with people.  Not because it was a horrible childhood, it wasn’t — it was the only childhood I know, but because my life is so different now than it was back then.  I grew up poor, but I guess I really didn’t realize it back then.  I lived with my single mom for most of my childhood, until I was 12, when I moved in with my father.  Most of that time we lived out in the country, and I do mean country.  Being an only child, my outside fun often involved making sure I didn’t step on Cooperheads, going to the Yadkin River, and catching lizards.  We lived in a trailer, a single-wide, in the middle of the woods for a while.  I remember my mom being so proud of buying her first home.  I remember the 1989 red Chevy Cavalier she bought, her first new car, it would later become the first car I owned as well, and I remember playing basketball in the back yard of my grandmother’s with my aunt, who only a few years older than me always seemed more like a sister than an aunt.

It’s funny, I have a remarkable memory.  I can remember so much about my childhood, just like it was yesterday.  I remember spending a lot of time with my three cousins, mostly on the weekends, but because we all went to the same schools, weekdays were not uncommon.

My childhood was far from perfect.  Once I open up to people and talk about my childhood I am often told I should write a book.  The picture of dysfunction would be a great title.

When you are a kid you don’t realize the full scoop of that.  Dysfunction.  Being poor.

Through all of those years… the tears, the ER visits, the birthdays, and the… dysfunction, there were very few constants in my life.  Aside from my aunt who was always there, I would say my grandmother was the second most constant person in my life.  In all honesty, it was likely because my aunt lived with my grandmother… but non-the-less, my grandmother was always there.  It was at her house I stayed a lot of nights.  Her single-wide was literally two houses down from mine. It was there I would catch the bus a lot of times.  It was there I would come after school.  There I would often have dinner and sleep on the floor in my aunts bedroom, always wanting to be a little closer to the person who shaped me more than anyone else. It was there I learned to ride a bike, my red Schwinn that I loved so much.  It was there I used to slide down the hill on an orange sled, in the leaves mostly… except for the year it did snow and I broke my grandmothers new dogwood tree.  Through all of that… my grandmother was there.  Normally in the exact same chair, watching tv, or at the table playing cards.  Rummy.  She loved to play rummy…and drink milk.  I’ve never seen someone drink as much milk as she did.  I swear she would go through a gallon a day, herself.

My grandmothers relationship with any of her children was never perfect, and that filtered down to the kids often.  She was never an overly affectionate women… but I always knew she loved me.  It wasn’t the typical grandmother’s love.. it was a firm, tough love… but it was love non the less.

During my high school years my grandmother moved her trailer to the coast of NC.  Where she grew up, but hours away from “home”.  I went from seeing her constantly to seeing her every few months.  I called her often.. and as soon as I would go see her it was always as if nothing had changed.  She still sat in the same chair.  She still LOVED to play cards. and at first her home was still smoke filled.

Then a few years ago I found out that my dad’s mom had Alzheimer’s.  It progressed quickly and in January of 2010 we lost her. Right around that time my other grandmother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s as well. At first it was a slow realization.  She would repeat herself over and over again.  She would tell you something and as soon as there was a pause in the conversation she would start again with the same story. Then, over the last four years, my grandmother changed.  That once firm, tough love, became almost childlike… and scared.  She began to lose weight and her health started to fail.  Finally, a few months ago the decision was made to place her into a nursing home, where she is currently in hope that she could go through therapy and get better and go home.

Unfortunately that option was taken off of the table last month… and last week my grandmother “gave up” according to her doctors.  My once strong, stubborn, fiercely independent and political grandmother who knew everyone in my town it seemed, and everything about them… has become a shell of what she was.  She cannot remember what she last ate for dinner and has been unable to get out of bed since Thursday.  On Monday I went to see her and was shocked at the sudden change.  My aunt dropped everything and flew in yesterday, and this morning she is surround by family.  All of her children and grand children have visited her within the last 48 hours, something I venture to say hasn’t happened in 10 years.  And this morning the decision was made to call in Hospice.

Last night at dinner my fortune read “Do what you want to do.  There are only so many tomorrows.”  That is so true.  Life is so short.  I know I say it a lot, but it’s because I truly try to live it.  Make sure those around you know how much you mean to them… how much you love them… and that they have a place in your heart.  I’ve never had the illusion I was guaranteed a long life, and maybe that is why I do try to normally go out of my way to show those in my life what they mean to me… including my family.

Don’t fill my wall with “I’m sorry”‘s or anything like that.  Instead tell those who matter to you how much they matter.. and say a prayer for my grandmother… and my entire family.



4 thoughts on “Reflection

  1. James,

    Our early years are parallel in many ways. Like you, I was very close to my grandmother. I grew up poor too; not that I am filthy rich now, but I am much better off than I was then. To be honest, I am thankful that I grew up that way. I had to work for what I have and it’s made me appreciate it much more.

    My grandmother was firm, but she had a loving side as well. I can only remember her giving me one whipping and that was for crossing the street when I wasn’t supposed to. She was the glue that held this family together. We lost her December 29, 2010. She knew I always had a fear of losing someone at Christmas. I guess because she lost her mother on December 23rd and they buried her on December 24th. We were getting ready for our annual family Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve (as it had always been since I can remember) when we got word that she had been taken to the emergency room. I raced to the hospital and when I walked into the room they had her in, she started crying and said, “I tried to hold off as long as I could.” I knew what she meant. They didn’t keep her that night. She came home and her health deteriorated over the next 4 days. She was taken again to the hospital on December 28th. My uncle, who is a cop, was off for a couple of days and stayed with her at night. He said on the night of December 28th he heard her praying all night. At first she was talking to my grandpa who passed in 2006 and then she started praying. He said she prayed for every person in our family, one by one. When she finished, she started praying for death. He said she told God that she was ready when he was ready. The next morning they said she perked up like she felt so good and even ate a big breakfast. She had several visitors that morning and then ate a decent lunch. Her pastor came by to see her and she told him that she knew that her home wasn’t here anymore and that she had more waiting on the other side than she did to keep her here. Not long after he left, she split an apple with my aunt. My grandmother never ate a whole apple. She never even chewed a whole piece of gum either. As she was eating the apple she said, “I sure wish I had some salt.” My other aunt said, “Mama, you know you aren’t supposed to have salt.” To which my other aunt said, “Leave her alone and let her have whatever she wants.” Not long after eating the apple, she felt nauseous. One aunt got in bed with her to help raise her up so she could vomit while the other aunt held the trash can. She heaved a couple of times, but couldn’t throw anything up. Then she fell back on my aunt who was holding her and was gone just like that.

    As far back as I can remember, I always had a fear of losing my grandmother. She was more a mother to me than a grandmother and my mother was more like a big sister. My grandmother always told my mother that she just had me, but I belonged to her. I felt that way too. I was the oldest grandchild and her favorite, although she never came right out and said it, but they all knew it. My grandpa didn’t care who he pissed off, he would tell them to their faces I was his favorite. Oh the hell I had to endure from the others because of that.

    The day after my grandmother passed away, we were at her house picking out her clothes for burial. My aunt (the middle daughter) always handled my grandmother and grandpa’s affairs. She opened a letter in front of us that my grandmother had written in February, just 10 months earlier. On the envelope it read, “Open upon my homegoing.” She had already made her funeral arrangements years ago, but these were some last wishes for the service. She picked out the scripture she wanted read, the songs she wanted sung, but the blow to my gut was that she had written down that she wanted me to sing “Amazing Grace.” I burst into tears because she had told me that a few months prior, but I thought she was kidding. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I did record it and it was played at her service. I at least fulfilled her last request of me. As the song ended, I looked toward heaven and blew her a kiss. I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. By the way, her name was Grace.

    I guess I went into all that detail to let you know that I know what you are going through. You are absolutely right about letting people in our lives know that we love them and how much they mean to us. I never left my grandmother without kissing her and telling her that I loved her. Once, I left and couldn’t remember if I had kissed her before I left and turned around and went back just to make sure. Oh how I miss her. The days ahead are going to be tough, but surround yourself with those you love and who love you. The old saying, “There’s strength in numbers,” holds true in many situations, especially this one.

    Buddy, I pray that God will give you peace when the time comes and the grace to say goodbye. Just remember, though the separation may seem long, it’s just temporary. One day and God only knows when, we will all be reunited with those who’ve gone on before us. I know we’ve never met, but I feel a kindred spirit with you and if you ever need to talk, my number is 380-7490. You may get my voicemail, but I will call you back.

    Peace be with you my friend.

    Much love,
    Tim Watkins

  2. I love your writing! My Grandmother had alzheimers, and it is heartbreaking. I feel for you James. I hope you and your family find more peaceful happy times! Merry Christmas!

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