This is How I Know What Love is

Update (originally published in 2014): Reflecting on the lessons my grandma taught me to stick with my honey even when loving requires muscle and tears. Missing her now. 

We learn best from example and the best lessons I’ve learned are often from people older than myself.  My big sister coupons, bakes. And she rocks at giving a good meal to her family and whoever swings by.  I learn through watching her.  

My grandpa, Yeye, he taught me discipline.  Before he passed, Monday through Saturday I watched him walk for over an hour everyday up until he was 97.  When I don’t feel like exercising, I often think about him.

In the last years of my grandpa’s life, Yeye was probably grumpier (#1, #2, and #3) than ever.  Physical decline, the feeling of worthlessness, a difficult past all built up in my grandpa.  Though I understood a part of his struggle, his anger took a toll on others.  I remember sleeping in bed, tense and holding my breath at times, as I would overhear his frustration about being old, wanting to die.  It was tough living in a room next to him.  His words were honest and ever so heavy and because my grandma would listen, he often directed his anger at her.  At the time I was a recent college grad and only a wall separated me from really feeling Yeye’s emotions.  It made uneasy.   So much so that when my grandparents left the country to visit my aunt on one occasion, I took the opportunity to quietly move my room down to the basement, after years of living next door. I felt guilty, but I couldn’t take it anymore.

While it was hard on me, it was even harder on Mama.  Sometimes I’d be downstairs in the kitchen and would hear my grandpa’s anger flare up.  A few minutes later, I would hear Mama crying softly in the bathroom or sometimes still in her room.

Our family would often try to protect Mama from Yeye’s anger.  When Yeye had a stroke, we moved him to an assisted living as he no longer was able to get around safely at home.  While Yeye needed to move, we urged Mama to consider staying at home so she wouldn’t be alone with Yeye and the main victim of his anger.  I vividly remember hearing Mama, with no hesitation and in a genuine manner tell us that until her husband died, she would stay with him.  And so, when Yeye moved to the assisted living, she did too.  Though there were no hearts flying, no romantic songs, no good feelings, I watched her and this is how I know what love is.

Perhaps the moment that sticks with me the most was the day before my grandpa died.  I had gone to visit my grandparents at the assisted living and Yeye was unusually weak. He could not get up on his own.  As I walked into their room that day to visit, I remember seeing Mama, 97 at the time, facing her husband at under 5 feet, trying to pull him up.  With his frail arms holding hers, he was able to sit up.  She held a cup out for him so he could vomit and since she had no other hands, she leaned her head against his to prop it up.

Later on during my visit, she helped Yeye up again, her head again propping his and this time she held a cup out for him since he clearly could not make it to the bathroom.  Though I loved my grandpa dearly, my initial reaction was disgust because it seemed more appropriate to just get him a diaper. But then I quickly understood my grandma’s determination to care for her husband.  In his last days, she was committed to giving her husband dignity.  Rather, with her weak and aged body, she loved her dying husband, even if it didn’t bring back flowers, diamonds or anything pretty for herself.  I learned “till death do us part” by example that day to know what love really is.