My paternal grandma, Bess Jean, was my real-life guardian angel. Think Lucille Ball on steroids. If you were in Southern California in the mid- late 70's, saw a bright yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville pulled up beside you and the vibrant woman inside with her granddaughter asked you to drag race, that was probably us. She was extraordinary.
Focused on providing us with lifelong memories, not just with the love they provided but with theme parks, family bicycle rides, roller rinks, camping trips, road trips, and racing down cardboard hills, she was larger than life to me. Bess Jean (Jeannie) never met a stranger, which is why the Thanksgiving table would be filled with people we had never met before. When my dad died in a plane crash when I was 10, we clung to each other. She had lost her son, and the depths of grief she pulled herself out of was quite remarkable.
MEMORIES were her lifeline and her connection to my dad and to me. Our weekly calls were spent reminiscing, until I noticed she remembered less and less. At one of our visits, she mentioned that her son (my dad) always treated me as his own child. I was 39 years old, and her Alzheimer's let out a family secret I knew nothing about. My grandpa shared her diagnosis. He was holding out hope, it would be slow, it was, until it wasn't. The woman who never met a stranger, was traumatized by "strangers" that were actually her family. My hero, the jokester, who thought it was the best thing in the world to have an April Fools day birthday was suddenly mad at the world. I was mad, mad this beautiful soul who thrived off memories only had fleeting moments of clarity but then I was grateful. My grandpa, the love of her life, passed away in 2006. It was heartbreaking to think that 60 plus years of marriage was wiped out by this disease, yet it allowed her to survive the heartbreak for the next two years until her passing.
I will be walking for my hero, the woman who changed my life. The woman who did not deserve to go out this way. The woman who still inspires me to live life fully, because you only got one to live. Bess Jean Barnes.
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