From Costa Rica- 2010

When I was a little girl I was made to go to my Grandma Dee’s house in Missouri usually once during the summer. My grandma is what I can now describe as a spitfire. Back when I was seven, I saw her as terrifying. Especially that one time when I decided to play with her ivory and gold gilded rotary phone and ended up dialing a few random people. She yelled at me with such vigor that I hid underneath her bed for an hour, peeking through the salmon colored sham, watching for her Minnetonka moccasins like the coming of the apocalypse.

My grandmother, Dorothy Robinson, has had MS, a degenerative nervous system disease, since she was in her late 50s. She started experiencing it when she tried to run across the street with her husband, and her legs wouldn’t move as quickly as she was telling them to. Since then, for the past few decades, she’s been probably one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met. Refusing to give in to a disease that leaves people in their thirties bed ridden and trapped in their own failing bodies, Dee refused to walk with a cane until she was in her 70s, balked at a walker until last year, when she turned 83. At 83, she now has accepted the use of a walker, but essentially slaps my hand away whenever I try to open a door for her.

“Kathleen, I’ve got it. I’m old, I’m not dead.”

For those of us in her large, scattered family who love her, this has been frustrating. Many mutterings of how Dee refused to accept reality floated around on family vacations, when she would shuffle determinedly from room to room in the Costa Rican condo, refusing our hands; only accepting help when one of us offered to pour her a gin and tonic.

She swam in the Pacific Ocean when she was 81, on a family boat trip with all of her grandkids leaping off the side of the craft like clumsy birds of paradise, hitting the water with more laughter than grace. She suited up in a life jacket, tight lipped and patting her perfectly coiffed hair, and we helped lower her into the warm turquoise water, where she floated with her grandchildren treading water by her, light fingers on her shoulders and legs, connecting us to this woman who believed that life was over when she damn well chose it was over.

It only hit me this Christmastime, when Dee asked for my help down the basement stairs, that she has the sort of diamond spirit that I want to have. Hard, unbreakable, but beautiful to see- ageless. Tonight over Christmas Eve dinner, she ordered the only food I’ve ever seen her eat happily, a rib-eye steak, and over her Manhattan and my Old-Fashioned, she said this to me:

“Honey, I’ve got a secret to tell you; you can’t be a sissy to get old.”

I’ve noted on this blog about how soft I am. How all my nerve endings peek out exposed on my right atrium, ripe for the prodding and the fraying. I have always thought this was the only way to live. Accept what happens with as much humility as possible, and suck in as much as you can to fit in to the space that life has left you.

But it’s Christmas, and I have a gift to give myself. I’m finally going to learn from my absolutely infuriating Grandma Dee. You can’t be a sissy to grow up. You can’t be afraid to puff up your chest and plant firmly where you are and be proud of the things that may make it hard to get up, to walk, to swim, to move in this dizzy life.

There is that well worn Christmas song about Santa, baby, one little thing; a ring. But rather than a seafoam green box from Tiffany’s, this Christmas I will be adopting my family’s crown jewel; a diamond spirit, courtesy of Dorothy Robinson.