Ok bye Grandma, I love you
I really wish I could just say this out loud, so I've left a little recording of the post. Mostly because I like the way Grandma says my name. I'd just sit back, listen, and scroll through the family photos!
Ok bye Grandma, I love you.
And we hung up.
Those words don’t come out of my mouth often. I love you. In fact, I find them really hard to say. I stutter. I pause. I rush. Because even when there’s absolutely no question about how I feel, it’s a bit too vulnerable to admit.
I often talk about my Oma on here. My German grandmother. The one who has fuelled many of my current passions. But actually it’s Grandma, my dad’s mom, who has shaped who I want to be, and how I perceive love.
You see, unlike Oma, Grandma didn’t just have one grandchild to obsess over. She had four before me. Meaning the desire to spoil came and went fifteen years prior. She was good with two age groups: babies and then from the point where kids want to be involved in adult conversation. For me that came around the age of 11. So between the age of two and then, we were just relatives. In fact, I don’t remember much before the time she and Grandpa came to look after me for a week when I was around 9. Ugh that week where I desperately wanted to go to something school/friend-related when she told me, “You can’t. TOUGH! That’s life. End of discussion.”
Excuse me? I’d never heard the word ‘tough’ before. At least not in the context of too bad, so sad! LOL that’s life. Who did she think she was? My parents were the only ones who could call the shots around here! She should have let me call them and ask for permission! “Nope! They’re busy and I’m in charge.” So I sulked for the rest of the time and willed her to leave. She was supposed to be a grandma! Ya know, the kind that feed you ice cream secretly and allow you to stay up past your bedtime!
Time passed. I got older. I would get on a weekly call with my grandparents in Germany where I’d rack my brain for something to say; my parents nudging me and giving me dirty looks when I didn’t come prepared (I mean gimme a break I was constantly just going to school and doing homework). And even when I did have a story I was excited to tell, Oma and Opa didn’t really listen. They were caught up in the thought of how broken my German had become. I had lost my confidence with the language when it felt like everything I said fell on deaf ears. That, or they’d be preoccupied with the thought of how many months it was going to be until I was physically present. But by this age they could no longer run after me. And I no longer wanted to play in the park. I just wanted to have conversations and share memories. I wanted to be heard. Like most teenagers who are gaining their voice and perspective on the world; but who are silenced by adults who don’t yet recognise that our minds are developing quickly. What Oma and Opa wanted was just the comfort of us being there, even if it meant spending the weeks in comfortable silence. Their love came in the form of gifts and being present.
Comfortable silence. Now that concept didn’t exist in Grandma’s household. “Alexandra, how’s that project at school? Tell me more about Miriam [that one kid I mentioned in passing whose name would stick in her memory forever]. Oh and you’ll need to show me how to use that picture thing on my cell phone.” And when she was done with her inquisition, she’d say, “Ok I know you’re a busy girl so I don’t want to keep you. Talk to you soon.” And you’d be released. Free to do what young adults do. Free from the guilt of not constantly calling or checking in. You could be independent. She didn’t need you. But she enjoyed every second of you being around.
There is no better feeling than someone who truly listens to you. Someone who hangs on to your every word, slips in questions at the right time, and remembers things you said years ago. She made me want to be that person for others.
But then Grandma started to lose her eyesight. And shortly thereafter, her hearing. She was slowly being stripped of her ability to socialise...of the two things that incorporate anyone into society. The ability to communicate. But as she said, Life, it’s tough, isn’t it?
Her pride was her ability to nurture her family. And what I haven’t told you is that as much as she loved to listen, she liked to be heard. And like many old women, she had absolutely no filter. Her inability to see and now louder voice caused by deaf ears meant she’d blurt out the most ridiculous things in earshot of those not intended to hear.
And while that could be hilarious, embarrassing or frustrating, one message she always made clear: Family comes first. Even when she could only catch 30% of what you were saying, even when she felt overwhelmed and disengaged in our larger family & friend settings, she didn’t complain. She toughened up. She learned to live with their hindrances and taught all of us that even when the most important thing is taken away, it’s not the end. It’s a chance to adapt and start fresh. And you can do it even if you’re in your eighties. There are no excuses, just solutions.
I don’t ever remember us exchanging words of love even though there was no doubt about how she felt. She showed her love through her pride. When university was ending I called to tell her I’d be moving to London. She was the first to know after Mom and Dad. She wasn’t happy. She couldn’t believe that someone so family-oriented would move so far away. I was angry. She was angry. And I told her I hoped she could be happy for me having achieved my dream. Then I assured her distance wouldn’t change anything and said, “I love you.” And she paused. And she told me she was glad I called.
Months passed, years passed, and I increasingly made every effort to come home more often. We knew the end would sometime come. And each time I saw or called her, I would tell her. In July we talked on the phone, her inquisitive mind still grilling me.
“Ok Alexandra, nice talking to you. I know you’ve got a busy life. Love you.”
“Ok bye Grandma, I love you.”
About two weeks later I was heading into the movie theatre when I got a text from Dad telling me to call. It was 11am UK time. That’s about 6am Detroit time. There are only so many flights I can get on per day to get back home. That plays on my mind. But it had already happened. She had already passed. After 95 years, she was gone.
Except she isn’t gone. She’s the reason I got tough. She’s why I started to listen. Really listen. Why I leave my comfort zone. The reason for my patience. The force behind my pride. She gave me my faith. Faith that no matter what happened, I’d be ok. My morals, what I value most, and recognition of my self worth are all due to her. I carry a part of her each day in my heart and in my actions.
And I have no regrets.
Today my family is in Michigan celebrating her life. Today I wish I wasn't so far away.
Rest In Peace
Irene P. Kalinowski
11 March 1922 – 6 August 2017