When most people think of 2001, undoubtedly the first thing that comes to mind is the tragedy of September 11th. 9/11 was a big part of the year no doubt, but for my family it was a blip on a very tumultuous radar. We went through a job change (good!) and a move back in with my parents (not as good…). We learned Kim was pregnant with our first child. We learned I was adopted. We found my birth family.
But it was November 15, 2001, that defined that year more than any other day. It was the day my beloved grandmother, Theda Marie Soltes, died.
I was much closer to my grandparents than most kids, because I saw them so often. They always lived close by when I was a young child. I can’t tell you how excited I used to get when I would see their car appear on the road in front of our house, turn signal aglow to come into our driveway. I loved them both dearly – they were sweet, kind, loving people who had survived more in their time on Earth than we will ever likely know.
Before I could even walk, I was already spending a lot of time with my grandparents. My mom would work, and my dad would help his own mother out on her farm, so I went to “Grandma and Pap-Pap’s” very frequently. I vividly remember their home – a modest trailer in an Ohioville trailer park. I remember every room, the texture of the carpet under my toes, the smell of each room, the arrangement of the furniture.
When my grandfather got sick, they left the trailer and moved in with us. I loved having them there, spending time with them. I remember our game nights at the kitchen table, the trips to New Jersey to see our family, Christmas visits to my aunt’s house, and so much more. It was a wondrous time for me, and I didn’t think it would end.
Yet end it did, as all things must. My grandfather spent his final years in a nursing home and passed away in 1993. Those were hard years on my grandmother, but I always enjoyed getting to go and visit him. He would always tell me to stay in school and learn all I could. I guess I took it to heart; I’m 32 and still in school!
When he died, it was also extremely hard on my grandmother. He was her companion, her life partner and soul mate. They had been together for many years. My grandmother continued to stay with us, and she ended up watching me quite often since my mother had to work full time (my parents had divorced when I was a baby, and my stepfather had died in 1987, so it was just my mom, gram, and I). As a result of spending all that time together, my grandmother and I forged a strong bond of respect, friendship, and love. She would let me prattle on about some video game I liked (she loved the “chicaboo’s” from Final Fantasy) and always let me have full run of the television set after school (whether she approved of what I was watching or not).
As I got older, we would spend time just talking. She loved to sit out on the porch or in our breezeway and smoke, and I would go out and join her. We would watch the boats on the river, and talk about all kinds of things: faith, politics, the Great Pumpkin…the latest TV show or movie, or what we both did that day. Sometimes I would seek her advice and she would patiently grant me her wisdom. Other times, I needed to vent and she listened closely.
I can’t think back to a single crisis or difficult time that I went through as a child that she wasn’t there for me. When my step-dad died, she held me and dried my tears and told me it was going to be okay. When I was too scared to go to sleep at night, she would sit with me until I dozed off. When my grandfather went into the nursing home, she let me sleep in his bed (they each had their own). If I wanted to rent a video game, she would always dig into her purse until I had the money I needed. If it was too cold to walk to the video store, she drove me in her great, hulking boat of a car (an old school Chevy Impala).
Together, we discovered the universe of Star Trek. We started watching The Next Generation and the love of this show would have an indelible effect on me for the rest of my life. In fact, we spent many late nights watching TV together. Nick at Nite used to be a staple of ours during my summer vacation. I remember watching old classics, like Bewitched, My Three Sons, Make Room for Daddy, Mork and Mindy, Green Acres…all golden. And newer shows (at the time) like The Golden Girls were mainstays as well. She even let me indulge in horror movies on weekends (though she always maintained she didn’t like the ones with sex in them because she felt very uncomfortable watching that with me…and that never changed, not even after I got married and Kim was pregnant).
Sometime around 1998 or so, they discovered my grandmother had an annurism in her heart. She had to go to Cleveland, to the Cleveland Clinic, in order to have it operated on. We thought that was it, and there were a few times when it looked like it would be over. But she survived and recovered, feisty as ever. In fact, she even made the journey up to Erie to see one of my plays being performed.
We had our share of bumps in the road, too – always brought on by me and centered mostly around the time I was, shall we say, going through that special change from boy to young man. I grew cocky, thought I knew it all, and she still loved me just the same.
During one of our last Christmas’s together, my gift to her was a poem that to this day I cannot read with a dry eye. Hell, I can’t even think of it right now with a dry eye. It was simply titled, “A Grandmother’s Love” and it’s probably one of my better pieces. I decided to write it because earlier that year, she had undergone major heart surgery and had nearly died several times. Yet she made a full recovery, eventually even regaining her wit and sense of humor. Having almost lost her, I vowed that never again would there be things left unsaid. And there never was.
I remember the day of her death vividly. It was a Thursday. Kim and I had just come back home from visiting my family in Kentucky for the first time a day or two prior. We had come home from work and had dinner, and it was obvious she didn’t feel well.
After dinner, Kim and I retreated to our room. Kim opted to soak in the tub for a bit (it was her pregnancy addiction for awhile) and I played a game of Twisted Metal 3 on the PlayStation. I heard a noise coming from downstairs that I soon figured out was someone calling for help. I had thought my parents were down there, so I didn’t give it a second thought, until Kim drew my attention to it as well.
I ran downstairs and found my grandmother trying to get to her bed. I panicked. I ran out into the living room, where my mom was dozing on the couch. I woke her up and told her what was happening, then ran back to my grandmother’s side. Someone – Kim, I think – called an ambulance. My grandmother was laying in her bed by then. “I’m dying,” she said. “I’m scared. I’m dying.” I insisted she wasn’t, and kneeled next to her. I held her tight as she told me she was sorry that she wouldn’t get to see our baby. I just held onto her, and I felt her fade away.
An ambulance came, tried to revive her. They took her to the hospital where her body finally shut down and she was pronounced.
The rest of that night was a blur of tears and sobbing, of holding onto loved ones and finding strength and comfort in family.
A few days later, I found myself giving a eulogy for my dear friend and beloved grandmother. I told those gathered how she taught me, through her own selfless, sacrificial life, to always see the best in people, and to love unconditionally. That’s how she loved those dearest to her. That’s how she loved me.
They say that losing your own father is the day you truly become a man, and say goodbye to your childhood forever. But for me, it was the day I lost my grandmother. My journey these past ten years has not been easy. My grandmother’s passing left a deep void in many lives, although she herself led a long and fulfilling life with no regrets. And though I managed to get through the eulogy without breaking down, I made up for it every night for weeks after.
So here we are, ten years later to the day. It’s been ten years since I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in the same room as her, talking to her about Star Trek (she would have loved the recent movie), or about faith, or about her many experiences. And it’s those times – or their absence – that hurt the most. Those nights we’d sit out on the porch under the stars and just talk. Or, not talk. The long car rides around town to do shopping. Staying up late to watch our shows on TV. And although the past decade has dulled the worst of the pain, I’ve also learned to look upon those memories with gladness in my heart. That’s what she would have wanted, anyway. No tears of sadness, just the happy ones.
Theda Marie Soltes was an incredible woman. She was forever self-sacrificing. She was a provider. A patient and wise caregiver. A dear friend. Someone to be trusted in all things. She was and continues to be my hero: an paragon of unconditional love. She lives on in all that she taught me, things that I have now imparted to my own kids. And through her namesake, my little girl, Alyssa Marie.
People like her only come along once in a lifetime. The world is much poorer for her absence. Yet her long, full life left an impression on numerous lives. I am blessed to have known this wonderful lady, and blessed to have called her “Grandma” and friend. I am blessed to have had her guidance, wisdom, and love for as long as I did, and it is ever my prayer to prove worthy of that gift, and of the example by which she lived.
Ten years gone, but forever in our hearts. No good-byes, Gram. Just good memories.