As I write this my grandmother is dying. It's not a new thing. It's been happening for a couple of years now. She is elderly and frail, and her health has been declining rapidly. But lately the family has gone through the process of admitting that she has entered the final months of her life. It's hard and uncomfortable and makes me sad. Yes, I love my grandmother, but it's more than that. My grandmother taught me how to love and how to be loved. She taught me the kind of woman I want to be.
My grandmother is a wife, a mother and a good catholic. That's "catholic "with a small "c." In Greek the word "katholikos" means "universal" or "as a whole." And that's how my grandmother taught me to love people: Love everyone, and love completely. People aren't perfect (even she isn't), but that shouldn't stop us from loving every part of the imperfections of those around us. She was also Catholic with the big "C," but she never let religion get in the way of loving people; I don't think her faith, at least the way she practiced it, could let that happen. She spent her life celebrating life, love, art, education, family and faith. She didn't say it; she actually did it. And family wasn't defined by bloodlines but by love. She never got her fill of either, family or love.
Even growing up I was a cynic, a doubter. I don't believe people easily, especially when they tell me what I want to hear. I don't trust it. But I trusted my grandmother, the woman I will always picture with the long gray hair in a bun, the soft hands, the glasses I always thought were unfashionable. I felt that she loved me. Even during the most tumultuous parts of my childhood, I felt it. It radiated off her, and I trusted it implicitly, without questions or doubts.
When I was in college I had a friend, Christine, who had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. I cajoled her into coming home with me to my big family holiday. Christine, a conscientious and lovely young woman, was worried about intruding on a private celebration.
"You don't understand," I told her. "I am going to introduce you to my grandmother, and she is going to hug you and say, 'Christine, I am so happy you could be here with us today.' And you are going to believe her."
Christine laughed at me, and then again when my grandmother gave her that very greeting, nearly word for word.
My grandmother loves her children. One of her sons, my uncle, is gay. Back in the days when equal marriage wasn't even a pipe dream, she celebrated him for who he is -- so much so that I don't ever remember it ever being an issue, and I am going to be 40 in a couple of years. My uncle's partner of almost 30 years is part of the family, Christmas name exchanges and all. He's just another one of my uncles, no big thing, no big statements, just family. But as I grew into an adult I learned that that was the biggest statement of all.
I have never spent a lot of time thinking about my uncle's orientation, even after my own son told me he is gay. It was only when people started asking me why I am so OK with my son's orientation that it occurred to me: I was raised this way. It's probably thanks to my grandmother that when my own son had crushes on boys, I didn't blink an eye. There were no bad thoughts, no soul searching, just a lot of "Look at how cute my kid is!" It is the sense of public service and community that she instilled in all her family that kept me writing and sharing even when things got scary and not-so-fun.
Right before she got really sick, I got the chance to tell her about my oldest son identifying as gay, and about the writing I was doing here on The Huffington Post. Her response: "Well, of course, children are gay." It makes me smile to think of it now. So matter-of-fact. She was proud of me and my family and the outreach we continue to try to do.
So when she is finally gone, I will cry, I will grieve, and I will remember the bright light she shone down on the child I was. Through the darkness of my own mind, through the troubles in my life, she was bright and warm and good, and then so was I. Even though my dark hair is too short for a bun, my hands are rough and my glasses are funky and numerous, I hope I am honoring her by living her legacy. We all need that person in our lives, the one who sees our flaws and complexities and loves us not in spite of them but because of them. So for her I will try to shine, because she is the one who taught me that love wins.