My grandmother is one of the great loves of my life.
It’s a messy and funky love.
Despite her rigid rules, she always conveyed her love. Exactly where or how? I’m not sure. She’d scold me, boss me and push me around, but I always suspected it was in the name of love. Perhaps it was the few moments of tenderness that exposed her true feelings from time to time. I think of it as army-style affection. You know… The cold and commanding drill sergeants that scream at soldiers? All that, “Sir, yes sir”, “Sir, no sir”, “Sir, how many push-ups sir?”, etc. They’re rude and boorish, but provide the troops with the survival skills they need to stay alive. It may not be love, but you see the caring, right?
I know this seems like a strange comparison, but it’s so accurate. Let me give you an example. I refused to use public restrooms as a kid. Plus, I was cripplingly shy. One day, these two characteristics resulted in a stinky brown load in my pants (don’t judge, I was four years old). My grandmother walked me home from school as usual, but sensed (sniffed?) something awry. Before long she had me standing in the bathtub, while she scrubbed and scolded me for my act of disobedience.
What a dirty thing to do?
Wait until I tell your mother!
Is this how you behave at school?
Trust me, her barrage of insults were like the greatest hits of “How not to raise a child”. But you know what? She was cleaning shit off my ass. Shit. Off. My. Ass. So if she had a few choice words, so be it. I was loved.
Tough as nails with visible traces of affection? I guess that’s my Nani. These days it’s her bottom that needs tending. She lives with dementia, but my mother serves as her full-time (over-time?) caregiver. While this insidious condition has robbed and ravaged her of many things, a softer almost child-like affection has emerged. Love spills from her words, embrace and innocent stares. Funny how it took an illness to expose her heart. Or maybe it was her illness that exposed mine?
I’m lucky enough to visit Nani every few weeks. Last night, I pondered our fun and funky relationship while I manicured Nani’s nails. I placed her hands flat on a white terry towel. I stroked them gently and felt the softness of her increasingly delicate skin. She wriggled her wrinkled wrists as I soaked her nails in warm water. I started to sing a familiar tune to draw her attention away from her fidgeting. Nani filled in the banks and hummed along as I bellowed out lines of her favourite songs. With her cuticles cleaned, I wiped away the hardened feces lining the cracks and edges of her fingers. She smiled at me gently – pleased that I was massaging her hands and polishing her nails, but probably not aware it was a task she can no longer complete. It was a quiet moment, a good moment. But not all my interactions with her are so sweet. Her repetitive questions are maddening. The noisy, sleepless nights will make you cranky. And the shit. It is everywhere. It’s a problem when it doesn’t happen. It’s a problem when it does happen. It’s in her fingers, caked into diapers and even escaping into the air. As Nani’s full-time caregiver, shit is permanently etched into my mother’s mind. Even my monthly visits have relaxed my gag-reflex quite a bit.
There are certainly some undesirable aspects of my relationship with Nani, but her heart is pure. That’s why my love for her keeps growing. While most of her children avoid her like the plague, I’m drawn to her. Love is no longer an abstract idea in her eyes. I wonder if she feels it too? Maybe it’s some wild animalistic tendency in me? Nani is just a part of my pack. And I love her ferociously.