I sat on the shag carpeting in my grandma's basement near her vintage Pac-Man arcade game, watching my cousins whip the joystick around, trying to beat the record so they could leave the initials A-S-S on the system's high-score board. When a ghost caught up with Pac-Man, my cousins screamed, but I was more invested in the yelling echoing from the floor above us. I quietly crept over to the basement staircase, trying my best to hear what was happening in the kitchen. My mom was up there with Uncle Jay and Grandma, and they didn't sound happy.
"I didn't raise you to be this way," I heard Grandma say. "What are you going to tell your kids?"
"My kids love me," my mom said, her voice strained like it used to get when she fought with my dad.
"Listen, Denise," Uncle Jay said, ruffling through some papers. "Take a look at these. It's a conference that many women who think they're lesbians have attended. It's helped them change their lifestyle, and it's here in Michigan."
When my mom started crying, I found myself wondering why I always found myself watching relationships crumble from the vantage point of a staircase. At 5 years old, I had sat at the top of the stairs, watching my parents devise their divorce in a language I couldn't understand yet. At 8 years old, I had watched through the bars of the upstairs railing as my mom begged her partner, Janet, not to break up with her; until then, I'd thought they were just best friends. And now at 12, I sat at the top of another staircase, listening to my grandma estranging her only daughter.
My mom says that the first time she realized she was gay was in high school when she developed a crush on a girl who later ended up being one of her bridesmaids when she married my dad. She thinks her dad and brothers knew way before she did. Her brothers nagged and teased her, calling her butch and a lesbian, and while her mother ignored all of it, her dad tried to overcompensate by giving her extra attention.
In 2001, right before my parents divorced, my grandpa suffered a heart attack and died. I was only 5, so I don't remember him much, but I wish I did. Before he passed away, he was alone with my mother in his hospital room and said to her, "You need to do what you need to do to be happy, and don't let anyone hold you back from doing that." He told her that he knew she was unhappy in her marriage, and he wanted her to follow her gut.
Not long after I came out, Grandma's body began turning against her. Her doctor discovered a tumor in her brain, and after it was successfully removed, she dealt with minor memory loss and stints of narcolepsy. After falling asleep at the wheel of a golf cart and running over Aunt Paula's leg, they took away her driver's license. The doctors gave her a walker that she refused to use, which resulted in many falls and phone calls from the floor of her kitchen. She convinced herself that she was strong and agile, until her kids had to hire her home assistance for a while — and for the last two years, she's been in a hospice home, battling dementia.
Despite their history, my mom became my grandma's most frequent visitor. When someone is dying, we tend to forget their wrongdoings and focus on the good. By the time my grandma had begun her stay in her new home, my mom had finally found "the one." She'd fallen in love with a woman named Erika, and when I saw my mom smile at her, it was like seeing her smile for the first time — and somehow, after all those years, my grandma could see it too.
My grandma had lost a lot of her memory, and she'd apparently forgotten her disapproval of same-sex relationships too. She loved Erika from the day they met. If Erika was at work and my mom showed up without her, Grandma would ask about where she was. Once she even said to my mom, "You better not have messed things up with her!"
While Grandma's brain let go of many of her memories, her heart held on to some of the dearest ones. She could recite all 20 of her grandchildren's birthdays, she could tell you about every date she'd gone on with my grandpa before he became her husband, and during one of my mom's solo visits, Grandma even seemed to remember what she'd done to my mother.
"I never would've expected you to be here like this," she said to my mom, who sat in a chair next to her bed after tucking her in.
"Why?" my mom asked.
"Because I never treated you the right way. I never accepted you for who you are."
Mom laid her head on her mother's chest and cried like a baby until Grandma fell asleep.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.