Grandma Cared

Finding comfort in an unexpected presence while treading water in the dark.

Scott Muska
I THOUGHT THIS WAS WORTH SHARING

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My grandma was never particularly well-known for having much of a sympathetic bedside manner. To put it lightly. This is not meant to be a critique. We all have our temperaments and ways of approaching or dealing with things. It’s more an observation that is highly unlikely to be met with argument from any of the people who knew her best.

This despite the fact she was once a nurse by trade, and was sister to 10 siblings. Probably also partially because of those things. I can’t be sure. I can’t pretend to know what factors into making people the way they are — or the way that they were. And it ain’t like she ever delved into anything too personal on her end with me. We never had much of an opportunity for it, and I suspect if we did I wouldn’t have been the one she confided in anyway. Showing and sharing emotions wasn’t really her thing. But I do know that everyone has to wade into some sort of shit at some point and figure out how they’re going to make their way through it. Many ford their respective rivers without becoming all that much worse for the wear. Some come out the complete opposite of unscathed. Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. And, finally, far too many who never make it all the way out at all.

An extremely tough, or at least rough-around-the-edges, very-much-god-fearing (the Irish Catholic kind, which may aid in explaining some things about her) woman who somewhat counterintuitively gave many people a lot of fresh-ass hell in her time, I believe that Grandma at least almost always meant well, which isn’t meant to be confused with did well, at least in the eyes of many. But who can say that anyone always did well? Not a single person alive pitches a perfect game.

Even if she had (to her mind, anyway) good intentions, the woman, to my admittedly somewhat limited knowledge, never pulled a punch a day in her life.

She cared, though, about her grandchildren, and I know she did so deeply.

This juxtaposition was one reason why I went to her to talk one time when I was really going through it myself — head-first in my own kind of deep brand of shit and wondering with more than a modicum of doubt if I was going to ever make it through, let alone out. I wanted someone to not notice it or, even better, tell me to just snap the fuck out of it. Back then I still thought and hoped that this was a possibility.

Admittedly, it was also to check a box. A sort of obligation. I was home for a friend’s wedding but had also tacked on extra time to visit my family, and that meant actually making my rounts and visiting family, no matter how horrible things had become, how severely depressed and anxious I was feeling.

Depression and anxiety were (unfortunately) not at all foreign to me, but the alarming acuteness of this particular episode were unprecedented. It frightened the hell out of me, and my inability to keep it to myself, while probably positive, had others (my parents, siblings, family dog, therapist, psychiatrist) worried about me. I’d vehemently wept in the presence of many of them, especially the dog, who seemed pretty confused about the whole thing, but more than willing to provide any comfort she could. And those I thought I’d been able to hold it together around immediately clocked that something not at all great was going on. If you’ve never had the opportunity to meet and hold your nearly newborn niece for the first time while you are going through a major depressive episode, it’s not something I would recommend. Not the best headspace to meet the newest person you will love unconditionally for the rest of your life. My brother had texted me after the visit, unprompted, to ask if I was doing okay, that I seemed “off.” It occasionally takes one to know one, and he unfortunately knows better than so many of us do. The two of us have had several pets throughout our lives, but the proverbial Black Dog has been the one that we’ve both lived with for longer than any other.

This all added to my general discomfort about the whole “thing.” Strange how people caring about you can make you feel even worse. But sometimes it goes that way.

Tacked on, as well, were the intrusive and semi-pervasive thoughts I kept having about something my mom had shared with me: My grandpap, one of my best friends and confidants, had passed away not too long before, and my calls to the home he had shared with Grandma had dwindled significantly in frequency. She had, to my surprise, noticed. Tied up in my own shit and assuming that she wouldn’t care too much, because why would she, and after all, she knew the telephone worked just fine both ways if you were receiving or making a call, I had neglected our semi-regular checkins where I would catch up with the two of them, one after the other, when suddenly there was only the one.

This weighed heavily on me. I was prone to guilt, and I didn’t like dropping the ball, which was unfortunate, as I had been dropping sleeves of them with abandon while I made desperate attempts to care (mostly unsuccessfully, often recklessly) only for myself and figure some things out, until I felt like I was attempting to juggle with no supply. (I had, I am ashamed to admit, completely forgotten my own mom’s birthday that year. I may even have spoken with her on the day of and neglected to mention it — though I don’t recall precisely and know she would not tell me if that had been the case. Which I am thankful for. Sometimes it’s best not to know for sure how significant your transgressions are — how deeply they may have cut, especially in the moment.)

Also, I know Grandpap would have wanted me to spend some time with her. I don’t believe in much of anything, and I haven’t adhered well to what the man wished for me in the final days of his life (another story for another day), but the least I could do was show up for the people I loved, especially the woman he had loved the entirety of his adult life, and who I loved too.

So, visit I did. Peeled myself out of the bed in my childhood home, took a shower and got in the car to go see Grandma, figuring that, of what I’d been going through recently that had peaked in a very nefarious and inconvenient way while in my hometown, reliving pieces of the past or whatever it was, this would be one of my easiest tasks of the week. We had never really gone deep at all, so I figured it’d just be surface-level questions about my life and a lot of verbal rumination about how crazy it was that I chose for whatever reasons to live in New York City. Grandma had only been once, to visit some relatives in Long Island, and had found upon her arrival that she had been brought up there not to take in the sights, but almost exclusively to do a bunch of unpaid labor around an aunt’s house who wanted a break and opted to bus reinforcements in from out of town. (This wasn’t actually too far from the dynamic I experienced in my first job when I finally had an opportunity to move to the big city.)

But the woman had some intuition and, like I said, cared deeply, in her way. The mask I’d polished just before heading over to the retirement community where she now begrudgingly lived didn’t pass muster by anything close to a fucking long shot. She saw right through that shit and asked me how I was “really doing” before she even went through the customary ritual of offering me one of the Snickers Ice Cream Bars she kept in stock at all times. I appreciated the straightforward nature her tack of questioning took on, and I wasn’t able to bring myself to eat much of anything so far that week anyway, so I didn’t mind the lack of a treat. I got into it.

For the first time in as long as I could remember, I was able to cogently if ramblingly explain to someone what I was going through without immediately bursting into tears and rendering myself mostly inaudible. I did it in a glossed-over type of way — didn’t tell her that at certain times I actually wanted to die because the inexplicable pain I was feeling was so intense and acute that I just wanted it to end, didn’t know how long I could find ways to put up with it, let alone cope with it. But the gist was there, and probably unwittingly implied.

She listened without judgment and with plenty of patience. Responded without spouting an expected recommendation like “Have you tried not feeling that way and just getting your shit together?” or whatever I had honestly been expecting. Like so many I’m lucky to have in my life, she reacted with sympathy, even if she couldn’t establish empathy, or did her best to not reveal that she had that capability if she did. All she did was tell me she hoped I would start to feel better soon and that she would pray for me.

Not to denigrate therapy by any means, as it has changed my life in positive ways I could wax on about for hours, but the thought did cross my mind that I’d been shelling out $175 out-of-pocket per 50 minutes to throw my psyche at a near-stranger when I could have made more of that time to strategically choose what I wanted to discuss if I had just given my grandma some goddamn calls and bent her surprisingly willing ear.

At the end of the visit, I headed home feeling better. It was a brief reprieve, of course, but one I was more than happy to have. That I desperately needed.

I headed back to New York after this jarring trip home and really got to work.

A couple weeks later, my phone buzzed as I was heading home from a therapy session, after which I generally made it a rule to speak with no one until the next day as I decompressed, contemplated and occasionally prayed to a god I don’t even believe in. (Can’t hurt, I guess, and after all, belief or disbelief doesn’t mean you know a thing, really, as nobody does.)

It was Grandma, a woman I only got an incoming call from once a year when she would ring to sing “Happy Birthday” to me, usually on the correct day, in an egregiously off-tone timbre. (It should be noted, however, that she did send me a card with a crisp $20 bill on or around every April 20, which is, again, another story for another day.) I chose to pick up the phone, confused as I was.

There were some initial pleasantries before she copped to the fact that she’d hit me up just to see how I was doing, and not just on the surface.

“When you were home, I was very worried about you,” she said, with a gentle nature I’d never heard from her before. “And I’ve been worrying about you since, so I just wanted to call.”

We chatted for a bit and, since she was a woman who pulled no punches, I didn’t pull any either. Shot it to her straight. Said I wasn’t really there yet when it came to being what most people would call “alright,” but that I was working on getting there and that I genuinely thought that I could.

“Well, Scotty, you call me anytime you want to, if you want to talk,” she said.

“I will,” I said.

And then I got back to calling her more often — though specifically because I wanted to talk, not about depression, anxiety or any of my troubles at all. Checking in with her was, frankly, probably more beneficial for me than it ever was on her end.

We did not speak about my struggles again for several years.

Six years later, on another visit home, I was giving Grandma a lift home from church. I hadn’t attended mass, haven’t done so for a very long time, and almost never have of my own free will in my entire life. I’d basically just operated as a cab driver so she could go and get right with her god. While she was doing that I hit up a T.J. Maxx and bought my sister a set of knives she’d been wanting, which I accidentally and absentmindedly ended up carrying into the church itself when I went to help her back to the car. So, yeah. Last time I stepped foot in a house of god I brought several actual weapons with me.

The topic of depression came up around another family member, as it does, and I began talking about it with her as if her awareness of the fact that I struggled and struggle mightily with it was still fully intact.

“Oh, Scotty,” she said. “I never knew you had troubles with that.”

For a second this took me off guard, even though it was far from unexpected. Her memory had been waning to say the least for a very long time. Our calls had become repetitions of the same conversation, over and over. This was tough to deal with initially, but something I accepted rather quickly. This does, of course, happen to so many.

I was glad that her mind had been free from the worry she’d experienced on my behalf those years before. It can be a salve of sorts for people who care about you to worry about your well-being, but I also have a bit of trouble and guilt when it feels like I’m a burden to the others who I, in turn, worry about too.

We didn’t go too deep into it. This time I didn’t need to. We just went to lunch and shot the shit about other stuff, which was essentially my answering the question “How do you like Chicago?” eight times in a 45-minute span.

Sometimes you lose many things in life and you forget some of the best things all too quickly, and occasionally permanently. But this may mean no longer recalling some of the unfortunate as well, which isn’t always the worst thing.

Maybe someday I’ll forget what it felt like that summer. It already seems like a distant memory, and I’m partially thankful for that, though I tend to assume this is because it was a very traumatizing time for me, and my mind’s self-defense mechanisms have kicked in. But I don’t want to forget totally, because no matter how hard it was to go through and how hard it sometimes is and how hard it will inevitably be at certain points in the future (I don’t think it’ll ever fully go away), it is a huge piece of the puzzle that makes up who I am. If nothing else, it helps me enjoy the truly good things more than I otherwise would. It balances things out in a strange way. And that’ll always be important to me.

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Scott Muska
I THOUGHT THIS WAS WORTH SHARING

I write books (for fun, and you can find them on Amazon), ads (for a living) and some other stuff (that seems to magically show up on the internet).