Because the photo did not include a caption, Grandma Kathryn explained its significance in her note. In doing so, she shared one of her many stories with me. She was a storyteller in the purest sense of the word; she knew how to give her words life beyond the page on which they were written or the air in which they were spoken, and in doing so, she always imparted some piece of great wisdom.
“The way people have responded to this situation on the coast has restored my faith in humanity,” she wrote near the end of the story. “I was beginning to think no one cared about their neighbors, but that is simply not true. Most of us are basically good, just misguided. Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people.”
|Grandma Kathryn and me in June 2006, just three weeks before
my wedding and seven weeks before Taylor’s diagnosis.
My grandmother said her faith in humanity had faltered, but I never saw that – not in 1999, and certainly not now. She devoted her entire life to those she loved or those who needed her, and she never expected anything in return. She became a mother at sixteen, and her three children – and the grandchildren that followed later – were her life. She always dreamed of becoming a writer but never had the chance to go to college or even finish high school, enrolling in beauty school instead. Decades later, she helped me discover a love for writing and, for many years, helped me find my own words. She is present in the happiest memories from my childhood. I remember lazy summer days on Oak Island, days we took long walks on the beach and looked for shells or sat in a swing on the waterfront in Southport, eating hushpuppies with honey butter and filling stacks of spiral notebooks with poems and short stories; nights we hung a sheet over the bare windows of her house in Raleigh and ate Shake ‘N Bake chicken and Kraft macaroni and cheese while we plowed through rented movies stacked two feet high.
Life was never easy for Grandma Kathryn, but it was, for the most part, happy. And she did everything in her power to ensure that her children and children’s children had happiness.
I will never forget my freshman year of college. I began and ended my college career at UNC-Chapel Hill, but I spent the spring semester of my first year at NC State. I became so deeply depressed in the fall that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it till Christmas. I often wore sunglasses to class, even on the cloudiest of days, to hide my tears. Some nights were particularly bad, and on those nights, my grandparents climbed in the car and drove from Wake Forest, just north of Raleigh, the forty or so miles to my dorm to pick me up and take me back to their house, where I’d complete my homework assignments on the family room couch while my grandmother made my favorite foods for dinner. After dinner, she’d sometimes join me on the couch and rub my head till I fell asleep, as she did when I was a little girl and suffered from terrible migraines. The next day, if needed, she’d adjust her schedule at the beauty shop so that she could drive me back to Chapel Hill in time for school; I never missed a class. In December, when UNC posted final grades, I made the dean’s list. Meanwhile, NC State accepted my transfer application, so in January, I moved in with my grandparents in Wake Forest and began attending classes in Raleigh.
One weekend in February, I returned home to Charlotte to visit my family and John. On Sunday, just a few hours before I had to make the drive back to Raleigh for class the next day, I went for a run on the outdoor track at the YMCA. The sky was a clear, brilliant blue, and the air felt so cold that it hurt my lungs. As I sprinted the length of the last straightaway, my lungs burning, I suddenly realized that I wanted to go back to Chapel Hill for my sophomore year, mostly because I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life believing that I had failed at something.
I re-enrolled at UNC that fall, just as I had decided on that sunny, cold day in February. I had three amazing years there and never once regretted my decision to return. However, I also never forgot the four months I lived with my grandparents and attended NC State. Though forged by great pain, they also brought happiness.
More than seven years after I lived with my grandparents, my grandmother fell and broke her hip. She was admitted to a hospital near her home on Oct. 1, 2008, and later transferred to the hospital in Greensboro where my uncle is a surgeon. She remained there until Oct. 31 – her 68th birthday. During that month, her world, and ours, came crashing down. Though she had to have surgery to repair the broken hip, the injury itself didn’t necessitate a protracted hospital stay. It was the frightening symptoms that emerged during her time there, eventually diagnosed as Lewy body dementia, that kept her there for so long.
Now, when we look back on the months leading up to the diagnosis, we recognize the signs. At the time, we attributed Grandma Kathryn’s occasional odd comments and vacant facial expressions to depression stemming from the loss of her own mother and Taylor’s Batten disease diagnosis. As I said, my grandmother’s children and grandchildren are everything to her – and the thought of Taylor dying young was literally killing my grandmother. To this day, a large part of me believes that her own disease intensified and perhaps even arrived years prematurely due to her heartbreak over Taylor’s illness.
Lewy body dementia, like Batten disease, is ugly. It strips people of their faculties, but also their personalities. Lewy body has spared very little of my grandmother just three years removed from the diagnosis. Every time I see her or talk to her, I struggle to avoid crying. My grandmother, who taught me to love books, will never read again. My grandmother, whose cards I eagerly awaited to receive in the mail, will never write again.
Because the grandmother I knew is no longer with us, I cherish pieces of her – like the letter she sent me in the fall of 1999 – more than I ever imagined I would, just as I never imagined the last days of her beautiful life would be spent this way. She taught me so much over the years. She taught me not only how to write, but also how to love; she taught me to figure out what I want in life and to never, ever give up in my efforts to obtain it. She taught me about the things that are important, and the things that are not.
Now, facing the prospect of losing my grandmother and my little sister, I can only hope that I inherited their ability to see the best in every situation, their great love for others and their indomitable strength in the face of adversity. And, if I should ever lose my way, I will need only to read this, the note tucked into that card I received in the mail so long ago:
I want to tell you again how much I like and admire who you are. You are realizing what is important. Not soccer, joyous though it is for a short time, but relationships, your values that keep you head and shoulders above the crowd. The people who love you, unconditionally, no questions asked. Friends you will remember years from now. Some little moment that seemed unimportant at the time, but the memory lingers on.
Enjoy each day. You can only live this part of your life one time.
You said that adversity makes you strong. That is true. Pain and sorrow make you strong also, but the thing that gives you the most strength, the staying power to stand alone, is love.
Now it is the love of family and a special friend or two. One day soon it will be someone who loves you for the person you are, who knows all your secrets, and loves you all the more for them.
You are preparing for that time now and he will be a lucky man because you have a strong character. You are kind, intelligent, determined. You don’t quit.
When I think of you, I think of the term “Grace under pressure.”
You are the person I always hoped you would be and I love you very much.
When you go to college, you will be pushed and pulled to do things that you know in your heart are wrong. That is when this inner strength and character you have so painfully acquired will be so important. That is “class.” Not money, not prestige, not social position.
Just simply, who you are.