"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.’" —Billy, age 4 (From a viral email: What Love Means to a 4-8 Year Old)
It didn’t dawn on me until I was 43 that who I am isn’t entirely up to me. Each day I rise, whisper to the cats in the darkness while my husband sleeps, with the intention—consciously some days, unconsciously most others—of being a certain person or a kind of person or, at least, a kind person.
By a fluke of timing, I’m a great-grandmother, though I’m only 49 (for another 10 days, anyway). No, I didn’t give birth at birth. I just happened to marry a man born well before me. Now I have five great-grandchildren: 8-year-old twins, Haylie and Kylie; 6-year-old little sister, Kiana; and their two cousins Thevonh, 5, and Kenai, 3. All are part American, part Laotian.
I’m GG, or I suppose more exotically, Gigi. It was the best title we could come up with since the children already had a grandma, a Nana, and a ຍ່າ (ñaa, in Lao), as well as a Laotian great-grandmother. Being Gigi wasn’t my goal or aspiration. Those cute, quick little people created Gigi. I don’t know who I am in their minds, other than the odd adult who crouches at their level and sings (badly) to their cats, willing to be silly.
My niece called my mother,“Silly Grandma,” likely for a similar reason. We’ve both been known to draw faces on small fists, lips on bent thumbs, making them talk and tell jokes. My mother once drew a mustache on my baby brother, and we saluted him, talking with German accents. Later, when he’d act up, we’d say, “He’s being a little Hitler again,” and my sister would giggle. (Okay, not politically correct, but we're a quirky tribe.)
My mother never got to be a Silly Gigi. You may not know this, but a life of cigarettes can put a tumor the size of a hedgehog in your lung—you can try to kill it with chemotherapy, but it will lunge back and eat you alive.
Two weeks before my mother died in 2003, my neighbor and friend, Ruth, shot herself in the heart, in the darkness, outside, under the tree that my kitchen window looked out upon, while I was sleeping. Ruth was so much like my mother, terribly funny and terribly sad. Once Ruth took a bunch of plastic fish with her on a group scuba diving trip. After submerging, she signaled to group, Colorful Fish! She had a half-dozen divers angling excitedly toward the colorful, drifting, fake fish. I can see them all laughing at the prank.
What’s it like to laugh in deep, warm salt water? I don’t know, but Ruth did.
My mother lived with untreated manic-depression, so motherhood didn’t come easy for her, or for the rest of us in the house. When Ruth died, I desperately needed a real mother. It seems counter-intuitive to cry about a death to a person who is dying, but I knew my mother, sick for months, felt as if she were no longer useful.
I took a risk, believing that she needed to feel like a mother as much as I needed her to be one. My mother, the compulsive talker, listened. Then she held me with her voice over the phone, told me everything I needed to know about letting go of someone you love and their pain. When my mother died so soon afterwards, I heard her words again.
In the starkness of my mother’s death is when I most felt the depth, the wisdom of her life.
Who was my mother? Who was Ruth?
Who they thought they were is no doubt different than who they were to me. The Outstanding Professor honored at Humboldt State University last year was Dr. Jennifer Eichstedt, a sociologist. In her address, among other concepts, she shared her own experiences with loss and suicide. “Always remember, you are someone to someone else,” she said. “Never forget that someone loves you.”
Desmond Tutu, said it another way, in one word “Ubuntu,” translated as, “I am, because we are.”
Now I know. We can only truly exist in relationship with each other. You are a thread in the fabric; without you, the others unravel a bit. Yes, even that loner kid who used to be me exists not only in my own mind, but also within the lives of others. There’s wife, sister, auntie, daughter-in-law, co-worker, charitable gift planner, sometimes teacher, writer, mother to two cats, feeder of hungry birds, Gigi.
I just sent the grand-girls a hand-written card for the gifts and our playtime at Christmas. I want them to learn the habit of thank-you notes.
Inside I tucked three stray feathers: Stellar’s jay, White-breasted nuthatch, Turkey. I want them to know the non-humans in their lives, too. I still need to write the boys, and I’d like fold in a tree frog and a newt, but feathers will have to do.
I hear Thevonh, as we huddled with the basketball, “Ok, guys, we’re in this together.”