When she was just an infant, Blaire's troubled parents divorced. Since both parents were incapable of raising Blaire and her siblings, the children were slated for foster care-until their grandmother, Eleanor, stepped in to raise them as her own. As Eleanor valiantly struggled against a family legacy of alcoholism and depression, she modeled strength and wisdom to endure the most challenging of times. Still, Blaire's life was not perfect. As she matured into adulthood, she battled addictions that eventually led her into recovery, just as Eleanor's health began to decline. When she found herself sandwiched between two generations, each increasingly needy, Blaire poignantly reveals how she discovered the true meaning of love and commitment, and the essence of what it means to be a mother.
Not Really Gone is the story about the undying love a grandmother gave her granddaughter-a love that inspired her to carry on and become the rock in her own family.
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Not Really Gone
By Blaire Sharpe
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Blaire Sharpe
All rights reserved.
And then suddenly, the hand of destiny changes everything.
They call it anticipatory grief — the grief you experience when you know a loss is coming. For years, my grandma's demise hung over me like a black cloud. I played out the possible trajectories in my mind, imagining my response to each. It was clear to all concerned that Grandma was mine to take care of. I felt this responsibility in my core — not as a burden, but in a possessive sense, the way a mother takes ownership over the care of her children.
Grandma was born Eleanor Lavinia Daniels in 1914, near Kitchener, Ontario. By the time I entered Grandma's life, she was in her late forties — the same age I was when she died. It is sometimes difficult for me to grasp that she had an entire life before me. What I experienced with Grandma in the forty-six years we were together seemed full enough to call whole, yet it was not. I was only a portion of her experience, yet she was the most significant part of mine.
I lost Grandma little by little. Once she hit her mideighties — having already lived longer than both her parents by several years — I witnessed a slow and steady deterioration of the woman who raised me. I noticed the physical impairments first. Though she was otherwise healthy, Grandma had always suffered from something similar to vertigo. She described her bouts of lightheadedness as feeling "woozy." When doctors would ask her if she meant "dizzy," she would protest. "It's not dizziness! I don't know how to describe it. I just feel woozy."
When these spells came over her, they would last several days or even weeks. She made countless visits to specialists in an attempt to determine the source of the problem, but to no avail. During these spells, Grandma would suspend her usual, active life and sit at home. I appreciated the wisdom she displayed by not driving during these times. As the spells increased in frequency and intensity, she began to respond to social invitations with noncommittal statements like "We'll have to wait and see how I feel."
Grandma and I spoke almost every day. The timing of these calls morphed with the changes in my lifestyle and living arrangements. When I was single and working and attending school, I would phone Grandma from work or at lunch, whenever it was convenient for me. Wrapped up in my own world, I would sometimes miss calling for several days, resulting in an indignant message on my answering machine. I was annoyed by such attempts to make me feel guilty, though I was more deeply annoyed by the truth of my self-absorption. How long could I continue playing the toddler — the ping-pong of running away, defying, only to realize that I'd gotten too far from the security of loving arms?
Fortunately, the universe knocked the self-absorption right out of me by gifting me with children of my own. Once I was married with children and reliably sober, I was able to reciprocate by becoming a consistent, dependable presence in Grandma's life. For years she was the first person I spoke to every morning. One of us would call the other "just to check in;" we would listen to all the mundane details of each other's days. There was comfort for both of us in knowing someone else was keeping track. At some point before day's end, we would check in again. And with each closing "I love you," there was a deep note of importance in our voices, a vehemence that stressed how much each of us wanted the other to feel the magnitude of our love.
My home was a short fifteen-minute drive from Grandma's house where I grew up, but it felt worlds apart. Our current home was in an upper-middle-class neighborhood that housed all varieties of physicians, attorneys, upper managers, and other type-A individuals. Though we had lived in this home for two years, we still weren't utilizing all of its five bedrooms, three and a half baths, and three thousand square feet. Jacob and I had spent months looking for this home within the one square mile where he was willing to live. One evening our Realtor phoned and said, "I found your house." We viewed the home the next day, a day before it was to go on the market officially. Stepping inside the foyer, a sense of certainty washed over Jacob and me: the home was perfect for us. Freshly painted off-white rooms and newly refinished hardwood floors created a bright, clean atmosphere. In the family room, windows spanned the length of three walls, overlooking a beautiful deck and a large backyard. Six months pregnant with Sasha, I had rubbed my expanding belly and envisioned the many hours we would share in the warmth of that family room. By the end of the day, we had negotiated terms for purchase of the home, which never officially went on the market.
One morning when my daughter, Sasha, was two years old and my son, Zeke, was about six months, we were having breakfast in the kitchen, the bright sunlight of morning shining through the abundant windows. Sasha was using her oatmeal as fingerpaint on the child-sized table in the kitchen. Zeke was in his high chair, and I was attempting to spoon-feed him, trying to keep the cereal and applesauce in his bubbling mouth. I instinctively reached for the phone and dialed Grandma's number, tucking the receiver between my shoulder and neck so both hands could return to the task of landing food in Zeke's mouth. Soon Grandma and I were exchanging good mornings and information about last night's sleep (or the lack thereof, in my case).
Then I asked Grandma a question, and there was a long pause and finally a faint, incoherent response. My heart raced. "Grandma! Grandma! Are you okay?" On the other end was more incoherent mumbling.
"Grandma? I'm going to hang up the phone and call nine-one-one." I was trying to sound calm for her sake, but I was not doing a good job of that in my panicked state. "It's going to be okay! Just hang on!"
Trembling, I quickly dialed 911 and relayed what had happened. The composed woman on the phone asked, "Is there someone at the house that can open the door?" Remembering that the next-door neighbor had a key, I replied, "If the door isn't open when you arrive, break in."
It would take me twenty minutes to get to Grandma's house. I phoned the neighbor, and fortunately he answered. From where he stood in his kitchen, he could peer directly into Grandma's house, through her living room to where she was sitting slumped on the floor of the dining room with the phone dangling at her side. "I'll go right over and call you," he said as he hung up the phone.
Oh my God! Oh my God! I was shaking so much I could barely function. All the what-ifs raced through my mind. Is this it? I wondered. Did Grandma just die? Did she pass out? Do I leave or wait for the phone call? I gathered the items needed to leave the house with a toddler and an infant: diaper bag, extra clothes, water, snacks, books, toys. Sasha began to cry, no doubt in response to the anxiety emanating from me. Not now, Sasha! Not now! I willed the phone to ring. Please tell me she's okay. Please tell me she's okay. When it did, my caller ID indicated the call was coming from inside Grandma's house. I steadied my trembling hands enough to hit the "talk" button and held the phone to my ear. "Is she okay?"
"She's talking a little, but I don't understand what she's saying. The ambulance is just pulling up. I'm going to go let them in. I'll call you back."
Exhale. And there it was: the first glimpse of the end, the first moment I considered Grandma's death as a real possibility. Not yet. I'm not ready. Grandma was my anchor. She loved and believed in me in ways I could not do for myself. I could not foresee a world without her in it.
After Grandma endured several painstaking hours of pokes and prods by the hospital staff, they told me that she had suffered a minor stroke, adding that it was fortunate that I'd called her at the exact moment I did. A few days later, Grandma was transferred from the hospital to the Willow Lane Nursing Center for further recuperation. Willow Lane was just two miles from my home, and I visited her daily. It was during one of those visits that Grandma and I had our first serious talk about whether she should remain in her house alone. She insisted that she wanted to continue living there, as she had since the house was built in 1940. She'd raised two families there, and offered shelter to several more. She was not ready to leave. I understood, but I was also concerned about her safety, so I suggested a compromise. She agreed to wear a Lifeline bracelet with a button that she could press to alert EMS should she fall or feel ill. We also agreed to hide a house key somewhere outside so we didn't need to rely on her neighbor to open the door for EMS. When Grandma left Willow Lane after two weeks of physical and occupational therapy, I was breathing a little easier.CHAPTER 2
Beginnings are always messy.
Growing up in an alcoholic family is like being raised in a war zone. Life is, at best, unpredictable. Threats lurk; traps are set; people explode; survival becomes the goal. It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the trouble because it has been present, simmering quietly, for generations. Then an event occurs that ignites full-blown chaos.
My father's childhood looked, from the outside, idyllic. He was smart, athletic, and popular. His sister, Judy, was three years younger and equally attractive and talented. Grandma and Grandpa were admired and envied for producing two such wonderful children.
Dad was the quarterback and captain of the football team at Oakdale High School. During his senior year, he was watched carefully by many college scouts and considered a leading contender for a scholarship to Michigan State University. Toward the end of the season, while playing a game in the pouring rain, the center hiked the football. Dad caught it, backed up, and scanned the field for an open receiver. The rain obscured his vision just enough to make a successful pass unlikely, so he opted to carry the ball down the field himself. As he turned his body to the left in preparation for moving toward the sideline, his right foot stayed firmly planted in the mud, ripping the tendons and ligaments in his knee. He fell to the ground in pain.
Dad didn't get the scholarship, and his dreams were shattered. He attended Michigan State anyway, hoping to join the football team as a walk-on. Though he was considered smart and especially good at math, the transcript from his two years at MSU told a different story. It showed no As and some Bs, but mostly it was littered with Cs, Ds, and numerous Fs. Dad left MSU after six semesters, with eighty-one earned credits and a grade point average of 1.78. He went to work as a draftsman in a local manufacturing plant.
Dad showed signs of a drinking problem early. During the summer of 1958, when he was twenty-two years old, he and his buddies spent a few weeks on the west side of Michigan, fishing and drinking. At some point during the summer, Dad returned home with my mother, announcing that they were going to get married. My grandparents were blindsided but offered their support nonetheless. Mom's history was, and continues to be, vague. At twenty-one years of age, she had already been married and divorced. She had given birth to a baby boy who died before reaching one month, never having come home from the hospital.
There was a small civil ceremony. Neither Mom's parents, who were divorced, nor her two brothers were present. The following February, my sister, Darlene, was born. My parents bought a small bi-level home in Utica, Michigan. A small town on the edge of farmland in Macomb County, Utica was struggling to find its footing as an urban, rather than rural, area. The Cold War brought purpose to the region, as Chrysler's Packard Proving Grounds was used for tank testing, and the Utica Nike Site was established to shoot down enemy aircraft in the event that the United States went to war with the Soviet Union. These projects attracted jobs and people and spurred on new residential construction.
When Darlene was sixteen months old, my brother, Rusty, was born. He was named Gerald, after my father, but had acquired the nickname 'Rusty' long before I had any idea that it was not his given name. Mom worked nights as a bartender. She and Dad often handed off kids through a babysitter rather than to each other. With their differing schedules, the marriage became more and more estranged. Dad was drinking heavily, Mom was returning home long after her shifts were over, and they blamed each other for their misbehavior. Even so, Mom became pregnant once again, and I was born sixteen months after my brother. By that time, the marriage was virtually over. Mom filed for divorce, and a legal battle ensued during which time Darlene, Rusty, and I spent half the week with Dad at our paternal grandparents' and the other half with our mother in Utica.
Throughout the divorce process, Dad and Mom accused each other of being poor parents. Dad was rebuked for his alcohol abuse; Mom was chided for her relationship with a mysterious man identified as "X" in the divorce documents. In the end, the court determined that they were both unfit parents and awarded legal custody of their three children to the Oakland County Court. Physical custody was granted to my father with the stipulation that we reside in his parents' home and that Grandma would commit to being home full-time to care for us.
Grandma had just hit her stride as an empty nester and was working as a receptionist in the beauty salon at a department store in downtown Oakdale. Her friends told her she was crazy to consider quitting her job to take on the task of mothering three small children. Grandma could not imagine choosing otherwise. Without looking back, she welcomed us into her home, raising us as though we were not her grandchildren, but offspring from her own womb.
Grandma and Grandpa lived in a red brick bungalow in Oakdale. The 1,100-square-foot home was built in 1940, when they paid four thousand dollars to purchase it. Over the years they kept the house meticulously maintained, inside and out. Darlene and I shared the bedroom across the hall from my grandparents. Dad and Rusty slept upstairs, which was a large room with a smaller attached room designed to serve as an office or library. The smaller room became Rusty's bedroom. The house had one bathroom, which never seemed to be an issue until the teenage years hit.
Life was cozy in the small bungalow. Grandpa and Dad left for work every morning, and Dad hired help for Grandma a few days a week — an African American woman named Pearl. Pearl was the spitting image of Aunt Jemima. She helped clean, cook, and care for us as Grandma went grocery shopping or ran errands. I didn't understand that Pearl was hired help; I thought that she and Grandma were friends. I loved Pearl. She had these strong, cushy hugs as she squeezed me into her ample bosom. She also made the world's best homemade biscuits — they were famous among my young friends — that left our house smelling like a bakery. I didn't understand why, when visitors came to our home or if she was over for special occasions, Pearl would fade into the background. I would tug at her arm to join the fun, and she would shake her head no and tell me, "It's not my place."
My early years were full of the things that make childhood fun: preschool, pony rides, trips to the zoo and the farm, swimming pools, and birthday parties. There were plenty of kids on our street, making softball, kickball, and games of capture the flag regular events. We attended church every Sunday morning and participated in all sorts of social functions there; neither Dad nor Grandpa ever went with us. Grandma found solace in religion. She regularly attended the Episcopal church in downtown Oakdale before our arrival. Dad, however, wanted his children to attend the Congregational church that our neighbors, the Carltons, attended. Dad chose Mr. and Mrs. Carlton, his best friend's parents, to be our godparents. And so Grandma left the church she had grown to love and feel at home within and joined the Congregational church in Oakdale, where she remained committed and active the rest of her life. I have warm memories of Saturday evenings when Grandma would give me a bath, wash my hair, and wrap me in nice, warm flannel pajamas that she had just taken out of the dryer. Then she'd roll my hair in spongy pink curlers that I would wear to bed; my curls would be brushed out the next morning as I dressed for church. Every Easter I got a pretty new dress and white patent leather shoes (which I, without fail, managed to scuff up, leaving brown streaks along the sides before church was over). On Christmas Eve we dressed in red and green and attended the candlelight service. As we grew older, Grandma joined the church choir, her beautiful voice recognizable from among the crowd of choral members.
Excerpted from Not Really Gone by Blaire Sharpe. Copyright © 2015 Blaire Sharpe. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAuthor's Note, ix,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Lisa McCombs for Readers' Favorite A member of a highly dysfunctional family, Blaire Sharpe does her best (and worst) to overcome the legacy of an alcoholic father and abused mother. As a young girl, she endured the injustices of neglect and sexual abuse, often haunting her progress through self and group rehabilitation. Through hypnosis, Blaire works toward finding herself and her purpose in life. When her grandmother faces early and latent bouts of dementia, Sharpe understands what it feels like to be truly needed. Incorporating her grandmother into her home with the loving support of her husband, the author is able to look at life in a moralistic and mature manner. The process of death and dying is undeniably realistic. Blaire Sharpe creates a memorable memoir of her life in this poignant work, Not Really Gone. With her grandmother her sole supporter, Sharpe experiences many trials into adulthood, but her biggest accomplishment is the end result of maturation that occurs after years of promiscuity and substance abuse. As a highly descriptive story of one person’s journey into a final state of realization of the importance of family, I recommend this as a must-read. Not Really Gone by Blaire Sharpe provides the reader with a sense of hope in preparation for the final days on earth, while interjecting a riveting story that will touch many readers, especially those who have given up. A candid story of the inevitability of life. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelou
Once I started reading Not really gone, I realized this was more than a memoir. It is a commitment to a relationship and love that is greater than time. Like any memoir this one presents episodes from Blaire’s life, from her not so happy childhood, from her struggles and joy. We meet her family that is not as present as it should and her grandparents who, after her parents’ divorce, took the role of mother and father. We learn how Blaire’s life was affected by her troubled parents and how she coped with every event that was occurring. But above all, we can see her grandmother’s lovely figure who was always there, trying to help and give strength to the ones around her. Eleanor Lavinia Phillips was her mother, father, confident and best friend. It takes a great deal to open up and write a memoir and for that I really admire Blaire’s courage. But, leaving the parts of Blaire’s life behind, I think this book is more about a great love. The love that has no boundaries and on/off button. A love that takes a lot of devotion and can go beyond everything. And that makes this memoir impressive. I haven’t read a book so overwhelming in a long time. Not few were the moments I had tears in my eyes. It was quite a heavy read in terms of feelings. It’s not easy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and reason with them, but the moment you do it, it gets even harder. You are there, you go through everything and get ready for your heart to be torn. That is exactly how I felt, but I also learned some things about acceptance and strength. So thank you Blaire for that. All the beautiful quotes, at the beginning of each chapter were not a random pick. I really liked the idea. Another thing I liked was the flow of events, that didn’t make this book heavy or boring, not even once. I definitely will give Not really gone 5 out of 5 stars for this journey that broke my heart in order to fix it again.