My grandmother has a strange but charming duality in which she wants to get rid of everything, yet she doesn't want to throw anything away. Messiness exasperates her, and will often say out loud "this place is a mess!", to which caregivers look around puzzled, seeing everything in order, say "you should look at my mess".
Sometimes I come into her den and propose cleaning up a shelf. There might be a pile of papers along with some stray objects. For objects, we decide to either donate to the Salvation Army or earmark as a gift for a relative. For papers, we either file or tear them up before throwing them away. Almost all of it is junk, it could be thrown out without even looking at it, but sometimes you come across something interesting.
Yesterday we opened a bag full of papers and greeting cards. They were about her mother's death, 20 years ago. There were countless sympathy and charity donation cards in memory of her mother, as well as scrupulous notes on who attended the funeral, who made a gift, who came to visit and so on, so that she would be able to thank people appropriately later.
My grandmother suffers from macular degeneration and does not have enough eyesight to read. I read every single paper to her in full before tearing it up. Among these was one letter that she wanted to keep.
It came from a good friend. It begun cordially enough... "I'm so sorry for your loss, these must be difficult times" and so forth. After going through these customary words of consideration, the following text was revealing:
I feel the biggest tribute you can pay your mother is to become a "whole" person and live a happy and productive life with her gone. You have always said that your mother could never "accept" you. Now it is your turn to accept her. She was what she was, and you have to realize that you have spent your life pretending otherwise. You will never know what in her past caused her to behave as she did. You cannot change her, but you can refuse her this power over you and let her go. Heaven knows what evil threat she held over you to make you fear her as you have--and still do! Remember that she could not have been so cruel if she had not been able to get away with it.
She was a very bright lady and had many good qualities. Try to think of them--even her occasional glimpse of humour! During her life you (as the doctor said) were her slave and what you and dear John did for her in the last moths was beyond belief. She lived a very long life, and now that she is dead there is nothing anyone can do to change you, but you CAN change your thinking.
Reading this made my hairs stand up: it was unthinkable for me to say this, even if it was my closest friend. I looked up to my grandmother, she had a smirk on her face, and was pleased with the letter. I was dumbfounded, my grandmother never spoke ill about her mother, even though it was clear from the letter that she suffered emotional abuse and lived in close proximity with her until she was almost 70 years old.
What struck me most is how this letter seems to describe my grandmother herself. We inherit trauma from our parents, and we act out this trauma and unwillingly repeat patterns within our family. I cannot help but notice I'm doing this too at this very moment. In order to deal with my grandmother's difficult personality, I make her think I'm doing what she wants, but behind her back I'm just doing what needs to be done (and sometimes what I want), which is exactly what my grandfather did.
We must break these patterns in order to become "whole", as the letter says. This trauma reverberates through generations, and we become the very pattern we suffered from our parents. Children of alcoholics become alcoholics, children of abusive parents become abusive themselves, and like me, children of nice guys become nice guys (in the derogatory sense).
I'm ending my work here by noticing work has just started, but it is not a work of growth and striving, it is work of unlearning in order to find true nature. Early in this adventure I wrote:
I'll precede writing about my current experience by going back around a year. I got romantically involved with a woman at the yoga studio I frequented in Puebla. My first relationship in five years. Things were seemingly great during our first three months, not without some warning signs, but love has the quality of making us both more understanding and less rough around the edges.
With time, however, she grew more demanding. She would get angry over the slightest misstep, wouldn't make any concession about future plans, etc. I tried to please her to the best of my ability, to perfect myself where I could concede personal fault, to accommodate shared plans, but it was all the same. The only place where we could leave this behind was in bed. I feel the need to clear this up because it is important in the diagnostic of the problem.
From my long time out of the game, I had forgotten an important rule: when your partner is angry all the time, you do not try to please them. This only reinforces their anger. You draw your boundaries. It is perfectly fine to say "stop behaving like a spoiled child", which in current times will get you labelled as a gaslighter, but this is necessary to keep your frame of mind in the relationship. Doing things just to keep people happy is admitting to their reality and it will go by unappreciated. It will make you resentful in the long run.
To try to calm anger through pleasing the other person is to admit they are angry because of you. They are angry with the world, and some of your actions for reconciliation will cause distraction from this anger--say, you treat them to a nice dinner and you have a splendid evening, but the next day you will have the same problem.
Early in our relationship we had made plans of living together at a beautiful remote beach in the coast of Oaxaca for a couple of months. The date was approaching but given the state of our relationship, I knew we'd just be transporting hell to paradise, so I broke up with her.
She first responded with despondency which, as the days went by without making any move for reconciliation, transformed into the opposite pole of where she had been before: she idealized me and our relationship towards the opposite extreme, which was also an illusion. I am human and I admit to feeling vindicated by the turn of events, but deeper inside I knew the story was not "I dated an angry woman who only realized who I was when she lost me", but "I entered an unhappy person's reality and I didn't know how to get us out of it".
As I come to my current life situation, being in Montreal taking care of my grandmother, the same pattern has played out in a very short time: we experienced in initial rapport, over the days however she has become increasingly demeaning and demanding, and I feel myself repeating the same pattern again. I try to please her, but again I see it is never enough. There's always a fault, a misstep, a lack in what I do. Pleading for my case is met with disdain. This fact is exacerbated by her dementia. She comes back to the same issues again and again, and can't leave a wound untouched for it to heal (both in the physical and emotional realm).
The threads of this chapter, which at first seemed random and senseless, are weaving into a recognizable pattern.