With Christmas almost upon us, I find myself ruminating on a moment last October at the State Fair of Texas, of all places. Every year we make an appearance, indulge in a corn dog and some kind of deep-fried guilty pleasure, and let the kids go on carnival rides until their stomachs turn. I can’t say my husband and I really relish the experience, but we do it for the kids. And this year for the first time, my dad decided to join us, at the prodding of his new wife.
Dad got married a year and a half ago. My mother, who was married to my dad for 42 years, died almost four years ago after a long battle with a progressive neurodegenerative illness called PSP (a cousin to Parkinson’s and ALS). My dad and I were close partners in her care. She got the diagnosis when I was newly pregnant with my first child, so the years that I became a mother are inextricably linked in my memory with the years of her decline. We lived across the alley from my parents, and that chapter of my life is a blur of sorties across the alley to check on her, one child toddling ahead, the other a baby in my arms.
The details of her illness and her slow, inexorable decline don’t bear retelling, but I will say I believe it was a relief to her and to those of us closest to her when the end came. She had been wheelchair-bound, unable to speak and receiving sustenance from a feeding tube. She eked out every last ounce of enjoyment of life for as long as she possibly could.
When my dad announced more than a year later, out of the blue, that he was in a serious relationship and hoped to marry as soon as possible, I didn’t take the news well. I now look back on this as my bratty phase. I acted like a child. Expecting a (surprise) third baby, I blame the pregnancy hormones or the misguided notion that I was losing my dad, in addition to my mom. I pounced on his fiancée’s every shortcoming. There really weren’t that many, but my snark was epic. I grieved all over again, and questioned why this woman, this stranger, would get to be grandmother to my children when my mom was robbed of this. My mom, who loved my children so deeply and fully and continued to find small ways of interacting with them, even when her speech and mobility failed her.
So there we were, at the state fair, and dad’s wife was having as much fun as my children were. We got lucky and turned a corner to find the nightly parade beginning, followed shortly after by a fireworks and light show. Dad’s wife pushed the children to the front of the parade watchers, making sure they got a good look at the Clydesdale horses. She snatched up each of them in turn and danced to the synchronized fireworks show. She lifted my daughter in the air to make sure she had the best view of the lights.
Widowed with stepchildren and nieces and nephews, my dad’s wife never had any babies of her own. And now, at age 70, she’s become grandma to my sons, who only vaguely remember my mother. She IS grandma to my daughter, who is named after my mom and seems to have inherited her feisty temperament. My daughter adores her. This woman, the one I snubbed, has been the greatest help to me since the arrival of our third child, an arrival which turned our already-harried existence upside down.
Watching her with my children that day at the fair, I was overwhelmed by an aching sadness for the grandmothering my mom never got to do. But I also marveled at how life offers new beginnings, for all the premature endings. I felt gratitude for this woman who brought my dad back from the brink of despair. And I saw the beauty in the opportunity life has given this woman to bond so deeply with these children…especially my baby, my mom’s namesake.
This holiday season, whatever higher power you celebrate, if you celebrate one, I think we can all agree that the universe provides us more questions than answers. I will never understand why my mom was stricken with a horrible illness at age 55, or why her life ended at age 61. But I’ve stopped asking why. There is so much goodness and love in this world. This holiday season, and every one after, there will be sadness, but there will also be so much joy.
About the author: Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer and researcher based in Dallas, Texas. A federal government analyst in a former life, Joanna now spends her time wrangling two little boys and a toddler daughter. Her work has appeared on The Huffington Post, scarymommy.com, www.bust.com, and www.bluntmoms.com.