Friday, February 24, 2012

Finding, Not Bestowing

Sometimes you just have to be grateful for grace that comes with not understanding certain realities.  As hard as it is, as it can be, particularly to watch someone you love go through it, you also sometimes have to be just a little bit grateful for the blessings that obliviousness can bring.

I have experience with this, with two people who are very close to me.  One is my daughter, the other my grandmother.

My daughter Maya Rivka is named for my grandmother Marsha Rudnik Gross.  I chose her name in the Jewish tradition, naming our daughter for one of her ancestors.  We chose to name her for my grandmother, my beloved Meme because she was such a presence in my own life and because I wanted her to carry the legacy of an honorable woman, a woman pure of heart and motive.  I chose her middle name to represent my grandmother's maiden name.  A name which she didn't use but that died with her.  My grandmother was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust.  Her parents and five brothers and sisters, their spouses and children were all killed and although she didn't speak about it all that often it was something she carried with her.  It didn't pre-empt later joys in her life, but it made her treasure what was really important, the family she built.  Her husband, my grandfather, her children, my aunt and my father,  and us, her 7 grandchildren and later her great grandchildren.

Still, it is not lost on me how similar in character my daughter is to Meme.  Both pure, who love those around them completely and who will always float toward being happy rather than being sad.

And they have something else in common, a limited capacity at understanding certain things and certainly that reality has brought its sorrows, but there is also grace to be found as well.

Meme, at the end of her life had Alzheimers and after many years, at first just being forgetful, in the middle coming in and out of awareness and the fear which came with the understanding that she had that she was losing who and what she was and in the end the heartbreaking but blissful oblivion.  Blissful in the sense that she no longer came back to herself and the lack of that return meant that she didn't have to spend moments aware and scared.  I remember spending the weekend at her house while she still lived there, a weekend when her home caregivers wanted the weekend off so I went and stayed at her house.  It was heartbreaking to watch her check to see if the door was locked every two minutes, not remembering that I locked it when we came inside but it was even worse as she drifted off to sleep and then jolted awake fully aware and then begging me not to leave her, not to leave her all alone and asking me not to let her slip away from us.

As hard as it was to lose her completely, to have her no longer recognize me or my dad or any of us, to have her lose her command of English and slip into French, then Yiddish, then stop speaking altogether, to have her only able to sit in her room, eventually wheelchair bound at the nursing home surrounded in her room by photographs of her life and her family but that who in the end became strangers to her.  

I missed the grandmother that had loved me so well, that had been there for me my entire life, the woman who stepped in when my parents divorced, who tried everything she could to comfort me, and who did everything humanly possible to make up for the fact that I didn't have a mother close by to lean on as a teenager.

I was glad that although I was losing Meme while she was still alive, that at least that in her total slipping away from us, in her oblivion, that the heartbreak was ours alone and no longer hers.

And I was supremely grateful for the timing of it all.  This all happened as my father slipped more and more away from us into his own paranoid, delusional world, where he was convinced that his sister, my aunt was out to get him and take his birthright from him.  And he spent the last 15 years of his life waging a war, presumably against my aunt, but really against himself.

It was this fight, this giving into demons that spurned my father onward year after year, in this, his own private war which eventually consumed him completely.  It destroyed the family, first eating through the business and later what my grandparents had so lovingly built.  It ate through us, his children as we lost our aunt and uncle and our cousins and tried to understand and grapple with just who this person was that walked around in the body of our father?  We lost our cousins who had been more like brothers and sisters to us, with whom we spent every weekend and holiday as kids and who we had just assumed that our children would grow up and know the same bonds with each other as we had.   I had hoped that Maya would know the love that I had grown up with and would be surrounded by an extended family, loads of people to hold her hands and cheer at her achievements and pat us on the back when she fails and that I would do the same for my cousins' kids.  That, sadly has not come to pass.  I wanted to fight my father, but I was too scared, too dependent on him and too afraid to take a stand.

But I was grateful that Meme did not understand the full extent of what was really happening while it was happening, that where ever she was in her world, her family was still in tact.  And I am grateful that both Meme and Pepe died thinking that the what they had built would go on and on for generations, not able to comprehend how fragile it all really was.

At least there is the comfort of that.

I am not a religious person so I don't want this to get all religious-y but this is the thing about blessings.  Many people believe that blessings are bestowed but I believe they are found.

What does it take to find them?  Desire and perspective.

You can take nearly any situation and set of circumstances and depending on your perspective and how you want to see it, turn it into a blessing or a burden.  look at a red dot on a canvas and see a red dot, some people see a ball, some people see the sun.  If you are Maya you might see a train, a seal or a monkey named bongo.  It's all based on your perspective.

Blessings are there, you just have to want to find them.

I have a child with autism.  Yes it is sometimes a burden, there are very real worries and heartbreak, and probably heartbreak still to come.  I recognize all of that but I also recognize the light and beauty of it all as well.

I could look at Meme's alzheimers, my parents divorce, the obliteration of my family, my father's suicide, Maya's autism as terrible occurrences and circumstances and they are.  And there are times when I do rail about why me, why us of it all.  But other than the sheer acknowledging, which is important it's not going to benefit me at all to live only in acknowledgment and railing.

I'd rather try to find the good.  Not because I am this sunny, religious, new-agey person but because it is the good that keeps me going, moving forward.  It is in the living with difficult circumstances and still being able to find blessings, no matter how small which to me make life more interesting, more enjoyable and make the human experience one worth living.

So I find my blessings where I can.  And some of them lived in Meme's alzheimers and some live in Maya's autism.  

My grandparents taught me a lot of things but unfortunately they didn't live to see the fruits of their wisdom bloom on me, when my Pepe died I was 22, frightfully insecure and letting my insecurities rule my life.  Pepe's death brought Meme's dementia to light and she vanished before I could get my act together and figure out what is really important.  As a young adult in my 20's I was still too busy running away from what I was, denying my fears and numbing the rest with drugs and alcohol.  I didn't yet understand that the only way to get rid of your demons is not to push them away but to face them.

It took me much longer to figure that out, but by then they were gone.

So, I show them by passing what they taught me onto my daughter.  I love her with wreckless abandon, I am not a perfect parent by any measure but I try to err on the side of loving her too much instead of too little.  I try to show her that it is possible after you've been knocked down, to get up again and that even though one cannot escape sadness or heartbreak or challenges,  there is a way to handle it with dignity and acceptance.

I see Meme in Maya, her happiness and joy, her beautiful, resilient spirit have all been touched by the grace of my beautiful, wonderful grandmother.  Her strength and courage and dry humor have Pepe's signature all over them.

My daughter has an innate sense of who she is and that what she is, is good.  My daughter may struggle with reading and with understanding certain things, but at age 8, she sees the good in herself.  That's much more than I saw at the same age.

And while Maya has many challenges and many things she doesn't understand as well as she should, on some level I am sometimes grateful for her own lack of understanding, in the same way that I was with Meme's.  I am glad that Maya doesn't yet understand that she is different from other kids, that even if other kids reject her, it may sadden her for a second but it doesn't eat into what she thinks of herself.  That she is able to dust herself off from a disappointment and easily find joy again.

So, even though she never met Meme and Pepe, never set foot in their house, has no memories of them, even though they are just a photograph hanging on the wall of my foyer, they are a part of her.

Some of the best parts of her.


  1. What a beautiful post. Thank you.

    It's amazing the parallels in our lives. My grandmother is 92, and each week is less and less with us. She too was like a mother to me, after my parents divorced when I was only 3. My grandmother has been my best friend, my mother, my grandmother, and the holder of our family history. She also lost much of her family in the Holocaust.

    Do you know what area your Meme came from? I grew up on my grandmother's stories of coming to Israel and an early life in what was then Poland, and wars, lots of wars.

    Just before reading your post I was reflecting on how, today when I saw her, my grandmother was barely with us. Just as my grandfather, towards the end, heard his long dead mother on the balcony calling for him, I believe she also feels the pull of all the loved ones lost at an early age, like her younger, sister, 9 when she disappeared from the Lvov ghetto. I always imagine a strong connection between Karen and my grandmother's long dead little sister. I think my grandmother may feel it as well.

    Like you, I enjoy passing on family history. At bedtime now, Karen sometimes asks me to tell her "Safta's Story", and how Safta was born in a train....

  2. Very beautiful and moving with a lesson for off of us. Thank you for sharing Dana. -Jeff

  3. Dana,

    This is your most beautiful, wrenching and amazing post yet. Stacy

  4. Dana,

    "Many people believe that blessings are bestowed but I believe they are found. What does it take to find them? Desire and perspective."

    Desire and perspective. So very true. I'm touched by what you've shared here. You are admired.