My Grandma turned 80 on New Year's Day. We had a party for her yesterday in the basement of her church in her small Minnesota town. I had prepared some words to say but found it hard to get them out after my cousin read something before it was my turn. I was all weepy because I heard a story about my Grandma I had never heard before, one that moved me and reminded me what family is all about, what unconditional love looks like.
The words that were shared were written by my cousin, Brent. On her 80th birthday, he described Grandma and thanked her for something that I'll always remember when I look at the people in my life, especially my boys...no matter what.
Brent was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early twenties. He has lived through the nightmare of mental illness ever since, trying to overcome the stigma, the way people see him, what they don't understand. He has gone in and out of the hospital and psychiatrist's offices. He has spent many days walking through life clouded by the side effects from a medicine cabinet of prescriptions that fight the symptoms of the ugliest beast, but leave him tired or hungry or with his heart racing.
Brent has been fighting a battle against the lies his illness whisper to him for many years now. These whispers beg him to believe the darkest of things, and then they leave him feeling that there is no way toward his dreams.
I am certain there are few things that take more courage.
In the earliest days of his illness, we watched helplessly as something big took over Brent's life. As a family, we watched as our math wizard, Star Wars loving, game winning, quick-witted Brenty slowly slipped into a quiet and shaking person.
A person buried under the fears of his unquiet mind.
He would stand instead of sitting during meals over holidays, one arm raised in the air. And because he was still simply our Brent to us, we continued to eat, carrying on conversations and looking up when we talked to him, standing there whispering back to the voices.
We were acting out of our love for him and ignoring the discomfort of talking to a standing person who happens to be talking to themselves while we ate because he was going through so much more. Surely we could do that small uncomfortable thing while he did so much more. We could do the overcoming in those moments, it wasn't so hard. It never will be, no matter what he does or does not do.
He does the overcoming so much more than we do.
Over time, we educated ourselves on Brent's illness. We learned that schizophrenia can lie in wait, hovering around the corners of a person's mind and then springing to life, triggered by drug use or trauma. We questioned, we tried to find out, but we never knew what that thing was for Brent, the thing that flipped the go switch. We always knew that something traumatic had triggered this inevitable fall into depression, hallucinations and delusions, but Brent wasn't talking...
We knew whole-heartedly that there was something, something that had happened.
We knew how family knows.
The truth is, it never really mattered what Brent had done or not done, what had happened or not happened. Schizophrenia is an unfair thief in and of itself.
There is no blame.
Yesterday, for my Grandma, Brent shared (through his sister's voice on his written page) that in his last years of college he lived in a way that was very damaging to him. He said that one day, in the midst of all it, Grandma stopped him in her kitchen, that place so full of living, of homemade bread and soup, and she looked him straight in the eye and she said you will always belong to us. She knew something was wrong and then she said it like a command...
You will always belong to us.
Don't you dare think of leaving us. Don't you dare give up. Don't you dare think for even one moment that you aren't loved. You are ours.
Brent went on to say that remembering that moment has been something that has pulled him through over the years.
He does, you know. He belongs.
Isn't that what we all need, no matter what, to pull us through?
We need to belong.
Thank you, Brent. Your words gave Grandma the perfect gift yesterday.
And thank you, Grandma. For teaching us all about family and love. Happy Birthday.
P.S. I'm sorry I forgot your card. I'm also sorry that it took me too long to order your gift so it's not even here yet. Life has been a bit nutty lately, but I'll get back on track.
P.S.S. I even said "clothes shoot" TWO TIMES in my last post, instead of clothes CHUTE...that's how out of it I am. I promise to bring you your gift and card very soon, especially now that we're closer.
Love you, Heather