Hearing my parents’ ringtone two days after I had just spoken with them was jarring. We speak once a week and email or text other important – and unimportant – news as we feel led. Additional calls during the week signal BAD NEWS. Family members dying, in the hospital, losing jobs, getting divorced. Crises.
This was the sense of panic I felt as I answered this unexpected call. It was a crisis and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
My grandmother Zelda is in the hospital. She has COPD due to years of heavy smoking and late last week her health care worker found her struggling to breathe. The episode was so intense that an ambulance was called and my grandmother was rushed to the hospital. Tests were run, as the staff at hospitals love to run tests, and it turns out my grandmother has a couple of life threatening issues beyond the COPD.
Apparently Zelda has cancer that started in her colon and is now in her lungs. She also has an extremely large aortic aneurysm located in her abdomen. Doctors are concerned. A vascular surgeon is being consulted regarding the aneurysm. Zelda would not be able to withstand treatment for the cancer so that will not be tested or treated. For now.
I feel as though I should be sad. My grandmother is basically dying. I’m not sad. When I first heard the news my first thought was one of immense relief. Behind it came shame. How could a granddaughter feel relief that her grandmother is dying? Joining shame for a little shindig was anger. When it comes to my grandmother, there’s always a little anger swimming around within my psyche. Why? To explain you need to know that Zelda has an axis-II personality disorder: borderline personality disorder, or BPD. Like many people with BPD, she can be manipulative and she is not a safe person.
For years she has pulled out the Queen/Witch persona and reigned hellfire down on people in her path. She emotionally, verbally, and quite likely physically abused my mother and my two aunts for years. Zelda’s favorite form of abuse is to withhold her favor from one or two of her daughters while singling out the other daughter as the “Favored One”. Her favor is never without strings. You must kowtow, placate, do anything to please her or she will yank her favor out from under you so quickly you won’t see the floor rising up to hit you on the ass.
While I have no doubt this is a frightening time for my grandmother, I can see her using this as a final opportunity to force her children to care for her while she criticizes, manipulates, and spews toxicity upon them. She will want them to suffer as much as she suffers. She will blame her discomfort on them.
I’m not saying this to be mean or to malign my grandmother. She is God’s child. She is also mentally ill and that illness has been untreated all her life. I struggle as I write this. How vulnerable can I be here in this space where I chronicle my journey? What does it help to talk about a woman who has BPD and is so very mean within her mental illness? What point is there to sharing about her repeated abuse of her daughters, her grandchildren? Why write about a woman to whom I haven’t spoken in years?
In some ways, Zelda holds keys to my identity and some of the spiritual issues I have been dealing with as of late. I have very real and twisty feelings toward my grandmother and layers of things to forgive. I have guilt that is displaced and needs to be shed. I have anger, pity, compassion, and shame all having a party within me.
Despite or because of her mental illness, Zelda is a very angry, very bitter woman. When she is not locked up in her apartment avoiding the world, she reigns supreme and demands…everything. Grown men have walked in fear of triggering one of her cold rages. Lesser mortals shrivel and die a bit inside when faced with her displeasure.
And as I write this, flipping through my mental picture album for those few and far between good memories of time with her, I realize that I am also angry and if left unchecked I could become very bitter. There is legitimate anger within me, but very little mercy. At least not toward her. Not toward the woman who spoke curses over me when I was a very young child. Not toward the woman who emotionally eviscerated my mother in front of me every chance she got. Not the woman who, at my high school graduation, told me a looked like a tarted up slut. Who seemed to find pleasure in criticizing a person for dreaming or reaching for something more.
As I type, that anger starts to seethe. And that scares me. Is this the legacy Zelda is leaving me? Anger and bitterness and judgement? Is this who I want to be?
I think there’s a place for anger when there is injustice. I think that mercy must also exist alongside anger. And that anger, it can’t be where a person stops. There will be justice, but that’s in God’s hands. And what does justice look like? Is it suffering due to illness? No, what Zelda is experiencing are the natural consequences of her choices and of a fallen world. That’s not justice. Sure, I could call it that and feel self-righteous that she’s finally getting what’s coming to her. That doesn’t make me any better than she is. It makes me smug and arrogant and hard-hearted.
Maybe justice would be Zelda understanding she can make different choices. Maybe it’s contrition. Maybe justice is her three daughters undergoing therapy to undo the years of abuse and manipulation so they can lead stronger, healthier lives. Maybe it’s coming to Papa and falling into His arms, a broken woman in need of healing. Maybe mercy and justice aren’t too far apart.
My grandmother is dying and I still don’t completely know how I feel. I do know this – it’s more than time to stop living under Zelda’s legacy and instead live the life God wants so dearly for me to live.