Yesterday, my grandmother turned 80 years old. She rented a house in the Outer Banks for two weeks and invited all her family to come celebrate. We’ve spent the first week laughing, playing and hugging. And it was all leading up to yesterday’s event to celebrate the life of a beautiful, courageous, selfless woman.
For those of you who don’t know her, allow me to paint a synopsis of her life with a very broad brush. Nilza was born outside of Rio de Janeiro. She was married to my grandfather, a Portuguese bad boy, by the time she was 17 and had my aunt at 19. At 22, she and my grandfather made what I can only imagine was the hardest decision of their lives. They packed their bags and headed to the states, leaving their daughter behind for the promise of a better life, not knowing when they would be able to bring her with them. In a stroke of pure poetic irony, they arrived on July 4th. My grandfather used to joke there were fireworks for their arrival.
With time, they built a new life; collected my aunt; had my mother. My grandfather worked hard and made the decision to invest in himself by buying a company. Nilza trusted his vision. All too soon, my grandfather fell ill. My grandmother cared for him and her mother for many, many years, sacrificing much of herself in the process.
I’m skipping thousands of details and highlights, but perhaps this is enough to exemplify that my grandmother has lived a very brave and full life. So full, in fact, it seems even she is having a hard time processing this milestone. I have sensed her introspection all week, and it’s contagious.
On the drive down to Corolla, she told my aunt she wishes she had listened when my grandfather wanted to retire early and explore the world. But she promises herself to start exploring now. At lunch, she reminisced over her pregnancy cravings from over 50 years ago. She laughed as she remembered an anecdote about canned red beans right before my mother was born.
Soon after, she and I walked aimlessly through the grocery store while her daughters scurried to collect food for the masses. She slipped into Portuguese as we spoke. Her underbite, a distinct Lopes characteristic, became even more prominent as she scolded herself. She thinks it bothers me, but in reality, I’m mesmerized by her ability to experience life in two languages. Speaking Portuguese feels like a litmus test of her comfort, and I’m proud she feels comfortable when we speak.
We headed to a cheesy souvenir shop to kill more time. I stood behind her as she meandered through the aisles of useless trinkets. I took specific notice of her growing blonde hair; her slow but steady walk; her gentle hands when she reaches for something that caught her eye. I looked at her wrinkles—the topographic evidence of her first 80 years—in complete awe. I can’t help but wonder how many times her heart has slipped into her stomach since 1937; how many tears she has shed in joy or in pain; how many lives she has touched. I stopped dead in my tracks as the enormity of her impending milestone hit my chest. I hugged her and told her how happy I am to celebrate this birthday with her. She grabbed my shoulders and gently pulled me to face her. She looked at me, eyes red and wet, and said “It’s all bonus from here.”
Many times this week, I have caught her looking out to a room filled with her loved ones, smiling contently. Every once in awhile, a tear slides down her cheek. I can practically see her heart swelling in her chest as she absorbs the moment. Yesterday was full of these moments. After we sang her happy birthday, I watched her walk around to hug every person at the party. Conversations with each of us varied, but all included a sincere and deeply-felt “thank you” for being there.
I woke up this morning feeling so full from her fullness. I’m intent on learning from this wise woman. I’m committed to soaking up all my bonus days with my family; to start exploring NOW; to living in my raw nerve moments and expressing gratitude at every opportunity.