This week, I got to visit with my grandmother. And by “got to”, I mean “Got To”. Like I’m going to be 42 in a few weeks and she turned 94 in November. I mean Got To like not one second of it did I take for granted. I mean I get that I am beyond lucky to have this woman in my life, for my whole life so far. Like I get that I have been able to take her presence for granted. For years.
But not this week. Not this week, when I tried to pawn my daughter, Vesta, off on my parents and see her alone. Logistically, that didn’t work out so I brought a brand new book for my 10-year-old. I brought the knowing that she’d have one of my Grandmother’s search-a-word activity books to keep her occupied. I brought my daughter, knowing that she’d hear every word spoken between granddaughter and grandmother, even though she’d be occupied with a brand new book and her great-grandmother’s puzzles. Knowing that she’d hear whatever we talked about like only a 10-year-old can hear it.
As a side note, I also say “visit” because that’s what my Grandma Vesta says. That’s what she said about her best friend of 82 years who died a couple of weeks ago: “I’d go over there every Tuesday, she’d make tea and we’d sit and visit.” She talked about how they talked every week on the phone since my Gram moved into the “assistant” living, as she called it for longer than she probably should have. The day before, when my father had been there with us, he’d lovingly scoffed at that admonition: “More like every day. You talked to Shirley every day, Mom.” She shrugged him off. Like she does. When he corrects her. Like he does.
On that day, when Daughter Vesta and I were fresh off a red-eye and we all crowded into her room, me, Vesta, my dad and step-mother, at the assisted living facility she’s been in for half of a decade, Gram off-handedly mentioned that she Had To See A Psychiatrist. “Yes,” my dad said sheepishly. Like he should have told me. Like we should be in better touch. Like we don’t communicate like we used to. Like I should already know this, it was significant enough. “She had a rough time for awhile there.”
“Yes.” Grandma Vesta says. “I couldn’t stop crying for awhile there. And I didn’t know why. It was since…like…Veteran’s Day or something.” She swiped her hand like she couldn’t remember exactly. Like it was nothing. Like the significance of the date, and the crying had no real meaning. No weight.
Then, the conversation quickly turned into how she got to know The Psychiatrist better than he got to know her. Like we do. And, it was true. My dad joked about it but then my Gram rattled off where he grew up, where he went to school, how many kids he had. I almost dismissed it. Like the way they dismissed it. Like we do.
But “alone” with my Grandma Vesta (and my Daughter Vesta) she told me again about The Psychiatrist. She told me that, during this year, there was a time that she couldn’t stop crying. For months. And so, she told her aid that she thought she needed to talk to someone. And the aid said, “Well, A Psychiatrist comes here every Tuesday. You can talk to him.”
She looks at me sideways and whispers from behind her teeth, perhaps so my daughter, whos’ been to a psychiatrist after her brother died and her parents broke up, won’t hear, as if, I, who has had multiple psychiatrists over the past 30 years and even spent some time in a psychiatric hospital couldn’t hear, “A psychiatrist. In my day . . . if you had to talk to a psychiatrist . . . you were, you know . . . something was really wrong with you.”
I nodded and didn’t wince. “In her day.”
So, she tells me, he showed up at her door. And he came in, sat down and they talked. Visited, one might say. And, as the story goes in my family, she learned more about him than he learned about her. As the story goes: She’s too interested in others. She learns too much unnecessary information about relative strangers. It takes her not 10-15 minutes to get people to tell her their life story.
But he came back the next week.
“It was veterans day,” she tells me. “And we had a service in the auditorium and I don’t know why but I just told my story. I just told the whole thing. And afterward, two men came up to me- veterans- and you know what? They thanked me. They thanked me for telling my story.”
My father is a Junior. His father died in World War II. Just after, really. He was in Alabama after the war ended. They were testing planes and a propeller broke off. It sliced through the plane and killed him. Just him. No one else on the plane. Just Richard Dale Welty, Sr. died: his son just 18 months old, his widow not very far from 18 years, herself. I can’t verify these details. I haven’t heard the story in years, decades. And when I did, it was from my dad. Not from my grandma. I didn’t ask her to recount what she said on Veterans Day 2019. I don’t know what she said at that gathered group of old folks. That room full of people ravaged by war. Those survivors, those veterans, their wives. Not one of them in that room unscathed.
I don’t know what she said but I know that she couldn’t stop crying after she told her story of World War II. Just for clarity, I searched for the name that my biological grandfather went by, the grandfather I never knew, the father my father never knew. Richard? Rick? Dick. “About Dick?” I say, when I land on it. “You told Dick’s story?”
“Yes,” she nods and looks at me like she’s always looked at me. Like she’s always looked at me since I was even close to an adult, since I was a teenager. Since her dining room table with her hands around a mug of tea was this island I could land on, in this sea of chaos that I swam in. Since she was younger and I was young and she made me feel like some sense could be made of this world. Since, what I experienced as wisdom and confidence but was really just her processing and trying to figuring out wherever she was going through nearly 40 years ahead of me, made me feel like I, too, could get my ducks in a row. Like there was a home for me here and somewhere else too. Like I belonged. Like she treated me with equality and value. As a young person who so often felt unmoored, my Gram, her hands around her mug at her table, told me by telling her stories, that I would be okay. That we were okay. That, no matter what, it’s going to be okay.
“Yes,” she nods and looks at me like she always looked at me since I’ve resembled an adult and I realized what she was saying. I realized that she couldn’t stop crying for months. Since Veteran’s Day. Since she told her story. I realized my 94-year-old grandmother was grieving. Grieving the loss of her first husband. Grieving, fully and possibly for the first time, a loss that happened 74 years ago. Grieving and not knowing why. Or not able to admit it to me or herself or anyone. Except maybe The Psychiatrist. Certainly not to my daughter Vesta, there on the other side of the room. Who I suddenly realize is listening. Who I instantly remember needs her own feelings of grief validated. Heard. Normalized.
“You know, Gram,” I say. “Vesta and I were just talking about this the other night…” Because we were. Well past bedtime and way too tired, my daughter needed to talk to me. With the earnestness and sincerity, reserved only for the young, the not-quite teenager, the not-yet resembling an adult, she shared with me the latest iteration of her grief. The “who is it safe to share it with now that I am older” grief. The “how do I build trust with others so I can tell them what’s happened to me” grief. The “will anyone ever understand me” grief.
I have been afraid, terrified, that I have given my child my grief to carry as her own. And maybe I have. Maybe her yearning for her brother, for a biological sibling, is my fault. Maybe her twice-monthly attendance at a support group for kids who have lost siblings is of my own doing. I was devastated when her brother died and, in a lot of ways, remain so. And in a lot of ways, can’t grieve with her in the way she needs me to. Her family remembers him. Our friends remember me. Her brother is a presence in her life. At once a mystery and a solid loss. There and not there. Like he is for me. Like maybe we both feel the shame of that. Grieving for someone we never knew. Grieving for too long. Grief that evolves. Grieving.
Because I know she is listening. Because I know she is grieving, Because I see my grandmother before me, so recently morphed into looking like an old lady since she entered her 90s, so recently graying and thinning and slowing. I open my arm up towards my daughter Vesta, to include her in this moment, lost or distracted in her book of scary stories or absolutely present in listening while pretending not to, as only a not-yet teen can be, I say, “Ya know, Gram, Vesta and I were just talking about this the other night…”
Dauther Vesta looks up at me. Grandma Vesta keens her ears towards me. “When we are grieving, there are other people who are going through what we are going through. Like those men. They have a different story, but they understand. Because you are grieving the same event. And yet, you are always alone in your grief. Like the details of what happened to you are only yours. And you have to mourn those alone, even as you do it with others.”
Daughter Vesta half nods at me at the mention of her name and then looks back to her book. Hearing me or not hearing me. Grandma Vesta says, “That’s right. You know, That Psychiatrist said he’d heard a lot of stories from my generation, but none quite like mine.” She rests her hands on her corduroyed knees and leans towards me, “And do you know? He came back here the next week to check on me.” She leans back and smiles proudly, having made her point. Like she does.
I smile back at her and we move on to the next thing, whatever it was. But, I sit there, between my Vestas, a griever in the middle of generations of grief and I hope. I hope against hope that my daughter grieving now spares her from grieving this loss 74 years in the future. I hope that my grandmother telling her story and then crying for months and then doing what was once shameful and repugnant opens up some new space inside her. Let’s off some steam. Gives her some relief.
I don’t know how to grieve. Or how to help my daughter or my grandmother to grieve. I just know that we grieve. And that, when we do it together, even in our aloneness, it’s better.