My grandmother holding my mom. Circa 1970.
One of the benefits of being born to a teenage mother is that everybody else in your family is also much younger in comparison.
Everyone is at least 10 years younger than they should be in my family.
I’m almost 28 and my mom is in her 40’s. I have an aunt who is only 2 years older than me.
My great grandparents are still alive as I’m writing this.
When I was born, my great-great grandmother was still kickin’. Agnes Zobel, born in 1899. Can you imagine that?
My grandmother was only 38 when I was born and since my dad wasn’t around growing up, my grandmother stepped in to fill the void. She’d always been a second mother to me, we were very close — and as she frequently liked to point out, she was so much more than a “regular” grandmother.
We spent a lot of time together before she passed away last August at 65.
She taught me the value of critical thinking and self-reliance — she was an attorney and wouldn’t let you forget it.
She taught me how to think outside the box and use humor to deflect painful situations.
She was my rock growing up when my mom was dealing with the stress of being a young mother.
About 15 years ago, in her early 50’s, she started having serious health issues.
It began with what we thought were weird autoimmune diseases, then progressed to other things: broken bones, infections, diabetes. You name it.
Not one particular ailment was life threatening…but several issues combined amounted to the same.
One of the biggest things affected by her illnesses was her ability to walk.
To be honest, I’m not sure what the precise cause of her disability was. All I can remember is that we went to a theme park one hot Florida day and she had to get one of those motorized wheelchairs to navigate the park.
I’d never seen her do that before. She said her legs hurt. I didn’t think much of it. We got one of those “skip the line” passes and got to ride everything first. This is the equivalent of winning the lottery as a kid.
She walked out of the park. No biggie.
But over the next decade, things got progressively worse.
Occasional use of the scooter turned into every grocery store visit.
Then, one of her hips went out. She needed a replacement, but for some reason, never got around to it.
Soon, standing was replaced with leaning over a cane.
Next, the cane gave way to the walker.
The second hip went out. No surgery.
Why these surgeries never happened is still a matter of great debate. If you asked her, she would have told you that she wanted to get them, but different obstacles continually thwarted her.
She always said that she was just “doing her research.”
If you ask me, it seems like she was just scared of all the things that could go wrong.
The walker was eventually replaced by a wheelchair. Full time. It was heartbreaking to watch this happen in real time. Literally heartbreaking.
Her disability caused a lot of stress on our family — both my nuclear family, as well as my extended family (she is one of six kids).
She was the matriarch of the family, the oldest of her siblings and was a powerful attorney. To see her in a position of helplessness hurt us all. But it hurt her the most, and it caused her a great deal of depression.
Combined with all the painkillers she was on, her moods became very intense and she stopped being the goofy, fun-loving person that I’d known as a kid. She started pushing people away.
She stopped being the comic relief.
She stopped being the sage.
She stopped being my rock.
She was sinking fast and after a series of bad events, my mom and I decided to try and move her out of Florida and get her to California where we could keep a closer eye on her.
But there were a few caveats:
1. She didn’t fly. Ever. She hadn’t been on a plane in over 30 years and her phobia was too debilitating. She had to drive wherever she wanted to go. If she’d ever gotten the chance to travel to Europe, it would have been on a boat.
2. She lived almost as far away as possible from California — in the Florida Keys — a tiny archipelago off the coast of our southernmost state.
3. She had a giant blue and gold macaw for almost 20 years that had to go everywhere with her when she traveled. I’m talking about a huge jungle bird with a cage that takes up an entire back seat and jabbers nonstop.
Combine that with the fact that her and my mother already didn’t get along and you can guess how the trip went.
My mother and I flew into Florida and drove down to the tiny rural islands to pick her up. Before we even left her house, they were already at each other’s throats.
The ensuing 2,792 miles were hell, punctuated by parrot screams.
By the time she got to California, the situation had already completely deteriorated. We had to call one of her brothers to pick her up and drive her (and her giant bird) all the way back to Florida.
Bad vibes. Lots of hurtful things were said.
After that, none of us talked for a few months.
As the air cooled over the next year, we started talking a bit more and I made a trip down to Florida to see her.
I’m not sure exactly what happened this trip – but something was remarkably different this time around.
Maybe it was the fact that I was almost 28 and well into adulthood.
Maybe it was because I’d been meditating and felt a bit more in control of my emotions.
But this time around, I realized that the roles in our relationship had reversed. And they’d been like that for a long time, I just hadn’t noticed it.
I was no longer a kid looking for guidance, acceptance and instruction from her. I wasn’t hanging on her words, or trying to reconcile her sometimes demanding tone with my own urge for independence and recognition.
I was now the custodian and she was the child.
I looked at her in her wheelchair and felt an immense sense of gratitude for everything she’d ever done for me. I understood that the reason why she hadn’t been “herself” for many years was because her disabilities had caused her to lose a piece of her identity.
She had always seen her life turning out one way. Now it wasn’t, and she was hurting. She was scared and acting out. I felt this. I got it. Finally.
I knew my role now wasn’t to try to convince her of what she should be doing. Or to argue when I thought she was wrong. Or to instantly shut down if she said something uncharacteristically mean.
My job was just to love her and to help her. She literally depended on me.
My job was to help her clean up her house without complaining. To feed her. To make sure she was taking her medicine. To be nice to her. To rub her shoulders and make her laugh.
There was no need to bring up sore subjects or rehash past arguments.
I was in control now. I could decide how our experience and interaction was going to be — and I chose to make it positive, even if that meant missing many opportunities to be “right.”
All the tension between us instantly dissolved. Just like she had done for me 20 years before, my role in her life was now to help her. The tables had turned.
It was at this point that I realized that I’d “leveled up” into real adulthood, and that with this evolution, I had an entirely new set of responsibilities not just for myself, but for everyone around me.
I felt like I’d just been gifted a very valuable set of tools that had been within reach, but out of sight all this time.
I thought to myself, “What other responsibilities do I have to take on in order to be this new, more evolved version of Daniel?”
I came up with three major responsibilities:
1. I have a responsibility to take care of myself. If others depend on me, then I absolutely have to be in the best physical, mental and emotional shape I can be. That means putting serious, dedicated effort into maintaining my body, eating well and meditating. That means not being a slave to poor conditioning or habits that are bringing me down. That means succeeding financially and making as much money as I can so that I can be of service when I’m needed. Money is energy. Money is the power to make things happen.
2. I have a responsibility to others close to me to lead by example. Not just in words, but in action. I have the responsibility to act altruistically for the good of others — and not only when it also serves my interests, but particularly when it might not.
3. I have the responsibility to the world to create something that matters with my work. I have to create something that makes a difference — and that becomes bigger than myself so that it can help the largest amount of people. Even after I’m gone.
Truly evolving yourself isn’t just about living a more interesting life that looks good on the ‘gram. It’s about piecing together the necessary components for being the best human you can possibly be.
It’s about purposely raising your awareness, potential, standards and intellect in an attempt to meet your best self.
You may very well never realize the merging of your idealized self with reality, but shooting for it will give your journey the most meaning and the greatest chance of affecting the most people.