By 1978, my grandparents were done having children. Their fifth child was 6 years old, and they were in their early 50s. The years of changing diapers and getting up in the middle of the night were over. They embraced their salt-and-pepper hair. They were just a few years away from retirement. My grandfather, who owned a successful construction business, was tiring of long hours and even longer months. They had two children living at home, their fourth and fifth children. The fourth child was my mother. She was 19 in 1978 when she got pregnant with me.
She was a self-described wild child. Children one through three were all boys. My grandparents weathered poverty, a house fire, moving across the country, car accidents, drugs, rock and roll with the first three. There wasn’t anything the last two could do that wasn’t already done… except get pregnant.
When my mother found out she was pregnant with me, she hid it from them. She was ashamed and lost; she was 19 and scared. When it came time to admit she was pregnant, the silent treatment was unleashed. Alone, without support from my grandparents, my father or her friends, she decided her only course of action was to put me up for adoption.
October 31, 1978, I made my debut into this world alone, with just my mother. The papers were signed; the nurses and doctors knew that I was not meant for her. They knew I was headed to a nice orphanage in the middle of nowhere. They knew that this young woman would have to carry the burden of carrying and then losing a part of her. She was released from the maternity ward without a baby. She was given some mesh underwear and hospital pads as a reminder of what she gave up.
The story from here is a bit hazy, as three people have different memories on how I ended up back with my mother and grandparents. My father says he didn’t even know I was born; my mother says he did; and my grandmother always maintained that she was the one that couldn’t bear the thought of someone else raising me. The story of how perplexed me for years, until I realized it just doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that someone did come and get me from the middle of nowhere. One of three decided that I was worth fighting for, so they did.
My mother spent time finding herself, and by the early 1980s, my grandparents were raising their sixth child. Back to first steps, potty training and sleepless nights. Even after my mother married, they were still the parents I felt most comfortable with. As my mother started a new life with a man whom she barely knew, I felt I belonged with my uncle, my grandmother and my grandfather. She married a man to give me a family, but what she didn’t realize was that I had a family. I had all the love, attention and safety I needed to grow.
As the years moved on, I spent less time with my grandparents. I guess because they were getting older, and so was I. I now had two half-sisters and a half-brother. I had school and friends and a part-time job. I was getting ready for prom. I had been accepted to West Virginia University. I didn’t think the time with my first parents would be cut short. At 18, you have nothing but time. If I could go back, I would have visited them more often; I would have told them how thankful I was to have them in my life. That they were my first parents.
That’s the thing with time: When you have it you never think it’s going to get cut short. My grandparents were strong, resilient and active. My grandfather got into the hobby of renovating and selling homes, and my grandmother was the epitome of the doting grandparent. She went to the beach three times a week in the summer, always with grandkids in tow. They weren’t going anywhere. Until my grandmother died on the floor of a bathhouse at a local park. They say she was dead before she hit the floor, she didn’t suffer and she died doing what she loved. She had just finished swimming at a beautiful, quiet lake nestled in the Pine Barrens. And on that day, she decided it was the perfect place to die. I have never been there. I can’t bring myself to stop at the place that took my first mother from me.
With each year that passed, my grandfather became a little less mobile. He had suffered a few strokes and a heart attack by the fifth anniversary of my grandmother’s death. He wasn’t the strong, able-bodied man I had looked up to for most of my life. He now relied on his daughter and grandchildren to get him out of bed, to help him use the bathroom and function through life. My mother took most of this burden on herself. She didn’t feel it was a burden, though; it was a lesson in love for her. Maybe with her power of love we could all have had more time with him than we’d had with the matriarch of our family. But by the 10th anniversary of her death, it became too much for her and her children.
He resisted a nursing home for fear that we would forget about him. How could I forget the man who I measured all other men against? The short answer is, I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t. The long answer is, I wish that I visited more. I wish that I carved out more time to play checkers and talk about baseball. I wish that when he said no more hospitals, no more dialysis, I didn’t feel the guilt of missed time.
We all knew what he meant. He was ready to meet my grandmother again. As I watched hospice come and go, and I watched him struggle to breathe, the tears rolled from my eyes. His room was quiet, but the memories playing in my mind were so loud. The piggyback rides and the snuggles screamed through my brain. I begged God not to drag this out, to send him into that dark night quickly, painlessly. Help him find the light on the other side because Lord knows he deserves peace. And God did.
I love with every part of myself because my grandparents chose to love me with everything they had. They were my first and, some might argue, my most important parents of all. They took care of me when my own parents couldn’t. They did it without malice or judgement. They showed me what love and compassion look like.
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