I grew up living with my mother and grandmother, affectionately known as Grandma Jo Jo. She was obviously a very large part of my life. I chatted with her like a friend, I bickered with her like a sister, and I loved her like a grandmother. Throughout my childhood, she was always there with me.
Unfortunately, during my pivotal teenage years, she became ill and was moved into a nursing home. I was sixteen, going on seventeen, just as naive as the song says, and I had other things to do. While I understood the situation, I didn’t comprehend it as I do now. I was a busy teenager and didn’t spend as much time as I should have with my mom visiting my grandma.
Then, it was time for college! Though I wasn’t far, working and going to school in downtown Chicago made time at a suburban nursing home hard to come by. I visited whenever I made a trip back home, and enjoyed spending time visiting with my sassy Grandma Jo Jo, but of course I feel like I could have done more with our time together.
At the end of the summer of 2013 I moved to Ohio, only a week after my grandma’s health had rapidly declined. I felt miserable leaving my mom alone with my grandma, but there was nothing I could do. In October of that year, I had scheduled a visit to Chicago, where I had an exhibition opening. I arrived on a Sunday and my grandma passed that next Wednesday. I know it was meant to be, that all the cards fell into place during that very week so I could be there and help my mom. Life is crazy sometimes.
I have spent a lot of the past year reflecting on every little moment of the time I spent with my grandma – what I should have done, what I did right (and wrong), but mostly I analyzed what our relationship meant to me and what it taught me. Here’s what I got: I was not a perfect housemate growing up (a spoiled only child, of course), yet my grandma always said that taking care of me was one the best parts of her life. I may not have visited her as much as I should have (excuses or not), but I know my visits brought her joy, and that last lucid visit was greeted with her warmest smile and a simple “Kaitlin!”
After she was gone, I learned things about my grandma’s past which really helped me understand her better. I will not delve into exact details, as hers is not my story to tell, but it all kind of threw me for a loop. I was saddened by some of the things she had to endure as a young woman, but learning about her life also brought me toward an existential moment – there was an entire life lived before I was born, before my mom was born. The world, her world, was turning long before I came around. It blows my mind sometimes.
The time since her passing has been very formative. Such a loss definitely ages you. Her death took a large toll on me. The whole thing was so unbearably surreal. Your body and mind does strange things when you face your first close death, and I can still replay those moments in my mind and feel so mystified. I think her loss also affected my understanding of her life, I just wish I could be with her again to talk about it with her. Though she is gone now, she is still teaching me lessons. I learned just how strong my little Jo Jo was. I had always known she was sweet, silly, and selfless, and I can now add strong to that list (my new “Four S’s” if you will). I have learned that no one has to know your whole story to know you are a strong woman. And through it all, I learned how to be a strong woman myself.