“Without them, there is no this”

This is a polished version of the email I sent to my local NPR station for its Valentine’s Day program. The title of the show was “Without them, there is no this.” He solicited stories from listeners about the people whose love changed and/or sustained their lives. Reflecting on those people in my life, I was prompted to spill some words and see how they flowed. Not entirely smoothly, it turned out, but the content was compelling enough to read on-air. (Or there was a danger of dead-air.)

I’ve edited and extended it to make it a better read, but some turns of phrase remain unchanged.

My love story starts before my birth, when a social worker phoned Mary Maida, a 59 year old widow living outside of Boston. The social worker was interviewing members of a potential adoptive family for an infant yet to be born.

The social worker asked, “Would you feel like an adopted grandchild would somehow be less than a natural-born grandchild?

Mary replied, somewhat angrily, “What? I only have one grandchild! I need more, and I don’t care how I get one!”

And from the day I arrived into her family, she was the singular person who accepted all of me, with joy, and without any evident disappointment. The connection with her was seamless; I would have done anything for her, and she did everything for me. When my mother warned that she might be too ill to see me in a play, or come to my college graduation, or attend a night dinner in the city, my grandmother always surprised her with a Yes… but it was no surprise to me.

Even though she was legally blind, she could spot me walking in unexpected places, and ask my aunt to pull over. My aunt wouldn’t understand why, and then she would recognize me. I served as a benchmark for her less happy things. My aunt and mother let me know that she realized her
eyesight was failing when she could no longer know me by sight on our semi-regular visits.

And when her mind began to fail, somehow she always managed to give me her precious moments of lucidity – a gift of love if there ever was one.
She passed away in May 1998, a few hours after I left her room, but not before I could wash her hands, wipe her brow, and cry.

The following nine months were laden with grief. Levity came, ironically, in the form of my own layoff. Of course, there would need to be a new job, and rent, and all of the other notes and obligations. But losing her physical presence helped me find the words to express what she gave me: unconditional love. It also was a clue to what I would need to start giving to myself, no matter how many of my own weaknesses I acknowledged, or how much of the past vexed me.

And so, around the end of those nine months, I began a new job. On the first day, my eyes fell upon the man in the office next door, and kapow! He was the man who would become my husband – though I didn’t know it at the time. I was just angry that I had to work with someone so gorgeous. We became friends over the first few months, and then started dating, albeit in secret.  When he moved away to Seattle, we stayed together.

I left the other love of my life, Boston, to be with him, and we married in 2002. He met me at a time when I was grateful for everything, and while those moments have been less frequent than they should be, he always makes it clear to me that he is grateful for the choice we made together, to be together. It has not been easy for either of us, but we have done our best to weather the challenges in each other, and to find the right, honest, kind words to overcome those challenges.

Everyone has their issues, the questions that vex them. (I think, had my grandmother and husband met, they likely would have shared the position that neither of them have issues; a chuckle within itself.) And for me, one of the challenges of my adoption has been the lack of fit, which wasn’t simply a family issue. Where do I really belong? Who actually gets me? Can I be understood and accepted just as I am? (I’m not saying it’s an exclusive question set to adoptees, though that part of my own history was a major component of my young life and trying to understand who I was, really.) And all of those questions are separated from the nerve center, which is, “Am I lovable? Who would, who could love me?”

I feel my grandmother and husband have given me that love. My grandmother did it for over 31 years without blinking. My husband has been doing it for 12, sometimes blinking back tears (as have I). The pregnant pause between them gave me the time I needed learn and understand my grandmother’s love for me, to begin learning how to love myself, and be ready to begin to love another.

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2 Comments

Filed under grandchildren, Grieving, growth, Love, marriage

2 responses to ““Without them, there is no this”

  1. Lisa

    Janet

    Thank you so much for sharing this loving tribute to your grandmother and to the Viking. I really enjoyed reading this and while Im not adopted, I think your message is certainly universal and very touching. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman and I have to say you certainly are blessed with her gumption and drive and thats apparently not something that comes from birth but rather through a sense of admiration and kindred spirits.

  2. JoEllen

    What a beautiful observance. Thank you for sharing. I wish I could phrase admiration, appreciation, acceptance and gratitude as well as you have here. Keep chronicalling your family – your children and grandchildren will love that gift one day.

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