When I was a kid, I loved to hold my grandmother’s hand.
She had a firm grip, but her skin was soft. If I close my eyes, I can feel the contours of her wrist and the bumps of her veins.
Maybe it’s odd that I remember the feel of my grandmother’s hands more than that of my own mother’s. My mom often held my hand. But my mom’s hands felt like any other hands – warm and loving, but mostly just normal hands.
My grandmother had very advanced rheumatoid arthritis. It plagued her for her entire adult life, mangling her joints and causing her terrible pain. When she was 42 years old, her left knee was fused to her joints, and she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. Her hands were afflicted as well, and she couldn’t straighten her fingers at all. They were disfigured in a way that sometimes made cashier checkers stare when she opened her purse.
But she could hold my hand. And I remember her doing that often.
I spent a lot of time with my grandmother growing up. She was the warmest person I ever met, and she had a hardiness to her that may have come from living through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Or potentially from raising five kids.
I heard many kind words come from my grandmother’s lips. But you know what I never heard? A single complaint.
I’m actually serious. As I’ve checked in with other family members, they confirmed this. Instead, when anyone would ask her about her debilitating illness, she would simply say this:
“It is my cross to bear.”
My grandmother was quite religious, but I never heard too much dogma in this statement. She saw her pain as part of a larger picture. Pain was hard. It was also something we all had to endure.
My dad talked about this to me as I grew up. He’d often point out the example my grandmother was setting for all of us. After my mom died, he’d say that my “cross to bear” was the loss of my mother.
Of course, it was not my only cross to bear. Another much greater one would follow almost twenty years later.
I have not been like my grandmother in many ways. I have complained plenty (for evidence, see half this blog) and I have often thought, “why me?” I have screamed at God, at the universe, and at other people from the privacy of my home. At back-to-school night and 40th birthday parties and even when sitting on the metro, I’ve observed other couples do normal things and felt rage-like jealousy that they get to have a life that is whole. I have thought “it’s not fair!” more times in my head than I can count.
But what help is it, really? My guess is that when my grandmother initially fell ill, she probably cursed the unfairness of it all. But she was young – much younger than I am now – when she had to first face her illness. She lived to be 89. She went fishing on the Texas coast every year, she hosted countless parties and she taught herself to sew for her five children. Really, it’s a good thing that she didn’t let the arthritis take her spirit when she was a young woman.
In fact, my aunt Terry (her oldest child) told me that when my grandfather asked my grandmother to marry him, she initially said she couldn’t. She told him that her arthritis would make too many things in their shared life impossible. At the time, he was training to be a doctor, and he vowed to find the best medical help for her. She accepted both of his offers.
In doing so, she had to decide that she couldn’t give in to her illness. Yes, it was a part of her – one that others could obviously see. But she didn’t let it define who she was.
Rheumatoid arthritis was her cross to bear. We all saw the pain that she felt, even if she didn’t complain, and I took something from that experience as a child.
I’m not sure I have fully internalized this lesson, but it’s one that is useful to repeat. We all have a cross to bear. Some of us have larger burdens, and some of us have to carry that burden for longer than others. But pain is inevitable. It is part of living in this world.
Sometimes, when I need to stop feeling sorry for myself, I think about holding my grandmother’s hand. I think about the knots in her joints and the way her hands looked more like claws than anything else. But I also think about the softness with which she held my hand, and the comfort that I found there. Yes, she had her cross to bear – mangled joints and a life of discomfort. But she showed me the love and beauty in that pain.