Saturday, January 5, 2008

My Paw-Paw

Boyd Harwood. He's my grandfather. I am his 2nd grandchild, but his 1st granddaughter. His wife, my grandmother was Margaret Harwood. She died when I was 11 years old after battling cancer. Almost 16 years later I named my daughter after her. I can remember as a kid spending Friday nights at their house. They made the big fat hot dogs. The kind that are hard for a kid to eat. Grandmother always had Butterfinger Candy Bars in a container in the top of her cabinet. She always gave me one. They are still my favorite.

Grandmother died young. She was only in her late 50's. I have a lot of compassion for my dad and his siblings now. They were young too. Too young to loose their Mother. They had little ones at home that wouldn't even remember her. My brother was only 2 when she died. My uncle had children well after her death.

She was a woman that nobody had anything negative to say about. I'm sure my Mom was a little irritated at times early in her marriage to my Dad when Grandmother would send along recipes stating that "This is Michael's favorite". Her recipes weren't complete either. A pinch of this, a dash of that. But now some 22 years after her death, my Mom has been entrusted with many of her recipe cards. And in hind sight, I guess any Mom would want their baby boy to be well fed living up north, away from his southern roots and Momma's cookin. Mom and Grandmother grew in their relationship and I have never heard my Mom speak ill of her even once.

I remember clearly my Grandmothers funeral. I remember the smell of the Church. That's weird, but I do. I remember lots of crying. I remember younger siblings and cousins being in their own little worlds thinking about the fact that it was ten days before Christmas. I remember riding in the car going from the house to the Church. I was sitting up front in the middle, next to my Paw-Paw. We drove right by the cemetery that she would be buried in. He started crying and I can remember trying really hard to be brave for him. I put my hand on his leg and he just gripped it really hard like he was holding on to something for dear life.

I've never told anyone that.
These are all feelings and memories that came flooding back to me this week while I visited him. I think that is the moment that changed my relationship with him forever. I was always close with my grandparents, but until the time of Grandmothers death, I was just a child. When she died, Paw-Paw needed a friend and I think I must have taken it upon myself to be just that.

10 days after she died was Christmas day. We didn't have Christmas at their house. We had it at ours. But after dinner, Paw-Paw asked me to take a drive. We drove to his house. There he gave me 2 special belongings. One was a Teddy Bear that my Grandmother had enjoyed while she was sick. The other was a silver bracelet of hers. I've never worn it. I just like to look at it.

2 years later we moved away from Charlotte to Atlanta. But somehow I was still close to Paw-Paw. I can't explain our relationship. It's not like we've ever sat for hours and poured out our innermost thoughts, but I have sat and listened respectfully as he shared memories of his life. Even if I had heard them before. I went and stayed with him one time while I was in High School during spring break. I could have done a lot of other stuff, but I chose to work in his garden along side of him. We even went and rode Go-Karts. Nobody could believe that Boyd Harwood actually rode a Go Kart! But I guess that was part of our relationship.
When I had my heart broken in college, he called me and shared a story of heartbreak that he had experienced before he even met my Grandmother. It made me feel special, like I knew something no one else did.

I have heard for many years now that I am his favorite grandchild. It's always made me feel bad because there are 11 of us. Two of them being my own siblings. Don't misunderstand. Paw-Paw loves all his grandchildren. But for some special reason, I have also been his friend.
Listen, this man can be the most frustrating being on the face of this earth. Even before his Alzheimer's started he has repeated himself, been known to be very grumpy, and made no bones about telling you things you really don't want to hear. Now that he has Alzheimer's, it's even worse. You don't know what he is going to talk about and you have to keep a straight face. No easy task! His children all have issues with him. It's easy to see why. I don't fault them in the least. They have a different relationship with him and have known him a lot longer. If I was his child, I would probably have issues too.
But God has graciously given me a unique relationship with him. One as his favorite Grandchild. A position that I have felt bad about for 20 years. Until now!

This last visit made me realize some things:
One, it's not my fault he says that. I have never rubbed it in to anybodies face. I've never made him say that.

Two, I have done nothing but show him respect for 32 1/2 years. Maybe sometimes I've rolled my eyes behind his back, or laughed with others at the crazy things he says, but I have made an effort to spend time with him, listen to him, and get to know him.

Three, at this stage in his life, with his mind beginning to fail, the respect and the effort I've made really mean something to him and he holds on to it.

Would he really care that I traveled 7 hours to see him if he didn't know that I really wanted to? Would my visit mean as much if it was out of obligation because he's old and loosing it? At this point, I think it means something because of those things. In a year, who knows.

Alzheimer's is a nasty disease. All of the bad things about your nature come out 10 fold. All sense of propriety is thrown out the window. You tell people things that maybe are inappropriate. Your selfish nature is magnified to the thousandth. You have to depend on others to take you out, or leave you in. You remember too well the past, but can't remember the present. Since it's hard to live in the present, you idealize the past and maybe tweak it a little better to your liking. Why would you hold on to the bad things? If you have nothing to look forward to but loosing it all, why not pat yourself on the back for all the things you think you've done right.

It's a completely selfish and self centered existence. And it's owe so sad. My heart breaks for him. He's still physically in good health. That has to make it harder for your mind to go. Most of the people around him at his assisted living place are using walkers. It's a real traffic jam at meals when they all crowd into their appointed dining time. It's sad to see this generation of people that have served in world wars, wept as a president was assassinated, stood by as America's youth have gone through ups and downs, fads and crazes, over and over having been reduced to being told when to eat, what to eat, when to go, where to go.

That deserves my complete respect. Whether I see him as selfishly fantasizing about the past or griping about the present.

Someday, my parents will be in that position. Someday I will be in that position. I can only pray that I have family around me who love and respect me enough to let me live out my last years with semi present memories, with as much dignity as I can possibly have.

So how do I feel now about being called Paw-Paw's favorite?
Well, in one aspect I still feel bad. I can only imagine how that statement being said out loud makes others feel.
But as far as my relationship with this man goes it makes me feel honored.
I feel that it is a reflection on (1) my relationship with God...that I can honor Him by being respectful to others. (2) my upbringing...that even though my Dad may have issues with his Father, he has always recognized and tried to encourage and nurture my relationship with his Dad. And (3) I see it as a challenge to raise my own children to respect their grandparents and value the importance of a relationship with them. To teach them to seek out and value them. To give their grandparents cherished memories to hold on to for years to come. For their own sakes and for that of their grandparents.

It is a horrible thing to see someone you love heading towards a dark tunnel.
Memories can be haunting or they can be a blessing.
I am thankful that God has graciously allowed my Paw-Paw and I to have blessed memories. I pray that as he heads closer to the dark tunnel it is filled with God's light. I pray that it is filled with God's warmth and that he can feel His loving arms holding on to him. I pray that even if the memories he has left are fantasy and not facts, he holds on to them for as long as he can.

While I can't say that Paw-Paw has been the greatest life teacher or any of that, I can say that his life and our relationship has touched me.
It was sad for me to walk away from him with tears in his eyes.
I'm thankful he cared enough to cry.


heather said...

I had a PawPaw growing up to. I really thought that he was the only person called PawPaw I know that he was one of the most special people to me.

Kim said...

What a beautiful post. It scares my mother to get old.

Anonymous said...

That is really beautiful Missy!

Stace' said...

You two have a very sweet relationship, and I have been blessed to be a witness to it for many years.

alli said...

Missy, this post is fabulous! Extremely honest and real.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Marsha said...

Missy, this is a wonderful legacy post! You have shown what it means to honor someone regardless of whether or not they "earned it".

I had your Dad read this just a little bit a go. With tears streaming down his face, all he could say was "You and Missy!" I take that as a compliment. I'm in great company if he puts me in a class with you! (You know how he is about writing. He'll talk with you about it.)

I love you! Mom

Jeri said...

Missy, since I found your blog you haven't failed to make me laugh or think, and now you've made me cry!! :)

What a neat picture you painted of a life and a relationship. Thanks for this.

Jennifer said...

That was precious. Thank you for sharing those memories. It made me miss my own Papaw!

Kimmi said...

my friend, you've made me cry. i, too, have a pawpaw with alzheimer's. it really hurts to see him so bad off. he's always been so modest and meticulous in his appearance. now, he sometimes forgets to put clothes on or to close the door when he's changing or something. it is a horrible disease for the patient and the family, both. it does help for him to remember the time we've spent together. crissy and i used to spend loads of time at nanny and pawpaw's when we were kids. they are both sick with alzheimer's now. nanny's not quite as bad off as pawpaw, though. thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us.

Crissy said...

I called my Nanny tonight to wish her a Happy Birthday. She was happy and excited that I called. Told me 'Thank you.'
And then handed the phone to my PawPaw so that we could sing Happy Birthday to him too. (It's not his birthday)
I could hear her trying to explain to him who I was. "It's Crissy. She belongs to Von."

I really, really love this post. Thank you.

Marsha said...

Paw-Paw called tonight. I'm the favorite daughter in law. Evidently Irene is still on his blah, blah, blah list.
Well, at least he remembered I'm his daughter in law and not his daughter this time!