Short Story: The Family

My grandparents are dying. It is buzzing through the hive. We cannot tune it out.

Both of my mother’s parents turned ninety-three this year. Their collective health is waning by the hour and they have begun to say their goodbyes. They are ready to go.

At least, that is what they tell us.

Christian faith makes them believe unequivocally that they are going to heaven. They tell me it going to be beautiful. That our minds cannot comprehend its glory.

We should be happy for them, not sad. We are all grieving profoundly.

My aunt B, the fourth of my grandparents’ five children, began micromanaging their lives five years ago when their health began to seriously decline. Aunt B’s sacrifices for my grandparents have insured that they have been able to remain in the house they have owned for over sixty years. They are cared for by an increasing number of full and part-time health care workers.

I will forever be grateful for that.

I wish it was that simple.

It could be.

Families are never that simple.

B shows great willingness to play the martyr. She lists her sacrifices in painstaking detail while insisting that it is the least she can do. We see through it.

Here are some things you should know: two of my grandparents’ adult children have moved into houses on the same crescent shaped street in the west end of Toronto. This is the street where all five of the siblings grew up. It is where my grandparents continue to live. Their white stucco house, with its storm grey shutters, is a beacon. It lures them all home.

My mother was one of the two that moved back. On purpose. Across the street from my grandparents.  The three of us moved in  just before I hit puberty.

To say my extended family is close goes beyond an understatement. The word ‘co-dependent’ goes part of the way there, but even that cannot fully grasp the degree to which the lives of the members of my mother’s side of the family are intertwined. They are so the same. So, so the same. They are also so different.

That might explain why we are all taking my grandparent’s slow motion descent so poorly. We are all shame a sensitivity gene. We are deeply emotional. We are coping with our impending loss with various degrees of success.

Gran and Grandad played a large role in raising me. My mother worked full-time as an lawyer until I was seven, and my father’s law career took off when I was less than a year old, so my grandparents, especially Gran, pitched in. I spent many hours in their backyard in the summers. It was a magical place. There was a large grassy lawn to play on, a vegetable garden with cherry tomatoes that you could pick right from the vine, raspberry bushes that we were forever harvesting (with more juicy raspberries being popped into our mouths than ever ended up in the basket), and a ravine that stretched all the way down to Grenadier Pond. It was my own private Hundred Acre Wood and I was its Christopher Robin. I did not realize at the time that not every child was so connected to her grandparents. I treasured my time with them when I was young, but I cherish my time with them now.

At this point, each time we visit my Nana and Grandad we know that it might be the last time we see them alive. Watching the dynamics of each of their five children in that painful situation helps explain why I am finding it so hard to conform to my own ideal of how an adult should act in this situation. The five children are all adults in their late sixties and early seventies, yet the children in all of them has shown itself at times in recent months as they have struggled to come to grips with the imminent loss of their parents. Although everyone is holding it together, for the most part, there have been glimpses of them reverting to prepubescent emotions. I’ve seen child-like fear, jealousy, and rage cross the faces of my adult aunts, uncles, and mother. Somewhere deep inside of them they were accessing memories and emotions from their childhood.

This prelude to the death of two of the people I love most in this world has been both shatteringly and illuminating. I have seen the best and the worst of some of the people I love most dearly. I have seen adult children fighting for their parents’ attention, as though it could somehow measure their parents’ love for them. I have witnessed the jealousy, and the deep love, that siblings can have for one another. I am my parents’ only child so I have watched this with the same degree of attention that Jane Goodall gave the chimpanzees she so adored.

Each sibling has taken a different role. My aunt K, the youngest of the five children, lives in a suburb of Toronto and frequently makes the long drive into the city. Her warm sense of humour, and genuine love for other human beings, are like a warm cup of tea on a rainy day. Aunt K has been handling Nana and Grandad’s finances for years: a sometimes thankless job. She often plays the diplomatic role rather than insert herself into any family disagreements that may arise.

Aunt B, as recounted earlier, has become a fixture in her parents’ home. She has stepped up when others have been unable to. Though she is often a contributor to strife amongst the family members, especially with my mother and I, aunt B is bright and resourceful, and we all love her immensely when all is said and done. Recently, she has been declaring a little too vehemently both that she is coping well and that Nana and Grandad are ready to die. It is hard to watch this level of denial, especially since it is an emotion that I understand all too well.

My mother is the middle child and the eldest girl. She got a lot of attention from her father when she was little because she was brainy and talented, especially in ballet, which is where she excelled. The jealousy that this created amongst some of her siblings simmered for years before exploding about fifteen years ago. Her sister B, especially, harboured some strong emotions, but has tried to move past it. However, the vitriol that was expressed all those years ago is still a raw nerve for my mother. This situation is common to many families. When you love someone with all your heart, you are giving them the power to break it.

My mother’s health has never been ideal. She always suffered with severe migraines, but six years ago she was in a traumatic car crash that left her with multiple concussions. She was diagnosed with Stage Four Lymphoma shortly thereafter and it is nothing short of a miracle that she survived. She now has to be careful to pace herself, in order to maintain her health, and consequently has not been able to do as much of the heavy lifting when it comes to her parents’ care as she would like to. This has caused her tremendous guilt, and at times she has over-extended herself, and risked her own health, in her desire to be the perfect daughter.

My uncle S is his parent’s second eldest child. He is intelligent, quick-witted, and will talk your ear off about any topic, but especially Christianity, if given half a chance. We adore him for it. He was the second child to move into a house on the same street as my grandparents. He, and his wife, R, played the largest role in taking care of my grandparents until their lives became complicated and S experienced a period of bad health. During the 1960s and 70s, S and R even lived on the third floor of Nana and Grandad’s house, in part, to help them out financially by paying the taxes and managing the property. Despite his poor health, S has spent hours working on maintaining my grandparents’ house and garden and entertaining them with family stories that have sparked their memories and kept their minds relatively vital.

The eldest of Nana and Grandad’s five children is my uncle B. He has lived for many years in Ottawa, but has always called my grandparents at least once a week. He has a very pragmatic mind that seems to be less driven by emotion that the rest of the family. Uncle B does not often show weakness and I have only begun to see it recently. Though he has incredible control over his outer emotions, his inner feelings were never in doubt. He has a profound love for my grandparents. He may very well prove to be the glue that holds us all together when they pass.

In these final days with my beloved grandparents I have witnessed the heart of what a loving family is. They may bicker, and sometimes hold on to resentments, but their emotion is driven by love. When the cards are down, they will be there for one another.

It could come any day now. We are all dreading it, no matter how much we tell ourselves that it is their time. Every time the phone rings my stomach does an involuntary flop. How will we cope?

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