Lessons Learned from My Grandparents' Marriage, Part Two

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about my view of my grandparents' marriage while dealing with a partner who is chronically ill.

Today I'll switch over to my view of my dad's parents, who are different birds all together.

My paternal grandparents met on a double date...with other people (LOVE that little detail). My grandfather was four years younger than my grandmother, but apparently, they were both pretty smitten with each other from the get-go. A few short weeks (yes, weeks) later, they were married on Christmas Day. He paid ten dollars for a simple gold wedding band for her.

That was 64 years ago.

My grandmother was just finishing nursing school, so she went to work while my grandfather finished medical school. In the meantime, they had a couple of kids, and then talked to a few people who encouraged them to take their knowledge of medicine to a remote part of India to start a clinic there.

So they did.

The stories they have from that time are fascinating. Most of the stories I remember are the ones my grandmother has told about her experiences there.

She once planted hearty green plants all around the medical compound they had built, but couldn't understand why when the plants reached maturity, they would mysteriously go missing. It wasn't until one of the local people explained to the young Indiana farm girl that "ganja" was a popular plant in those parts that she realized her mistake.

She also was once thrown from a Jeep in a terrible accident, and landed face down in a rice paddy. My aunt Debi, then only a young girl, had to pull her out before she drowned.

As if that wasn't enough, my grandmother also contracted a case of tuberculosis, and had to remain bedridden for nine months. They cut a hole in the wall so she could see from her bedroom to the kitchen area and supervise the kids. She remembers this time as a great frustration, because she couldn't be out and about to do what both she and my grandfather call, "The Lord's work."

My aunt Michelle, however, confessed to my grandmother that her nine months abed was one of the kids' favorite times, "Because you were with us."

There's no denying that my grandparents did good work during their time there. My grandmother painstakingly translated her nursing textbooks by hand so that they could train local women to be nurses. My grandfather helped bring life-saving medicines and surgery to a place in the world that had nothing of the sort for hundreds and hundreds of miles. And through it all, their work bound them together, and they toiled there steadfastly side by side for thirty years.

But I've always wondered a little about some of their choices. They had five children, all of whom were sent to boarding school in the mountains while my grandparents concentrated on work. Lots of kids go to boarding schools, sure, but I think the effect of not having their parents around at such young ages and for such prolonged amounts of time didn't always leave the most positive impressions on my father, aunts and uncle. I think this is part of the reason why one aunt has dedicated her life to teaching third culture children in Africa.

What's most interesting to me about my grandparents' relationship, however, is their dedication to each other through their work. After 60-odd years together, you can still find them sitting side by side on the couch in their sitting room, pouring over theological books, notes, and sermons. My grandmother calls people every day to pray with them. It's not uncommon to go to visit and find that you must also visit with a stranger...one who speaks very little English, and has probably only arrived in the country mere weeks ago. Where my grandparents find these strangers is not the point...that they are welcomed in, no questions asked, as part of the family, is.

Recently, their health has started to deteriorate more rapidly than before. My grandfather, who up until the last seven or eight years was an exercise and health fanatic, seems frail now. (I will never forget losing a couple of pounds and having him tell me, "You look good. I was worried. You were getting a little heavy." Oh. Great. Thank you, Grandpa.) This man once taught me how to do a hook shot in the driveway, and even wrestled with the great-grandkids a few years ago. At the beginning of October, he was diagnosed with dementia. He's never been a vocal man, but this diagnosis has profoundly affected him. As a person who once defined himself by what he could do with his mind, it seems like an identity crisis of sorts.

My grandmother has been more frail, but where my grandfather seems to slowly withdraw into himself, her mind stays just as sharp as ever. She keeps a handheld Tetris game in her purse for when she has to wait for my grandfather during his appointments. She's been on Facebook for forever, and uses Gmail and Skype to communicate with people the world over. She remembers detailed stories from the past like they were yesterday, and can recite names, situations and prayer requests for hundreds of people in their church and networks.

It's interesting to watch how their dynamic has changed. Both are Depression Era kids, with a no-nonsense attitude about hard work, the sin of waste, and orderly, careful financing. They fit traditional gender roles: my grandfather was always "the man." He went out, did his work, came home, and dinner was ready for him, the house was cleaned, the children cared for. My grandmother ran the home and was a "helpmeet" for her husband and his needs.

Now, though, as my grandfather is fighting a losing battle to keep control of his mind, it's interesting to see how they are redefining those roles. My grandmother, who has always been more physically frail, casts a watchful, protective eye over my grandfather. Where before she required strict attention to rules and patterns and schedules (all so "The Lord's work" could be done well and properly), she now seems much more lax. The term "mother hen" comes to mind.

My grandfather now struggles to remember the names and faces of his grandkids and great-grandkids. Details are harder. He may ask the same question two to three times in a row. It could be a test of patience, except that his questions are just so darn unselfish. If he's asking you something two or three times, it's most likely because he's--as always--showing interest in people other than himself. It's both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

I don't know what's next for my grandparents. They still deeply, deeply love one another, even after being married for twice as long as I've been alive. I can't picture what it would be like to have one without the other.

I imagine they feel the same way.