I wasn’t a very good granddaughter. I see this now.
I stopped visiting my grandmother years before she died after she told my oldest daughter — who was five at the time — that she wouldn’t amount to anything because she was just like her mother. But I had lost patience with Gramma years before that final visit in September 1984. When I visited her, Gramma would sit around and say over and over, “I wish I were dead. I wish I were dead.”
At the time, this felt like personal rejection. I wanted her to want to live, to want to be part of my life. I finally said to her one day, “If it would make you happy, then I wish you were dead, too.” She probably continued to have those thoughts, but she didn’t express them in front of me.
I have realized within the last couple months that I should have been more compassionate. Granted, I was young and motherless and nothing in the way I was raised had taught me to be compassionate. Mocked, yes. Ridiculed, yes. Shamed, yes. Humiliated, yes, yes, yes. Compassion and understanding — no, they weren’t part of our family dynamics. Still, shouldn’t I have picked up compassion somewhere?
I’m not even sure I would realize today how little compassion I had for Gramma if life hadn’t forced me to walk in her shoes, if I hadn’t heard coming out of my mouth words that echoed Gramma’s. I stood in the shower a couple weeks ago, crying and asking God to have mercy on me, to just take my life rather than force me to continue suffering in this world.
It’s been a rough and rocky life — poverty, abuse, loneliness and enough mistakes to prevent me from accomplishing anything this world measures as success. Even decisions made for good reasons, selfless reasons inevitably backfired and backfired badly. The only comfort I’ve found over the years is the knowledge that I didn’t scar my daughters too badly with my errors in judgment and emotional handicaps. Both are college educated, and while Katie is still searching for a rewarding career path, Sara has built both a successful professional career and a successful marriage.
Part of the problem is a serious “save the world” complex. Twenty years ago I was working for a supervisor whose career path and temperament were not well-matched, so I shouldered the responsibility for ensuring the department ran smoothly — right up to the point where she put me on probation because I couldn’t do the work of three full-time employees and five part-time employees because she had mismanaged a situation. She got tenure; I was denied unemployment.
Then there was the art career I sacrificed. I had worked for nearly a decade building an art career, building a network and building a resume. I had even been awarded a grant which would have enabled me to focus on my art for three years when a woman I knew casually started nagging me to apply for the position of executive director of an art center. The center was at-risk, she said, and I had the skills and contacts needed to save it. I remained firm for three months, but eventually gave in. The woman who was so assiduous in her efforts to get me into a position that required professional credibility in order to be effective, then set about systematically destroying my reputation by playing manipulative games with me, board members, fellow employees and others associated with the art center. I was fired; she was asked to serve as interim director.
Equally as stupid was my second foray into non-profit management. I had managed to build a credible career in the newspaper business when asked to serve on the board of a non-profit that trained volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children. During the first nine months I was on the board, we went through three directors and had a quorum at a meeting only once. I knew there was a major problem and offered to take a six-week leave of absense from my newspaper job in order to serve as interim director of the organization; the board was supposed to search for a replacement while I diagnosed the problems so we could set the organization on the right path again. I did my part; I found the problems — the organization wasn’t in compliance with national standards, the advocates weren’t being properly trained or supervised and grant funding had been badly mismanaged. The board didn’t do theirs; they didn’t even bother to advertise the position. I should have walked away, but I didn’t. I should have returned to a career that I loved, but I didn’t. I stayed and worked diligently to get the organization on track — only to be fired when an employee who couldn’t do the job she was hired to do found an ally in a board member who had been fired from a cushy state position.
Now, I’m unemployed again. Not fired this time, though. Burnout. I’ve been crying a lot at home for the better part of two weeks. Last weekend, I broke down at work, and when it happened twice in two days, I quit.
You wouldn’t think it was possible to suffer burnout working at a convenience store, but for someone with a “save the world” complex, it is. Graveyard personnel don’t stock the cooler; I’ll do it. Manager doesn’t ensure the staff has the necessary cash on hand; I’ll do it. Manager doesn’t want to be bothered with tedious, time-consuming tasks; I’ll do it. Manager fails to adequately staff the business: I’ll work 12-, 13- and 15-hour shifts. I’ll do anything I can to make sure the store continues to run at a profit; I’ll do it.
So, now I’m weeks away from being homeless and I finally understand Gramma. She lost her husband and spent long years alone — just as I have. She worked hard, believing she knew the best way for things to be done — just as I do. In the end, she had nothing but long, lonely hours to fill and little to show for nearly 90 years of life. I haven’t even hit 60 yet, but it feels longer and like Gramma, I have little to show for my life.
I understand now why she would sit around and say, “I wish I were dead.” I should have been more compassionate.