A Lesson in Optimism, from Experience
By Grace Brown, Asst. Opinion Editor
My grandmother recently passed at the end of March. She was 82 years old, and had lived a good life — at least, according to her. Most onlookers would have believed her life to be riddled with more misfortune than is fairly appropriate for a single person.
Due to the inability of her young mother to support her children and the absence of her father, Grandma Diane and her brother Georgie were taken by the federal government to an orphanage in Black Rock, Buffalo. There, they were raised by nuns and performed routine chores, such as helping the younger children dress and comb their hair.
Eventually, she and George grew out of the orphanage around age 12 and returned home. Her father, who was “completely estranged from me” as she put it, remained out of their lives. A good thing, given his abusive tendencies.
My grandmother married her first-ever boyfriend — something she warned me sincerely against — fresh out of highschool, at age 19. The two took a honeymoon in New York City and promptly had three children.
Yet the marriage was tumultuous, and it ended in divorce 17 years after it commenced. Shortly thereafter, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had to undergo chemotherapy treatments and eventually a mastectomy — a procedure she swore to have undergone believing it was a mere biopsy, only awakening to find an entire part of her body gone.
My grandfather moved to Florida and my grandmother replaced her love for him with an affinity for Jack Daniel’s, likely as a coping mechanism for a woman sickened by chemo, bitter at losing her marriage and hurt by the bad luck of her life. To protect her children from her alcoholism, she removed herself from the home they shared, consequently missing a large part of their teenage years.
Yet in a few years, she met Eugene, or “Gino”, and things looked good in Diane’s world again. Vintage photos reveal the adoration the two had for one another — annual fall road trips to a cabin in Letchworth State Park, long days on the beaches of Lake Erie and dancing clumsily (but gleefully) into the birthdays of her forties. Nobody is perfect, but everyone is perfect for someone else, and that may have been true of Gino and Grandma.
Misfortune struck again, when Diane and Gino’s car was one of five involved in a car accident. Within a month, doctors determined her spinal cord to have been compromised by the impact and declared her paralyzed from the waist down. Life returned a sustainable level of comfort and normalcy, but it was conducted from a wheelchair.
Then Gino died from diabetes, leaving Diane alone once again. One may see this as an opportunity for relapse into alcoholism or a complete abandonment of hope. Life may be cruel to everyone on occasion, but it is rarely so cruel to one person on a regular basis.
And yet, my grandmother managed to find joy in the smallest aspects of her day-to-day life, and she embraced these as little victories. The internet allowed her to reconnect with old friends, and they visited often.
Her new role as a grandmother brought fulfillment and joy to her relatively immobile life. My cousins and I spent countless days chasing one another in circles around the long couch in her living room and staying up later than our mothers would have approved. We lived by this principle: what happens at grandma’s stays at grandma’s.
Later in life, she continued to cherish this exceptionally powerful position, as her grandchildren grew and confided their more mature worries and fears in her.
I remember she told me once, when I was exceedingly anxious about an upcoming solo-travel excursion, “It doesn't matter what happens to you. Life will throw all kinds of trouble your way, but none of that matters. When your feet hit the ground in the morning, you decide what kind of day it's going to be. So make it a good one.”
That was the overarching theme of my grandmother's life — make the best lemonade you can out of the bitter and sour and rotten lemons life may give you. Regardless of how bad things may seem, you have the power to change your perspective, and then they seem better. Every day is an opportunity to choose what color tint your glasses are going to have.
Towards the end, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to do but never had the chance to. In all honesty, I was expecting her to reveal some sort of wild dream — like skydiving or visiting India, both of which would have been unattainable for her, given the wheelchair. But she just smiled and said, “No. I have had it pretty darn good.”