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Lessons in limitation

feel your feelings

Back-to-school season has always been one of my favorite times of the year. I eagerly anticipate the return of routine and happy reunions with friends. And while I long for roots that I can put down longer than a few months at a time, I don’t mind packing and moving when it means the beginning of a bright new school year.

In fact, I consider myself so adept at the move-in process, having now lived in five dorms (and two apartments, plus a bunkhouse) in the past four years, that I figured moving from my Durham apartment to my dorm would be a breeze.

When I would mention my plan to transfer most of my earthly possessions from one place to another to friends and family, they all said the same thing in response.

Please, please, please ask for help.

It’s not that the people in my life underestimate me. It’s that they know me. They know that I live with chronic back and muscle pain, and that while I can lift most things, my body hurts much more when I chose to ignore that pain and overexert myself.

They also know how I hate these limitations of mine, how often I push right up to the edge of what I can do for fear of being perceived, by myself and by others, as needy, dependent, limited.

So what did I do on Tuesday morning, as I packed the last of my still-ridiculous number of books into the car? Did I take the advice of the people who love me and know me and want what is best for me?

Of course not. 

I moved in alone, huffing and puffing, pinching fingers and wondering if they were really going to tow my car after 45 minutes. Meanwhile, at least four wonderful friends called, texted, or asked me in person if I needed help.

And maybe it was the way my back was feeling by about 3 pm, or maybe it was just how sweaty I was. Eventually, I let help in. My sweet friend Jake carried my heaviest loads. I was grateful for it. And I was reminded of what I have learned time and time again with this body of mine.

I am limited.

That statement alone is values-neutral. Everyone is limited by space, time, energy, capacity. But in a place like Duke, where our culture is such that we set few boundaries on our time, bodies, and minds, it is hard to remember that limitation is not something bad, but something normal. There is a limit to how much we can work, how much we can carry on our own, how much we can do without needing rest, love, and help. All our limits are different, and all are valid.

When I woke up Wednesday morning, with shooting pains down my arms and legs from muscles that really disliked the part of my day where I decided it was a good idea to un-loft my bed all by myself, my mom had sent me a text.

My grandmother was not doing well. As in, “We’re going to Texas tomorrow—do you want to come?” 

On Thursday morning, less than 24 hours later, I was on a plane to Dallas. 

Gladys Grantland (aptly titled “GG” or “Gigi”), was the daughter of sharecroppers. When she was in high school, she would go to school all day, then work all night at the town hosiery mill to pay for college. She had seen her baby sister die of diptheria when she was a child and she was driven by a desire to help people and ease suffering. She was a nurse for an astounding 61 years.

When I got to Texas, my grandmother was frail, and bedridden, and unable to speak. Her little body stood in stark contrast to the person my dad and aunts fondly remember as larger than life, never seated, always moving—the person likely to ask “why aren’t you working?” when my dad would call her on a Saturday morning. 

To this person who has loved us since before she knew us, whose body had done so much good in the world, we sang old Baptist hymns. We laughed and told stories. We held her hand and stroked her hair. We stared into her big green eyes for what felt like hours. 

She died early Friday morning.

I share with my Gigi an unmistakable nose, a sweet tooth satisfied by my grandpa’s (her husband’s) lifelong work as a baker, and the mild vices of drinking coffee and driving just a little too fast. (We have places to be!) 

I think I also share her need to be moving, to do as much as I can for the people I love. I’m conflicted in telling people that limitations are okay, boundaries are good, and self care is vital, knowing that Gigi prioritized the wellbeing of her family and community above her own needs for her entire life.

But I also know that the ability to take care of myself in this way is a privilege, one Gigi fought for her children and her children’s children to have. I know that she loved me, and was proud of me, and that I was precious to her.

I know that if we could talk now, she would remind me that it was a dream come true for her to see her grandchildren achieve their dreams. She would chastise me for thinking that anybody can do everything and would remind me that even her incredibly capable, beautiful body could not live and work and breathe forever. 

I know that I can’t do everything. I also know that the people around me will carry my loads alongside me. I need their love now, as I start the school year with a sore, aching heart and a sometimes sore, aching body.

But I will be remembering this year, as I anticipate the day when I’ll pack my room into the car and leave here for the last time, that the best way I can honor my grandmother is to treat this body as sacred: limited, of course, but deserving of love all the same. 

What a privilege to carry such a legacy.

Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who is feeling a lot of feelings right now. Her column, “feel your feelings,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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