I’ve been really lucky to know three of my grandparents my entire life. My paternal grandma died at the hands of breast cancer when I was a wee babe, so I never really knew her, but her memory has been kept alive in my family in such a way that I feel like I do. A precious gift.
Two of my three living grandparents reside in Germany, something that sounds exotic to others but has always felt normal to me. Yes, it’s awesome and I’ve never taken any of it for granted, but you know when you were a kid and you went to visit Grandma in the summers or for Thanksgiving and you spent most of the time sitting on her couch, visiting aging aunts and uncles, and getting annoyed with your siblings? Picture that but with a $1200 plane ticket. And another language.
That aside, having half of my family on the other side of the Atlantic has been the ultimate gift. Growing up with international travel as a norm has shaped a huge part of who I am. Spending summers exploring German castle ruins and hiking the Alps has been unreal. Having a brain that can switch between languages has been a blessing. And let me just tell you about my Oma and Opa: the flyest, realist grandparents you’ll ever meet. My Opa, an intelligent, patient, hilarious man, married to my Oma, an intelligent, extremely impatient, hilarious woman. Visiting them has always meant adventure, laughter, and good chocolate, and in the past few years, it’s become something that I have simultaneously looked forward to and dreaded. Looked forward to of course because time with them is so sweet. Dreaded because every time I hug them goodbye at security before getting on my return flight, I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll be hugging them. We like to believe that the people we love will live forever, but we all know that’s not true. And when visits are limited to once a year, the hugs last a little longer and get a little tighter.
This summer, my family has finally had to face the harsh realities of this international love. My Oma, the healthy one of the two, suffered a stroke as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition. (I could talk about about how she went to her doctor complaining about the symptoms of said heart condition, but was told by her doctor without running one single test that she was fine and was just experiencing shortness of breath and intense fatigue because she’s old and Germany is having a hot summer, knowing full well that if a man came in and complained about these symptoms, doc would’ve run every test in the book just to make sure and how this is just another example of a woman not being heard or taken seriously, but I won’t.) She received swift and excellent care, landing her in the best-case-scenario category as far as strokes go. But a stroke at any age, let alone 89, is never best case. Opa, who struggles with a heart condition of his own, relies heavily on Oma for day-to-day care, so on July 3rd, my mama, an only child, booked a one-way ticket and hopped on a plane.
It’s been almost a month and my mama is still in Germany without a return ticket. I came home para visitar on the 18th and it’s been wonderful to be home, but what is a home without its mama? My family has always known that indefinite time in Germany might be in the cards if something like this ever happened, but coming face-to-face with the reality of it is tough. I live in Costa Rica, Jack has been in Boston for the summer and will go back to Purdue in a few weeks, Papa is in Indy, and Mama is in Germany. Our small, scattered family relies on our Whatsapp and Snapchat group chats, staying in virtual togetherness despite the distance. For that I am extremely grateful. We hold on to the hope that the doctors in Oma’s rehab facility can work their magic and that she and Opa will be able to live independently for a while longer. We consider Young Life, my mama’s employer, a blessing for allowing her the freedom to pick up and work from her laptop wherever in the world she is. We relish in the company of good friends to give us something to laugh about and something else to think about. And while we will continue to lean into the support of our relationships, hope, and positive thinking, we also realize that best-case has a time stamp. Health deteriorates. Grandparents die. It sucks.
Jack and I go to Germany for about 10 days next week. There we will spend time distracting our mama, who has dealt with nothing but doctors, hospitals, insurance, and caretaking for the past month. (Which reminds me, if you have her number, shoot her a text/Whatsapp if you think of it. Her days have been filled with sadness – she could use a little joy.) We will sit on the couch and enjoy every second possible with Oma and Opa. I’ll ask them all the questions I’ve ever wanted to ask them about growing up in WWII Germany and about finding love in the post-war rubble. I’ll enjoy the laughter and the chocolate and will probably cry more than usual at security. And I’ll consider myself lucky for making it to 26 with three grandparents. And who knows? Maybe I’ll make it to 27, 28, 29. But for now, I will grip tight to the promise of once more looking into those kind, tired eyes that have seen so much and rest in that international love that has given me nothing short of the world.