Read an Excerpt
“I hung around people who were doing these things…”
I’ll cut right to it: My lowest moment of the 2010 Delaware U.S. Senate campaign, was when I was caught in a swirl of negative press over a decade-old comment I’d made on the late-night ABC-TV talk show Politically Incorrect, hosted by comedian Bill Maher.
It wasn’t much of a comment, if you must know. Frankly, it wasn’t much of anything, but from the moment it started recirculating in the media it put our still-small campaign team on the defensive. Big time. We went from autopilot to damage control in a flash—over a nothing comment on a nonissue, made when I was hardly a factor on the political scene.
In an effort to be candid and relatable to the audience, I had opened up about a time back in high school when I went out on a blind date with a guy who believed in the occult. That’s all it was, really.
When Bill Maher pressed me on “dabbling,” the word I used to describe the extent of my passing interest in such matters, I said, “I hung around people who were doing these things.”
As a side note, let the record show that “dabbling” means that a subject is “lightly explored,” with a “superficial interest.” You wouldn’t hire a lawyer who’d dabbled in law school. You wouldn’t see a doctor who’d dabbled in medicine. With this definition in mind, the word was exactly right. Dabbled. Lightly explored. That about said it. I never embraced this young man’s religion. This was at a time in my life when I was open and curious and searching for meaning and spiritual guidance. And then I moved on.
* * *
When the show first aired in October 1999, nobody seemed to notice or care—boom, end of story. Back then, I was an aspiring political and social advocate, traveling the country on behalf of my own grassroots ministry, hoping to get young people to think a little more conservatively (and, I maintained, more responsibly). Politically Incorrect was a frequent and favorite stomping ground for me, because it offered such a wonderfully direct pipeline to America’s young people—who, after all, accounted for much of Bill Maher’s late-night audience. And Bill and his producers must have liked my cheerful, hopeful, no-nonsense style, because they kept asking me back. Or maybe they were getting good feedback from the audience, and that’s why I was getting booked. Either way, I ended up appearing on that show twenty-two times. (According to the show’s producer, that put me right up there with Ann Coulter and Arianna Huffington as one of the most frequent guests on the show.) And each time out it felt to me like I was making more and more of a connection with the teenagers and young adults I was trying to reach.
This, I thought, was a great, good thing.
Now, more than a decade later, it was nearly my undoing. Bill Maher dug out that old clip to show on his new late-night show, HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, and before I even had time to wonder what he might be up to the thing had gone viral. Suddenly, it was the talk of the campaign—and not in a good way. In putting it back out there, I didn’t think Bill Maher was stirring up trouble so much as he was baiting me to appear on his new show to debate the issues of the day. At first, that’s how I looked at it, giving him the benefit of the doubt.
A lot had happened in the intervening decade. I was now making some noise all of my own, having just defeated our current congressman and former governor Mike Castle in the Republican primary, stunning the party establishment and in the process winning the support of the Tea Party Express; political commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity; and even the de facto standard bearer of the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin. In the language of late-night talk show producers, I’d become “a good get.” Since I was no longer doing many national interviews, in order to focus on the needs and concerns of my fellow Delawareans and to address the issues of the campaign, I figured the Real Time producers were just doing their jobs in going after me.
Did I regret making those remarks, now that they were coming back to bite me? I’m tempted to say yes, but it wouldn’t be true. It was a different time in my life when my purpose was different, long before I could ever imagine that I’d one day run for the United States Senate. What I said referred back to an even earlier time in my life, when I was just a kid and my front-and-center worries had more to do with boys and grades than taking on the liberal establishment.
Absolutely, a whole lot had changed since my time on the Bill Maher show, and even more since the time twenty years earlier that I had spoken about. I got that. I understood full well that these nothing revelations meant one thing from the lips of a relatively unknown grassroots advocate, but coming from a candidate for the United States Senate, they meant something else entirely. I got that, too. And yet to hear the firestorm of controversy that was now coming my way, you’d think I’d started turning my political opponents into toads. Bill also showed a clip where I said I read the Bhagavad Gita, but no one accused me of being a Hare Krishna. And anyway, aren’t the liberals who slammed me for this the very same ones touting tolerance?
All this fuss and bother over a blind date when I was a teenager, for goodness’ sake! It was all very innocent, and very weird, and nothing more. This guy shared some of his views with me, and that was pretty much that. I saw him a few times after that, and I did a bit of reading on paganism, because it was a time in my life when I was searching for my own footing, but I never signed on to this guy’s beliefs.
I was curious, that’s all.
Where I Come From
The O’Donnell family quilt is a colorful patchwork of classes and cultures, and political affiliations, but the common thread that knit us all together is a tireless work ethic, a fierce determination to stand for something (and for each other), and an enormous sense of pride, place, and love.
We have our disagreements, just like any other American family, but we work past them and set them aside because we love each other. We come together from all these different, sometimes opposing views and opinions, and we find our way to common ground, to a place of shared purpose and meaning.
I think every American family is its own little melting pot. In ours, there was a whole lot of Italian and Irish, with a healthy dose of American blue blood thrown into the mix.
Initially, I wasn’t really sure about including any stories from my childhood, because they don’t only involve me. My parents and siblings were put through so much scrutiny and hardship when I ran for office and declared myself a public person. The moment I became a candidate, my life became an open book—and my life is so intertwined with their lives that my family was thrown right out there with me. Then I realized that my goal in writing this book is to inspire real people to engage in the political process. And real people have real lives and real problems.
When we share the hard truths of our lives they often stand as an inspiration to others. We’ve all had our share of rough patches, and I believe we lift each other up when we talk about them; we can learn from each other’s mistakes, and find strength in the struggle.
My family is close. We all have our own special relationships with our parents and with one another and this extends to the next generation as well; my siblings have great spouses and well-adjusted children. By all outward appearances, we’re one big happy family. And this is true from our own perspectives as well. That’s not to say we didn’t have our problems. We did. Along with the great times, we had some tough times as a family. To the outside world it might have looked like we were the Waltons—living in the suburbs instead of the mountains. And in a lot of ways, that was true. But in addition to the financial struggles that you could imagine would arise in raising six children—yes, there were six of us—my dad drank heavily during my childhood. He doesn’t drink like that anymore. And I’m proud of the way we’ve powered past it all. Our difficulties don’t define us. It’s how we deal with them that shape who we are. Frankly, I’m a little wary of politicians with “perfect” pasts, and I’ve come to regard the imperfections that have found my family over the years as badges of honor, not marks of shame.
My parents are the true heroes of my story—and were it not for their strength, their faith, and their boundless courage my journey could have gone another way. My mother’s refusal to let her family fall apart on the back of my father’s alcoholism was, and remains, an inspiration. My father’s willingness to let himself be lifted by the love of his family to a place where he could do the hard work necessary to make himself whole … well, it’s been a kind of revelation.
Ah, but I don’t mean to get ahead of the story—my story, our story …
My parents grew up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, so they knew each other as kids. My mom, Carole Chillano, is Italian; her parents were first-generation Italian-Americans. My dad, Dan O’Donnell, is Irish-American, with family roots in this country that quite possibly reach all the way back to our Founding Fathers. My parents lived on opposite ends of what they’ve always called the Corpus Christi part of town. You won’t find that name on a map of the city, but in those days, to hear my parents tell it, Philadelphia neighborhoods were known by the churches in each community. My mom lived on the Italian side of the neighborhood and my dad lived on the Irish side, with a playground in between, on Clearfield Street. They started dating as teenagers, and they’ve been together ever since. (They even married as teenagers, so they got a good running start!) And they still keep in touch with their neighborhood friends from the playground.
My paternal grandmother, Kathleen Carroll, had a real zest for living. She was witty, charming, and full of spunk. I remember visiting in the hospital when she was dying and she said, “Go get my purse, let’s go dancing!”—and she was serious!
Kathleen Carroll came from a long line of Carrolls—for a time, one of the most prominent families in Philadelphia. We were always told that one of Grandmom’s great-great-great uncles was Charles Carroll, a United States Senator from Maryland, the longest-living and last-surviving signer of our Declaration of Independence. We were never able to confirm a direct relation, but I mention the connection here because I know my nay-saying critics are fact checking this book. I’m hoping to use their scrutiny to my advantage—either to corroborate our long-presumed link to Charles Carroll of Carrollton or to set it to rest.
Just in case, we’ll have it covered!
At a young age, my grandmother found herself “in the family way” after taking up with my grandfather, Francis O’Donnell. The circumstances surrounding their relationship and the pregnancy caused a great scandal and in the end she was estranged from her family—and cut off from what would have been a sizeable inheritance.
I can’t imagine what my grandmother suffered, for the choices she made as a young woman, but in the years to come her courage and great conviction came back into play, because it turned out my grandfather was an alcoholic, the same disease that would later haunt my father—only in Grandpop O’Donnell’s case, sad to say, the battle didn’t exactly go his way. The marriage didn’t last, and my grandmother eventually found someone special—a wonderful stable man named John, who worked hard in a gas station and was utterly devoted to my grandmother. We called him Grandpop John, because in time he became more of a grandfather to us than Francis. In fact, later on, my grandmother’s dying wish was to make sure my father would look after John once she was gone—and, as always, my father was true to his word. Grandpop John ended up moving in with my parents the last couple years of his life, and here again the takeaway for me was the importance of family.
There’s one cherished memory that grew out of my grandmother’s estrangement. My grandmother’s siblings, for the most part, were fearful about keeping in touch with their sister because they did not want to go against their father’s wishes. However, a couple of my father’s aunts and uncles did on occasion secretly defy him to maintain a connection with my grandmom.
On one such occasion, my grandmom was having a family barbecue and her sister, my Great Aunt Urse, snuck around to take part. Not in the habit of showing up empty-handed to a gathering, she brought a plate of deviled eggs arranged on a blue Limoges plate. To Aunt Urse, the plate was an everyday plate, but to the rest of us, it was clearly a fine piece of china. Grandmom O’Donnell recognized it right away from her mother’s china collection. At the end of the party, Aunt Urse left in haste, forgetting the plate. Grandmom thought about returning it—but the temptation to have something that belonged to her mother was just too great, so she kept it. A few days later, the plate took a place of honor up on my grandmother’s wall. It was the only keepsake she had from her mother, so it meant a great deal to her. She proudly showed it to everyone who came by for a visit.
She would point to it up on the wall, and say cheekily, “That’s my inheritance.” Except, of course, when good ol’ Aunt Urse came over. For her visits, the plate was temporarily removed.
Well, the story of my grandmother’s prized blue plate did not end there, because after she and most of her siblings had passed, the provenance of the plate was thrown into question. At one point, one of my father’s relatives reached out to him to see if he planned to challenge the estate. My father didn’t want any of their money, he said. All he wanted was his Aunt Ursula’s blue plate.
And so it was settled—and now the blue plate hangs proudly on my parents’ living room wall.
* * *
I never really knew my paternal grandfather, Francis. He was out of the picture by the time I was born. He was a difficult character. He drank … a lot. I share the broad details of his life with a heavy heart. He was my grandfather, after all, and it’s difficult to cast a member of your own family in such a vulnerable light, but this was who he was. We do not lift or improve ourselves by ignoring the mistakes or missteps of others; rather, we must consider the bad paths they’ve taken or the turns they might have missed and weigh them against the roads that spread out before us. We don’t do ourselves or our loved ones any favors by avoiding the truths of our lives, however ugly or heartbreaking those truths happen to be.
I only met my grandfather once. I was in fifth grade, and he was living down in Clearwater, Florida. My father hadn’t been in touch with him for years, but out of the blue his father sent him a check for $1,000, as a kind of make-amends gesture. My dad recognized that check as the lonely, desperate cry that it was, so with his $1,000 he packed us six kids and my cousin Evelyn into a run-down passenger van we’d borrowed for the occasion, and we drove down to Florida for a family reunion he said was long overdue. Even as a kid, I saw this as a great lesson in forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I was old enough to understand the depths of my grandfather’s mistreatment of his family, but here was my father, taking what for us was a lot of money and spending it on the man who’d showered so much abuse on him for so many years.
It was a beautiful moment of redemption, and a wonderful opportunity for us kids to see our father rise above his raw emotions to do the right thing, and set the right example. Even in retelling it, it still moves me.
Grandpop O’Donnell was thrilled to have us visit, and we kids were able to tune out all of the anger and anguish that had been built up over the years. To us, he was just a fun grandfather, and my father was happy to see us all getting along so well. In fact, things were going so well, from our little kid perspectives, that the night before we were due to leave we pleaded with our parents to take my grandfather back with us. He seemed so lonely down there in Clearwater, his days so dark and dismal; we all thought he could use a change of scenery. My parents, a bit reluctantly, agreed.
It was quite a frantic scene, as we got ready to leave early the next morning. It was barely daylight, and my mother had her hands full getting her six kids and her niece all packed and washed and into the car. I believe now that my grandfather had probably been up all night drinking, so in addition to worrying about us kids my mother had to wonder what he might do next, but somehow we got past the chaos and were ready to leave. The last thing my mother had us do, just before leaving, was to shuttle us each into the bathroom, so we wouldn’t have to stop on the way. One-by-one, we took our turn and then headed out to the van.
I was the last—and by the time I stepped out of the bathroom everybody had gone. I thought they were all waiting for me in the van, so I raced outside, but the van was gone, too! It was a real Home Alone-type moment, back when Macaulay Culkin was just a baby!
Amazingly, surprisingly, I didn’t panic.
They’d driven a couple miles before anyone figured out I was back in the apartment. Remember, this was before cell phones, so they couldn’t call to tell me they were on their way. Before heading out, my mother, as usual, did a quick head count, and in the rush of the morning had simply forgotten that we also had my cousin Evelyn in tow, so when she got to six she left it at that, and now all they could do was race back to my grandfather’s and hope against hope I hadn’t gotten into any trouble.
My poor mother was absolutely mortified that she could leave me behind like that. To this day, she gets embarrassed when we tell this story, but I didn’t see it as anything to be embarrassed about. I still don’t. There was a lot going on that morning, that’s all. There were a lot of kids to track, and my cousin Evelyn, and my ornery grandfather, and all of our stuff. It’s a wonder they got out of there at all, with most of their kids—I count this to my mother’s great credit.
Meanwhile, first thing I did, after assessing the situation, was plan my new life in Florida. I didn’t know how long I’d be there on my own. So I searched my grandfather’s kitchen cabinets, and saw a couple cans of tomato soup, so I figured I was covered in the food department. Then I went out back, and started exploring. It occurred to me I might need to find some way to make a living, so I gathered a bunch of stickygooks from the trees behind my grandfather’s building. I don’t know what these things are actually called, but I used to collect them with a friend of mine at Strawbridge Lake, near our house in New Jersey. We always knew them as stickygooks—brown pods, with a hard outer shell, filled with seeds and green sticky stuff. If you dry them out, you can shake them like maracas, so my idea was to decorate them and sell them, and if I couldn’t find a market for them I told myself I’d at least have a nice collection going.
I was wearing a sundress, and I lifted the hem so the dress made a small basket in front of me, and gathered as many stickygooks as I could carry, and when my family pulled back up, I was out by the curb in front of my grandfather’s building, trying to sell my wares to folks as they passed by.
I must have made quite a picture.
We’ve told that story into the ground in my family, and it always gets a good laugh at Sunday dinners, but we’ve never told it outside the safe harbor of our own family … until now. I share it here for the way it stands as a precious family memory, but also for the gracenote it offers to this one extended visit with my grandfather. There were all kinds of lessons in it. Self-reliance wasn’t meant to be one of them, but there it is alongside the all-important lessons of forgiveness, tolerance, empathy, and all that good stuff.
We didn’t always get it right, in our family, but we made the effort.
* * *
I fared a bit better in the grandfather department with my grandpop Chillano, my mother’s father. Actually, he was pretty great with us kids. My grandmom Chillano was a jewel all around. She was beautiful on the inside and the outside. She had ocean blue eyes and dark blond hair. Although she came from limited means, she was always dressed to the nines and had an amazing fashion sense. We were extremely close to them throughout my childhood, and both my grandmother and grandfather had as much of a role in shaping me and my worldview as anyone.
My grandpop was a hardworking man with a fascinating background. He was one of those cantakerous old men that you couldn’t help but love. He was born in New Castle, Delaware, but moved to the rural outskirts of Philadelphia by the time he was an adolescent. Throughout his life he had several different careers, which meant he had an endless supply of stories to tell his grandchildren. He was a foreman for the railroad. He was an MP in the army during World War II. He was a cook. He worked as a taster in a local brewery—Ortlieb’s, a one-time Philadelphia institution. He’d tell the story of how he once alerted his boss to a bad batch of beer that was nearly sent out into the marketplace. Apparently, my grandpop could taste that the yeast was about to turn, but he couldn’t get anyone else to agree with him on this. They ran a bunch of tests, since discarding an entire batch would have cost the company a lot of money, but everything kept coming back fine. Finally, my grandfather’s boss turned to him and said, “Pete, if you tell me it’s a bad batch, it’s a bad batch.” Sure enough, within a week to ten days, the beer had soured and Grandpop was proven right. But this was almost beside the point. What mattered to my grandfather was that his boss believed in him, even when all the tests and all the other tasters didn’t agree. He’d built up enough credibility and goodwill to be taken at his word, and this to him was a tremendous accomplishment.
And he always had a story or two he’d share to instill that same work ethic in us. The most memorable was a kind of parable about hard work and determination, centered on a bag of peanuts. He told it to us so often that years later it made its way into my campaign speeches. He used to sit us down and in his gruff voice he’d say, “Listen, no one is going to hand you a bag of peanuts. If you want a bag of peanuts, you have to earn it.” Then he’d go on. “Instead of banging your head against the wall in frustration, you could work hard and earn enough money to buy two peanuts at the end of each day. Then, eat one peanut and put the other in a bag. The next day,” he’d continue, “do the same thing.” As he spoke, he’d raise his hand to his mouth as if he was eating a peanut. “Eat one,” then gesturing as if to toss a peanut into a bag, “put one in a bag. And before you know it, you’ve earned yourself a bag of peanuts!”
It was a simple bit of homespun wisdom, but he handed it down to us kids as if it held all the secrets of the universe.
To this day if anyone in my family says, “Eat one peanut…” whoever’s in ear-shot will respond, “Put one in a bag…”—complete with hand gestures!
Lessons about hard work didn’t only come from Grandpop, but from Grandmom, too. She grew up during the Depression, one of nine children, and as soon as she and her siblings were old enough they had to go out and work. At the end of the day, they gave what they earned to their father, my great-grandfather. My Grandmom was nine years old when she got her first job, working in a dress factory earning a penny for every tag she sewed on a garment. It was painstaking work, but she never complained because she loved it. Eventually she worked her way to floor supervisor. She was happy to contribute to her family’s finances. She used to tell me that no matter how difficult things were, she was always able to move about with her head held high. She considered herself very much a lady, throughout her life, never more so than when she had so little.
“Class is about character, not money,” she used to say. “Doing the right thing and treating others with respect is not something you can buy.”
To my grandmother, this was what it meant to be a lady, which was (and is!) all about character.
During the worst of the Depression, she told me, there was barely enough money. Sometimes a meal for all eleven of them would be stewed tomatoes picked from their garden and poured over stale Italian bread. That was how families did it back then, making a little go a long, long way.
Over time, Grandmom Chillano came to think she was richer for having suffered through that period in her life with her sprawling family. She might have minded sewing all those penny labels at the time, but she never let on that she minded it in retrospect, because it helped to define her, and build her character, and put food on the table.
Grandmom’s last days were difficult. When I got word that she didn’t have much time, I was living down in D.C., trying to make my way as an activist. My grandmother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, a slowly devastating disease that can drag down whole families in its wake. Some folks, when they get a grim prognosis like that, they simply check out. They say, “Oh, that’s awful. Call me when it’s over.” But that’s not how we O’Donnells roll. We hear a piece of news like that and we rally. We say, “Oh my gosh. Only three more weeks? That’s not nearly enough time.” And we drop everything to be at our loved one’s side, for whatever time we have left.
That’s how it happened with Grandmom. We all rallied together. At the time, my father and grandfather hadn’t been getting along, but even they put aside their differences. We did it because we wanted to make Grandmom as comfortable as possible, to make her death as peaceful and beautiful as possible. It became so much more than that, because the experience knitted us more deeply together as a family, in a profoundly beautiful way.
That colorful quilt I wrote about earlier? We wrapped ourselves beneath it and held each other close.
There’s a profound encyclical on suffering from Pope John Paul II, in which he talks about how suffering can unleash love. That’s how it was for us at my grandmother’s passing. Her death brought us together and reminded us what it meant to love each other—fully, truly, unconditionally.
In many ways, my grandmother’s death played a formative role in my life. On paper, and in every outward respect, I was already a young woman; I was deep into my twenties, making my own way in the world; and yet when you’re swallowed back up by family, surrounded by aunts and uncles, you fall into some of your old roles, your old ways of being with each other. I think in times of extreme stress or hardship, this is especially so. We all had our roles within our family dynamic. My brother and sisters and I were all “kids” in the eyes of the “adults,” and it fell to them to make all the really, really important decisions.
But that all changed through this experience. At one point my grandfather turned to me and said, “I don’t know what I’ll do without Grandmom. I don’t know how I’ll manage.”
It wasn’t just the thought of losing her that was weighing on him. It was the process of actually losing her. Caring for her was hard, really hard, and it was taking its toll. He didn’t say as much but it was clear, so I said, “Grandpop, how about I spend the night and take care of Grandmom for you?”
As soon as I put it out there, it was clear that my aunts and my mother didn’t want to put that kind of burden on “us kids.” “No, no, no,” one of them said. “You don’t have to do that.” The others concurred. They were trying to protect us from the pain of caring for a loved one and facing the loss of that loved one in such a full-on way. And, since I was one of the youngest and was used to yielding on stuff like this, I backed down from what would have been a good, helpful turn.
I came back the next morning to find that Grandmom had had a rough night. As a result, Grandpop was more on edge than ever. I could have kicked myself for not helping out.
The way things were working back then was that all of us would gather at my grandparents’ apartment each morning, and stay until very late at night. Spending all that time together gave me the chance to see this grumpier side of my grandfather that didn’t quite fit with what I knew growing up. So the very next day, when he was even more out of sorts than the day before, I made the very same offer, and this time I didn’t back down from it.
Once again, one of my aunts said, “No, honey. You don’t have to do that.”
I loved them all for loving me so much that they wanted to take on this burden themselves, but this was something I wanted to do, something I needed to do.
It was a milestone moment for me, to push this course of action, and to have it be so. Just like that. And for my mother and her sisters, too, it was a great relief. They were so grateful that I’d put myself out in this way—but it really didn’t feel like I was putting myself out at all. It was my pleasure, my duty.
And it turned out to have a very calming, very reassuring effect on my grandfather. We stayed up talking, remembering, for a good long while. We talked about my grandmother’s gnocchi. She was famous in our family for her gnocchi—tiny Italian potato dumplings she’d slather with gravy, which was what “real” Italians called their tomato sauce, which she made with “real” tomatoes grown from their own garden. There was always a friendly tug-and-pull between my grandparents and us grandkids over which one was the better cook, and any talk of my Grandmom’s gnocchi was almost always met by a challenge from my Grandpop’s meatballs. And so it was on this night as well, even though my grandmother was no longer able to defend her kitchen honors.
“You always liked my meatballs better,” Grandpop said, as he finally drifted off to sleep.
I sat there for a long moment, watching him sleep, his gray-black hair parted to the side. His healthy olive skin made him look younger than he really was, and I remember thinking that he was still strong and handsome—at least in his granddaughter’s eyes.
The next morning, after getting a good night’s rest, he was much more like himself, much more like I remembered, so we “kids” (and I use that term loosely, because we were all in our twenties and thirties!) put together a schedule for taking turns on the overnight shift and spending as much time as possible with Grandmom during her last days on Earth.
As I set this down on paper I realize it might seem like such a tiny thing, but to me it was a pivotal moment. It was somewhat of a coming of age.
It was taking responsibility, which can be a beautiful burden. That’s how it made me feel, taking this on. Like it was a challenge I wanted to meet for my grandmother. For my grandfather. For my mother. For my aunts. For me. And it was a challenge. I remember sitting with a woman from hospice who came by one afternoon to tell us what to expect in caring for a patient with Alzheimer’s. She told me that the hardest part for a caregiver was to think like the patient. “You have to try to enter what’s going on in her mind,” she explained. “If your grandmother thinks something is happening, or if she thinks she’s someplace long ago, don’t try to convince her that she’s not, because she’ll just get scared.”
That very night, I had a chance to put this counsel to the test. It was my turn on nightwatch. I was lying on the floor next to her bed so that I could be close. Suddenly, the sound of the bed rattling made me open my eyes. There was Grandmom, standing on the mattress, chatting calmly and specifically about going to work. In her head, she was a teenager, getting ready to go to the dress factory and start sewing tags. My first instinct was to reach for her and pull her down from the bed. I thought she’d fall and get hurt. But each time I reached for her she became more and more agitated. Then it came to me what the hospice worker had said about going along with my grandmother’s “reality.” Grandmom thought she was talking to one of her sisters. So I talked to her as if I was right there with her, like I was one of the girls.
“Betty,” I explained, reaching for her arm, “the bus isn’t coming right away. Maybe we should sit down and wait.”
She responded, “No, no, no. I’m going to be late for work.”
She didn’t settle down, and again I was afraid she’d fall. So I tried a different approach. When we were younger, my grandmother would sing to us as we were falling asleep. So I started singing to her.
Without even thinking about it I started singing one of the hymns I remembered from going to church with her when I was a child. I recall feeling like I needed to pray, and this was what came out.
Holy, Holy, Holy
Lord God Almighty …
God in three persons
I should mention here that I can’t really carry a tune, but that didn’t stop me—and Grandmom didn’t seem to mind. I sat there in the dark room and quietly sang. The glow of the streetlamp outside her window cast a soft, blue light across her face. After a verse or two her mood began to change. The words, the melody … it seemed to reach her. Whatever had been upsetting her melted away, and she calmed down. I held her arm and guided her as she lay back down, then sat on the bed beside her. She rested her head on the pillow and I stroked her hair the way she had stroked mine so many times when I was a little girl.
“Good night, Grandmom,” I whispered.
This was how we took turns saying good-bye to Grandmom, and taking care of Grandpop, and reconnecting with each other—reestablishing the relationships that would sustain us for the rest of our lives.
Later I overheard my aunt Karen telling my sisters, the next overnight team, “And Chris learned that if you sing her a church hymn, she really responds to it.” To me, her words signaled a sea change in our family dynamic. It felt to me like there had been a shift. I had taken my place at the adult table.
The whole experience of losing my grandmother in such a long, painful way was really very beautiful. It was so full of love, and growth. It strengthened us as a family. It was transitional, transforming. I went into the experience in some ways as a child and came out as an adult. Changed. In fundamental ways.
Copyright © 2011 by Christine O’Donnell