Long before I had grandchildren, that inextricable connection that knots us to the future, a woman told me that the enjoyment of dimpled hands and little feet had another side to it.
"When something goes wrong -- and it will -- you suffer twice," she confided. "You hurt for your grandchild, but you also hurt to see your child hurting."
I've remembered these words often, but never more so than today. As I write this, a dear friend and her husband are sitting in a hospital waiting room in another city. Their 5-year-old granddaughter is undergoing a seven-hour surgery in hopes of fixing a rare congenital facial paralysis. Her texts began before dawn, as she clung to whatever semblance of courage she could muster.
I pretend not to be nervous, she wrote in one.
Then in another: Just took her into surgery. 12 people in there.
My heart goes out to my friend. Anyone who's witnessed a loved one's suffering -- especially an innocent child who trusts you unconditionally -- surely understands the helplessness, the despair but also the hope that accompanies such a situation. Now double that for a grandparent.
As a veteran of grief and an expert in sorrow, I trust the world-renowned surgeons. They work wonders with science and scalpel. But my faith in miracles rests more securely with God.
Pray, I text her back.
She already has. Grandmothers, I think, have His private number.
My friend was the first in my circle to become a grandmother, but I followed not long after and then one by one a few others joined us. Now, in addition to our children's career moves and our parents' ailments, we have something else to share on the family front: a grandchild's exploits.
Whether our grandchildren live nearby, as mine do, or several hours away, we suddenly become experts on cool toys, hot animated films and the latest parenting technique. If a listener knows what's good for him, he'll recognize that a genius is born to every grandparent he meets. Our children's children are true wonders. Which may explain why non-grandparents regard the cult that is grandparenthood with a mixture of confusion and envy. What's the big deal? demand their perplexed looks.
Oh, where to begin, where to begin? For one, you get to choose your name. Sometime it's Gammy or Yaya or Nana or, in my case, Abuela. You get to have fun without the obligation of discipline. And you get to break the parents' rules at least once -- a delicious form of revenge, no?
But best of all, you have the luxury of time and the wisdom of experience to sit still. To admire. To appreciate. To relish.
Much has been said about how baby boomers are revolutionizing grandparenting. Perhaps this is so. Tech has allowed us to interact more, even when far away, and good healthcare has given us more energy and years. But at its most basic, being a grandparent has changed little over the eons. We are, will always be, the source of love without borders or restrictions.
In turn, that love makes us twice vulnerable, once for our child, another for our child's children. The ache that lodges right under our breastbone when a grandchild is hurting hasn't changed one bit over the centuries. Ask my friend. It transcends generations, cultures, race, religion, ethnicities. It just is, a boulder in our chest, a lump in our throat, a prayer in our heart.