Disclaimer: this is not an amusing post. If you’re looking for chuckles, you might want to move along.
I’ve thought long and hard about writing this blog post, because even though I pretty much call ‘em like I see ‘em all the time, I really don’t like hurting people.
Well, most people. Certainly not the people that are nearest and dearest to me, and those are probably the people this post is going to hurt most of all. After going back and forth in my head (which, by the way, tends to make me dizzy), I decided that it had to be written anyway.
As most everyone knows, Steve and I spend lots of time with our grandchildren. This past weekend, we planned dinner and a movie with Lexi and Ethan to celebrate Ethan’s birthday. The 2 oldest of our grandchildren, they are wonderful cousins to one another, just thick as thieves.
Watching these monkeys grow up is a double edged sword. We have a front row seat as they develop from infants into tweens and teens right before our eyes, but the constant awareness of how swiftly their childhoods are passing is bittersweet. Conversations used to revolve around coloring books, how high they could count, and the story line of Shrek. Now it’s more likely about soccer strategy, current music, the delicate balance of friendships at school, potential careers, and even current crushes.
Certainly, they also tell fart jokes… regale us with genuinely hilarious imitations of their parents…and transition from bona fide dance moves to exaggerated disco foolishness within the 4 minute duration of Party Rock Anthem.
These are our two oldest grands. Lexi turned 12 a few months ago, and this particular evening was to celebrate Ethan turning 9. Last year of single digits for this dear boy; how did that happen? As grandparents, we’re cutting our teeth on these two poor kids. We quickly realized that all the mine fields that were navigated during parenthood don’t help much when it comes to the challenges of grand-parenthood. We struggle through supporting their parents’ rules and standards… keeping confidences that we wish we could share with their parents… listening when they just need a sounding board without injecting advice… sharing our own personal belief system without inflicting it onto them.
It’s a tightrope.
I digress, but this is the background to the conversation that was had in our car last Saturday.
After 15 minutes or so of “let’s make jokes about Grandma being old”, I threw out a deflection by asking them what age they considered “old”.
Lexi: “Like, 60.”
Ethan: “Yeah, like 60.”
Hmmmmm. So I decided to test their opinion.
“Do you think Aunt Denise is old?” – “No, not Aunt Denise.”
“Do you think Ken & Celine are old?” – “No! They’re too fun.”
More inquiries on actual people who were over the age of 60, and more “No, not (fill in the blank).”
Me: “Do you think Grandma Pam is old?”
Ethan: “Who is that?”
Lexi: “My other Grandma. She’s not OLD old, but she’s old because she’s sick.” Her tone changed, and not in a good way.
Me: “Because she has to have the oxygen tank?”
Ethan: “Oh, THAT Grandma. Lexi, she’s old. She’s REALLY old.”
Lexi: “She isn’t really that old, but she’s can’t do stuff anymore. Did you know her lungs aren’t going to get any better?”
Me: “Yes, I know that. I’m sure that’s pretty hard.”
Ethan: “It’s because she smokes, huh?”
Lexi: “Yeah. She got lung disease. It’s really sad.”
Ethan: “I hate smoking. My Mom is going to quit. She’s trying really hard. I hope she does it soon, because I don’t want her to get sick. I’m never going to smoke.”
Me: “Good choice, buddy. I know your Momma is trying. She’s using that e-cig now.”
Ethan: “Sometimes.” His tone had begun to match Lexi’s. Not a good sign. This is the opposite of Happy Birthday conversation.
Lexi: “I think my Mom could quit, but I don’t think she will. It’s too hard for her to quit when Josh smokes, and Josh doesn’t want to quit. I hope I never smoke.”
Me: “You don’t have to hope, honey. Just don’t do it.”
Lexi: “Yeah, I know, but you know how kids say they don’t want to do things their parents do but they end up doing them? I don’t think I’ll smoke, because I’m around you guys a lot, but I think Matthew and Hunter and probably Allison will. Because they want to be like everybody else, and they all smoke. Josh, Grandma Tina, PaPa Jeff, Laura, Aunt Jenny. All of them. “
Ethan: “Yeah! I think that too. I don’t want to smoke, but my Mom and Dad do, and Uncle Alex. And my Dad drinks beer all the time, and I don’t want to drink beer ever, because everybody fights when they drink beer. But I think I might end up doing those things too. When they were kids, they probably didn’t say ‘Oh, I want to grow up and smoke’ or ‘I want to grow up and drink beer’, but they did.”
I am thinking desperately of what to say. I look at Steve and see that his mind is working just as fast as mine. These children already understand, on a very basic level, the pitfalls that cause people to repeat cycles of destructive behavior.
Me: “I used to smoke. Then I quit. So your parents will be able to quit. They’re trying.”
Ethan & Lexi: “YOU used to smoke? PaPa, did you too?”
Steve: “No. Never. I never smoked, I never drank, I never used drugs. I just didn’t.” That’s the absolute truth, but I still give him an exasperated look. Trying to paint a picture of transformation here, Sweetie!
Lexi: “Did you smoke while you were pregnant, Grandma? My Mom did with Hunter and Matthew, and I think that’s why they’re little. And we’re always around smoke, even when the boys were babies. I think that’s bad, but I can’t say anything.”
Ethan: “When did you stop, Grandma? Does my Mom know you used to smoke? Can I tell her? ”
Me: “No, I never smoked when I was pregnant, Lex. I actually didn’t smoke when my kids were little. I smoked as a teenager because I thought it was cool, then stopped the day I found out I was pregnant with your Mom. I can’t tell you why I started again, but to be honest, I think it was because I started being around other people who smoked. Then one day, in 1998, I stopped for good. Just like you guys, I always said I wouldn’t smoke, and I had disappointed myself. So I just stopped. Ethan, your Momma knows I smoked, it isn’t a secret.”
Ethan: “When you were a kid, did you say you were never going to smoke?”
Deep breath. I have to be honest, and I vividly remember hating the smell of cigarettes, and the hacking cough that my Mother had, and the way cigarette smoke in a closed car gave me motion sickness.
Me: “Yep. I sure did.”
Lexi: “Your Mom died from smoking, huh, Grandma?”
Me: “Yes, she did. So did my Dad.”
Lexi: “Were they old?”
Ethan: “Does my Mom know that? That your Mom and Dad died from smoking? Will you tell her? Tell her that she needs to quit.”
Me: “They weren’t old. My Dad was younger than I am right now. My Mom was only a little older than I am right now. Ethan, your Mom knows.”
Ethan is speaking very quietly now, looking down at his hands: “Then why does she smoke? Why does Uncle Alex? It’s so bad, and even I know that and I try to tell her. Once I even threw her cigarettes away and she got mad at me and I told her I didn’t care that I didn’t want her to have them.”
Lexi: “That’s what I mean. When our parents were kids, they didn’t say ‘Oh, I’m going to grow up and smoke cigarettes and do this and do that.’ Then they just do. That’s why I’m scared for Matthew and Hunter and Allison. I don’t think I’ll do stupid things because Grandma and PaPa will confront me on it and not let me. But Matthew and Hunter and Allison, I’m scared for them. They’re not going to listen. They don’t have anyone to follow, except maybe me, but they’re going to follow Josh and Grandma Tina and all them.”
Oddly enough, I have to bite my tongue so I don’t correct her for saying “and them”. This is not the time.
Ethan: “Lexi, we won’t let each other do those things, ok? Promise? And you and me, we won’t let Aban and Kyra do anything bad either. We can’t.”
Lexi: “I won’t let you. I hope the boys won’t do stupid stuff. Or Allison. And I don’t think Uncle Alex will let Aban or Kyra do anything bad. I just wish my Mom……I don’t know, things are so hard for her. She has to work all the time, and take care of the kids…..I think it’s too hard for her to quit smoking right now.”
Ethan: “My Mom’s going to quit, I know she will. She’s trying really hard. I don’t think my Dad will, but I know my Mom will. I’ll help her. I just don’t want anything to happen to her.”
They’re speaking almost in whispers now, and more to themselves than to anyone else. Ethan’s voice cracks on the last sentence. Steve and I are silent.
Where’s your wisdom now, Grandma Know-It-All?
Me: “Hey, you guys, it’ll be ok. Ethan, nothing’s going to happen to your Mom.”
Lexi: “Nobody thinks anything is ever going to happen to them, Grandma. Until it does.” How many times have I said those exact words? About so many situations.
Silence. I look back, and my heart breaks. Instantly, I yearn for the days when the biggest worry was a broken toy or skinned knee. I want to fix this. I want to go back to the time when I could make everything better with a cookie or a Zerbert. I want to be able to give them the best day of their life just by flying a kite or making popcorn on the stove in a big pot with a glass lid. I’m not ready for these kids to have problems I can’t magically fix.
I don’t want life’s harsh realities to show their face to these kids. Not yet.
We went on to dinner….a Hibachi restaurant that Ethan had only been to once before and loved. It was a great surprise for him. Both kids loved watching the chef perform amazing feats on his grill, oohing and aaahing over onion volcanoes and juggling eggs. The staff sang Happy Birthday in Japanese, and brought him cheesecake. He’d never tried cheesecake before because he doesn’t like cheese….except on pizza. No amount of explanation could convince him that cheesecake was NOT going to taste like cheese. He was so enamored with everything else, though, that he took a big forkful of cheesecake. He was amazed that he liked it, and couldn’t wait to tell his Mom that he “discovered” cheesecake. Lexi tried to get him to try sushi, and he made a series of disgusted / terrified faces that cracked her up.
I have no tidy ending to this. No witty wrap up. I didn’t come up with some amazing wisdom to pass on through generations. The fears they expressed? Those are my fears, too….and Zerberts don’t magically make those fears go away.