A Complicated Gift
Toddler-breath is tickling my cheek. At first I think I’m dreaming. I’m in a sleep so deep it’s like death, like I swallowed a fistful of Ambien, when suddenly there is an elbow in my eye and a chubby knee wedged into my stomach. A small body is climbing all over me. I awake with a jolt, a brain-slamming, oh-my-God awareness—SHE’S AWAKE! My three-year old grand-daughter, the little terrorist who lives with us, believes that 5:00 a.m. is the beginning of her new day. For me, it’s barely the ending of my yesterday. I am so not ready to begin this day. I am so not ready to be a Mommy again, thirty years after I already was one. I glance over at my husband who is snoring and peaceful. In this moment, I hate him.
Emma slides off me and is standing an inch away from my face, the smell of urine emanating all over the room. Her pull-ups have been pulled down. Her lips and cheeks boast lop-sided circles of my spiced-cider lipstick. Her eyes are adorned with my bifocals. (Holy Mama, where did she find those?) She looks like a doll come to life. I touch her nose and tickle the tummy popping out of her pajamas. I think she is beautiful, of course, all grandparents think that way, but for me such thinking is oxygen, a must-have in order to renew my hope and replenish my energy. It keeps me going on days I don’t want to keep going. I grab Emma’s hand and head downstairs, another chaotic, juiced-up, gummy-bears, whiny, demanding, giggling, and tantrum-filled day ahead of me.
We’ve had Emma since she was two weeks old, an age which told us her ambivalent mother and absent father would not be stepping up to the parental plate. Perhaps we should have seen this crisis as it hurdled straight toward us, a life-altering meteorite about to smash our serenity and all that we had worked a lifetime for. Perhaps, because of our ages, we thought God knew better than to drop an infant into our laps and say “here guys – now grow her up.”
Some days are good, joyful child-screeches bouncing all over our house, while other days are filled with challenge, questions, even despair. How can we do this as seniors? How can we find the stamina necessary to successfully parent a youngster? How can we manage all that kid stuff – pre-school, day-care, dance-class, gymnastics, play-dates? How can we face the loss of our freedom, the financial-depletion, the physical exhaustion?
We do it by biting off little pieces, one at a time. The big picture, the future, is too much to swallow all at once, so we live only in the moment. We don’t spend time lamenting certain realities because surely resentment would overcome us, rendering us weak-kneed and incredibly scared. Instead, we glory in Emma’s first intelligible sentence uttered after two years of speech therapy. We marvel at her dance steps—awkward, graceless, disjointed—but so ardent, and, to us, so adorable. We lavish her with praise and affection and we do what most grandparents do, only we do it every hour of every day and without the luxury of sending her home afterwards. We are her home. She’s already here.
It’s about choices. We could pity ourselves for not being able to read a book, go to a movie, take a nap, or join our friends for any kind of social escape (sitters are expensive and elusive), and sometimes we do just that – pity ourselves and wonder how our freedom-loving lives were stolen from us – but more often, we choose to tip-toe into Emma’s bedroom at twilight and gaze in astonishment as a real, live, breathing, God-sent angel dreams her dreams.
Grand-parenting is a present expertly wrapped in wonder and awe. It’s for every person who wants to cash in on the perks and rewards which parenting promised them. Such deserving people are of the same mold as we, but being custodial grandparents is a whole different gig, and, while it too is a gift, it’s a bit more complicated and a lot more labor-intensive. It can be body-aching, nerve-wracking, and soul-shaking. Some days it can crush your spirit.
Yet, when we look into the ocean-blue eyes of a little girl whose smile holds all the colors and promise of a setting sun, we see the miracle of Emma, who she is and who, with our guidance and love, she will hopefully become. It’s all right there—redemption, hope, possibility.