The time during Gram's illness and decline, leading to her death, was one of the worst periods of my life. I wasn't simply in the process of losing my only parental figure. My whole existence was changing. I was losing my home, which added to the stress and sorrow I was feeling. But the worst of all was the treatment I was receiving from some of Gram's family. I know that sometimes people can lose their minds where their parents are concerned. For years, I had been the living peace of mind for Gram's children. They knew there was someone there, and that I would be their eyes and ears in case anything went wrong. If Gram fell down, she wasn't going to be lying on the floor for days because I would be there to pick her up. And if she got sick, I could nurse her back to health. I could help by getting groceries, making meals, and being a companion. Strangely enough, I think that my closeness to Gram made them feel two very different things. Yes, there was relief that someone was there, but on the other hand, I think there was some envy of the closeness of our relationship.
When Gram began a rapid decline in health at the age of ninety and a half, instead of being an asset to the family, I became a pariah. The same people I had overheard saying how old and frail she was getting suddenly blamed me for her decline. Gone was the knowledge that she was ninety and obviously entering the last stage of her life. Everything was my fault. I was openly accused of not giving her enough to eat or drink. Never mind that I made her breakfast every day before I went to work and often didn't have a meal myself. I had convinced her to use incontinence products so that she could drink whatever she wanted without worries about not getting to the bathroom on time. We did arm exercises and massage almost every night to make sure that she would have the strength to use her walker. But someone had to be blamed for her death, and especially since I wasn't born into the family, I was a natural target. There were other things I was accused of, but I don't want to get into them, since they are not ultimately what this story is about.
Gram died on Good Friday in 1997, two days after I told her that I had found an apartment. She had smiled and told me that she loved me, and then refused any further medication and oxygen. She knew that I was okay and that it was time for her to go. The day after she died, when I was still moving my things out of her house, two of Gram's grandsons showed up to change the locks on me. That spoke volumes to me, and became the moment I allowed myself to start releasing my anger and pain. There was no longer a reason to contain it, so I was willing to let the bridges burn. Aside from a call from one of Gram's granddaughters, Carole, who was horrified to find out how her father had treated me, and wanted to apologize for it, my contact with Gram's family ended. Part of my grieving process was for the entire family I had now lost, the people I began to refer to as my "former family."
Life went on, as it tends to do. I had some lovely but sporadic contact with a mother and daughter in the family, but that was pretty much the extent of it. But suddenly, in the spring of 2012, I had a friend request on Facebook from my cousin Carole. I was stunned and shaken. I had never really thought that she cared for or about me. My mind was flooded with all kinds of conflicting feelings. I was open to contact with Carole, but I didn't want my life laid bare for the rest of my former family members to see. I knew if I became her friend on social media, every one of them, especially those who bore me ill will, would have access to my life, and I didn't want my life to be an open book. What was I to do? I decided to send her a message straight from my heart, telling her how I felt about being "out there." But I was open to a reunion with her.
Seeing Carole again was amazing. In many ways, it was if we hadn't been out of touch for fifteen years. In others, it was like building a whole new relationship. I hope I have been able to make her understand that I never felt any hatred to her family. It was more of a love-but-not-like (okay, can't stand) type of feeling. We have learned so much from, and about, one another! All those years I thought she couldn't stand me, she was feeling for me so very deeply. And I was finally able to tell her that when she reached out to me immediately after Gram's death, it was a beautiful gift. I also learned that her relationship with her father was as difficult as the one I had with him. We were kept apart in so many ways when we were kids that we never had the opportunity to give one another the support we would have loved to provide. All those years wasted, not knowing that someone who loved us was firmly in our corner, ready to pick us up if we should fall.
As we go about building bridges, we continue to learn about what we both experienced, and how important we are to one another. And our love continues to grow, despite all of the blocks that were put in our paths in our youth. Carole, I look forward to many years of love for and from my cousin-by-choice. And I know we will build many beautiful bridges together.