Nearly twenty years after my paternal grandmother’s funeral, I still feel deep sadness when I remember that day. As I stood in front of the room reading a poem I had written to commemorate her life I realized that the only people in attendance were her immediate family and two women who had lived next door to my grandparents for thirty years. Two illnesses—alcoholism and dementia—had so isolated my grandmother that by the time of her death almost no one remembered her well enough to attend the service. This despite the fact that I have in my possession many photos showing a woman who in her youth was quite beautiful and whose life was full of parties and other social connections. When she talked to me about her youth, her eyes lit up and she often broke into gales of laughter as she described the boys she dated, the pranks she played, and the people she knew. Once when I was telling her that my friend’s parents had a car with bucket seats (a phrase I had just learned) she giggled and told me that when she was in college she rode to school on a “real” bucket seat. Seems a young man she knew had a car in which only the driver’s seat was permanent. He filled the rest of the car with overturned buckets on which as many as ten people rode (for a few cents per week) to and from school. From what she told me, I gather that those rides were full of uproarious laughter and the kind of camaraderie that develops among people who share common experiences on a daily basis.
And my grandmother’s rich social life did not end after college. My grandfather once told me that she was always the beautiful and stylish life of the party. I have one picture of her striking a sexy pose against a fireplace and another of her—clearly at a party—hamming it up for the camera. I know that she was active in women’s groups, that she had close friendships with many of the women in her neighborhood, and that she belonged to a homemakers’ club, which once honored her with a table setting award. My mother tells me that my grandmother always treated her with kindness even though there was much familial scandal because I was conceived “out of wedlock.” According to my mother, the Thanksgiving before my December birth she was grateful when my grandmother insisted on saving her the trouble of cooking and took to my parents’ apartment a fully cooked, ready to serve holiday meal. My grandmother was known among her friends and family as an extremely talented seamstress. She made the vast majority her own clothes and she also made most of the clothing I wore from the time I was born until my parents separated when I was a child. By the time of her death, though, most of her connections to other people had been lost, first to the isolation that allowed her to hide her uncontrollable drinking from friends, and second to the years of dementia that in her later life robbed her of even the most basic ability to connect and communicate with others.
Ever since MS forced me into early retirement from a career that sustained me both intellectually and socially, made it impossible for me to drive, and shortened my days with extreme fatigue and other symptoms that make it difficult for me to socialize as much as I would like, the isolation my grandmother faced in the latter part of her life has loomed large in my consciousness. As the school year begins, I envy the people I know whose social lives pick up pace as they head back to classrooms full of students, to the constant meetings that are so much a part of academic life, and to interactions with national and international colleagues at conferences and other professional gatherings. Though I am keenly aware of my inability to do the work I once did, I want nothing more than to be swooped into the hectic pace of the school year. I want to plan courses and write syllabi. I want to be immersed in university politics. I want to feel the pressure of deadlines. Even in the second year of my absence from daily work at the university, I grieve both the pace and the sociality of that life.
The isolation of my new life extends to my relationship with Deb. She and I met at work and for 17 years our offices were never any more than a few feet away from each other. We were careful to separate ourselves at meetings and to maintain individual professional identities, but we spent much of our time at home talking about teaching, the professional service in which we were involved, and other issues related to our daily work. What’s more, we co-edited books and co-wrote articles and a book, so a significant part of our intimate relationship revolved around our professional interactions and collaborations; we both deeply valued and found a kind of passionate intimacy in that constant connection. Recently, when we discussed the impact MS has had on our lives, Deb pointed out that though I have the disease and I am the person who must deal with most of its physical and emotional cruelties, MS has happened to both of us. Referring to the fact that we no longer have a common work life, Deb said, “I hate to think about what this awful disease has taken from us. I resent it all of the time. I miss you at work every day.” During that conversation we discussed the fact that we now depend on other people to meet many of the daily social needs we once met for each other, a discussion that left me in tears over the loss.
Though I am not usually inclined to think much about my own death and/or funeral, I must admit that my memory of the vast sea of empty chairs I saw at my grandmother’s funeral reminds me always how easily and imperceptibly chronic illness can isolate us. As we lose our ability to work and to make our own way in the world, our lives separate more and more from those of the people around us, the ones with whom we once interacted naturally and frequently. And that social isolation is deepened when it’s necessary to explain to people we meet that we once lived very different lives than those we live now. When the newspaper in her city published a beautiful story about my mother-in-law’s early teaching career at a local private girls’ school, she asked Deb to please be sure to share the story with our grandchildren (her great grandchildren) because she wanted them to know that there was a time when she was not the elderly, dependent woman they have always known her to be. As my life changes from one full of motion and natural social connections to one full of solitude I feel some trepidation when I remember realizing how isolated my grandmother was at the end of her life. In much the same way, I feel deep sympathy for my mother-in-law who hopes that her great grandchildren will know that before she became isolated by her aging body she led an interesting life and made important contributions to the world.