It was a Facebook “memory” that alerted me to the fact that I’d missed my grandmother’s death anniversary. I’d missed it by an entire week. I stared at my iPhone screen for a solid minute, wondering why a post from four years ago, in which I thanked friends for attending the opening weekend of a play festival that I co-produced, would trigger such heaviness in me. And then, suddenly, I knew. It was because I had written that post just one week after my grandmother died. The anniversary of her death had come and gone, and I had completely forgotten about it.
When the call came on that Saturday morning, April 13th, I didn’t answer it. There was only one reason that my eighty-six-year-old grandfather would be calling me. Ever since I had visited Grandma in the home for Alzheimer’s patients two months earlier, I had known that her end was near. Her decline was steep and rapid. She had gone from placing daily, mostly-lucid phone calls to me, to being wheelchair bound, her white blond hair tangled and swept off her face with plastic little girl barrettes, her pale blue eyes reflecting no recognition of me, all in the space of a few weeks.
I got into my car and replayed my grandfather’s message. “We’ve lost another one, Sar,” he said, his voice tired, resigned. I called him back, listened as he told me that he’d arrived at her nursing home too late to say goodbye. “I’m sorry,” I said. I told him I loved him, hung up the phone, and went to rehearsal. And I told no one – not one single, solitary person – what had happened. Not for weeks.
Looking back, I suppose the fact that I kept my grandmother’s death a secret from everyone who knew me was not particularly healthy. But at the time, my decision – at least to me – made perfect sense. I was one week out from opening a series of one-act plays, two of which I was acting in, another of which I was directing. I had a full-time job, one that I had only recently returned to after taking a leave when my father died. And it had only been seven months since the death of my mother, who had crawled inside of a vodka bottle (or more accurately, a liquor store’s worth of vodka bottles) on the heels of my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The space between the deaths of both of my parents had been less than five months, and I was tired. I had taken enough “bereavement” time. I wanted to get back to my life. I wanted to get back to work. And I had a show to open.
But four years later, I can finally admit that there’s another, darker reason why I never allowed myself to grieve my grandmother’s passing; why I don’t mourn her loss the way I’ve mourned the losses of my parents. My grandmother was not a nice person.
That’s what I’ll tell you when I’m feeling kind. What I’ll tell you when I’m feeling brutally honest is that my grandmother was an emotional terrorist. She was a serial abuser, one who reserved her worst brutality for those she claimed to love the most. I can’t count the number of times that, as a little girl, she brought me to tears by telling me something hateful about my parents. And she took immense pleasure in depositing my favorite stuffed animal, a ratty and well-loved St. Bernard I never slept without, into the trash. Her only “apology,” was to tell me I was better off without him, because he was “full of disease.”
As I got older, I got tougher. My grandmother lost the ability to make me cry. I fought back. I called her out. And the bullying stopped. But my mother? She wasn’t so lucky.
I’m glad that I’ll never know the full extent of the hell that my grandmother rained down on my sweet, emotionally sensitive mother. I know enough to know that she destroyed whatever fragile self-confidence she might have had. Even as a little girl, I remember the temper tantrums and smashed dishes, the screaming and shrieking, my grandmother accusing my Mom again and again of being a “horrible mother.” I remember the multiple “interventions,” with Mom and Grandpa raiding Grandma’s stockpile of prescription drugs and flushing them down the toilet, telling her, “Enough.”
And I know that my grandmother, who valued money and prestige above all else, forbade my Mom from pursuing the only thing she ever really dreamed of: becoming a professional tennis player. Mom – ever the dutiful daughter – obeyed, but deferring her dream was an event that changed the trajectory of her life. Even after she married my father and moved to Alaska, finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she never seemed to recover the gumption to go after her heart’s desire again.
As twisted and grotesque as it may sound, in some ways I feel “lucky” to have been born the daughter of a woman raised by an emotional abuser. My mother, never allowed to follow her own dreams, fiercely supported me in the pursuit of mine. Starved for affection by a woman who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, my Mom showered me with love, making sure I always knew that I was the center of her universe. And spending years watching the person who I loved the most never believe that she was good enough had a profound effect on me, making me determined to live my life in all the ways that she couldn’t.
Part of me will always blame my grandmother for my mother’s death. I have no doubt that her relentless abuse is the reason my Mom sought solace in the bottle in the first place. But I also know that blaming her is too easy, that life – and human beings – are more complicated than that. My grandmother was sick for a long time, longer than any of us ever knew. And my mother had her own mental health issues, which she numbed with alcohol and refused to seek professional help for. Mental illness and addiction run rampant in my family, carrying with them a legacy of dysfunction, a legacy that I am determined not to repeat. Which is why, even though I know that this essay would have horrified my mother, I also knew that I had to write it.
Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time. For example, I can tell you that I loved my grandmother deeply, and yet most of the tears I’ve shed over her death were for myself, because I wished that she were different. I can tell you that as much as I admired my mother, I am terrified of ending up like her. And I can tell you that though I feel guilty about forgetting the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I also wish that I didn’t have to remember it. I wish that April 13th was just another day on the calendar.
Until next time, friends.