February 13th is my grandmother’s (Gram) birthday. I’m not sure if I’d remember it if it weren’t in a group of days that includes my mom's birthday (the 11th), Lincoln's birthday (the 12th), and Valentine's Day (the 14th), but every year, I always make a note of wishing her a happy birthday so that I can reflect on her life and how much she meant to me while I was a kid growing up.
On the other hand, I couldn’t tell you my other grandmother’s (Nana) birthday. It's not that I didn't feel close to her. I did feel that she cared about me, but it was just done with a strict Irish Catholic overseeing. Here, I do think she did and does her best to ensure that I don't drift from religion and that type of meaning in life. Perhaps she's the impetus to the need to go to church or to do things with church-related groups, which I do. On that note, I did go to church for the first time in ages to get my ashen cross for Lent this year. I'm sure she had something to do with that, especially my decision to follow the priest's homily to give up the hardness in my heart and to love while doing kind deeds and everyday sacrifices.
This year, I started to have this feeling about a week before her birthday that I really needed to go to my Gram's grave to visit her. There was something in me that wanted to tell her how things were in my life since the last time that I really saw her, especially regarding how much she’d like my wife Heather, my nephew Dylan, my sister’s husband Matt, and his kids CJ and Val, who have joined the family since her passing. Another part of me wanted to talk to her about how surprised she would be at how much everything changed since she passed (November 1994). Finally, a large part of me wanted to tell her how much I missed her. In that moment of overwhelming need to visit her, I found myself overcome with emotion, which signaled me I definitely needed to be there.
I'm not sure what the last non-Alzheimer's memory I have of her is. By the time I came home in November 1990 to show her my Air Force uniform, dressed in it when I picked her up, she didn't know who I was. By that time, she was scared of a lot of things. She had old memories of my dad, but eventually, she lost all of them to Alzheimer's (I wrote about that HERE).
In this feeling of needing to see her, I wasn’t sleeping or hallucinating, let alone daydreaming, but instead, it felt like I was receiving a sensation / request that I had to fulfill. I've never had a moment like this before, so I'm not really sure how to describe the train of thought I experienced. All I can say is that I really needed to do this, so nothing, not traffic, other obligations, or a car in need of body work, was going to keep me from going to visit her.
I drove over to the cemetery on Tuesday to pay my respects before I went to teach class. When I arrived, it was drizzling slightly, so I drove extra slow down the Churchtown graveyard path looking for the elusive "Glass" on the grave belonging to her and Dan (the grandfather I never knew as he died before my dad was 2) before I arrived at her resting place. When I got out, I saw a Christmas wreath and the dates of her life. Somehow, I knew what the year of her birth was before I got there, but I really didn’t know. To be honest, a part of me thought maybe she was born in the early 1920s, but I was wrong.
February 13th, 1918: her 100th birthday.
As I stood there crying, I found myself laughing at how she must have been calling for me, the grandson who came over weekly during his childhood to play Star Wars, build forts, and watch television like Different Strokes, The Facts of Life, and Saturday Night Live when Buckwheat died (she wasn’t sure if it was real since they played it pretty straight other than Eddie Murphy doing his over the top imitation). And there I was, plastic flowers in hand to give her a colorful bouquet that would survive the Amish Country Pennsylvania winter, crying my eyes out because on days like this, I could really handle making a pillow and blanket fort in her house instead of facing the world.
In the days I knew her, she did fill it in puzzles and chain-smoked, while always being there for me with a place to go, love, and weekly presents of baseball cards or Star Wars figures. In the middle to late 1980s, as I said, her Alzheimer’s disease kicked in and devastated her and hurt our family as well. Now, we sit wondering if the bomb that went off inside of her is hereditary for those of us who have descended from her position on the family tree (as we wonder how far back these medical concerns go).
Gone were the days of listening to Mel Tillis and taking me to the local movie theater to see movies that I wonder if she actually could tolerate (such is being a supportive and loving grandparent). I prefer not to think of those days.
In the same way, I don't think much of who she was growing up or during the days of my dad growing up other than remembering she was a single mother at age 16. To this, she had a warning to my dad that carried over to me (if you're going to do something that could have you end up being a dad, be sure it's with someone that you love enough to be with if that situation occurs). Knowing how her life effectively stopped in many ways, long before it ever began, the world of being a single mom with family helping raise children from the 1940s to 1960s and living life beyond that as a housekeeper at the Hassler Home, I think that's fair advice.
Anyway, when I came home from work, I bought some Valentine’s brownies, and my wife and I celebrated her birthday because it’s what she would have wanted. Somehow, it felt to me that she knew how to get in touch with the world by finding me in that vision. After all, I'm the person who won’t allow certain parts of the past to “die that third death,” thus assuring that people live on infinitely through words, deeds, and images. While her former apartment is now so changed it's hard to see it as anything other than the address she lived at since the building is completely different, I don't mind as much as losing memories of her image in Florida or her dream to go to Hawaii, which my parents fulfilled.
More importantly than going down Memory Lane, Heather reflected how she’s my guardian angel, here for me in my time of Parkinson’s as she has some clue of what it means to have a neurological condition that can devastate everything. I have to say that there’s something comforting and reassuring in knowing that I have a whole lot of someones looking over my shoulder, no matter what side of the grade said person is on.
For that reason and others, while I find myself skeptical to certain experiences, I truly do believe in life after death and divine intervention. I believe in fate, and I believe in ghosts. I believe in Heavenly-directed paths to where we're meant to be. I also believe in the evil side of the coin. That said, while experiencing the blind in my bedroom fly up at 2:00AM, the first night we moved in the house in 2009, plus other incidents of casual appearance that happened here may seem spooky, not all incidents of haunting and appearance are meant to be scary. Like the image of my wife's mother appearing as a butterfly at her sister's wedding or our great niece Ava appearing cheerfully to her sister Lydia, the other side isn't always about monster movies.
Sometimes it's just about checking in and showing some love.