What is

The author, middle row, and other family members make a last minute trip to Salem for a family weekend to give extra love to grandma and grandpa.

The author, middle row, and other family members make a last-minute trip to Salem for a family weekend to give extra love to grandma and grandpa.

By Tammy Ellingson

My son will be a freshman in high school in a couple of weeks. Technically, I guess he’s already a freshman. When the hell did that happen?

My mother is ill. Well, she’s been ill and declining for seven years, but hospice is involved now. Hell is happening.

My son needs me less. My parents need us all more. As they say, it is what it is, right?

My son and parents have not had the time together that I expected they would. I had abundant time with my grandparents. It was the ideal grandchild experience up until my grandfather started having heart problems at a relatively young age. I remember the late night phone calls, the trips to the ER, the extended hospital visits, the surgeries.

I remember him lying on the couch to recover and me sitting silently – holding my breath so I wouldn’t disturb him. I remember slapping my baby sister when she was truly a baby, because I didn’t want her crying to surprise or wake up grandpa and set off a heart attack. I remember getting called to the office all throughout high school and being told my grandfather had had another heart attack was in the hospital – which is where I would be headed after school.

All of this seemed to be the norm, and my grandfather’s health, or lack of it, ruled my growing up years. I didn’t think it affected me all that much until my mother had a stroke. In that moment, all the fears, stress and anxiety came rushing back and punched me in the heart – where my son is at the center. Was he going to suffer the same anxiousness, insecurity, fear, loss, and panic in his childhood that I did?

And this is where I come undone – damn it. I wanted him to have the good grandparent memories, not the dying grandparent memories.

Isaac brings an upbeat presence to Grandma's birthday barbecue celebration.

Isaac brings an upbeat presence to Grandma’s birthday barbecue celebration.

When we visit my parents, my son just loves them. He is patient and compassionate when sitting with his grandma.  She’s been ill and declining since her stroke which happened when he was in second grade, so for most of his childhood she’s been in a wheelchair and that’s what he’ll remember. Since the age of seven, he has spent many days and nights in emergency rooms, ICUs, rehabilitation and nursing homes – just like I did.

Grandma speaks very quietly and not very clearly, so mostly they hold hands or hug, and he tells her he loves her in the same compassionate and genuine way he hugs me and tells me the same. She was a captive audience when he would tell her all about his YuGiOh cards – thank God someone would listen, right?

He used to have foam sword fights with her in her wheelchair. Now there is less action, and a different kind of interaction.

He is happy to be with both of his grandparents, even if it means that grandpa interrupts a discussion with an “almost-kind-of could-be related to the topic at hand memory,” or that grandma nods off every few minutes. He just sits near them, and their dog, watching whatever sport or old western is on at the moment.  He loves them, laughs with them, and does not appear to feel cheated by what he isn’t getting from them.

I, on the other hand, do feel cheated – for him. My parents have never been in a position to be his surrogate care-givers as my grandparents were for me; I wanted him to have some of that. My son does not regret what he hasn’t experienced. His expectations are based on his experience, not mine, and his experience is one of accepting what they can offer – love in the moment.

Mother and son, Tammy and Isaac.

Mother and son, Tammy and Isaac.

I’m the one with the unmet expectations. I’m the one reliving my anxieties and fears with every health crisis my mother has had. I am the one mourning what I wanted from them as grandparents to my child.

I’m pissed off that he didn’t get to spend time with them on his own. That he didn’t get to be read to, go on outings, do crafts, play games, cook and bake, go out to lunch, or have sleepovers.

The cheat I feel is really for me. I didn’t get what I wanted. I am the one who needs to let go, not for my parents’ or son’s sake, but for mine. Then I can stop whining about what isn’t happening, and just accept and enjoy what is, while it is – like real love.

Tammy Ellingson is a freelance writer in training; a gumby-like teacher, teaching whatever is needed with humor and enthusiasm – mostly humor; an almost out of the closet comedian; wife to the world’s most patient man, and mother to the greatest soul on earth — the best gift of my life! 

Editor’s note: One of the best takeaways from my time running the editorial section of the Hillsboro Argus is my friendship with Tammy Ellingson. She was one of a handful of Community Writers who contributed guest columns on a regular basis, a program based on the one I ran earlier for The Oregonian. She never failed to impress me with her choice of topic, her direct and honest writing, and her warm sense of humor — no doubt deployed on a regular basis as a substitute teacher.

Tomorrow: “When I’m sixty-four” by George Rede (and a bonus guest blog, “Hiking around America” by Gabrielle Raia-Elise Akimoff).

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6 thoughts on “What is

  1. Nice piece. I was lucky enough to have a relatively healthy grandmother who loved to have me around – and saved my parents a bundle in daycare costs when I was little – until I was in high school. My much-younger sisters never had that. Because they never experienced that, I probably miss it for them more than they themselves miss it.

  2. Hugs… That’s my cousin.. Beautiful, smart and loving. Just like her Mama. My heart is aching for all you,,, and the rest of us. We all love aunt patty so much. Xoxo 😦

  3. My daughter lost both sets of grandparents quite early – I think she would have preferred to know and have them in whatever capacity they were in. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of appreciating the now.

  4. I did not have the loving grandparent experience growing up. One was already gone when I was born, one died when I was just 5 years old (I think the one who would have been the most-typical sort of grandparent), one was an early adaptor of Scientology and wanted intense one-on-one scheduled conversations with her grandchildren (a visit I always dreaded as she frightened me) and the aloof millionaire who was an asshole (really … I met a friend of that family as an adult and when he learned Alfred was my grandfather called him an asshole).

    That your son has this relationship at all is a blessing for him. I hope you follow your own advice and be happy for the time he shares with your Mom. It sounds like a loving relationship in spite of her physical limitations.

    I’m sorry for you to have to see this long decline with your Mom. I know that is very, very hard. Mother-daughter relationships can be complicated but at the end of the day, it’s Mom and there’s nobody else that fits that bill. Sending kind thoughts to your family as you walk this path.

  5. First, I think “it is,” most often, what you make it. And I love how your son is making it. He gets something — something about love and compassion and family that I’m guessing you had a lot to do with. What a gift for you both. I’m sorry that you are watching all of this and reliving anxiety and insecurity, however.
    And your son having someone to talk about YuGiOh cards with? Maybe this is why grandparents’ health fails; to tolerate — knowingly or unknowingly — the YuGiOh, Minecraft and Pokemon conversations that make the rest of us feel as if our health might instantly fail.

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