It’s Easter Sunday for Christians. We have one child home for family time and a good meal. We have each other. Although I do not consider myself a Christian, I am profoundly grateful for our lives today.
On Radio 4 this morning, the ‘Sunday’ programme asked all of its speakers what they did to restore themselves. So I asked myself: what do I do?
Dealing with the fallout from Child Sexual Abuse can be gruelling. I value ALL the work I can do to raise awareness of it, of its prevention, and of survivor issues, but the process can be hard — managing triggers, hearing such grim stories, trying to handle the reality that the world seems to allow CSA, still, by virtue of not looking, and not believing. Yet from this, I value too the support of others, and the authentic love that comes from building friendships and connections out of often such dire circumstances and despair.
So in a sense, connections are part of my constant restoration. What else? My own family. Yes, every moment of every day they restore me. I know who I am because of them, and I know that our love — hard won in many ways, generous, open, funny, and sincere — is completely unconditional.
I don’t have to look far for my lifelong restoration: my beloved grandparents. People often assume that they must have been my maternal grandparents — but they were my paternal ones. In their 80’s, they had to accept what their own son had done. But they always believed me.
I lived with them a great deal when I was little and still in Texas, so before I was six. The image for this post was taken in 1967, when I was three. Each holding my hand.
They treasured me, I see now. They absolutely cherished me. As a college student, I went to Texas to see them more often than I went back to Virginia, where I had grown up. Because in some deep way, they were and always have been my ‘home’. My memories of being with them are — from here — almost unbearably happy. We adored each other. At times I feel that everything I learned that is good in my life — I learned from them. That all the good that I can bring to the world comes down to them. To what they believed in (they had strong Christian faiths) and how they manifested that in the world: through generosity of spirit, through acceptance, through unconditional love. I know that realistically they could not have been perfect — no one is. But they were my perfection regardless, and I hold them as such in my memory always.
My grandparents were married for 72 years, and died 10 weeks apart. I missed both funerals because I couldn’t see my father, their son. But I did go see my grandmother Ommie after Granddaddy died, in that intervening 10 weeks. And later, an extraordinary thing happened on the day of her funeral.
Happy Easter everyone. Happy Restoration Day.
From Learning to Survive:
I fly out to Beaumont [Texas] as soon as I can after Granddaddy’s funeral. My aunt Lois’s husband, Walter, picks me up in Houston, and when we arrive back in Beaumont, we don’t head to their house, but to the hospital, where Ommie has taken a turn for the worse.
I meet Lois coming out of the elevator, and she is distraught. The care has not been good, Ommie is disturbed, Lois herself is fragmented, fractured. Granddaddy has not been gone long, and now this. She has found a bed in another ward, another hospital, and is in the process of moving Ommie there.
We follow the ambulance over to the other hospital. As I’ve felt before, I know these are my people, and that Beaumont is my American home, and always has been. My father – despite being Lois’s brother, and Ommie’s son – is not part of this conversation. He doesn’t belong here, and I do.
At the hospital, Lois and I go upstairs to find Ommie being hoisted into her bed. It has been six years since I’ve seen her, since Eliot was a baby, and I am shocked by her appearance. She has grown suddenly very old, and Lois says it’s all happened quickly, especially now that Granddaddy is gone. Ommie has on a diaper, her hair is wild, and she looks around her as she is hoisted, landing in her bed, with no recognition whatsoever.
I don’t know what to do. I stand back. Lois relays all of the vital medical information to a kind young nurse, who dutifully writes everything down. I notice that Ommie has frosted nail polish on, as she always does. So the remnants of her life are still with her.
When the nurse leaves, Lois finishes tucking Ommie in, and smooths and brushes her hair back. Ommie seems to recognise Lois now, and looks at her gratefully, occasionally saying ‘thank you’ and smiling. After a minute, Lois gestures for me to come over. She says that Ommie’s eyesight is bad, and that I must get close. I lean right over the bed. I hear Lois talking behind me: ‘Ommie, it’s Patty. Ommie, look, Patty’s come to see you.’
Ommie holds my hand and looks right at me, her eyes flying around my face. ‘Hi there Ommie,’ I say, ‘I’m here.’
All of a sudden she sees me. Her pale grey-blue, bright eyes fix on me, and she squeezes my hand, so tightly, just like she’s always done, shaking it just a little, as if she can’t, she can never, believe I’m really there, because I am so precious.
‘Patty?’ she says, ‘Patty, oh my goodness!’ And she turns to look at Lois for confirmation, and Lois says ‘Yes Ommie, it’s your Patty, she’s back!’ And Ommie gives the broadest, happiest smile for a moment.
Then her eyes fill with tears. Lois says ‘I know, Ommie,’ from behind me, and then to me, ‘She’s sad.’
I don’t know how I know, but I know she is thinking about Granddaddy, and about how he can’t see me, worse now that I’ve come to visit.
Ommie squeezes my hand again, her eyes full up. ‘He’s gone, Patty,’ she says, ‘he’s gone.’ And all I can do is say that I know, that I’m sorry, and that I loved him so much.
Ommie loses some focus then, and soon I know it’s time to leave. ‘This is a lot for her,’ says Lois. ‘But it’s good.’
I am barely able to breathe. I say goodbye to Ommie, hug and kiss her, knowing this is the last time, even though I am here for a few days, that I will see her. She says goodbye, but I don’t know if she knows she’s saying it to me.
Lois takes me out into the corridor, and I just about make it to the seats. There I cry and cry, sobbing, doubled over, like someone has kicked me in the stomach. It is so painful. Lois rubs my back, saying ‘I know, I know’ and ‘you were like another daughter to them’, ‘they were so proud of you, and of R and your kids’. And I cry and cry so hard I think I may break in half. I don’t know how long we stay there, but eventually we have to leave.
There are my cousins to see, and Lois to help, and I visit Granddaddy’s grave, but I don’t see Ommie again. I have said my goodbyes. After a few more days, I head home.
Sitting on the plane is the first time I am really alone, and as soon as we start to taxi down the runaway, I fall apart. I never want to leave Ommie and Granddaddy, never, and yet I have flown away from them so many times, now for the last time, the last time. I cry almost the whole journey home, tears streaming down my cheeks. My seat neighbours check on me, but I can’t speak. I know I will never see her again. I know she will die soon. She has always said that as long as Granddaddy goes first, she will be ready anytime. And I already miss them – miss them being there, somewhere – so much.
Three weeks later, when I come home from a day out with the kids, R meets me at the door: Ommie has passed away, peacefully. It is July 17, 2002, only ten weeks after Granddaddy’s death. Later Lois tells me that she thinks Ommie feels able to go after seeing me, that only then is she really ready.
Ommie’s funeral takes place a few days later, and, like last time, I can’t go. But I am more at peace with it now, and on the day itself I am alone in the house.
As the time for the funeral approaches, I am restless. I imagine everyone in the church, I imagine the gathering. I both want and don’t want to be there.
The hour arrives. I walk out to our back garden, through the gate, and into the wild part of our land, with the stream along the end, a log cabin studio, and a patio situated underneath old trees. For some reason I want to sit down, so I perch on the edge of the studio decking, as if I’m waiting for something. The air is very still. It is overcast, but not dark. It is summer.
Some birds fly overhead, and I notice one bird left behind, taking its time. I think maybe that bird is sending me a message, a goodbye or farewell. Eventually it catches up with the others, and they move out of sight. And then, as I’m sitting there, there is a sudden, brief rain shower, which lands almost exclusively on me. I can see that the decking is not wet. I can see that the grass is still dry. But I am covered in little raindrops, tiny damp circles spreading on my top. It lasts for only a few seconds, and then moves off. There are no apparent rain clouds, no change in anything else. The sky is the same. But it has happened.
I look up. I feel certain that Ommie has somehow reached me today, and is letting me know that she’s okay. That they are okay. And right away, I believe her, as I always have. Right away I know that I carry in me every gift they ever gave me, and that nothing, not even their deaths, can empty the rooms where they have always and will always live.