My Grandmother’s Resilience Inspired Me To Dig Deeper
The doctors didn’t know what that feisty nonagenarian was made of. It turns out, we didn’t really know ourselves.
Sometimes, a silence turns into a waiting zone, a moment suspended between breaths. It is then that something in me knows that everything is about to change.
One of those silences came unannounced, as they tend to do, four years ago on a Monday afternoon, shortly before my kids were due home from school. I was wrapping up a client call while quietly shoveling some granola into my system when a call rang on the other line. My dad.
I cocked my head as I went through quick mental calculations. It was dinner time in Spain. My first thought was that I didn’t have time to engage in a tech support debacle, but something made me wonder if he might be calling for another reason. I asked my client if I could call her back. “Buenas,” I answered, and in the two beats of silence that followed, I knew. I stopped breathing as I waited for him to say something, then he set the next sixteen hours in motion.
My firecracker grandmother, 89, had suffered a massive stroke followed by a heart attack. She had been finishing dessert –a homemade custard she’d whipped up that morning– when she gave my aunt a startled look. Her last words before losing consciousness were something like “Hold on to the table! It’s falling!”. The doctors couldn’t agree on an exact prognosis, but they measured time in hours, not days. My dad’s voice was steady, but I could sense his disbelief. We often joked that she would outlive us all.
Staring blankly out the window, I spotted my son’s yellow school bus up the street and my heart broke for the unsuspecting little boy inside who adored his bisabuela. I pointed to the window and my husband set down to pick him up. By the time they came into the house, I had started packing. I didn’t know if I would make it in time, but I had to try.
Up until a few hours earlier, my grandmother packed more energy than your average Olympian athlete. She woke early, went to bed late and didn’t sit still all day. She lived with my grandfather in the small Spanish village where they both had been born in the 1920s — him one of ten siblings and her an outlier, an only child. This struck me as odd, growing up. Just about everyone in the village was somewhat related to us on my grandfather’s side, but I had a grand total of zero relatives on my grandmother’s.
JFK was quiet and I moved through the terminal with the ease of a mother traveling solo for the first time in years. As I settled at the gate, I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered if any of them were flying the four thousand miles ahead of us in hopes of catching their dying grandmother alive for at least a minute. Or thirty seconds. I would make do with twenty seconds, I bargained with the universe. Just let me see her, and let her see me.
When I finally arrived at the hospital, I sprinted down the hallway to her room, but my heart sank as I stopped at the door. The village priest had beat me to it and was delivering last rites. I rolled my eyes and fumed silently, pacing back and forth. If she could help it, my grandmother would not allow herself to die without the okay from the Catholic Church. The priest being there meant she now had permission to let go.
My cousin Lucía arrived with fresh news. The doctors were baffled that she was still alive. But what shocked them most was that they had no record of her in the system. She had never set foot in a hospital other than for the occasional visit to an ailing relative or neighbor; there were no prescription medications to her name, current or past. We smiled. They did not know what that feisty almost-nonagenarian was made of. It turns out, we didn’t really know ourselves.
My grandmother didn’t die while the priest was in the room for what felt like hours. She squeezed my hand and got misty eyed when she awoke and found me standing by her side. She didn’t die the next day, or the day after. A month later, a bewildered medical team discharged her from the hospital and she moved into an assisted living facility. We patiently explained again and again that she had spent most of her life on a farm, her diet all seasonal organic ingredients before it was a thing — when it was simply the way poor people lived. She would have sent a FitBit into a tizzy well into her late eighties.
The other magic ingredient for her resilience, we thought, was community. Most people in their small village had known each other their entire lives. They checked in on each other. They went on evening walks together. They gathered at the plaza on Saturday mornings for the farmers market and again on Sunday after church, dissecting the latest controversies for hours on end.
A week after I’d arrived, I went back to New York feeling at peace. As I settled back into my regular rhythm at home, my grandmother settled into her new life at the assisted living facility. Meal times were strict. She had visitors daily, and she relished every visit. Every couple of weeks, a friendly nurse would do her hair, and she was never happy with it. Having lost control of her spinal cord, she spent her days on a special wheelchair; she could move her hands but not her arms, and talking was difficult. Still, every single day she would ask, exasperated, when she’d be allowed to go back home.
A year passed, and something curious happened: my very proper, soft-spoken grandmother took up swearing. The doctors said it was due to the substantial neurological damage she’d suffered; my cousins and I concurred that she simply had zero shits left to give. We rolled with it. We went out for ice cream in the summer and FaceTimed in the winter. And then the pandemic arrived.
Thousands of nursing home residents were wiped out as Covid swept through Spain in early 2020. Some of her friends and caregivers died, and she spent months in isolation. Somehow, she hung on. I began to feel as mystified as those doctors who had kept searching the system for a trace of her, finding nothing. Her strength, her determination to live, was astonishing. I had always known that my grandmother, all four feet eleven inches of her, was driven by a different kind of power. Unable to visit or talk to her, craving her presence in some form, I began poking at her sparse family history.
My dad had told me the story of how my grandmother’s mother, Irene, had spent a year in an orphanage as a child. The family lore went like this: in 1910, an outbreak of typhoid fever ravaged the village, claiming Irene’s mother and sending her gravely ill father to a sanatorium. Her mother’s relatives, who lived in the village, refused to take responsibility and Irene was sent to La Inclusa, a Catholic home for destitute children. Her father got her back after a long year in recovery and never spoke to any of his in-laws again, despite them all living in the same small village.
And so I found myself spending part of the pandemic time-traveling to another, smaller-scale outbreak over a century ago, in the rural part of central Spain where my family comes from. La Inclusa had closed its doors decades earlier, but its admittance and release records were neatly organized and accessible with enough determination. Three years after the doctors gave my grandmother hours to live, I found out that her mother hadn’t arrived at the orphanage alone. Irene had her two older sisters with her.
Sisters no one in the family knew had existed.
Sisters who wouldn’t leave the orphanage with her, because the typhoid outbreak followed them there and they died at La Inclusa.
As a child, in the space of a year, Irene lost her mother, had her sick father sent away, saw her extended family shut the door on her, moved into an orphanage run by spartan nuns, caught the virus that had killed her mother, watched her sisters get sick and die at the orphanage, and still she held on. She believed her father would be back eventually. When he finally recovered enough to do so, he found there was only one daughter left waiting for him.
The virus took Irene’s hearing in one ear and left her body weakened for the rest of her life. It was no small miracle that she managed to have a child at all.
She named my grandmother Emiliana, after her own mother.
Irene’s body may have been frail, but her spirit was fierce. She was a joyful woman who valued being alive on a level that I can’t even pretend to understand. Against all odds, she put one foot in front of the other in the bleakness of that interminable year, and the ones that followed.
Uncovering Irene’s full story helped me comprehend the innate nature of my grandmother’s resilience. Four and a half years after the stroke, she passed away last week, and again we were dumbfounded. We had come to believe, again, that she would indeed outlive us all.
Connecting with my ancestors has also given me a new appreciation of the sheer improbability of my own existence. It has instilled a new level of gratitude and admiration towards these incredible women who blazed a winding path before me.
And when the next loaded silence comes knocking, I now know that I can tap into a source of strength, a different kind of power, that I didn’t realize I had in me.