My "Crazy" Grandma
For over 20 years I've resided in British Columbia. My grandma lived - up until a short time ago - in Moose Jaw, SK, and sadly, I saw her infrequently over the course of the last decade. She spent her final years in a government-sponsored care home, where her needs were taken care of, but where her mind faded into the shadows of dementia. She was geographically close to her adult children, who spent long hours nurturing her and doting on her the way she would have when they were small.
My grandma died shortly before International Women’s Day — that day she was strongly present for me, and I celebrated my grandma for who she was as a fun, bold, loving, and sometimes “crazy” grandma. And as I write that, and recall how many times I joked about my “crazy” grandma, and people would know I was referring to my dad’s mom, I'm sobered by the flippancy with which we treated the source of her “crazy”. Because for the last 40 years of her life, my grandma suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Her name was Ruth.
Let me take you back, hit rewind, and we get a glimpse into her life early on. At 15, Ruth was told to leave home, since with 10 siblings, there was little to go around. Kids weren’t allowed to linger aimlessly to imagine the rest of their life under the care of their parents, having their mom do their laundry and all the rest. Instead, Ruth walked away from the family farm and from there walked a hard road. She was sexually assaulted. At 16, she met my grandfather, was married and soon after had their first child. Her husband was, by all accounts, the love of her life; despite the burden of my grandfather being an alcoholic, working sporadically, and not always prioritizing his family’s well-being the way most fathers do today, she loved him her whole life. To support her family and keep her children (mostly) fed, she took in elderly ladies and worked as a caregiver. Even so, the family moved around town from one run-down home to the next.
Fast-forward to my childhood, and I remember a woman who was ample with love, affection, and joy. She loved loud music and dancing, she cherished her kids and grandkids, and she could be the life of the party. She was a fully physical woman, loving to sunbathe (topless), and was always enamored by handsome young men, begging a kiss from my or my sister's boyfriends, then husbands, as we reached adulthood. I recall her fingertips brush-stroking back and forth on my arm while I fell asleep, the tickle to be endured in order to feel the love behind it.
As I reached adolescence, I began to notice some things about my grandma. Over the course of about a decade, she seemed to move every 2 or 3 years, and of course I was oblivious as to why. But as I approached adulthood, her mental illness became increasingly obvious. Some days visiting her, she would bustle cheerfully around, boiling hot dogs (or worse, SPAM) for lunch; other days she would be engulfed by fear. The overarching refrain during the many years where she was on, and then off, her medication (she never could trust any doctor for long), was that a “gasman” was secretly pumping toxic fumes into her home. Thus the reason for moving — the paranoiad delusion would become too much to bear. She was desperate and always hopeful for a fresh start.
Visiting her during the years where her illness increasingly consumed her, Grandma would have, posted everywhere in her home, notes addressed to the “gasman.” Notes that read, “You will be judged for what you are doing to me!” or “I know you took my bread!” She believed — and I cannot stress this absolute belief firmly enough, with no hint of joke — someone was frequently entering her home, possibly while she slept, not only to poison the air she breathed, but to steal her food, her medication, her toilet paper, really anything. One time I visited her while she still lived independently, only to discover she had slept outside all night (thankfully it was summer) on a reclining lawn chair, too fearful to be inside her home. What terror! To imagine someone has been tormenting you for 30+ years, in even the most insidious, trivial-seeming ways!!
International Women’s Day is many-faceted, but for me, this year, I honoured a woman who battled through a lifetime of heartbreak and illness. She was not the sum total of her paranoid schizophrenia, though it was one of the parts of her. I don’t want to elide that portion of her life, but I also want to remember her as a woman that was so much more than that, who offered the world so much more than “crazy.” She was endlessly devoted to her family, she loved to give kisses and hugs, and she was an earnest believer in the salvation of her faith. Perhaps she was sustained by her faith, but she also was sharpened, through necessity, to be resilient. Her world may have been small, but she extended her love and care to many. To my grandma, to that 15-year-old Ruth who left home and entered a world with so much possibility, I celebrate you, I remember you, I honour you.