My dad is adopted. Although he has always known this, I only found out that I had another grandmother when I was ten.
I remember being angry and confused. Like I had been tricked. I was now being told that my grandmother wasn’t really my grandmother and my grandfather wasn’t really my grandfather. Now that I’m older I know that isn’t the case. They were, and always will be my grandparents.
I would ask my parents a lot of questions, which they answered in a way that you could to a ten-year-old. They would tell me that she had a head illness. They mentioned the word schizophrenia. It sounded long and scary.
I’d meet her a few times in the nursing home she’s still in. She wasn’t used to children being around, and I remember her snapping at me about asking how she was. I should’ve listened when she was telling that to my parents. That deterred me from wanting to go back.
As a teenager I learnt that schizophrenia is a hereditary illness. Would I get it too? I was really worried at times. I’ve always had a good imagination, did that mean that I couldn’t tell what’s real and what’s not? She remained a distant figure in my life, one that my dad would go and meet on Mother’s Day and at Christmas. I only started coming along once I was older.
Old enough to understand that she has lived a very tragic life. She was institutionalised not long after my dad was born, so she has lived in a some sort of facility her entire adult life. The nursing home she’s in now is lovely, but I have no clue in what sort of hellhole her journey started in. Nobody thought much of it at the time, that’s what you did to crazy people. Her family got on with their lives less than ten miles away.
When you meet her, you’re surprised by how witty she is. Nothing like you’d expect from someone who has been in an institution for the past five decades. If you make a joke, she will get it. She has a hearty laughter and surprisingly good general knowledge, as she listens to the radio a lot. I remember how she used the word ‘oceanic climate’ once in a conversation. Show of hands. How many of you can just drop the word ‘oceanic climate’ into a conversation?
The thing with her is that she slips. She might start the sentence perfectly normal, move on to something completely paradoxical and tie these things together like it’s the most natural thing in the world. We call them her space travels, because she often travels to planet Sirius. It makes sense that she makes complete sentences out of both, because these two worlds are just as real to her.
“Today we had pea soup for lunch, and then I travelled to planet Sirius to heal its people.”
I have turned this into a positive. Not many people have a space-travelling grandma.
I haven’t seen her for a couple of years. Oftentimes when my dad visits her I ask was she on this planet or more on the Sirius side. She seems to be travelling further and further into the outer space with each visit. She’s well into her eighties now, and you can’t tell what is caused by which.
The grandparent cliche is to have your grandparents tell you how much harder their youth was compared to yours. I never had that talk from either set of paternal grandparents but in her case I understood once I became a client of the mental health services just how lucky I am.
Even though the stigma still exists and has to be completely abolished, in her days too much dopamine in your brain was enough to condemn you into a life sentence. I spent three months at a mental health ward and I still haven’t got the faintest clue what this must have been like for her. The place I was at must’ve been a palace compared to things she’s had to endure.
Whenever I have spoken to her, seen how intelligent she is, I can’t help thinking that had she had the proper support and healthcare in place at the time, she might have been able to live a completely normal, independent life.
Even though she was never the traditional grandmother who makes tea and gives out life advice, one moment will always remain in my heart.
The last time I visited my grandmother she had just moved rooms. Most of her stuff was still in boxes. The book case looked bare. In the previous room it was absolutely covered in old black and white photographs.
Now there were only two. One of them was of her and my dad at the maternity hospital. The only one she had of him. This was the picture she wanted to see immediately in her new room.
I’m not used to family members looking alike. I couldn’t help noticing just how much my dad looks like her. I felt a quick squeeze around my heart because I know she must’ve loved him just like any mother. Despite her poorly head.
My grandmother’s story is one of millions but it’s an important reminder of how far the treatment of people with mental health issues has come. And how much further it still needs to go.
I will never call my grandmother ‘Nana’ because our relationship isn’t like that, but I sincerely hope that she finds peace among the stars on one of her many space travels.