Twenty-Five Years Ago Today
It is an anniversary, though not one you’d expect to hear about. It was the beginning of the endings, and also the beginning of the beginnings. It was a day of sadness, of changes, of required strength.
Twenty-five years ago today, our son was six months old … a day to celebrate him … but a celebration set aside. The first of many celebrations to be set aside. It was the day the first of his four grandparents passed away. Rob was too young to understand what grandparents were, then, and too young to know that a six-month milestone might be celebrated. But there was a tender, extra level of sadness to that day. Larry would never get to know Rob as a person, and barely knew him as an infant. Larry was already dying of cancer when Rob was born, and six months later, he was gone from Rob’s life.
When Rob’s sister, Trish, was born, there were four loving grandparents in her life. As she grew up, living in the same town as all four of them, they took an avid interest in her growing and in her activities. There was, at times, some competitive envy between which pair of grandparents would see her for Christmas dinner; we made sure both saw her on all significant holidays. It was an expectation that was physically easy to fulfill, and we forfeited many of our own holiday settings to spend the days in theirs. She was the only grandchild for one set of grandparents, and one of many for the other set. But she was the only one right here in the same town as both sets, and so we shared her laughter and her beauty with both sets.
When Rob was an infant, his Christening had to be postponed a few weeks due to my aunt’s passing. He was three weeks old when she died, and we went to her wake, leaving Rob in the care of Trish, then sixteen, and her soccer teammates. Trish had broken her wrist that week in a soccer game and was afraid that she would drop her baby brother, and so the girls came to be with her that evening. We were gone two hours, as the wake was forty minutes away. The girls were delighted to help Trish. And Rob had, from that night on, many sixteen year old sisters watching him grow.
After his grandfather’s death, his grandmother became more dependent on Rob’s dad. In time his sister went away to college, I went back to my full time classroom, and Rob’s dad lost his job to an economic takeover that eliminated the jobs of a building full of people. Rob was then in day care; his dad tried to find a new job, but each one lasted only as long as the manufacturing work lasted. When Rob was old enough for kindergarten, his dad was working only part time in the new economy, and spending more and more time caring for his aging mother. Rob’s grandmother was going blind, and needing assistance with more than just house maintenance. She was dependent on Rob’s dad for medical visits, transportation, bill paying, food shopping, and social company. Rob’s dad left the part time jobs that had no benefits, no vacation days, no sick days. He became a stay-at-home dad for Rob, and a stay-at-home son for his mother. My own job as a teacher had benefits for us as a family, and so I continued on.
Before Rob was old enough for school, he was already intrigued with computers, and remote control, and Legos and golf balls that rolled through pipes in the back yard. On Sunday mornings while my dad was still able to drive, he and my mother would come to “watch Robbie grow” and Rob would entertain them with “demonstrations, explanations and presentations” in the parlor. They were happy Sunday mornings for Rick and me. After my parents left to drive home, Rick and Rob would go then to Rick’s mother’s house, to take her trash to the dump and to visit for a while.
Thanksgivings were now being spent here in our own home, with Rob’s three remaining grandparents joining us here for a meal. Christmas Eve was now in Maine, with our daughter and her two young children, and Christmas morning spent here at home with Santa’s presence growing more casual by the year as Rob was growing up, and his grandparents seemed to be shrinking down and needing more support. Christmas afternoons were most often spent at one or the others’ house. In only a year or so after kindergarten, my parents began having more medical issues, and aging issues.Rather than having the doting and competitive grand-parenting that his sister had experienced, Rob was now experiencing life with the equivalent of three very physically challenged pseudo-siblings; he shared his parents’ time and attention with his grandparents. He was growing up in the same town, but in a very different decade, and a very different economy.
Rob’s widowed grandmother remained in her own home during those years, living alone, fairly reclusive other than the time spent with us. Yet we still were able to reserve time for Rob’s activities: he, too, played soccer, and enjoyed his dad’s co-coaching, as his sister had. When he reached middle school, he also joined the school’s track team and enjoyed those meets. We were always at every game, as we had been for his sister’s years before. And I was still in my classrooms, full time. His dad was caring for his mother every day and every evening, and I was now caring for my parents every-other overnight. We did the best we could. It seemed very, very hard for those few years that still saw the three grandparents through winters in their own homes, needing maintenance, and chauffeuring, and bill paying and doctor arranging and food shopping and holiday celebrations. Our grandchildren were growing up in Maine without us, and the calendar of holidays with them had to be flexible, and they were graciously patient in seeing us when we could get there. The traditions had changed. They seemed, in fact, to have disappeared.
A few more difficult months passed, and then more changes were made. Decisions had to be arbitrated for my parents’ care with their many children’s input. Decisions for Rob’s other grandmother weighed heavily on her only child, Rob’s dad. My mother’s care had accelerated faster than we could schedule adequate help to address, and she had to be placed in twenty-four hour skilled nursing care. My dad came to live with us, and their house was sold to provide financial resources to pay for her care and in time, to purchase skilled company for him while I and my sister continued to work to support our own homes.
In less than two years, my mother passed away. Rob now had two grandparents. My dad, having lived with us for a year and a half, moved in with my sister who could oversee his medical needs more appropriately as a nurse, and Rick continued to oversee his mother’s care. In less than two years more, my dad passed away, and Rob was left with one grandparent. He was too young to be affected by his first grandparent’s death, but the deaths of my parents did affect him. He had become more reserved as a person with each increasing need of his pseudo-siblings. Their passings, rather than gradually freeing our time to be with him, coincided with his needing more of his own time. We were careful not to ‘smother’ him in compensatory attention. We still encouraged his sports, and his friendships here in town. But the schools were not as strong as they had been for his sister’s age group; the economy was taking its toll. Disappointed in the lack of technology and diversity in a limited curriculum, we decided that moving him to the system where I taught … a larger system with more diversity… would be an improvement that we could provide to him.
In three more years, his last grandparent died. Rob was now a sophomore in high school. His childhood had passed. As an adolescent, as an out-of-town student of limited economic means, with two older parents than his sister had had, Rob’s final high school years went by quietly. Relationships with family … the many aunts and uncles and cousins that his sister had shared holidays with … were not a significant part of his life. The traditions that once had filled his sister’s calendar as a child and a teenager were no longer in place … scattered by the years of elder care, relationships that had been strong were at least no longer strained, but no longer intact. A childhood had passed seemingly unnoticed by those who once had wanted only to watch Rob grow.
In less than two years from the last grandparent’s passing, I was beginning to fail. The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was just ahead. The acknowledgement of clinical, probably life-long depression was to follow that. And malignant melanoma would follow that. Our parents never knew that I was weaker than I appeared. I didn’t have a name for the fatigue, for the sadness, for the sometimes come and go confusion and disorientation. Rick and I just continued to do our best. But we knew it wasn’t the best that we once could have done.
Rob is now grown. He is what he wished to become: a firefighter (like his dad, and the grandfather he knew) and a paramedic (like his parents were by necessity often para-professional medical consultants, schedulers, and decision makers .) He is a computer whiz who can help his parents and friends with technology as needed. He is an incredibly strong, silent type who will one day choose a partner to spend his adult life with. But for now, he is here with us.
And our grandchildren have now grown. One will be off to college herself in the fall, and her little brother will be only two years behind her. It might have been so different for Rob had we had him earlier than we did. He might have had a very different childhood, in a very different world, with a sister just a few years ahead of him, sharing what she knew of the schools with him … of life, and of us, and of grandparents with him.
Twenty-five years ago today, as I prepared to leave for work, packing Rob’s bag of toys and food for his day-care day, the phone rang, and my mother-in-law asked me to come to her house, and to call Rick home from work because his dad had passed away. It was the beginning of the significant endings in our lives. It saddened Rob’s sister, who loved her grandfather. It saddened his parents. It seemed to open the quarter-century of sadness that was supposed to be such a celebratory time in our lives. Rob and his sister, and our grandchildren … those are the bright spots in that quarter century. They are the happy memories that we have between us. They are our family … our life. The past is passed. The future will be what it will be. But today we have each other, and I am glad of that.