It’s a warm April night in Berkeley when I get the call. We have friends over for dinner and we are out on the porch eating linguini with pesto and tomato salad. I hear the ringing and bring my glass of rose inside with me. I usually ignore the phone at dinner, so I’m not sure why I’m picking up. The kids run around the living room, red faced and high on pizza and Netflix.
“It’s Gram,” Mom says. “It’s time.” She could two days left, or two weeks. Her home nurse gives her morphine for the pain, but she’s getting weaker and we all need to come home to say goodbye. I call Jack in to tell him. I say it’s fine to finish dinner, but he’s two steps ahead of me. He tells our friends and they get their kids and leave. I’m not even sure why they are hugging me so hard before they go. The next thing I know I’m in Milwaukee, with my sister, first cousin, and their families.
We all spend our days with Gram and Gramps. She’s weak, but not in pain. She sits in her bed, surrounded by starched white linens and a white blanket with huge, audacious deep pink gerbera daisies embroidered around the edges. The same daisies are painted on her ceiling. Gram is in a white dressing gown. Her silvery-white bob is remarkably in place. She wears lipstick the same color as the daisies. She wants to talk to everyone and spend time with her great-grandchildren, so we go in shifts. One of us gives her a foot massage; I bring my kids in and she spends a few minutes watching them play until a fight erupts. Vanessa sits with Gram while breastfeeding her daughter, Ruby. Gram’s nurse checks on her and say she needs meds or a rest, and later Naomi, eight months pregnant, comes in with baby name books for her and Gram to pore over.
It’s amazing. Gram is at the end of her life, yet she’s so curious about us. She wants to know everything we are doing and thinking.
The sharing isn’t always reciprocal though. As a grandchild, there is only so much I know about her, despite our closeness. She lived a lifetime before I was born, one she rarely talks about. I know she had complicated feelings about her parents, so much so that she made it clear she didn’t want any great-grandchildren bearing their names. She also suffered from depression — at least two episodes that I knew of: one postpartum and one when her children were in high school and she divorced Gramps. Mom and Aunt Jane say they spent a lot of time with their nanny while Gram took to her bed, nastily dismissing their need for attention. I found out about their divorce in my early twenties. She and Gramps reconciled and got back together, but never remarried. Gram keeps parts of herself private.
I ask her if she is scared of dying and all she’ll say is “I try not to think about it too much.” With us grandchildren she’s been an “Auntie Mame” sort of character: no fear of bright colors, flawless clothes, eccentric spirit, intellectual friends. She shared all that with us; she had a way of making us feel special, interesting, wonderful. When we visited she fed us ice cream for breakfast, and we rewarded her with our deepest secrets.
On her deathbed Gram seems herself, as authentic as she can be, with all her flaws. Each day she gets a little weaker. Today she’s in and out, sometimes lucid, sometimes unresponsive. Her dressing gown is gone, replaced with a hospital gown. She’s not wearing her lipstick. We realize that if we have anything to say, it has to be now. I pull my mom aside:
“Now’s the time. Have you told her you love her?”
“Not yet,” Mom answers, clipped.
“Mom, you have to. I know she’s never been able to say it to you. But this is your chance. You can do it.”
“I might try, but stop asking me. It’s too much pressure.”
I let it go. Aunt Jane approaches me: “I talked to Gram. She couldn’t stop talking about you and the boys, how you are with them. I thought you’d like to know that she said you are the best mother she’s ever seen, ever known. She might not be able so say it to you.”
I’m surprised, but I try to let the words permeate me. I don’t want to forget. I’ve always been afraid of (and proud of) being like her, I don’t want my children to talk about me the way my mom and sister talk about Gram and how hard it was growing up with her. I do want to give my future grandkids what she’s given me.
I’ve been through postpartum depression, and she still calls me he best mom she’s ever known. I know she didn’t like her mom so much. All of her three sisters had kids, and those kids have kids now. Both her daughters are mothers, terrific mothers. Coming from her, those words are a gift.
I go in for what might be my last visit with gram while she’s lucid.
I sit down and hold her hand.
“I love you so much, Gram.”
“. . .love you, too Becks.” A pause. Then, “Jane says you are the best mother.” I don’t mind that she can’t say it to me. I know what she means.
“I can’t talk anymore, too tired. Will you talk? Tell me things.” Her voice is soft and raspy.
So I start to talk.
I tell her again how much I love her and how much my kids love her. She watches me, but sometimes looks like she might fall asleep. She looks so beautiful without the lipstick. Her soft, white hair frames her striking face.
I tell her how beautiful she is and what a wonderful grandmother she’s always been. How she was always there for me, and that it’s okay that she couldn’t protect me from my dad. I tell her how I remember everything about her, about us.
I tell her I remember what she said to me when I finally told her about my dad’s rages — I was about 26 years old. She got very quiet. Then she looked me in the eye and said: “If I’d have known, I would have taken a shotgun and shot him dead. Not a jury in the world would convict a grandmother of protecting her grandchildren.” And I believe she meant it.
I also remember the way she’d protect me from the mean “popular girls” in elementary school. If I was out with her and pointed out someone who had teased me, she’d secretly wiggle her diamond-laden middle finger at me and give me a wink. Our silent “fuck you” to all the snobs of the world.
I remember that she loved my best friend from fourth grade because, as Gram explained, “She’s so smart and she just does whatever she wants, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks,” an ideal Gram always aspired to, but couldn’t always follow.
I remember that when Reagan ran for President against Mondale I spoke up for Mondale one night at dinner. Gramps dismissed me, said I was just “a child listening to snippets of adult conversation.” Weeks later, on a special outing, Gram shared with me that she and Gramps had decided not to vote because they would “cancel each other out,” Gram being for Mondale and Gramps for Reagan. With a mischievous grin she said “But guess what? I went out and voted anyway. I didn’t tell him! My vote really counted.”
I tell her that she taught me to be true to myself, strong and bold, even if she couldn’t always live that way herself.
Crying, I tell her that she was an amazing mother to me, and the best mother she could have been to her daughters. At this she looks over at me, grunts in disbelief. I hadn’t been sure she was paying attention. Her gaze falters and I’m still not totally sure if she’s completely with me. I go on anyway.
There is no time to worry about whether I’m stepping over a line: I tell her it is okay, whatever her mistakes were with her children, and whatever her regrets are. I love her, we all do. It’s okay that she couldn’t ever say “I love you” to her daughters. They know how small things can build up and snowball, that it became so hard to say the words because their meaning had increased exponentially with each silence. We know, we all know.
“I’m proud and so glad that I know you, Gram. I’d never be me without you.”
I see that she’s drifted off to sleep, and before I leave the room I smooth her hair down, kiss her soft cheek.
I walk down the hallway lined with brightly colored paintings, Matisse prints. I need to find my mom.
She’s in the kitchen, talking to Gram’s nurse and making sure Gram is getting all the right meds. When we are alone I ask her again “Did you go in to tell her yet?”
“No. . . Soon! I told you.”
“Mom, please do it now, you’ll always regret that you didn’t.”
My mom looks at me and starts down the hall.
For the rest of the afternoon I’m caught up in helping around Gram’s house and talking to my sister and cousin.
Finally I find my mom again. “So?”
“Well, I did it. I told her I love her. She was sort of drifting off and I’m not sure she heard it. I leaned in real close and whispered it in her ear. That was enough for me.”
I hug my mom and send out a silent prayer, whispering “I’m sure she heard you, Mom, and she knows.”
Hours later the end is near.
We all sit in a circle around Gram, taking turns holding her hand. She is in a dreamlike state, her eyes closed. I lean over and kiss her cheek and she becomes agitated, mumbling incoherently. She tries to get up and the nurse comes in and tries to settle her down. It actually seems as though she’s fighting. The nurse gently takes her shoulders and moves Gram to a sitting, and then prone position. Still, Gram kicks! Her hospital gown flies up, revealing a nakedness that she would never have allowed. I think of the birth of my sons. Suddenly Gram quiets and the nurse gives her a bit more morphine, as much as she can to make Gram feel comfortable. The nurse leaves us to be alone with her.
I look around at all of us. We all sit, waiting, being together, completely together in a way we’ve never been. Ruby greedily sucks at Vanessa’s breast. Gramps sits next to her. Mom and Aunt Jane are next to Gramps. I had never imagined this scene. Naomi, one hand on her pregnant belly. My mom and Jane hold hands — we all hold hands, give comfort to each other and Gram. Our family is together and moving into the future in silent agreement. We are lucky to be here. So lucky.
We sit for a long time and listen to her breathe. We live in her breaths, each more beautiful than the next.
The nurse had warned us that there might be a “death rattle” — a cough that a dying person sometimes emits just before passing away. But Gram goes silently. Her breathing slows and finally stops.
I’m sitting closest to her. I look at the others and stand up. I approach her and gently pass my hand over her eyes to close them. I can’t resist giving her another kiss. Then my mother and I gently move her body so her feet point towards the door. I pull the bed sheet over her face.
We stand outside Gram’s room: Gramps, Mom, Jane, Vanessa, Naomi and I, holding hands. We pray for her. We say the familiar Hebrew words, words that never stirred much emotion in our family. But oh, they do now. As we say the Shema and the Twenty-third Psalm, all of us are alone, together.
For the rest of the evening we take turns, following the Jewish tradition that someone stays with her body until she’s buried. Then the funeral directors arrive to take her. They will take over the watch and care of her body. Gram, a woman who has spent her whole life concerned with clothes and appearance, decided to be buried in the traditional Jewish way, in a plain pine box wearing nothing but a simple, cotton shroud.
After they leave with Gram, I cook dinner for my family. We sit, stunned but oddly comfortable with each other.
After dinner I am overcome with a curious feeling. Gram had lived such a full life, but she still wanted to do and see so much more. I needed to do something. I find my mom in the living room. “Mom, I want to take Gram’s car for a drive.”
Mom raises an eyebrow, but hands me the keys. I go outside and get in Gram’s little red BMW. An extravagant car I’d never own myself but so… so her. I open the windows and drive around the neighborhood I grew up in. I promise myself that I’m not going to stop. My Gram’s “I love you’s” were trapped inside of her for so long that they built up and she could never let them out. That won’t happen to me. I’m going to drive again when I get home to Berkeley. For me, for her, for my kids. I haven’t had enough of life yet. I want more than what I have. I hope I can’t ever get enough.