Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Jenny Tree....life begins; life ends

When I was three years old, my grandfather on my mom's side took me into the back yard of my grandparents' house, and we planted a tree. It was named The Jenny Tree and, at the time, it was a little sapling about the same height I was. It grew. Pop would take pictures of me next to the Jenny Tree as she got taller than I was.

We moved from Baltimore to Florida when I was six years old, but we would visit my grandparents at least once a year - summer or Christmas or both. Each year, Pop would take more pictures of the Jenny Tree with me standing next to her. She grew, and grew, and grew. I was able to climb her eventually. Now, she's not so young anymore; a huge, formidable presence, in that same spot, in that same backyard of the house in which the same two grandparents lived for sixty years. The neighborhood has changed. People have moved. People have died. New people have moved in. My grandparents were always there, in their house, the most familiar place I can think of that has stayed the same since my childhood. They never moved. They never wanted to.

Last night, my grandfather was moved into a hospice. He has been suffering from prostate cancer for a long time. Now, the cancer has spread to his bones. He has not eaten in days, and is asleep most of the time from the medications. Hopefully, he is not in much pain, but I don't know for sure about that. I know medications have their limits, and that bone cancer is some of the most painful pain there is.

Due to my illness, back when I was starting to develop paranoia and terrible fears at age 24, I started to be afraid of my grandfather. It wouldn't be clear for six more years that I was actually psychotic. The delusions took a few years to become rock solid in my brain and basically destroy my relations with most of my family completely. At the acute phase of psychosis, in a hospital, where I was supposedly getting treatment for dissociative identity disorder (which I do not have, obviously, but it seemed like I did then), I accused people of abusing me as a child. I sent the police to their houses. I had them investigated. I thought I was doing something to protect children in my family. What I was really doing was obliterating my relationships with both my father and my grandfather. And those relations were never the same again since, and never will be.

After I got put on medication, after I realized that most of the things I believed were happening in the world were not actually happening at all, after I learned what it meant to be delusional, paranoid, to be hallucinating, and to hear voices - when I was finally able to think a little more clearly, I apologized. I apologized on the phone and via a letter. But the damage was already done. My grandfather didn't want to talk to me. He thought that I had spread the stories my brain came up with to my entire family. I had a website with links to sites about sexual abuse, and someone found it and told him that I was writing on the internet that I had been abused. He figured that this meant I mentioned him on the website. which I think I did briefly before deleting that page. He said I ruined his reputation. He didn't say he forgave me. I don't think he ever really did.

Two years ago, I went to Baltimore to visit my grandparents. He was getting radiation or chemo then, and he looked very ill, thin, and pale. I hadn't seen him before that in a few years. I wanted to say something, to explain, to make him understand that the hurtful things I did were honestly not intentional, and were done by a brain that was malfunctioning severely. He didn't want me to stay at his house, so I stayed in a hotel room. My mom was invited to the house; I wasn't. And I don't really blame him for that. I understand.

Before I left town, I gave him a hug. I think I told him I loved him, though those words are hard for me to say to anybody. I didn't go back after that visit. I wanted to, but didn't have the money to buy a plane ticket and a hotel room, and a rental car to get around. I just didn't have the money. It wasn't that I didn't want to go. I thought I would, eventually, when I got the money together. I thought there was time. But there was no time. Today my sister held the phone up to my grandfather's ear in his hospice bed, and, since the nurses said he could hear but not speak, I told him I loved him, that I would take good care of the Jenny Tree, and we would all take care of my grandmother. And, once again, that I was sorry for everything. I hope he really could hear me.

Memories are tricky. It's very hard to dis-remember something. It's hard to remember that what you remember never happened. It's hard to ever know for sure if it did or it didn't, when your brain tells you it did. When my brain tells me the CIA is after me, it's obvious that I'm psychotic. When you say someone abused you, most caring people feel empathy towards you for this but never realize if, by some fluke, you happen to have imagined it all.

But here are things I do remember:
-I remember the dirt, thick and heavy, while Pop shoveled it, clearing a hole for my tree.
I remember the smooth grass tickling the bottom of my feet while I ran around the yard at my grandparents' House, and Pop watching out the window, while I fed the squirrels. He always fed birds and squirrels.
I remember him picking me up so I could see out the window into the backyard where the squirrels and birds were, when I was too little to reach the window myself.
I remember him reading the Sunday comics to me
I remember how he treasured the "official documents" I wrote every year about how I was NEVER going to get married under any circumstances when I grew up, because I did not want to be held by a "ball and chain" to any man, and I knew this when I was 8 years old. The documents were signed by various family members for authenticity, and then kept in a spacial, top secret drawer inside the secretary in the living room. I think they are still there.
I remember Pop mowing He lawn, and working on plants and squirting me with the backyard hose.'
I remember him smoking his pipe, watching is black and white 1930's movies of which he had memorized the scrips because he watch them so many times, and me saying "Why do we have to watch this again???"
I remember him pretending to chase me with his handkerchief, and when he and my uncle shot at me and at each other with rubber bands.
I remember some fun times with my grandfather
I remember his "tourist guide" speeches about the history behind every neighborhood or national park or street, or building we drove by or visited. He was always full of knowledge, and I always learned some things on this trips.
I remember the serious look on his face when he sat at the dining room table paying bills and doing paperwork, but I also remember his laughter.
I remember the times when he tried to get my goat by saying sexist things, to which I would always retort, vehemently. He's say feminazis ruined the world; I'd say he was a misogynist neanderthal, and he'd laugh hysterically, He got me every time.
I remember trips to Disney World when he came down to visit us in Florida with my grandmother, and how he got sweaty and hot, and how I knew he was not in the best physical shape
I remember his pipes and the smell of them, the familiar smell of my grandparents' house.
I remember his books, all about history, and how he's show me them and tell me to read them even though I wasn't old enough to understand what I was reading
I remember how, after my dad left, my grandfather came down and mawed our lawn
I remember his Juicy Fruits he kept in a special drawer in the dining room, and also in the trunk of his car, and how he'd give us all candy whenever we visited
I remember how he spent years in his Lazy Boy recliner in the living room guarding the remote control with his life, and how we'd try to steal the remote whenever he wasn't looking, and how he'd yell and throw a fit, and we would all laugh

He has his flaws, as we all do. He isn't perfect, and neither are you and I. I remember his temper. But more importantly, I remember a charismatic, formidable figure whose absence will make things feel strange.

Tomorrow (it took a couple days to write this post) I am going to Maryland. I will take a picture of the Jenny Tree.


  1. What a beautiful post! It's sad that your relationship became strained. It's just very hard for some people to regain a sense of trust when they feel that trust has been "betrayed." I wish he could have better understood how the paranoia and skewed thoughts were the source of the allegations. I hope that as he faces the end of his life, those wonderful memories that you share push aside the less pleasant ones in his mind.

  2. You are in my thoughts as you visit your grandfather. I hope you all get some peace.
    Your NAMI friend in TN. Janet

  3. Hi Jen,

    Thanks for the sensitive post about your grandfather. I hope you had a safe journey to visit him and that you and the rest of your family are holding up during this difficult time.


  4. Hi, Jenny. I'm a new reader here and I just wanted to pop into comments and say hello. I hope you are doing alright. My Grandfather is dying, too. (And you and I are also Florida 'neighbors' as I am a few towns north of Clearwater and my Grandparents also live up north. It seems like most of us here are originally from cold places.) :-)

    Anyway, just saying hi and I hope you're doing okay. I like your blog and I can relate to quite a bit of it and you sound like a nice person, too. I'm glad you are writing here. It's nice to not be alone.

  5. Oh Jenny, I am crying for you.

    I really have been touched very much by this post.

    I recently lost my dearly beloved grandma and things were the other way round in a sense, she was the one with the illness which affected her memory and I was the one who struggled to keep my place in her head, but I loved her anyway, even if it was hard to see her sometimes. Your grandfather has known for some time now that you had problems which caused you to act out of character and to do things which you deeply regretted. He also knew how you regretted it all and how much you loved him. He will have thought about it and must surely have realised that you didn't mean those things. Perhaps he wasn't able to reconnect to you because he didn't understand your condition, rather than not forgiving you?

    It's so terribly sad that it took so long for you all to understand what the real problem was, but you are taking the right approach in remembering the positive experiences and in reinforcing that it was NOT your fault. None of it is your fault! If you'd had a broken leg it would have been plain to see. Instead you had a different ailment, and an undiagnosed one at that.

    I hope that you are ok and that you get some lovely shots of the Jenny tree, could you perhaps take a cutting so you could grow a Jenny Tree 2 for yourself to be with you wherever you go?

    Take care,
    Pru x

  6. Today, I began to read your posts after deciding to do some research on this particular illness. I had decided that I wanted to write a book and the main character would have a mental illness similar to this... but these posts have really touched me. I have never been diagnosed with any mental illness, yet my life seems so similar in so many ways. Though we are all very different, we are all, in so many ways, very much the same. What a beautiful writer you are. Thank you, for the courage and the inspiration your posts have instilled in me... God bless you.


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