Twenty-five years ago today my grandmother passed away. In commemoration of her yahrzeit, I reproduce an article that first appeared on Feb. 5, 1987.
It is through the interplay of life’s opposites that we gain insight into ourselves.
We are moved by this reflection because in the silence of still moments, we understand very clearly that this is the truth of the human condition.
With my young children, I recently went to visit my grandmother, a lovely woman, an old woman, a woman of 90. Unlike the opposites that are found in nature, there was no subtlety to the juxtaposition of opposites in this instance. My daughters, in the very dawn of their lives, their senses, their energy, their vitality awakening daily to unlimited possibilities. My grandmother, in the same room, struggling with dusk, depleted of physical essence, her life force receding. For her, no possibilities are left.
The real pathos of growing old is losing faith in one’s possibilities. The day that she entered the nursing home is the day that she lost that faith.
As a rule, it is difficult to engraft the obligations of one’s heart upon the hearts of one’s children. After all, one person’s loves may be another person’s chores. This is ever more so the case when the parent’s heart is deeply obliged to an enfeebled, blind, old woman whose very appearance, simply, is unsettling to the youngsters. And yet, this old woman is my grandmother, the mother of my mother, the woman whose home was my home, whose arms were my arms, whose laughter was my laughter, whose love was my love. But she will never be to my children what she was to me; nor can I make it so. Knowing this, I ache.
When we arrive at the nursing home, the children cling to each other and to me. They are frightened, frankly, by the faces, the sounds, the gestures, the misshapen postures of so many of the people, who, from their wheelchairs, greet them with curiosity in the main lobby. All eyes focus upon the four young little curly tops who have entered their home. This merely quickens the pace of the girls. We go directly to the elevator. It smells unmistakably, though faintly, of dried urine. The girls look at each other, then at me, in silent acknowledgment of the fact.
The same faces, the same sounds, the same gestures, the same postures, though of different persons, are assembled in a concave congregation of wheelchairs and walkers as we emerge from the elevator.
The girls still hold tightly to each other.
We enter my grandmother’s room, her home. She is standing slightly bent over, holding on to her walker.
She is inclined toward the doorway, but she is not walking. Her look is toward the doorway, but she does not see.
I call out to her. I call her name. I announce my arrival loudly, affectionately.
Like a strong, reviving breeze into a limp sail, the sound of my voice immediately straightens her up. More to herself than to me, in a sighing whisper, she says my name twice.
“I have the girls with me. They came to see you. They wanted to come.”
I walk quickly, directly to her. I kiss her on the forehead and in her hair. I hold her face in my hands, tracing and caressing its gaunt, taut shape with my fingers. Her eyes close as I touch her. She places a hand over mine as it presses lightly upon her skin. She is still standing. And the children are carefully watching my love for my grandmother.
She can only see the shapes of the four young visitors who are now standing in a tiny cluster at her side. She cannot see their faces. She reaches for them, asking me to identify each child for her as she settles her hands upon a child’s shoulders.
Miraculously, without instruction, each child steps forward without hesitation to embrace and be embraced by this very old woman, to kiss her and to offer up the sound of her voice and the touch and contact of her body. They have left their fear in the hallway and for this I am truly grateful.
I guide my grandmother to the largest chair in her one-room home. I sit down beside her. I do not let go of her hand. The girls hover around us, close enough to my grandmother that she is constantly touching them and “staring” at them and even laughing.
The conversation is quite secondary to the occasion although it is unceasing. There are no silent moments because silence is the woman’s normal companion. For now, this very short time being, I her grandson and my four children, are her companions.
Inevitably, our visit must end.
I whisper to my grandmother that it is time for me to take the girls home. I cannot hide my melancholy. She senses this.
“Bring the little girls forward so that I may bless them.”
Like Joseph at his father’s final bedside, I present each of the girls, one at a time, for the invocation of my grandmother’s blessing.
Each in her turn, a little girl approaches her. My grandmother embraces them and kisses them one at a time. She carefully speaks her words of promise and of possibility to each girl in a language none of the children understands.
The tears are in my eyes alone.
Outside, as we leave the building, my grandmother’s home, the girls run and skip to the car parked close by.
I walk slowly, now alone with my fear.
And the person for whom I fear, I have just left behind.
(One year later, my grandmother passed away.)