Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nine Years

Nine years.

It's a measurable amount of time: Nine years. 3,287 days. 78,888 hours. When I think about it that way, it seems like a lifetime, not just nearly a third of one.

But there are days where nine years ago feels like yesterday. I can remember things so clearly from nine years ago. It doesn't seem like nearly a decade has passed. And a lot of momentous events occurred during that time period: I interned in London and backpacked through eight European countries. I graduated college. I moved to North Carolina, albeit for a brief stint. I moved to New York and got my first "grown-up" job, one that wasn't my dream job at first but certainly evolved into it. I met Mike and have known him for two-thirds of those nine years. We got married. We had a baby . . . who's now almost two (what?!)! We moved from New York City to Buffalo (a possible year-anniversary blog post coming up about that). We had the opportunity to travel to three countries (four, if you include Canada, but that just seems silly). But it's that last part that has really highlighted what can truly change in nine years.

Two weeks ago we were at my grandfather's childhood home in Spain. My grandfather was born in a small town, called Huércal-Overa, near the southeastern coast, and he lived there until he was ten years old, when he, his brother, and my great-grandmother were finally able (on their third attempt) to escape Franco and the Spanish Civil War to come to America, where my great-grandfather was already living and working to build up for their new life. My grandfather started returning to the house in 1980, and it became my grandparents' tradition to travel to Spain every summer so they could be there for the town's annual festival for the patron saint—held during the last weekend of July. In fact, that's where my grandparents were in 1984 when they found out that their first grandchild had decided to come six weeks early. They cut their trip short and flew back home to meet me. A year later, I spent my first birthday in Spain at my grandfather's childhood home . . . and thus a new tradition started: my grandparents having their grandchildren with them in Spain whenever possible.

With my grandfather in Spain.

Riding a donkey with my dad in front of
my grandfather's house.

Fifteen years passed before I had the opportunity to go to Spain again. The summer before my junior year of high school, my parents and grandparents took my sister and me to Italy for two weeks, followed by two weeks in Spain at my grandfather's house. I've always felt so fortunate to have taken a trip like that with my family, especially at that age . . . and it felt even more special to spend my sixteenth birthday in Spain. (Unfortunately, I do not have pictures on my phone, and the physical copies are at my parents', so I can't post any here. My sister and I are actually OK with that: 2000 wasn't our most glamorous year . . . though we were definitely much skinnier back then.)

I didn't know if I would make it back to Spain again. My sister went with our cousin Stephanie five years later, after Nicole graduated high school. And some of my other cousins continued to visit during that time. But once I entered college, summers were filled with organizational commitments and summer jobs.

And then I got my chance. In 2005 my roommate applied for a program that placed her with an internship in London. I thought it sounded amazing, so in 2006, I applied for the program. I was ecstatic when I was accepted, and even more proud of myself that the summer jobs I had worked, and the job I had senior year at the visitors' center, would pay for the program in full. It felt like such an achievement. Up until two weeks before departure, I still hadn't been placed in an internship, and I worried I wouldn't get to go. But through an Aggie connection I was placed at a PR firm in London and everything fell into place: I would work the internship for six weeks, backpack through Europe with my best friend for three weeks, and then fly to Spain to spend the last three weeks of the summer with my grandparents. 

That summer was amazing: one of the greatest things I have ever done. But those last three weeks? Those were something really special.

For three weeks it was just me, Bobo, and Mimi. We ate chorizo and eggs in the morning, went to the beach, picked up a rotisserie chicken for lunch, took a siesta, then ate tapas for dinner. We met up with family (my grandfather jokes that if you don't know someone's name in Overa, just call him or her primo or prima—he or she is most likely a cousin). We took a mini road trip to Sevilla, Córdoba, and Ronda. My grandfather had everything planned: he had the maps and knew our routes; he booked rooms at paradors (former castles/palaces that have been turned into hotels); he and I walked around and explored the sites while my grandmother sat on a bench and read her a book (probably a Danielle Steel). And with the exception of a very minor car accident, it was an incredible three weeks learning more about my grandparents and exploring new cities with my grandfather.

One of my favorite photos of me and my grandfather.
This is at El Torcal, and Bobo was climbing up and down
these huge rock features for the perfect video (he's
never been a still-photo person). (Don't mind the 

red mark, it's a seat burn from the accident.)

Me with Mimi and Bobo in front of Villa Parra in 2006. 
On our most recent trip, there was a moment in a shop where it 
really hit me that Mimi wasn't with us. The shop owner 
remembered my grandmother fondly, even though it had 
been years since she'd visited, and I had to walk out
because I was feeling a lot of different emotions.

After graduation, when I wanted to get into publishing in New York City, I ended up moving in with Mimi and Bobo. I house-sat while they took one of their final trips to Spain together. By 2009, it became too difficult for Mimi and Bobo to travel to Spain on their own, especially with Mimi's ongoing health issues. I told my mother then that if there were ever a trip back to the house with Bobo, I wanted to be there. I wanted it for me, and I wanted it for Mike, so he would be able to see one of the places I consider my happy place.

It's been a rocky year for Bobo: Mimi passed in February; he had brain surgery in March. And it became apparent that his short-term memory wasn't what it used to be. A trip to Spain seemed to always be an option as long as Bobo's health kept up, but it was more of a hope, not necessarily a likely possibility . . . until all of a sudden it was.

In a very quick decision, and with travel insurance purchased, we decided we were going to buy tickets to join Mom, Dad, Aunt Carol, and Bobo in Spain. Fast-forward eight weeks, and we were there.

We spent the first couple of days at the house, since those were the days of the festival (though, sadly, my favorite part of the fiesta—the paella for the whole town—wasn't held over the weekend because the chef was too tired from the partying). And during those first few days, I started to realize how badly, and how quickly, my grandfather's dementia had really set in. The same question was asked multiple times a day, he never used our names, and he had no recollection that I had been to the house before. We kind of all thought that with his short-term memory shot, Spain would do him some good: he'd see his childhood home and his town, relatively unchanged over the years; he'd see his cousin Rosa, a sharp eighty-three-year-old woman who remembers their family history with ease; and he'd see other friends and family who make their way back to the town each summer. When he would talk in Spanish, he would become animated . . . the problem was getting him to talk—period. English or Spanish, he didn't say much, which is such a change from his personality. R was the only thing that consistently perked him up. He would ask often "Where's the baby?" and he would engage with her whenever she was in the room. 

On Tuesday, my thirty-first birthday, I woke up in the house, had chorizo and eggs, and we got in the car to take a road trip very similar to the one I took nine years ago with my grandparents; we wanted Mike to see a little bit more of Spain on his first European trip. In Sevilla Bobo was able to walk to the Plaza de España and to dinner, but it was a lot of walking for him. So the next day he stayed at the hotel with my aunt and parents, who offered to keep R with them so Mike and I could sightsee.

R and Bobo at the Plaza de España.

Me and Bobo at the Plaza de España.

Mike and I went to the cathedral and walked up the thirty-five ramps to the top of the Giralda . . . something that my grandfather was able to do just nine years ago, and something he seems to have no recollection of doing now. On my walk up those ramps, I thought a lot about the last nine years. How is it possible that my grandfather has changed so much?

Because it's been nine years. It's not a short period of time. And even though this decline seems to have come on quickly, and parts of it have, this change has been something in the works for years. I just wasn't with him every single one of those 3,287 days to see it.

Something like this—watching a loved one lose his or her identity, memory, vitality—makes one think a lot. I don't have much to say about this process beyond how sad it is. I've spent a good amount of time thinking about the past nine years. I spend a lot of time thinking about the nine years to come. What will those 3,287 days bring? What about the years after that? It's pretty heavy to think about (and just so you know I'm not being super depressing, when I wrote heavy I thought about putting the Back to the Future quote in there).

Generally I feel like my blog posts are pretty tied up: I usually know how I'm going to get from point A to point B from the start, and I know what the last line will be. Not with this one. I knew I wanted to title this post "Nine Years." I knew I wanted to write how different my last two trips to Spain were. But other than that, I didn't know; I had no direction. I feel like this blog post is a bit all over the place (not in the chronological storytelling, just in the "what am I attempting to say?" sense. I'm sitting here trying to collect my thoughts . . . and wondering if that's how my grandfather feels all the time. Don't get me wrong, there are moments when the Bobo we know and love flashes through, but he's definitely not the man he was a year ago, and especially not the man he was nine years ago. 

Graffiti art in Ronda in 2006,
back when Bobo was a ham and pretending to
be abandoned. (I wish I had realized I was
cutting off some of the writing!)

Overall, as sad as it was to see my grandfather like this, I feel fortunate to have experienced one more trip to Spain with him. I'm glad I got to see R put a smile on his face during that week.

We made memories to last the next nine years . . . and then some.

(That line just came to me! Phew, I found a way to "tie up" a story that's not yet over.)

Bobo: the great grandfather and
the awesome great-grandfather.

Four generations.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Tribute to Mimi

On February 18, my grandmother Mimi passed away. We were told there couldn't be a eulogy at her funeral, so though I had started working on this, I stopped writing it. At the visiting hours, a family friend asked if I had been blogging lately, and I told her how I hadn't had the time or the inspiration to write. Well, I can't think of a better way to jump back into it after a break than to honor my grandmother. . . .

For those of you who knew my grandmother, you’ve seen the face. You know the one: the one she gave when she was being stubborn. When she was determined. When she was wordlessly expressing, “Oh, yeah? Wanna bet?” It was the face she gave when you challenged her, when you told her you didn’t think she could do X, Y, or Z, like finish that last bite, take that extra step, say those words that were on the tip of her tongue. I feel as though she had been giving Life that face for the last seven years. Every time Life said, “Jo, maybe this is it.” She gave that face: Wanna bet?

Our family has joked that Mimi had nine lives. There were so many times she could have left this world. After her stroke. After the cancer diagnosis. After the chemo. The surgeries. And yet she hung on. She was a fighter. Clearly a little stubborn, but definitely a fighter.

I feel especially fortunate to have lived with Mimi and Bobo for a little bit as an adult. I called them on a Monday in 2007 and said, “Mimi and Bobo, I want to work in publishing in New York City. Can I move in on Saturday?” And they both joked that I could move in sooner if I wanted to. After eight months of living with them, I moved to Mimi’s old neighborhood of Astoria, just a couple of blocks from where she grew up. When she and Bobo drove me to my apartment, they pointed out their old haunts, her old apartment, where they used to go on dates. It made me feel even closer to Mimi.

Me and R in front of Mimi's childhood
apartment in Astoria, just three blocks from
R's first apartment.

Just a month after I moved out, Mimi had her stroke. I remember getting the call from my mom that she needed me to go to the hospital. And that’s where I went and spent the next couple of days. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s bed, thinking that this could be it. She didn’t know who I was. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t feed herself.

But then she started to come back, slowly but surely. I remember we were all sitting in the lounge at the rehabilitation center, and she was starting to joke around. She was so nonchalant with her punch lines and her expressions that her stories were even funnier than she had anticipated. She was fighting her way back, and she was able to give that face. Nope, not yet, Life. I still have some fight in me.

In those seven years that she fought, she got to see three of her grandkids get married; she met two of her three great-grandchildren; she saw her grandkids pursuing their dreams: graduating from college and getting jobs; entering the military; joining the police force; training to be a nurse. My grandmother wasn’t a perfect woman (who is?), but she was a perfect grandmother. And she supported the seven of us in ways that we’ll never forget. She loved us fiercely. She wore our names and our birthdays proudly around her neck every day. She loved her great-grandchildren, and it was like talking to a new woman whenever we called her on Skype so she could see the kids. I swear I could have set the camera up and told her to watch R for the next hour so I could go get some things done, and she would have been able to do it, and happily. I know she would have loved to have met all the great-grandkids to come, but it was time to give the face a rest. It was time. That’s perhaps why it’s been slightly easier for us all to accept this. We know that we were lucky to have the time that we did, that it felt like we were cheating the last couple of years when she could have so easily checked out. I mean, how cool is it that she was able to see all seven of her grandkids reach adulthood?

It doesn’t mean we’re not sad, though. By chance, when I arrived in Tarrytown and went for a manicure and pedicure with my mom, sister, and cousins, something we’ve all done with Mimi numerous times, I got her favorite manicurist. I sat in her chair. And I lost it. It was the first I had cried since hearing the news. And then I realized that as sad as it is that I won’t get my nails done with her again, I was crying because I was having a happy memory of Mimi. She loved having her nails done. She loved tickling our backs with her long manicured nails and daring us not to laugh, which was impossible, by the way. I don’t think any of us girls will be able to get a manicure and not think of Mimi.

There are a lot of things I know we’ll do throughout the years that will bring back little memories. But perhaps the hardest one for me will be when I go on my next trip. Many of you may not know this, but my grandmother has traveled with me to more than ten countries over the last ten years. OK, well, not physically. But every time I went somewhere, she was with me, because I had to make sure I found a thimble for her. Oftentimes I would have to go to more than one store to find the perfect one. When I went on my honeymoon to Costa Rica, I forgot to get an ornament for myself, which is what I like to buy as souvenirs . . . but I remembered a thimble for Mimi. When Mike went to Puerto Rico for a wedding, he bought souvenirs for our daughter, a magnet for me on his way out of the store because he didn’t know what else to get . . . and a thimble for Mimi. It became our tradition as much as hers. I’ll never forget Mimi crying when I bought her a Sound of Music thimble from Salzburg, Austria. It was the perfect find, because that was a movie I watched countlessly with her at the house, one that she loved. I won’t be able to watch that movie without thinking of her. And I won’t be able to see a thimble without thinking of her.

We’ll all have those moments. Those moments where she’ll cross our minds and we’ll think of her and miss her. Those memories that make us smile. And, thankfully, each of her grandchildren has a blanket crocheted by her to keep us warm . . . something she was always trying to achieve, even in Texas in July. Every time we wrap ourselves in those blankets, we’ll think of her.

Mimi, I thank you for everything you’ve done for us. You loved us so much, and the feeling will forever be mutual. We’ll miss your kisses . . . even though we hated feeling your whiskers. We’ll miss the face. But most of all, we’ll just miss you. We love you now and forever.

And because I’m not restricted by time, here are some other things that will always make me think of Mimi:
  • “What a Feeling” from Flashdance: The sound track was all the rage when I was a baby, and Mimi used to put the tape in the player and dance with me to “What a Feeling.” I don’t remember this, of course, but every time the song came on, Mimi asked me if I did.
  • Halloween: Especially now that I have to look for kids’ costumes, I’ll think of Mimi every Halloween. With the exception of a year or two, Mimi made every single Halloween costume for us.
  • Styrofoam: Any time I get takeout food in a Styrofoam container I’ll think of Mimi because she hated the sound of Styrofoam rubbing together. She always got the chills and made a face like we were torturing her.
  • Any orange-cranberry-flavored food: She loved anything with orange and cranberries, but especially bread and scones. Also on the list of foods that remind me of her: chili, potato salad, and deviled eggs.
  • Ripping off Band-Aids: When I was three years old I had a tonsillectomy. When the surgery was over, I remember the only person I wanted to remove the Band-Aids was Mimi.
  • Road trips: Mimi was notorious for overpacking—bags and bags and bags, most filled with things she didn’t need for the trip; some were even empty. She’d sit in the backseat with all her bags piled on her lap because there was no more room. Every time I pack now, I make a comment about feeling like Mimi because of all the bags we have to pack for R. Mimi would also fall asleep in the car with her neck hung over in the most awkward positions.
  • Mentos: Mimi used to send care packages, generally filled with junk and candy. But Nicole and I always loved the Mentos.
  • “Are you hungry?”: Whenever Mimi was hungry, she’d ask if we were and then we’d say, “No, Mimi, are you?” And she shrugged as if she were just asking out of curiosity and nothing more.
  • Malls: Mimi loved going to the mall, but mostly just to go into JCPenney. Once we stopped there she’d sit on a bench and wait for us to finish shopping.
  • Scratch-off lottery tickets: Mimi had a whole routine for buying scratch-off tickets. She knew which stores she had better luck in, she knew which cards gave her the most success, and she even had a time of day that she preferred to buy them.
  • Boats: When we were in Venice, we had to get on a boat to go to the airport. We were all boarding, and Mimi was still on the dock. As she put one foot on the boat, the boat started moving slightly away from the dock. Mimi hesitated and moved her foot back to the dock but continued to hold the hand of the man helping her board. She was spread out between the dock and the boat, and though it was probably terrifying for her, we couldn’t help but laugh once she was safely on board.
  • Rummy 500: Mimi loved playing Rummy 500, and she would hoard the cards and put them all down at once. It was a risky strategy, but she loved doing it.
  • March Madness: Strange but true. Mimi's stroke happened during the first round of March Madness, and I was having an unbelievable streak (I went on to win more than $800 in my pool that year). As I sat on her hospital bed, I watched the games on the small screen and tried explaining to her how March Madness and the brackets worked. I told her she was my good-luck charm.
  • Danielle Steel: Mimi loved her Danielle Steel books.
  • Crochet/knitting: Whenever I see someone crocheting or knitting I think of Mimi. She always traveled with her bag of yarn and needles, even after she really stopped crocheting. After her stroke, I had her teach me how to knit so I could help her with her motor and communication skills. It took her eleven years to make the first blanket for her grandchildren, and by the time she made it, it was too short for me. Thankfully, after she made the other six, and even some to be auctioned off for charities, she made me a maroon one to represent Texas A&M.

And possibly one of my most favorite memories is when I told Mimi we were pregnant. We had just gotten back from Australia, and we Skyped her and Bobo to tell them the news. We told them about our trip first, and then I said, “And guess what else?” Mimi, not missing a beat, said, “You’re going to have a baby.” The laughs we all had from her knowing it before I said it and from her delivery were truly special.

I know I’m forgetting so many other memories and things that remind me of her. And I know there will be some things I don’t even realize remind me of her until they do. I’m so thankful I have these memories. I’m so thankful I had Mimi.

In Spain in 2006: just me with my grandparents for three weeks
in the house I spent my first, sixteenth, and twenty-second birthdays.

At a family wedding in 2007.

My bridal shower, 2010:
Mimi made the umbrella.

At my bridal shower in Rochester, 2010.

Mimi and Bobo with their three kids at my wedding, 2010. 

Me and Mike with Mimi and Bobo, 2010.

Meeting her second great-grandchild:
R is four days old, 2013.

Enamored, 2013.

Four generations, 2013.

Mimi and R in North Carolina, June 2014.

Mimi and R in Tarrytown, September 2014.