I’ve had this post prepared for a while. I’ve known my grandmother was dying for nigh on six years now, and knew – correctly, mind you – that it would hit me like a punch in the gut. I wanted to write this ahead of time, so as to take some time to think about how I remember her, and what I want remember.
It’s not an easy fact to absorb. She was my last surviving grandparent, my mother’s mother, wife to my beloved Grandpa. I can’t tell you what I feel, really, because I’m having trouble identifying it myself. It’s not pain, but everything feels stopped; numb, almost. Most of all, I feel relief that she’s no longer suffering, and maybe, in whatever place that she believes souls go to after death, she is herself again as she wanted to be.
I’ve been watching her go slowly. I knew that it was coming when I started noticing her forget simple things. She would often confuse me and Mom, which is fairly normal, considering how alike she and I look. But when it had become to the point where it took her about a half-hour to realize the difference, I had to start bracing myself. It got especially worse after she moved.
She moved to Far Rockaway, into subsidized housing, a couple of years after Grandpa died, and it was a slow downhill from here. It took me a while to come to grips with the fact that she was showing Alzheimer’s symptoms. It took me even longer to realize, especially after she could no longer walk without a walker – and I’m referring to someone who was very active into her early 80s, cane or no cane – that she was on her way out.
She passed in the wee hours of this morning, at the nursing home where she has been for the past few years. In the past five years, she remembered me exactly once. I woke up this mornng at, what I later found out, was her exact time of death.
I’ll tell you a little bit about her. Her story is interesting, and definitely not all roses. Nor are any of our grandparents’ stories, really.
Grandma was born in the Ukraine, before WWII. She was born to a single mother, who had left her husband in the middle of the mess that the post-Revolutionary Russian territories were, a single mother who had left her husband at the sixth month of pregnancy. To say that the conditions were poor would be understating it; in those times, Russia was rife with famines. Still, in that stretch of geography, Grandma had some food. She survived. Great-grandma met a nice man whom she had married, who had doted on Grandma, and who was the father of her little sister, my Great-Aunt Jenny, who is now 85, lives in Boston, and loves the Internet.
But to rewind a little, it was a poor time. Grandma had to go to school, and when someone had tracked down her birth father, the story goes that she had refused to see him. When she was thirteen, she had tuberculosis, which in turn had collapsed a lung. This becomes relevant later.
During WWII, my grandmother served as a surgeon. She continued practicing medicine in the post-war Soviet Union. Most of the stories in my family are of the people whose lives she saved. And she saved many, defying her superiors, defying conventional treatment, and risking her own life and health on a regular basis.
I remember certain different things about Grandma. Not her cooking, not the days spent over at her house, not the porcelain serving tray that I got for my fifth birthday, beautifully inlaid, which I still have. There are some things I remember; the times she took me to the theater, the dance and piano lessons that she took me to, and the fact that she would always let me read everything I felt like, but detested that I’d use a comb for a bookmark. Small things. The layout of her old apartment, not the one that my mom and I now occupy but the one before that, is burned into my brain, and so are the small details of it. The television that always flickered. The rocking chair by the window, which was absolutely enormous. The balcony, where she tended her violets and Grandpa always had homemade wine standing. And barrelfuls of coleslaw. We made so much ourselves.
I also remember others’ stories. Not all of them good. I won’t repeat them, but it had made me look at my grandmother an entirely different way. Not in a good one, truthfully.
It’s something I didn’t have the chance to come to grips with. Truly, still do not. .. It also helped me understand why my mother was the way she was. It also reaffirmed my very strong belief that blood isn’t worth squat. You can well be related to the people who will treat you the worst in life; you’re under no obligation to suffer their treatment or for the damage inflicted on them since before your own birth.
I hope that Grandma’s at peace now. And I hope that my mother can find some peace too. She hasn’t had a day of it for a long time.
Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK. What I have to stand, I have the strength to stand. It won’t be easy, but I always find a way to manage. And…don’t be surprised if I show up in your city, unexpectedly. I deal with things by being on the move.