How a Bad Breakup Made Me a Better Person

Every time I visit my grandmother, I’m pretty sure it will be the last. Mostly because that’s what she tells me. Last week, my attempts at holiday planning were shut down with, “Oh, Thanksgiving? I don’t think I’ll be around then.”

Since my grandmother doesn’t go outside anymore I know she’s not talking about going on one of the cruises she used to take out loans to afford. She’s talking about dying.

Grandma Dessie is 95.  Even though she’s (amazingly) not ill and famously spunky, her eyes and ears are failing. And despite the matter of fact way in which she talks about her own death — I told the funeral director but I’m telling you, too as backup. No bangs. I do. Not. Want. Bangs. — I know she’s scared.

The fear isn’t so much about when or how she’ll die, but about the loneliness and fear she’ll face in the meantime — shuffling from the twin-sized bed to the fluorescently lit bathroom to the miniature kitchen of her tiny, immaculate seniors’ complex aparment. Sitting up at night with eyes too weak to read, straining to hear “young people who always talk too fast” on the phone, and making biweekly trips to bingo.

Our relationship was formed long-distance during my California childhood, thanks to one of the only areas in which my mom was inflexible: For every $5 bill nestled in an ornate Halloween, Easter, and St Patrick’s Day card I received, I had to send a thank-you note to my grandmother in Boston. Grandma Dessie’s delighted phone calls in response taught me something about my own power to deliver joy.

Later, as a law student living just a subway ride away, I got to know my grandmother’s habits close-up: Her favorite priest on Catholic TV is Father Reed. She’s always hot, except from the calves down, which is why she always has a window open but wears legwarmers and heats up her socks. I’d drive her car on our errands whenever it was too bright or too rainy or too late.

When I moved away, I’d visit for long weekends. I approached our time together the same way I did my legal work. How many hours could I bill to dutiful granddaughter time between Friday and Sunday? How many tasks could I check off the list? How could I “add value” for my sweet, demanding and often confused client? When I left for Logan Airport, would her problems be solved? They never were. I’d hop back on the Delta Shuttle after those well-intended missions feeling useless.

During my visits, Granda Dessie would break my heart with stories of subsisting on the frozen food she ate when she lost her confidence in the kitchen, but then forbid me from cooking, fretting that I’d cause a fire. I’d sit down determined to tackle the mail that confused her.

Two hours later I’d be exasperated, when under her instruction, I realized I had done nothing but read aloud — multiple times — a pile of requests for donations from the Jewish Christian Children’s Network and ancient statements from Comcast. Then I’d just move the mail pile from one basket to another because she wouldn’t let me throw anything out.

I felt useless because my efforts to make things better weren’t fixing her life and worse, might be hurting her. If she sensed I was annoyed with her endless concerns and our unproductive weekends, she’d apologize, saying, “I’m such a terrible old lady,” as her eyes filled up with tears.

Then came the most difficult few months of my otherwise pretty easy 30 years in the form of a breakup. The details are unimportant — just know that it was profoundly heartbreaking but also totally unoriginal.

My friends sprung into action. Their comfort came in a patchwork of advice that I mostly didn’t implement and pep talks that didn’t pep me up. I got an unsolicited recipe for a “Whole Foods antidepressant vitamin cocktail” (B12, St John’s Wort and Vitamin E). One friend gave me a bright blue T-shirt that read, “When life gives you lemons, keep ’em – because hey, free lemons!” My roommate offered me concealer for my puffy eyes instead of judgement when I reneged on promises not to backslide.

Emails and text messages punctuated workdays that otherwise seemed to blur together: “My heart is breaking for you,” read one. “You’re one of the most resilient people I know,” read another. I was surprised and amused to be helped by even the most unhelpful suggestions: “Would wearing a fun dress and bright-colored scarf cheer you up?” 

One friend forwarded me a copy of Desiderata and insisted repeatedly that I could call her at any time. “Even at 4 AM,” she always added. 

I took her literally and called at about 3:45 A.M. with a rambling story of unreturned texts and the terrible, detached way his voice sounded on the phone. She mumbled, barely awake, but resolute, clearly willing to hop out of bed, “Do you want to do a drive-by?” Thanks to a remaining ounce of sanity, I declined. I fell asleep as the sun came up. Nothing was better in my relationship, but I did know for sure that I wasn’t alone.

My grandmother, who has lost groups of friends each decade, is not afraid of being alone in the frivolous “I don’t want to break up with my boyfriend before my birthday” sense that I was. Instead, she faces being mostly by herself and increasingly scared, every day until she dies.

My young adult angst can’t compare to that, but thanks to the way my friends responded to my pain, I understand something now about how being there for someone doesn’t require solving their problems. Every single one of my friends knew they couldn’t fix my relationship and they didn’t try.

They didn’t tell me to stop being sad or force me to acknowledge that things would be okay. They didn’t require any action of me. So now I get that nothing I do will make Grandma Dessie 84 again (she says she’d kill for that), less isolated or physically stronger. Because of the way my friends were simply there for me, I know how to be there for her.

Now when I visit my grandmother, it’s a little different. I make no effort to erase her anxiety. I don’t waste any of our precious time together explaining that I walk outside all the time in DC and have never been raped or kidnapped.  She still asks if I’m warm enough six or seven times, and if I’m anorexic. I hug her and tell her I promise I’m not — she says, “I worry so much, I think you’re perfect, I don’t want you to gain or lose a pound while you’re here.”  

Instead of scratching off a list of tasks, I sit with her for an hour after each meal, talking about her childhood, who got a blackout at Bingo last Wednesday, and even the forbidden bangs. I lie on my stomach on her bed so our faces are close, listening to her stories, and asking her questions. Sometimes she hears and answers, and sometimes she just keeps talking. She points at piles of papers and I pick them up, read them out loud, put them down, and do the same the next day.

And now, when she tells me she might not be there for my next visit, I try not to argue with her or tell her she’s being unreasonable. I just remind her that when I leave, she can call me any time. Even at 4 AM.