“You’ll know what to do, hunny.”
“Actually I don’t, Grandma, that’s why I want to talk about this.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Well…you’ll figure it out.”
With a warm smile and a gentle pat of her soft hand, Ida turned her attention back to Kathy Griffith’s comedy special (she loved a dirty joke). She was famous for her knack of stringing together inspirational cliches in lieu of giving actual advice. It was clear that she often had no idea what advice to give, so she cleverly passed it back to us, disguised as trust that we could solve our own problems. We forgave this quirk because she was impossibly charming.
Everyone fell in love with my grandma. Friends, waiters, the staff at the doctor’s office, post office employees, hardened motorcycle gangs. She was kind but real; sweet to everyone, but not so prissy she couldn’t rag on the terrible outfit sitting two tables away. She had worked so hard to get her family, surviving three miscarriages before having my mother, her only child, at 42. Her love exceeded the word unconditional. If you needed it, she would give you the shirt off her back, then offer you a snack. Though unable to offer any actual guidance or solutions to life’s problems, she gifted my mother, and later me and my brother, with love and adoration so vibrant it would go unmatched by anyone we’d ever meet again. When it came to her, we ignored the realities of time and age. It seemed cruel and unthinkable that she could ever be taken from us.
6 years since her passing, the phrase “you’ll know what to do,” has become a hilarious, yet bittersweet joke my mom and I toss back and forth when we don’t know what to say. Though the line never held any actual meaning in the moment it was delivered, recently, after a tough year, I’ve discovered its surprising, if inadvertent wisdom.
Ida was long gone before I began wading my way through depression, anxiety and OCD. I’ve tried to imagine how she would have helped, what she would have said. Her life hadn’t been easy, after all — the woman lived through the literal Depression. She talked of nights when her only warmth came from the heat of sleeping under her father’s arm. She valued every single penny she had. I can’t tell you how many times she made me return a $.25 melon because it didn’t give her her money’s worth. She also struggled deeply with her own depression when for a long time it seemed she would not be able to have children, and lived with a husband who came with his own incredibly challenging idiosyncrasies. But even though there was much complexity in her life and her relationships, I knew her answer to surviving it all would have been simple: keep busy.
Though she had an unfailing belief in the person I was, I felt that over the last few years she’d been terribly wrong about me. I had zero clue what to do or how to move forward, and I failed to keep busy. Most days I felt like I was drowning. During those times I desperately wanted someone to pull me out of the water, revive me and tell me exactly what to do. I wanted specific instructions on how to be okay. But people can’t give you that. No one has those instructions, and even if they did, the person struggling has to buy into it. You have to believe in what you are and what you need in order for it to work. I’ve seen so many people find what works for them and share what they’ve learned. But reading strangers’ optimistic 5-step plans to feeling less anxiety or how to live your passion, I might as well have had dyslexia. The words were meaningless. They were for other people; people who were actually capable of acting on them. Those who don’t struggle with depression don’t understand how far out of your control it actually is. Hanging a motivational poster on your wall won’t rewire your brain. Saving your pennies won’t stop you from feeling like you have nothing. Through her well-worn cliches, Ida tacitly admitted that she didn’t have the answers and wasn’t about to give you bad advice. I love that about her, now more than ever.
I’ll admit that what I needed came in the form of medication. Now, with renewed clarity, I can look back on Ida’s words and feel comforted by her trust in me to know what to do. That I’m brave and strong and smart enough to figure anything out, whether that meant having the strength to get treatment, or now, getting rid of the pieces of my life that bring me stress. I don’t have the entire puzzle figured out yet, but I am starting to see how the pieces can fit together. Accepting who I am, adjusting my life and career to fit my quirks, and not thinking there is a right way to live or be successful. And lately, not being too afraid of how it feels to miss her, and trusting she’s always with me.
It’s incredibly tempting to think someone else can find your way for you, or relieve you from the task of making tough decisions. Advice and reassurance were my addiction when I felt lost and lonely, and yet on my worst days, those were the two things that filled me with the most stress. I believe that’s because ultimately no one, not even our dear Ida, knows what will be best for you. She may not have known it at the time, but she was right: only you know what to do.
Originally published at medium.com