TGIF: What My Grandmother Taught Me About The Hero’s Journey

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On PDA in a hotel lobby, crying cashews and spooning my grandmother.

“Diet Pepsi at 11pm was a bad idea,” I think to myself, staring at the empty can on the bedside table.

I’m exhausted, but can’t sleep. My restless body curls into the shape of a cashew nut, and then unfurls into a giant flag.

Cashew. Flag. Cashew. Flag. Cashew. Flag.

I look at the digital clock above my head that blinks 3:15am in scarlet red. In my wayward state of insomnia, I decide, “I’ll wear my black skirt that doesn’t need to be ironed,” and jump out of bed. I roll up my pajama pants, shave my legs, slather a generous scoop of cocoa butter on my now shiny smooth limbs and look at the clock again.

3:30am.

In exactly five hours, I’ll be reunited with my 95-year-old grandmother, my Ammachi.

The grandmother who saved my yellow scissors.
The grandmother I hadn’t seen in nine years.
The grandmother I didn’t want to speak to.

I was on a whirlwind work trip that took me to my motherland, Kerala, in beautiful South India. The azure sky bejeweled with lush emerald coconut trees made me sigh deeply. An unexpected trip that facilitated the luxury of being able to visit my beloved grandmother.

PDA and an inappropriate sling bag …

At 6am sharp, I greeted my dad’s oldest sister–my 4′ 6 75-year-old plucky aunt, Sister Vera, in the hotel lobby with an over-exuberant hug. She turned cranberry pink and burst into nervous laughter. Given that South Indians rarely hug, and compounded by the fact that she’d been a nun for almost sixty years, I could see how my overt public display of affection gave my poor aunty a heart attack.

As I settled into the back of the cab, my eyes slowly wandered and I encountered an unexpected glee-inducing moment. My adorable aunt was carrying a Chivas Regal sling bag. Lawwwd, have murrrrcy! I was so tickled by how incongruous this image was, I almost clapped.

Oh life, and its beautiful ironies!

The Second Half of Life 

I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into my grandmother’s room. I gingerly placed three totes filled with an odd potpourri of gifts on the floor: cereal, towels, Vaseline, chocolate-covered almonds, rice crackers, a coffee mug, Turkish sweets, my sister’s homemade toffee brittle and cleaning wipes.

As I approached her bed, I saw that her breathing had become laboured and heavy. Her eyes were full of tears. I bent down to kiss her cheeks and she “sniff-kissed” me. The customary South Indian grandma kiss. She pressed her cauliflower-shaped nose against my cheek and took a deep audible breath — inhaling the scent of my skin, inhaling my entire almost-thirty-granddaughter-essence with each sniff. She kissed the right cheek and then the left cheek. Switching back to the right cheek and the left again. This went on for what felt like 15 minutes.

Sr. Vera brings me a foldable wooden stool so I can sit beside Ammachi. When I finally pull my face back, I get a proper look at her. She was wearing a loose white cotton dress with cute-as-heck pink polka dots, a white rosary around her neck and a wedding band on her finger. Her hair snowy white, her face gaunt, her tiny-tiny arms and her skin hanging from her bones. She was so much smaller than I remembered. Her forest green metal walker to the left of her bed, an ugly reminder that she would be taken away from me. Worse, she’d been taken away from my dad. I was angry and wanted to burn the stupid walker  in the front yard.

My pyromaniac fantasy was interrupted by her quivering lips which whispered the words, “Devum thanna pilara…” This loosely translates to mean, “The children God blessed me with …”

This was the moment I officially became a wreck. I remembered why I didn’t want to see her or speak to her. It hurts too much. Loving my grandma breaks my heart, and hers.

She cupped my face firmly with her jittery arms and looked at me. I mean, really looked at me. She drank in every detail of my face, committing it to memory: every curve, dimple, bone, bump, eyelash and pore. I was humbled by the silent awe, elation and gratitude etched on her face. She seemed to be looking at a glorious, beautiful, perfect version of me, that I couldn’t see in myself.

“The world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young.” – James Hollis, “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”

A Handkerchief + A Cross + The Great Wounding

My dad has seven sisters. Three of his sisters are nuns. The youngest of the three, Sr. Cecelia (my favourite–she sang) passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. My grandmother asked my aunt Sr. Vera to crochet the cross Sr. Cecelia wore around her neck onto a green and white plaid handkerchief.

In his book “Falling Upward” Father Richard Rohr talks about “The Great Wounding” or “Necessary Suffering” in every hero’s journey. The whole story pivots on the resolution of the trials that result. The great wounding eventually leads to a great epiphany, and the wound becomes a secret (even sacred) key that takes the hero to the next level. The wound breaks the hero before strengthening him. This strange balance between ascent and descent, victory and suffering, is every hero’s journey. Richard Rohr says the hero “floats forward by the quiet movement of grace.”

I thought about my grandmother’s “great wounding.” She lost her husband, her siblings, her parents and eventually her own daughter. I can’t imagine anything more painful than a parent having to bury their child. She had to leave her home, her roots and her legacy in Kerala. She shuttled between her children, all over the world, from the Middle East to Canada and she did it without her husband, sisters and family.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. – Genesis 12:1

My grandmother is a hero. She is a hero in the classic Greek sense of the word. Unlike the modern definition, where celebrity is equated with heroism, the classic Greek hero was somebody brave enough to leave her home, accomplish a greater task for the greater good, suffer the great wounding, learn to rise above it and come back home to share her wisdom with the next generation. Hello?! That is my grandmother in a nutshell.

“First is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God.”Lady Julian of Norwich

Spooning  + Like a Child

As Sr. Vera silently crocheted the cross onto the handkerchief, I climbed onto the bed and lay beside my grandmother. Everything that needed to be said had already been said. I just wanted to be close to her.

The moment I climbed on the bed to spoon my grandmother, tears began to run down her cheeks and she said, “You have so much love … like a little child.”

I felt my chest tighten, throat close up and my legs start to tremble. There were tears. Warm, fat, monster tears.

Two [crying] cashews lying on a bed, just taking each other in.

“I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin.” Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Also, read: Why I Didn’t Want to Talk to My 95-Year-Old Grandmother?
______________________________________________________

My dear ones…

I still have tears coming down my cheeks as I write this. I need a minute. *deep breath*

Okay.

I recently read an article in the Guardian about Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse who recorded her patients’ dying epiphanies in the last twelve weeks of their lives. She wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying and here they are in random order:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

I would love to hear your thoughts:
– If today were your last day, what would be your biggest regret?
– What do you want to achieve/change before you die?
– Have you experienced “the great wounding”?

Love you more than Salt and Vinegar Kale Chips,(<- Recipe)
xoxo,
Teen

To read more TGIFs from Tina: Click here.

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