Through Other Eyes
By Jeff Robinson (1,487 words)

Grandmother had her first stroke when I was still in grade school. I have only vague memories of her before that time. Even those recollections are limited to infrequent weekend visits and holidays. On those occasions she hovered over her feasting relatives and hurried in and out of the kitchen with steaming dishes of food. She was a strong, proud woman; the matriarch of the family. We were never close. I was too young and she was already old. I never grew to know her well and can remember only having one or two true conversations with her. Those early, gentle memories were overshadowed by the more vivid episodes of the times that followed.

Her first stroke affected that portion of the brain that governs motor abilities. The subsequent ones progressively stripped her of control of her body and her mind. As I grew up, I always remember her recovering from her 'last attack' as she learned once more to master her own muscles to walk, to eat or to speak.

I was far too young to understand what was happening. Indeed, my parents deliberately told my brothers and me little of what transpired to shelter us from the pain they could hardly bear. Besides, I was far too busy at ten years old playing with friends, going to school and learning about life to think about death.

Everyone always spoke of her as she had been 'before'. She had once been a schoolteacher; articulate, intelligent, well read. Now they called her noble and strong willed, courageous and fearless. I knew only a crippled old woman who slowly degenerated into something I could hardly consider human. Our visits to her grew less and less frequent. Her condition progressed over the years; but then, she lived quite far away so it was simple to put her out of my thoughts.

When Grandmother grew worse, she came to live with us.

Grandfather was just too old and could no longer give her the care she needed. My mother was a nurse, so she accepted the task; out of love and duty (and also guilt). She could not bear to send her own mother off to some hospital or home where she would be quietly and remotely tended by unknown, unseen and uncaring hands.

The tragedy and pain of year after year of crippling convalescence was a burden that affected us all. Grandmother's illness was a constant presence as I grew up. I watched the pain eat deeply into my mother's heart and I grew to resent Grandmother's condition as an imposition and an invasion of our home.

Grandfather was altogether different. He was a quiet soft-spoken man. He had been a carpenter in his youth and continued to work in wood long after he'd retired. I recall the story of how he'd built a house for Grandmother with his own hands just after they'd married. I remember him as a man who cherished hard work, honesty and silence. He seldom spoke, but as is often the case with such men, when he did speak, his words were worth attention. Once he told me the story of how he'd first come to America from Sweden before World War I, unable to speak a single word of English. He told me how he'd met Grandmother and married her.

In spite of these tales, I could never reconcile in my mind how he and my Grandmother belonged together. It seemed so unfair; it seemed such a waste of his life to be stuck with her. He was as healthy as she was ill. He doted on her and attended to her every need. When Grandmother's strokes finally affected her speech to the point that no one else could understand her, he always knew what she wanted or needed. He was her voice, and her arms and her legs. He was everything that she was not. His patience with her and his devotion to her were a mystery to me.

Then one day, he too grew ill. It was nothing serious, but then, he had never been sick before. Thus, when he had to go to the hospital for some tests, it was an incident that transcended the decade of Grandmother's own convalescence.

We gathered around him in his hospital room to cheer him up. My parents, my brothers and I joked with him from the foot of his bed. Grandmother, whose mind was virtually gone by then, could not understand what was happening. She could not speak and could not even stand unassisted, but she somehow managed to pull herself up out of her wheelchair by his bedside and kept reaching out to him. Her jerky, palsied movements nearly yanked the I.V. out of his arm so hospital orderlies came to hold her back away from him.

Not understanding why, she fought with them, unaware that they were only trying to protect him from her and any unintentional harm she might cause. I suddenly understood that she only wanted to get closer to him, to touch him, to be with the man whom she'd lived with and loved for over forty years. The harder she struggled to be near him, the more adamantly and forcefully the orderlies restrained her. With practiced detachment, we all stood and witnessed the silent struggle; never speaking nor interfering. We had grown accustomed to Grandmother and had come to accept the futility of her condition.

Grandfather tried to calm her, but he was separated from her by the metal bars of the raised bedside rail and bound in place by the tiny plastic tubes that tended his frail body. He could simply sit in his bed and watch her pathetic struggles, oblivious to the presence of the others around him.

I watched him there; tears welling in his eyes as Grandmother feebly fought to get to his side. He looked so old and so tired. It didn't seem fair at all.

Then, for a moment...for just a fleeting instant, he wasn't an old man anymore.

In his place on that hospital bed, I saw him as he’d been long ago. Sitting on that mattress in a white hospital gown was a young eighteen-year old boy, an immigrant, fresh off the boat from Sweden. I saw him as he'd described himself to me in his stories. I saw a young man, unable to speak a word of English, helpless, abandoned, alone. Moreover, I saw that boy in loving adoration, cruelly separated from the girl he loved. I realized then that he was just as helpless as she was. He was as unable to reach her, as she was physically unable to reach him. I watched that young man cry. I felt his heartbreak and then...the moment passed.

Once more an old man sat alone on a cold stark hospital bed, tears welling in his eyes. But those eyes had become the eyes of a young man, a boy trapped in a body aged and old. I saw youth trapped in a prison without a key and realized that he had not forsaken long years of life on a crippled old woman who had lingered too long near death. He had simply continued to love the girl for whom he had built a house so many years before. In the same fashion that I had seen him a moment before, his eyes saw Grandmother as she had been. The love that they'd once shared remained and spanned those long 'lost' years. Only time had passed. Nothing else of consequence had changed between them.

Despite the ravages of time and the cruelty of the years, they remained the same in each other's eyes.

I cried and left the room. No one knew why. To this day, I'm not sure anyone else even noticed. I had discovered that Grandfather saw far more with his heart than the rest of us saw with our eyes. Thereafter, I could never meet his gaze without seeing those younger eyes. I always saw him as a young boy peeking out of an old man’s face.

What I’d seen in Grandfather as blind devotion was simply the result of a vision none of the rest of us saw. His love and faith were based on a memory of a reality we did not share.

Now that I am grown, I recognize that “blind faith” is not blind. It simply sees what the rest of us do not.

Grandmother died shortly thereafter. Grandfather followed her within the year, dying, I know, of a broken heart. His greatest legacy to me, however, is the vision I witnessed that day. That moment forever changed my life for, ever since then, I have tried to see the world through those other eyes.

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“What is essential is invisible to the eye. It is only with the heart that one sees rightly.” – The Little Prince

 

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