A Life of One’s Own

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Shakespeare had a sister. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

It is early morning and the sky is still dark. The house is silent save for the soft sleeping sounds of grandma in her temporary bedroom next door. She now sleeps in her art studio, conveniently fitted with a Murphy bed. A few years ago, my husband and father spent a sweaty afternoon arranging the pieces of the bed, screwing parts of it into the wall, and making sure that it folded up as it should. Of course, the Murphy bed was intended for guests, but everything has changed. Grandpa wakes too often in the night, so an aide comes every evening at eight o’clock for the night shift. Her name is Alphia and she sits by his bedside, waiting for grandpa to need the bathroom or ask his re-orienting questions in the middle of the night. 

“Where is Eileen? What time is it? Why won’t you put this bar down?” he asks repetitively. He hates the bar across his hospital bed which now sits next to the double bed he once shared with my grandmother. He hates the constriction, the lack of freedom to move and do as he pleases. 

More than forty years ago, my grandmother wanted to be a tennis instructor. She was a fabulous tennis player, a sport she began training for at the early age of ten, while still living in Scotland. She immigrated to New York when she was nineteen years old and met my grandfather soon after. After a wedding and four children, she found herself in her early forties, being offered her first job opportunity since giving birth to her eldest daughter nearly twenty years before. My grandfather made the decision for her. He did not want her to work. He felt that her place was in the home. He felt more comfortable that way. That warm feeling of knowing his wife was contained within a large, suburban house-shaped prison where she could prepare a hot dinner for him each evening. 

Last night I sat beside grandma on the sofa after grandpa had gone to bed. The aide had helped him to get from his recliner to his wheelchair, from his wheelchair to the toilet, from the toilet to the sink to wash his hands and brush his teeth, and from the sink to the bed where his diaper needed to be changed and his pajamas wiggled over his stiff and heavy body. I waited to hear the predictable rhythm of his deep snoring. I looked grandma in the eye and rather than turn on Netflix or discuss plans for the following day, I decided to be honest.

When does it stop? Can it stop? More importantly, do you want it to stop?

My grandmother has sacrificed for my grandfather since she was nineteen years old. She now has the power to stop, and the money to make it all possible. She is an intelligent, emotional, and wealthy woman (in money and in love), with more resources than most people in the world could ever even dream about. If she could get out of her own way, the possibilities are endless. If she could finally choose herself, the possibilities are infinite.

I picture a life for her where she finally has a house of her own. A place of her own where she can breathe. I envision her visiting my grandfather every day in a facility with staff who are trained to care for people like him—people who have lost most of their memory and the ability to care for themselves. I envision her painting every day in her small studio with the soft sunlight streaming across her canvas. I envision her going to the beach and making friends. I envision the last years of her life full of female energy and support—from friends, family, and caring professionals. I envision her sleeping well in a bedroom without hospital beds or glow-in-the-dark bottlenecked urinals–but instead a feminine space that has been designed with only her needs in mind. Her needs! What a fucking revolution! What if her needs were the priority? So the question looms—do we move him to a nursing home? Do we rip him from the comfort he has known all is life so that instead, grandma can be comfortable? If grandpa’s daily needs are met—food, shelter, company, care—could the energy in this house be shifted so that grandma enjoys the end of her life on her own terms? 

Before she immigrated to the United States, my grandmother used to travel around Scotland—sometimes for tennis tournaments, sometimes with her girlfriends—staying in youth hostels around the country. She was young and she was free. Her life was her own.

It is a radical thing for women to claim ownership of their own lives. It is a radical thing to shelve the needs of men, to leave them alone where they sit so that a woman can finally find the space to breathe. It is a radical act for women to prioritize themselves in a world that has always told them to care for others. It is a radical act for a woman to give herself permission to enjoy her life, on her own terms—no matter how guilty a man might make her feel for doing so. It is a radical act to say “enough” while still remaining compassionate, caring, and loving. It is a radical act to fall on the floor in a million pieces and then allow others to help pick you back up and put you together again. 

When my grandmother was a small girl, it was the middle of world war two and resources were scarce, toys were even more so. She once told me a story of a china doll that her mother had given her. The doll had two halves, a front and back, which were glued together. One day when she was playing with the doll, it split in half along this center line that glued front to back. She was devastated and crying. She ran from her friends’ house back to her mother and thrust the doll into her mothers’ hands. My great-grandmother looked at my grandmother and began to laugh. She took some glue from a drawer and glued the two halves back together. It is a radical act to glue ourselves back together, just like my great-grandmother did for my grandmothers’ doll—to laugh at the broken pieces and realize how all along they were just fragments of a whole. 

This is what grandma must do now. So many people love and support her. She has everything she needs. It would be a radical act for her to take that support, embrace it, and listen to the call of her own inner voice—the one that has been there, waiting for her all along. As a woman, it is a radical act to listen to our inner voices and follow our intuitions, regardless of the consequences. We must save ourselves and unfortunately, for women of this world, that is the most challenging but revolutionary decision we could ever make. 

Facing this challenge is the answer. We will rise to it? Can we? More importantly, do we want to?

Feeding the Squirrels

The squirrels are eating the birdseed and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. 

Also, what makes the squirrels less deserving than the birds? Why do we feed the birds but not the squirrels?

I am sitting outside with my coffee this morning. It is just past seven AM and the sun is up. Grandma is still sound asleep. Grandpa is in a hospice house for five days of respite. The mornings have been so quiet since he has been gone. I know he probably does not want to be there. Of course, he prefers to be at home. 

Before this week, I did not know that “respite” was a word. Respite is defined as “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.” Respite is not for the dying, but for those that care for them. Out of necessity, we have chosen to take this opportunity. We—my grandmother, my mother, and me—need these five days to regain our energy, to experience a silent house free from my grandfathers constant needs. 

He has always been so terrified of his own death. Determined to solve every medical problem thrown at him throughout his life. He bought books, listened to lectures, made appointments with hundreds of doctors, and filled any moments of silence with stories of his growing knowledge of trigger points, carpel tunnel, and how gluten contributes to memory loss. He’s still fighting. His fighting has brought him to this moment, away from home and in the kind of place he would have never chosen to spend his final days.

When I am not here sitting outside, the squirrels probably eat this birdseed all day long. Today I am sitting here and aware of it, so I want to control and fix it. What if instead I just watched the squirrels eating their birdseed breakfast, without getting worked up about a situation in which no one is in harm, and over which I really have no control? Can I do that? Witness without trying to control? 

This is so hard for so many of us. Grandpa tried to control his health, denied his own demise, and because of that he didn’t plan a damn thing. He refused to sell the lake house, he bought a new house when he was well into his late seventies, and he would not consider any assisted living situations—he was not “that kind” of elderly person. It’s actually a miracle that he decided to sell the bed and breakfast, that he was able to see an end to his working life. He retired from owning his own company in New York City, only to begin running a small bed and breakfast in Upstate New York. He officially stopped working once he reached his early eighties, forced by the desperation of my grandmother who finally demanded rest. 

He was the invincible business man, perpetually in a state of work, produce, consume. Should I admire him for this? For his hard work that is now paying off in the form of around-the-clock personal caregivers at 22 dollars an hour? Or should I take it as a lesson—to slow down, neither producing nor consuming—the absence of the one inevitably cancelling the other out. Or maybe I could produce just enough to consume only what I need. Is that selfish? Could I instead sit in the mornings without rush and take time to ponder my own powerlessness, over the squirrels and otherwise—my own lack of control, my own demise? 

We are all destined to grow old and if not, we are all at least definitely going to die. Grandpa had the great fortune to grow old. However, his growing has finished. He is now in a state of retreat, finally facing the fear and paranoia that was probably plaguing him all along. What if the paranoia is not a symptom of his dementia but instead just a surfacing of what was always inside of him, inside of us all—the fear of death and deterioration, the fear of being alone? But he was always alone, we are all always alone, and almost always living in the perpetual state of “Me, me, me, what will become of ME?” 

We all have our stories. Grandpa mostly only told stories of himself, but maybe that is all I am doing too. We all have our stories and we are desperate for someone, anyone, to listen. My mom visited grandpa in respite yesterday. She said he found a quiet old man to tell his stories to. His years of running a business, of traveling for work, of attending night classes for his MBA. Stories I have heard a hundred times. Where is the line? When do we stop listening? When is the time to draw the line, recognizing our own exhaustion, our own need to retreat inward and away from the stories of others? And when is listening an act of love that we must practice? Where is the boundary between drawing inward and expanding outward? Listening to a dying man’s finally attempt to tell his stories is tiresome, but don’t we all deserve to be heard? 

I know grandpa is afraid. Maybe he is afraid that when he goes, his stories will go with him. That may be the case as most of us tired of his stories long ago. Ultimately, his legacy is not up to him. We will remember him in our own ways, hand-picking memories to soothe a very complicated grief. 

There are three squirrels now. They are arguing over the birdseed, jumping from tree to tree as they plot their launch to the bird feeder. The birds have been scared away, probably for good. Yesterday in a moment of lucidity, Grandpa asked me to fill the bird feeder whenever I get a chance.

I think I will do that today.