One frigid, Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I sat across the kitchen table from mother and we shared a pot of tea. These chats are a bit of a tradition for the two of us and have gone on for as long as I can remember, with topics that definitely fit the classification of ‘girl stuff.’ That Saturday though, our lead topic was a little different. My parents had taken the decision to start renovations on my childhood home.
Our house is an in-law house, and is undoubtedly, a home. Since 1973, she and my father, with a little help from my Grandmother, raised three strong-willed, self-respecting girls beneath its rafters. One of the areas that they’ve chosen to renovate is the space that my Grandmother used to live in. It’s been a few years since her death, but her presence is still very much there. It was around this time a few years ago that I would receive a phone call to say that last night’s sleep, was indeed her last. I wish that I could say that her passing was quick and without suffering, but in the months leading up to it, she suffered greatly from congenital heart failure and serious bouts of dementia – which anyone who’s been through this knows well that it has a tendency to turn people in shadows of their former selves.
I also wish that I could say that she had a happy life. While it became much better in its later years, her humble beginnings as a Saskatchewan farm girl and a child of 14 lead to some very difficult times, and often, in a great deal of strife. She was a child of the Great Depression, amplified by the famine of the Dust Bowl that swept through the 1930’s that left many starving. I would only find out years later from an anecdote over a few glasses of wine with my Dad, when I made some silly comment about how hot it always was in her apartment. He recounted by saying, ‘After what they survived, she swore she never would be cold again.’ I slowly removed the foot from my mouth.
Whenever I go home and I’m among her things, I’m always reminded to have gratitude for the opportunities that I have been given. Access to education, information and equal opportunity are just a few of them. Her career ceiling would be as a hostess, at a high-end restaurant in downtown Hamilton. Millenials often forget the superficiality that comes with being a part of this generation. Throughout our development, one by one – we bought the dreams when the marketers sold us them. We believe that we have the ability to be anything, do anything and become anything we want. And we want it instantly. Nothing sells like the promise of what we can become. The challenge of this generation, is not survival – or rise to the middle class, or even from roles outside of the home like hers was, it’s about being overwhelmed by a plethora of choice. It’s also about realizing that, we, and the generations before us, are finally starting to pull the cover from our eyes, only to realize that we are the most in debt and medicated cohort in all of history, surrounded by our ‘stuff.’
In recent weeks I’ve found myself combing through what feels like mountains of information of really eclectic things, trying to pick up as much information as possible as I prepare to take Little Big Words across the Canadian Border. Today, for example, I spent half the day on the phone with the FDNY talking about fireproofing. Yes, fireproofing. Attempting something like this to my Grandmother, let alone explaining it to her - would be like telling her that I was going to go to Mars and land on it. Safely.
In fact, I have spent so many hours online, collecting data and reading business books since the beginning of the Little Big Words Project, I’m beginning to feel that I could create a subdivision of Wikipedia called, ‘Woolicious’, a quick reference guide straight from the hustla’ at the school of hard entrepreneurial knocks. Moreover, everynight before bed, I’ve tried to carve out time to read books from the entrepreneurial and business greats; Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Jim Henson, Warren Buffett, Seth Godin – garnering all tidbits from their stories, hoping that smooshing all of their brilliance into the cocktail that is my brain would provide me with the golden nugget, a sure-fire way to a path to success.
But ironically enough, what I have come to realize is that Gramma Wood might have actually been smarter than all of them with her wisdom in four little words in the final question she would ask me just weeks before her death.
At the time, I was working more than I ever had, waist deep in a highly involved project at my job during our busy season, one that had a reputation of keeping me away for weeks. But after a little nudge from a familiar voice, I knew that her time was running very short – and the innocent, almost childlike question of ‘when’s Kelli coming over?’ was appearing from her almost daily. One late, Tuesday night, I made the long commute, and arrived at her care facility straight from work in my business clothes, looking very unlike the granddaughter that lived in our house. Walking into the foyer, I apologized to the nurse for not calling or having an appointment – but I wanted to see her anyway. She led me to her room, knocking on her door gently.
‘Phyllis?’ the nurse would say. ‘Your Kelli is here to see you.’
There are some moments in our lives that we will never forget. In a matter of seconds, I watched a once vibrant, fiercely independent, beautiful woman, with a work ethic that no one could rival, age and frail right before my eyes. It had only been a few weeks, but she aged excruciatingly rapidly, with her ailments and medications taking their toll on all of her bodily systems. Looking around the room sobered me to the reality that maybe I was avoiding. Everything had to be clearly marked; drawers labeled as ‘socks’ or ‘nighties’, the date written clearly on a whiteboard. It was clear that the room had to be full of constant reminders to help her get her bearings when she would lose her place in the dementia.
With a little help from her nurse, she would rise and sit on the corner of the bed. Jovial, spirit still bright with a twinkle in her eye. But I started to become aware of the extent of the change in her consciousness, as she had been sleeping, and had quite the cow-lick in her hair but didn’t feel her face or have the awareness to try and fix it. One of her most personal idiosyncrasies that I always knew about her, was that when she was suddenly in the spotlight – meeting someone for the first time, or when someone came over, she would fidget, and reach for the left side of her hair.
I sat on the bed next to her. She placed her hands on my hands - they felt like paper full old gold tarnished rings. And then, she looked me straight in the eye and said,
‘When’s Kelli coming? I thought she was here?’
She had no clue who I was. The rule of thumb when dealing with circumstances like this is never to startle.
But I needed to send the message that Kelli was just fine.
‘Kelli couldn’t make it today, Gram. But I’ve talked to her for you!’ I would say.
And then, the four little words:
‘How is she doing?’ Is she not here because she is working hard? Is that cute fellow still around?’
I had to explain how I was doing in the third person. How was Kelli doing?
What a reality check. If you described yourself objectively, as a third party, would the story be different? Would your actions be different?
Almost instantly, I had to evaluate myself on the pillars that truly mattered in life. Happiness, health, love, work , goals and passion. Something then, that I didn’t do often. When we get that question everyday with our friends, we gloss it over – stories always come with a caveat, a set of grumbles, but we don’t fix them. We get frustrated, and it’s never perfect. Even if there was something wrong, I wouldn’t tell her that. I would glass-half full it. And, I’d feel guilty by not being truthful and want to fix it.
And there it was - a tool for life for accountability for my choices, forever lit by a match. A promise to never go through the motions or to stay in one place for too long.
Throughout our lives, we run. At one time or another, we all ask – how did we get here?
‘I’m doin’ it my way, Gram. And I’m hanging in. Hangin’ in.’