At 20, I Was Stronger Than I Thought

And More Vulnerable

I couldn’t pay my rent. I wasn’t eating regular meals. I was starting to sink into depression. I made a decision to drop out of college.

My mother was beside herself:

You’ll never go back! It’s so hard to go back after you’ve taken time off, I know from experience!
Yes, mom, and you went back and finished. Twice.

It took a couple of days of visiting with professors to get them to agree to give me incompletes (I) instead of failing (F) grades. They agreed on the condition that I promised to go back to complete those courses the following fall. That gave me one and a half semesters and a summer to get my act together. I thought that was promising.

Timing is an amazing thing, if you’re looking for clues. My brother was getting married soon after I moved back home, and my paternal grandparents were planning to fly to Colorado from Washington DC for the wedding. Except that my grandfather had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and my grandmother decided, in a panic-stricken moment, that she couldn’t travel with him across the country. My father was determined to have them there to celebrate.

Our family support network was activated, and a frequent flyer ticket was gifted to me to fly into Dulles later that week, and fly back the next morning with my “Bubbi” and “Zaide” (Yiddish for grandmother and grandfather.) I love to travel, so I was thrilled with the idea of this quick trip. It hadn’t really occurred to me what the trip was about. I had spent a semester in Australia just a year before that, and had hitchhiked through New Zealand by myself for two weeks on my way back. I felt like a pretty seasoned traveler at 20.

And yet. I arrived in Virginia and was picked up by my uncle, who took me out to dinner, and then delivered me to the assisted living apartment facility where my grandparents were living in Rockville, Maryland. As I walked into the apartment, my grandmother hugged me as if she were drowning in roiling waves. I could feel her anxiety melt as she held me close to her, tears of relief on her cheeks.

My grandfather was sitting on his recliner:

I like THAT!

He was still mostly lucid, but you couldn’t tell when you would lose him in conversation. I hadn’t spent much time with them over the previous couple of years, so I didn’t know how far along he was in his illness. He definitely was not the same Zaide I remembered from our last visit.

I worked with my grandmother to pack for the wedding week, laying out all the clothes and shoes they would need, carefully packing them into suitcases from the closet. She was so grateful; with every move I made between closets, bedroom, and bathroom, I could see her physical change from carrying her stress around her shoulders, to getting sleepy with relief and relaxation.

My grandparents went to sleep when packing was done; a shuttle was coming to get us early the next morning, so I had the luggage ready and waiting by the front door, and their travel clothes hanging on the closet door. I went to the guestroom to get some sleep. But I didn’t sleep. It was as if all the anxiety my grandmother had been carrying around for the past few weeks was transferred to me.

When my alarm went off, I had already been awake, anxiously considering what could go wrong on the trip home. All of my previous traveling had been on my own, with only my health and safety at stake. I was willing and able to take risks because it was just me, and I was invincible. Being responsible for others in this situation put me in a different state of mind.

It was mostly uneventful, getting into the shuttle, getting to the airport, checking in and checking our bags. At Dulles airport, the main terminal isn’t connected to the others; you have to take a bus-like people-mover across the facility.

As we were getting off the people-mover, my grandfather stood up and his pants fell to his knees.

My grandmother was mortified. I moved quickly to him, pulled up his pants and said:

Zaide, you must have forgotten to tighten your belt!

I cinched his belt tightly around his waist, and helped both of them into the terminal.

We had a non-stop flight from Dulles to Denver, and I kept my Bubbi and Zaide as comfortable as I could. I knew how they took their coffee, made sure they received the kosher meals we had requested, and kept them entertained with stories and jokes. It was exhausting.

When we landed, we met up with my Bubbi’s sister, who had flown in from California, and piled into the car for the ride back to Colorado Springs. My father was driving, Zaide was in the front seat, and I sat on my brother’s lap with Aunt Marge and Bubbi in the back seat with us.

It was the moment I climbed onto my brother’s lap, curled up with my head on his chest, that I finally relaxed. Quietly, so no one would hear, I cried. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude, tears of grief for my grandfather’s loss; my brother held me, comforted me, gently rubbing my back, and let me unwind.

There is nothing like an experience like that to show you how strong you are, or how vulnerable.

I’m not sure what compelled me to write this story, so many years later, other than the vivid memory that called to me one evening as I shared stories with a friend about my relationship with my brother. No matter how much we bickered and criticized each other, I always knew he had my back.

I guess that’s part of why, no matter how strong I must be, I also understand the need to be vulnerable, and to have a safe place, safe people, to share that vulnerability.

That evening, as I snuggled onto my brother’s lap, wept, and fell gently to sleep, I knew I would always have that foundation, that safe place to be vulnerable.


Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

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