My maternal grandmother Arline was the love of my life—the relative I most admire. As a child, she sheltered my brother and me from a strained and often physically abusive parental relationship. My earliest memories are of being piled into our Pontiac GTO and racing the 7 miles to her house amid utter chaos and fear. Running into her warm and all-encompassing embrace, sinking into the comfort and safety of her being was everything.
When you are a child, what you seek most is love and comfort. When you are a child growing up in a disorderly environment, it becomes even more vital.
Throughout grade school and into high school, going to grandma’s house was a treat. Not because it rarely ever happened—we were there every week—but because there remains no place I’ve ever been where I felt more at “home.” Once inside, I knew I was safe and reminded every minute of how loved I was.
As I got older, we would sit together for hours, sifting through old photos and relics of our family’s history. She was a fabulous storyteller. It was obvious why she was picked to be the keeper of our family’s history. She cared for the possessions and the memories with such love. She taught me about the women in my family, and I fell hard for their strength, their sense of adventure, their courage.
My sense of character came straight from my grandma. I learned who to trust and who to stay away from by watching her interactions with folks. A tremendous judge of character, she could see past imperfections to the core of someone. Although her daughter (my mom) married very young to an equally young, immature, abusive, unfaithful man, my grandma loved my dad until her last day.
She and I spent countless hours talking, playing games, cooking, and occasionally sharing a “snip” of Irish whiskey. When I was in college, she had given me a Saint Christopher medal she said was specially blessed and carried down through her family. I have carried that medal in my left pocket ever since. For decades I've carried that medal. I give it a rub in particularly tough time times and it soothes me. Somehow, I believe she’s with me whenever I touch it.
My grandmother was my rock. And my world. She accomplished life with unconditional love. At age 98, she fell at home and broke her hip. And I flew home to be by her side. She was in pain; she felt she was a burden to those who cared about and for her. Her hearing had been gone for years, and her eyesight had failed as well. In the hospital, without hearing aids and not being able to see well broke her spirit. I could see it in her blue eyes.
She would never say “goodbye.” She didn’t like those words, so it was always “See you soon,” or “Take care, love,” whenever we parted ways. Before leaving her for the last time, I looked into her beautiful blues eyes that were teary and fearful. I took her arm and leaned close to her ear and said “It’s OK to go. It’s OK.”
I don’t know if she heard me. A freight train could have come thru her room, and she wouldn't have heard it. But I believe she heard me. I like to think I gave her permission to let go. To stop fighting. To not be afraid. To be at peace. She passed a few days after I returned home.
I miss her every single day.
‘She’d say a cardinal represents someone who you have lost and serves as a reminder that they are always with you and watching over you.’
I am not a woodsy gal. Camping was never my thing. And other than trekking to Everest Base Camp at age 48, I'm not a hiker, either. But I do enjoy the outdoors. I love to watch birds, probably a behavior learned from my grandmother, who set up numerous bird feeders (quickly taken over by aggressive squirrels) around her yard. She always pointed out the occasional bluebird, big-bellied robin, or her favorite, the cardinal. She’d say a cardinal represents someone who you have lost and serves as a reminder that they are always with you and watching over you. She believed stuff like that. And I loved that about her.
I think of my Grandma often and certainly during my cancer journey. One particular day, walking with my dog, Bettie, we came across two cardinals. Two beautiful red birds who were playfully flitting from tree branch to tree branch. Chasing each other. A pair. They came right at Bettie and me, and just before I felt I should duck to avoid being smacked, they veered right to settle on a branch nearby.
I was instantly brought to my knees. Without thinking about what cardinals signify, without a thought of my grandma, I was just shook. Tears streaming down my face and Bettie looking confused and frustrated that we had broken our swift pace. Then I felt a presence. A calmness. And a strength.
You know, this (cancer) really sucks. Not just kinda sucks—like a bad hair day, or a headache or some crappy weather pattern—but REALLY sucks. But I'm getting comfortable with the tears and lean into the love of her.
My grandmother taught me how to see the character of someone, to love unconditionally, and the strength of family. She found joy in watching birds from her porch swing and from singing Irish hymns in the kitchen. I have found my peace through her soul.
Jacki Bennett is ASA’s chief operating officer and chief of staff. Excerpts in this article are taken from the blog “Being Comfortable with the Tears” from My Journey With Cancer at www.keeprooting4me.com.
Photo caption: Jacki Bennett with her grandmother in Washington, DC, circa 1998–1999.
Photo credit: Courtesy Jacki Bennet.