Be Brave. Be Authentic. Love.

By: Kendi Wolever

My grandma had a stroke last Wednesday night. It didn’t scare me to hear the news at first, as my grandparents have had strokes and TIAs in the past and have recovered. The severity of this one, however, was much greater than the rest and completely debilitated my grandmother. My vibrant, loving, bubbly grandma was now unable to move, speak, or open her eyes.

Last Thursday night, I spent a couple of hours with her in the hospital. It was difficult to see her in that state and I was worried the bed she was in wasn’t comfortable enough. I didn’t say a word to her for probably the first hour. It felt weird to me that my family was taking turns leaning over to talk to her while she couldn't respond. Could she really understand what was being said to her? I wasn’t sure.
I remember the last time my grandma had a stroke. It was a few years back and I spent many hours with her in the hospital, talking with her and making sure her needs were being met. After she was released, things didn’t feel the same anymore. Her deteriorating physical health had affected her mental and emotional health. I didn’t feel like I could talk to her in the same manner as before, and I suppose that was selfish of me. I felt as if the traumatic event changed her. As much as this should have brought us closer, I allowed it to drive me away. My grandma has always been cheerful, bright, caring, positive, and has the most giving spirit I’ve ever seen in anyone. Her initial stroke led her into seasons of depression that I simply didn’t allow myself to be immersed in - whether that was a conscious decision or not, I don’t know. I’ve been doing a lot of reflection over the last few days about who I am in relationship to my grandmother. In the words of John Green, “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” I realized that I’ve allowed my expectations of who I believe my grandma should be - a lively, bubbly granny who made me birthday cakes each year and taught me silly songs when I was in diapers - to outweigh the responsibility I have to love her through her humanity.

My family stepped into the hallway outside of the hospital room and I was left alone with my grandma. I faced my fear, irrational as it was, and approached her bedside. I told her it was me and I asked her if she wanted me to do her makeup. Of course she didn’t respond. I giggled to myself at the silly request, remembering the time she let me give her a makeover when I was a little girl. I continued to speak to her and I said, “Grandma, I feel kind of weird about this, but do you want me to lift your eyelid so that you can see me?” To my shock, my grandmother turned her face toward me as if to tell me yes. I never realized how beautifully blue her eyes were until I was given the privilege to open them. I stared into her eye as she helplessly gazed back into mine. I told her that I loved her, and in that moment, a tear left her eye and despite her inability to communicate with words, she grunted three slow, beautiful syllables. She told me she loved me back.

I recently wrote an essay about death and my fear of it. Not fearful of someone leaving the earth, but fearful about being left behind to grieve. Events that have transpired over the last year have been preparing me for this time with my grandmother and my family. I’ve always been terrified of the emotions and life change that come along with losing someone I love. But throughout this journey of slowly losing my grandmother, I have seen beautiful things. I’ve seen my grandfather show vulnerability that I’ve never once seen in him before. He speaks about her as if she is his direct life source. I watched him stare into space and speak - as if he was speaking to himself - revealing his innermost thoughts and fears. He spoke about her purse being on the table at home, and her watch that she’ll never need again to tell the time. He’s expressed that he doesn’t know how to continue life, as she’s all he ever lived for. I watched him pull a chair close to her bedside and hold her hand as they both slept. I saw his strongest love for her manifested in his weakest state. After sixty-two years of marriage, my grandfather still said, “I just didn’t have enough time.” I want a love like that.

I’ve always described my mom as a rock. She is the strongest, most steadfast woman I know. I’ve seen her cry more times in the last few days than I think I ever have. I don’t see it as weakness, but as a strong embrace of the love she feels toward her mom. As my mom leans over my grandma, petting her face and smoothing her hair, tears freely flowing, I can’t help but see my reflection in her. Forty years down the road, pouring the same love over my mother. Will my own daughter be watching? It makes me want to hold my mom tight and never let her go.

My nieces and nephews came to see grandma on Sunday. They aren’t used to Grandma not being able to wake up and give kisses. They were pretty unwilling to approach her and mostly sat in the hospital chairs reading books and playing with one another. But my heart was overwhelmed with warmth when all of the sudden, Liam who is three, came to stand at my side and slowly snuck his hand on top of my grandmother’s. It was only for a few seconds, but it showed much of his brave little heart.

I learned this morning that the moment I fell asleep last night, was the same moment my grandmother went to rest for eternity.

It’s a beautiful cycle of life we live in, and it’s in these seasons of grief and loss when love manifests itself in ways we never imagine. Dying tends to bring out the best in people and in those around them. Conversations are overtaken with good memories, and suddenly it’s as if bad ones never even existed. Little reminders are made of things that were at some point forgotten about. Like how the song A Bushel and a Peck has played over and over in my head this week because I suddenly remembered how often my grandma used to sing it to me. 

Death rips our hearts open and exposes the raw, vulnerable, beautiful love we all have inside of us. I think that sometimes, if death has any lesson to teach, it’s about life. It’s about how we love those around us before we all approach the end. It’s about asking myself if that fight with my brother was really worth it. It’s about deciding what or who’s worth hating and if hate is even an option anymore. It’s about calling my mom even if I feel too busy. It’s about giving that homeless man a dollar and not worrying about how he’s going to spend it. It’s about bravely and emphatically telling someone that you love them, even if you fear they won’t say it back, because it’s a disservice to them and to yourself to withhold the word. Cheryl Strayed wrote, “Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.”

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