For most of my life, my paternal grandparents lived in Texas. I say "my grandparents" but what I really mean is my grandmother and her string of five, yes five, husbands. A true beauty, especially in her prime, she has had no shortage of suitors lining up to take her out and treat her to the finer luxuries in life. Unfortunately, she has had no shortage of heartbreak, despair or depression either.
When she was in her late thirties, my grandmother started to turn to alcohol to help coat her broken hearts and make even the most out-of-hand situations seem controllable, at least for a little bit. This single decision would affect the rest of her entire life and her relationships with those that meant the most to her. My family lived halfway across the country, in a sleepy little town in North Carolina. Far away and unable to see her grandchildren as often as she would have liked, she instead showered us with gifts and packages mailed from afar. Every Christmas, the loot under our tree would extend out from the kitchen into the living room, most of them from her.
On the rare occasions when she was able to take a flight and visit, the stays were always short and she would retreat to our guest bedroom frequently. It took me almost a decade to realize what she was doing up there. It went on like this for almost 15 years, as family issues tend to do. We let them sit and fester. We talk around them but never really about them. As such, we are never able to address them and move past them. My grandmother's alcoholism became the elephant in the room, even when she was thousands of miles away. I saw the toll it took on my parents' marriage, how deeply troubled it made my father and how much my siblings and I missed out on a traditional grandparent relationship because of it.
Finally, things reached a breaking point or rather, a turning point. My husband and I decided to start a family and we announced in early November 2013 that we would be welcoming a daughter the next summer. Almost immediately, my grandmother made plans to move to North Carolina. While she was never able to make the permanent journey when I was younger, this was her opportunity to make up for lost time. She packed up the home she'd lived in for almost 30 years, crated all seven of her dogs, and got on a plane headed east.
I wish I could say that the time since has been nothing short of smooth and seamless. I wish I could say when she arrived, we made up for lost time, made amends and are now on fantastic terms. While the last part of that statement is true, it took a while for us to get here and the truth is, we are still working on it. Part of the moving agreement was that, as soon as she arrived in our state, she would have to enter into a rehabilitation program and find access to any resource she could to help her quit drinking. Our baby was the push in the right direction that she needed. It was the impetus for her to make a permanent change.
She completed the rehab program and has now been sober for five years. My two children have never known the version of her that I did. She is bubbly, happy, healthy and cooking dinner for us once a week. However, as any family member of anyone who has struggled with this knows, there is a healing process that has to take place before things can begin to move forward. Chiefly, it requires marrying your former idea of someone with the belief that the potential for change is real. I have always loved my grandmother, even in her darkest hours, but of course I haven't always condoned her behavior or even fully understood it.
I have learned that it's possible to deeply care for someone and also deeply desire that they change. Rarely are things as cut-and-dry as we'd like them to be. Rather, there are nuances to relationships and tiny ebbs and flows that, over the course of a lifetime, define us. My family is learning to navigate this new normal and look to the future with hope and confidence. Does that mean we've totally forgotten the past? Absolutely not. It is as much of our story as it is hers. It simply means that we're choosing to look ahead, not behind us. We're pressing onward and loving her as someone flawed and troubled but a part of our family nonetheless. And for that simple fact along, we're staying in this race.