(I wrote this on December 8, 2016)
This is a photo of me and my grandmother in the summer of 1994 at the Hunterdon Medical Center. Her name was Ruth B. Apgar (maiden name of Brown) and she would have turned 99 today. She died a little over 21 years ago — during the absolute worst year of my life and and also the one in which I had the least ability to handle it.
Gram was not a relative by blood. My parents moved to our house on Water Street in Tewksbury Township in 1971. Ruth and Wilson Apgar lived next door, where they had a family farm. My sister was born three months after my parents moved in, and Ruth volunteered to watch my sister whenever my Mom needed help. A friendship ensued. By the time I was born, Ruth and Wilson were known as Gram and Pop and I grew up at their home and on their farm. I walked by their house everyday on the way to the bus stop. After school, I stopped by to eat (usually hamburgers or milk and cookies…sometimes both) and watch cartoons. I spent Friday or Saturday nights there throughout my childhood (I am intimately familiar with mid-80s shows like Hunter and Riptide).
Life on the farm was grand. The TV was from the 60s (when they got a 19″ color TV, it was a huge deal). The furniture was from the 30s through 50s. There were cows, pigs and chickens. There were two old barns and an amazing number of places to climb and hide. I loved swinging on some dangerous apparatus in the hayloft and walking on the roof. Gram occasionally caught wind of it and expressed alarm for my safety. I would explain that I knew what I was doing. She would tell me about some young man 40 years earlier who fell and broke his back.
Gram bought me my first bike when I was 8. Along with my mother and sister, she accompanied me for two weeks of violin camp in Ithaca, NY during almost every summer in the 80s. She drove me to and from soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1st through 7th grade, and took me to my traveling soccer games all over NJ every Sunday.
She had an older cousin, Mickey, who lived about 8 miles from her house. We would go over there. Gram would drop off medications, cook and clean. She would empty Mickey’s colostomy bag. She would bath her. She did the same thing for Pop’s mother, who was deep into her 80s. Gram did this without complaint or fanfare. I admired her so much for being there for other people. I remember thinking, even at that young age, that I wanted to be someone who was there for others and was willing to get my hands dirty with the most difficult of life’s tasks.
When I was 7 or 8, I found a wallet on the school bus. It had money in it. I momentarily thought about taking the money, but I didn’t and I returned it to the bus driver. I told Gram immediately after school, thinking she’d be proud and pleased. She wasn’t. “You did the right thing. As you were raised. You didn’t do anything above and beyond.” That stuck with me.
I remember sitting on her porch on warm summer evenings. We’d play Monopoly. She would make lopsided trades in my favor, which I didn’t like because it was letting me win (my father brutalized me in our trades). When I didn’t have a friend around, she would play along with my Star Wars action figures (btw – she took me to my first movie in the theater, which was ROTJ when I was 6). When I was 12 and 13, she took me to dozens of summer movies. She was 72 and sickly, but she sat through The Lost Boys, Batman, and Robocop (she was a bit horrified by that last one).
She was an old woman by the time she was 60. She had diabetes. And polymyositis. She was overweight and had a really bad back. All these problems meant that treatment was difficult, and she was in and out of the hospital from the time I was 5. I worried about her health throughout my childhood, and whenever the ambulance was at the house my heart would sink.
When I was a senior in high school, I was causing enough problems with my parents that I moved out and moved in with her for several months. I helped out around her house, picked her up when she fell and occasionally helped her with her blood pricking and insulin. I also threw parties in the barn and on the upstairs floor. She begged me not to do it, but I was 17 and a bit of a drunkard. I got in trouble with the law a few times (my Mom called the cops) and eventually moved home. I still saw Gram daily.
In 1994 my parents divorced and sold the house. Gram got really sick, she and Pop had to sell their farm. This picture is from when my mother brought me to the hospital. It would be the last time I saw her. Her blood relatives moved her to a nursing home in Delaware. I was such a mess that I couldn’t get down to see her. For a drunk without a license, it was so far away. I talked to her on the phone every week, but the move seemed to accelerate the decline in her health.
She died in June of 1995 and I found out from a notice in the local paper. I can’t convey the depths of the anguish, sorrow and regret I felt. I spent the next 6 months in a substance induced haze. I had watched her be there for everyone throughout her life and wasn’t there with her at the end. It is the single great regret of my life. On December 17, 1995, I took my last drink. I joined the Army in February and went to college that September. During difficult moments in early recovery and basic training, I would talk out loud to her.
I am a very good son to my parents. It is because I love and respect them, but also partly because of my regret for how I was not present at the end of Gram’s life. I only have a few pictures of her (so if nothing else, make sure you have lots of photos of all of your loved ones). Despite never meeting her, my ex-wife had a pretty good understanding of the importance that Gram has in my life. When we were looking at houses several years ago, she accepted that I would talk for a long time to old women who lived alone. They reminded me of Gram.
For years, I thought of her every day. Now it is a few times a week. I had such a great childhood. She was such a force for good and just a wonderful human being. She lives on in the lessons she taught me and much of my altruism springs from her.
- This was originally posted on Facebook, but I have published it here as part of a series of stories leading up to my 25th sober anniversary on December 17th.