Quit Picking with Her!



I hoped to get her still enough to read the Bible to her since that had calmed her down when she was in the hospital and they wanted to restrain her. That was almost five years ago and she’d fought the nurses and Granddad so bad they were putting straps on her as I arrived. I had insisted they allow me to calm her down my way. Instinctively I had figured that she would settled down out of respect for the Bible. I knew that ever since she was a little girl she’d been told to be quiet when the Bible is read. I had asked her for her favorite scripture and read it even though I hated the words as they came off my lips. First Corinthians! No wonder there’s so much damn domestic violence in the world. The Bible designs it! But I read it knowing its familiarity would be soothing.


When we got upstairs in their bedroom I expected to find her Bible on her night stand. She used to keep three or four Bibles on and in her nightstand, but today there were none. I found one on Granddad’s nightstand and opened it to one of the pages marked with a stack of index cards. I sat on the edge of the bed and began reading. Grandma calmed down more, but not as much as I was hoping.


“Grandma you can lay down for a nap and I’ll read to you,” I said.


She shook her head and busied herself making up the bed. I was reading from The Book of Ruth, which I remembered Grandma liked. Years ago, when they were only aging but not visibly ailing, I was interviewing them as often I could. One day I’d asked Grandma who were her favorite women in the Bible and she told me Ruth. I don’t remember why Ruth was her favorite, but I have those notes written down somewhere. I will gather all the notes together and organize for better use some day. But right now I’m still taking notes and organization is not my main priority.


Grandma got enough of my reading and returned back downstairs to the kitchen where Granddad was now washing and chopping fresh collards, which he’d bought at market Saturday. Grandma got busy in the kitchen piddling around in the cabinet next to Granddad. He started to fuss, to tell her to go sit down somewhere and I had to nip that in the bud.


“Granddad don’t antagonize her. I can’t pull her off you,” I said.


He looked at her again, looked at me, rolled his eyes, started to say something to her again but stopped himself.


Months later, with home aides now in place, I would get reports that she picks with him! They say she antagonizes him when he’s sitting at the table sorting his mail. “Clifford!  Clifford” nagging the hell out of him.  Or when he’s cooking, “Can I help? I’m going to…”


I hadn’t believed it when my uncle said sometimes Granddad can be sitting at the table, reading the newspaper,  and Grandma will just punch him in the face out the blue. I thought my uncle was exaggerating, and I chuckled thinking that Grandma was getting revenge for so many verbal blows she’s sustained over the years. I remember the first outburst I witnessed, probably pre-teens. I was helping them set up for one of their popular dinner parties, when Granddad, obviously anxious and rushed yelled at Grandma, “Baby why you got to be so stupid! I ain’t never seen nobody so stupid!” I’d laughed it off in my youth, but as I got older I found myself trying to justify that they had their own unique communication thing going. That lie has run its course. Sometimes now when Grandma is “out of her mind” she will talk about how embarrassed she was by his tirades.


“Baby, don’t let life do this to you,” she said to me one day after her crying spell.  “It’s best to just walk away. Just walk away.” She sobbed explaining that she used to tell her friends that her husband was just having a bad day, that he just had a bad temper. Her words from that night played on repeat in my head for weeks, “Don’t let life do this to you…just walk away.”


She’d told me not to be intimidated by anyone, not even a boss at work. Walk away. No matter how much money somebody’s got, don’t be intimidated. Walk away. I never considered that she may have felt intimidated. She always seemed regal and strong to me. I knew she was smarter than Granddad academically, and he knew it to.  Decades ago when she began confessing to me how she felt and I asked her why she stayed, it became clear that she’d stayed for the lifestyle. I vowed privately to never do that. Knowing all that rage she has inside, has carried for years, it’s all I can do to keep Granddad from unwittingly verbally striking a hornets nest.


When I hear Granddad fussing, “Baby go sit down somewhere!” I say, “Let her do her thing.  I’m keeping an eye on her.” He resists, “That’s not the point. She’s got no reason to be….” Again I say, “Granddad let her be. If you get her stirred up, I can’t pull her off of you.”


I’m OK You’re OK

I’m OK You’re OK

After three bouts of violence with Grandma that day, I saw Granddad plopped down on a chair in the dining room and cry. This caregiving is taking a lot out of him - but also adding a lot of character and spiritual strength to him. After his tears Grandma was calm again and he called her to him for a hug.

After three bouts of violence with Grandma that day, I saw Granddad plop down on a chair in the dining room and cry. This caregiving is taking a lot out of him – but also adding a lot of character and spiritual strength to him. After his tears Grandma was calm again and he called her to him for a hug. “Baby you know I love you,” he said. They kissed and I almost cried – but instead raced to get my cellie for a photo.

I showed the photo of the kissing crusaders – Grandma and Granddad – to my co-workers this morning and they marveled at the beauty of the moment. The facebook note I posted with the photo was simply: 74 years married. Still Standing. Prayers up everyone. One-hundred-fifty people had liked it overnight. When I showed my supervisor and another colleague, they also ooooed and awed. I volunteered the back story – that the kiss came after a long day of fighting and managing Grandma’s disease – and they made the moment sweeter.   My supervisor – who has also become a dear friend – Michelle – said my grandparents remind her of her aunt and uncle who were so close they took care of each other all their lives. When her uncle was put in a nursing home, her aunt took a bus to visit him every day. The day her uncle died during the visit, her aunt went home and died of a heart attack less than an hour later. The other colleague, Tracy, said when her father was in the hospital, comatose, the doctors advised her and her siblings to tell him it was ok for him to leave. They each visited and after all eight of them told him they were fine and he could leave, he died within hours.   “That reminds me of when my brother was dying at 16,” I said. “We told him he didn’t have to stay in that body for us. He was in so much pain. The cancer had spread to his lungs.” He died a few weeks after that conversation. “Maybe it’s time we have that conversation with my grandparents,” I wondered out loud.   I remembered giving my grandparents hints that I’m ok. Several times in the past year Grandma looked in my face and asked, “Why are you so sad?” She knows something’s not right in my marriage because she hasn’t seen my husband.  She’d told me to “turn it over to God…let God fight your battles.” But at one point Saturday she looked in my face and said, “Look at those big, pretty brown eyes,” nurturing and cheering me on and she has done all my life. I felt like she survived her life-threatening surgery four years ago just to be alive and help me through the latest heartbreak. My last big heartbreak was almost 20 years ago and she had nursed me back to whole then.   Yesterday when I visited – doing my Wednesday and Thursday evening caretaking stint – I told Granddad that I’m OK. When he asked how things are going on my job, I seized the opportunity to assure him that I’m doing well, standing on my own two feet, feeling secure, unafraid of getting fired or burned out again.   “How did the people act about you taking off early today,” Granddad said, speaking over his shoulder as he stood at the sink washing greens.   “No problem. This job is waaaay less demanding than any job I’ve had before. I’m not in charge, so it’s not all on my shoulders. All I have to do is make sure my work gets done and I put in the hours,” I said.   “What about the people you’re working with? How are they?”   “My supervisor is great! She’s a praying woman. In fact, we pray together every week,” I said.   “That’s a change from that last one you had cursing you,” he said. We both laughed.   “Yep. My mother-in-law told me to not just pray for any job, but pray for my divine job,” I said. “I really feel like this is a divine job.”   With that, I realized I was telling him I am financially secure enough. I’m OK. My mother-in-law has been the moral support I’ve needed, encouraging me, counseling and consoling me as if God put her in place at the door where Grandma will exit.   Maybe later today I will ask my mother what she thinks about us each having that conversation with our elders, assuring them that we’re ok and they are free to go. I think she will say they are seeing and sensing how well we are and they will leave when they feel like they’ve given us all they can and that we’ve received all we can.

Fixin’ for a Fight



Granddad got focused on fixing dinner. I had bought my meal, Grandma had enough pre-packaged meals for herself and him, but I knew that busyness was relaxing for him so I didn’t suggest anything else – until I realized her was very tired. He had cooked two pots of greens – one seasoned for today’s dinner, the other unseasoned for freezing. He also pulled three yams from the pantry and asked me what kind of meat I wanted.


“No thank you. I’m having chicken for lunch in a little while,” I said.


“That’s no problem! If you don’t want to eat chicken again I got steak, fish, burgers, whatever you want!”


“No thank you. I don’t eat meat more than once a day because it takes a long time to process – in my system,” I said.


Granddad ridicules my uncle for eating all these new-fangled-fancy-schmansy foods, and he’s always scoffed at my mother’s beliefs about food – that nutrition, not taste or any other reason – is the primary reason for eating.


“I’ll have your greens and a potato though,” I added.


“Suit yourself,” he said.


He carefully sat on the stair climber to go into the basement and retrieve meat from one of the three freezers they keep full down there. He also planned to pull cornbread mix from the basement pantry, which has been as full as a community general store ever since I could remember. When I saw Granddad struggling to walk back up the stairs, I realized he was probably trying to get exercise. But he looked extremely tired and I figured he had to be tired after Grandma’s alleged beat down. I still had only heard about these beatings and could not really imagine this frail woman taking him down.


“Granddad, why don’t you get a nap in while I keep an eye on Grandma,” I said. “You’re going to need your strength later. You can finish dinner later.”


“I’m ok,” he insisted. “I’m going to make some cornbread. This is some good cornbread.”


Grandma was at the kitchen sink washing and re-washing a couple of bowls and a few pieces of flatware. She’d dry them off then put them into the dishwasher, take them out of the dishwasher.


“Baby what you doing!” Granddad yelled.


“Granddad, leave her alone. I can’t pull her off you,” I reminded him. He’d told me that she’s thrown him across the room, that she’d pinned him down to the floor, that their son had had to pull her off of him. But I couldn’t imagine it. I’d seen him fuss and yell at her so much over the years, that the first time he told me she knocked a plate of food out of his hand at church, “showing out”, I jokingly dismissed the episode, saying, “Grandma’s on get-back time.” When he asked what I meant, I’d clammed up. If I’d said, “Granddad you’ve been fussing at her and embarrassing her ever since I can remember. She’s getting you back!” He would have fiercely denied it. He would’ve claimed as he always had, “ya’ll don’t know your grandma like I know her. Ya’ll don’t see what she does.” Then we would have had to address domestic violence, verbal abuse. He would have sworn, as he had before, “I might raise my voice, but I never hit her.” I never said, “you intimidate her with your yelling!” In fact, I had accepted their justification, that this was just the way they communicated, as if they’d developed their personal own language. I’d accepted that many people in their generation were hard on each other, hard with each other. My paternal grandmother was not that way, but I also realized my maternal grandparents had been the way they were since before I was born and who was I to change it?


It was only earlier this year that Grandma finally confessed to me, “When he yells like that he makes me nervous, and I can’t think straight.” A couple months ago, I saw her yell at him for the first time and I was more tickled than anything. She’d told him to sit down somewhere and shut up. I went home laughing.

Baby Steps to Big Adjustments


Grandma had recovered from surgery physically, well enough to get around. But she was giving Granddad fits. He needed a break, so I picked her up to attend a Women's Day with me at a church one Saturday.

Grandma had recovered from surgery physically, well enough to get around. But she was giving Granddad fits. He needed a break, so I picked her up to attend a Women’s Day with me at a church one Saturday.

When Grandma was released from the hospital, I was there to help Granddad get her home. As she was getting out of the car, she asked for her cane, but as I was reaching to hand it to her, Granddad said she couldn’t have it.

“She don’t need no cane!” he snapped.

For years, neither of them would use their cane. I started referring to the canes as “walking sticks,” to make the idea more palatable. Grandma would sometimes carry hers along for emergencies, but Granddad would not take his. He insisted that they walk on their own two legs, keeping them strong. Caught between the two of them at the curb, I yielded to Granddad, thinking he knew Grandma – and her strength – better than I. I hooked my arm in hers to help her steady her walk, but he insisted she walk on her own. I stood back privately cheering her on. She made it from the curb to the steps slowly but surely. She made it up the steps, holding onto the rail. She seemed proud of her own strength, and I certainly was.

A few more steps and Grandma fell on her face. I had never felt rage towards my Granddad until this very moment. A man walking past rushed up the steps, helped Grandma back onto her feet, and walked her up the next bank of steps into the house. I felt like God had sent an angel because my ass had punked out. I had allowed Granddad’s fussing to prevail and it left Grandma  face down in the dirt. I rolled my eyes at Granddad, and focused on getting Grandma up the stairs into bed. I was determined to keep Granddad at bay so she could use their stair lift up to their bedroom, but she insisted on walking the stairs instead.

This was not the first time in my life I’d seen Grandma fall. Once, years ago when I lived with them I heard her fall down the stairs on her way out to church one night. I was surprised that she’d bounced up and proceeded out the door. They both valued their strength and resilience.  I respected it and wished I was their brand of strong.

Over the next several months, Grandma regained her strength physically, but I could tell she was changing in other ways. I called to check on her often, and I found her gushing with stories and secrets she wanted to share. Her stories were so interesting – and full of wisdom – I bought a device to record her over the phone. These were stories I’d been trying to get at all my life: what kept you going? Why did you stay married so long if you hated Granddad’s fussing? Why were you so critical? What was life like for you growing up?

Without my asking questions now, she told me about her past and how she was feeling in the present. She wanted to talk more than I had time to listen, but sometimes I made time to allow her to vent.

“How are you feeling this morning Grandma?” I’d ask.

“Sometimes I don’t even want to get out of bed. I wish the Lord would come and take me home,” she said one morning. “I feel like that more and more these days. But I give myself a few minutes to feel sorry, then I get on up and get on with the day.”

The first time she hinted that she feels depressed sometimes took me by surprise. But she instantly seemed more real, more human – beyond her title of Grandma, beyond her role of stalwart in my life.

Over the next several weeks, Granddad complained bitterly about her mood swings and outbursts. He said she was wearing him out, he needed a break. I promised to pick her up on Saturdays some weekends to give him a rest for a few hours. The first time, I picked her up to attend a Women’s Day at a church where I worked through the week teaching English as a Second language to men and women from around the world. The church was less than 30 minutes from where Grandparents lived, and I figured she would enjoy almost any event held in a church.

Grandma was treated like a star in the workshops once I disclosed that she was 93 years old and had been married since she was 21. The women believed she must be sitting on a pot of wisdom, and they pelted her with questions. She mostly smiled, nodded, and gave short answers. I did not think to take notes because I had planned to simply enjoy the day. Although some of the women in the workshops may have felt educated by her bits of wisdom, my lesson came when I took her home.

Helping her out of the car, I noticed she’d had a bout of incontinence. I hadn’t been prepared for what to expect after major surgery, through which most of her intestines were removed. I’d been told that the doctors’ would prescribe a pill to stop her up because modern medicine was that awesome. Either she had not taken the pill this day or it hadn’t worked. I pretended not to see the small mess she’d made on the passenger seat of my car, determined to maintain her dignity. I loved her enough to ignore the mess. I hadn’t thought that much about the ways we show love, the ways we need love, but I was beginning to learn.