Monday, February 1, 2010

The final goodbye

Today we buried my grandmother. It is a day I have been dreading, and yet...a relief in so many ways. My grandmother's condition has just been hanging over our heads for so long now. Even before her fall a few weeks ago, every time I left town, I wondered "how will I get back if she dies?" I worried about planning trips far away, and I know my mother was always concerned about going on vacation. The past few weeks have intensified that, as we knew the end was coming.

I've shared before about my grandmother over the last few years, but she was so much more than her dementia. My grandmother was truly a wonderful woman, and I loved her dearly. We were incredibly close all those years, I think almost from the moment I was born. I remember going to spend a few weeks by myself with my grandmother every summer, I think even before I was a year old. During my visits, we would go to movies, and we would play, and my grandmother would take me out to lunch and dinner, and we would visit her friends, and we would go with my grandfather to the park at the corner, and we would spend our days at "The Club," swimming at the pool and meeting my grandfather after his rounds of golf. Without fail, we ALWAYS made a shopping trip or two on my visits, and we had time to spend with family (visiting cousins and great aunts). I loved my summer visits with my grandparents.

Throughout the year, my entire family would drive up to visit my grandparents a few times each year, and they would come down to visit us as well. For most of my life, my grandparents spent their winters in Florida, and most years, we drove down to Florida to visit them. I have so many memories of all of those visits - going to Disney World, spending time at the park, shopping, seeing the miniature trains, eating Gram's brownies, and even giving her a hard time about eating my sandwiches (I liked them cut in triangles, and she would cut them in rectangles). I even remember her telling me to eat my crusts so I could grow curly hair.

After my grandfather died 21 1/2 years ago, my grandmother stayed strong. She decided to travel to Asia, and she continued to travel and drive down to visit us. My grandmother flew down a few times to visit me when I lived in Atlanta for college, and we spoke a few times a week on the telephone. I remember sharing all of my stories with her, and she also regaled me with stories of her college days. I mentioned going to fraternity parties, and she told me about how the women at her college would go move into the fraternity houses for a weekend (and the boys would move out) and they would clean and cook and have a wonderful party. I remember laughing and thinking that times had changed, and I knew very few women who would voluntarily move into a fraternity house for the weekend and clean! My freshman year of college, we had a boy on our floor announce our voice mail message - it said "Hi, this is Matt, S & T's personal masseur. They can't come to the phone right now as they are...occupied, so leave a message and they'll call you back." My grandmother laughed at the message, and told me she hoped he was really cute.

After college, I moved to New York to attend law school. My grandmother used to take a day bus up to visit me. Sometimes, we would just have lunch and wander around, and other times we would go see a Broadway show together. One time, she came up to see the Christmas windows. We ended up walking from Rockefeller Center all the way down to Soho. Did I mention my grandmother was about 85 at the time? And in a skirt and heels? For her 86th birthday, I took her to see Chicago. In between these visits, I would often catch a bus out to visit her for a weekend here and there. One of my last bus trips from New York before I graduated happened in April of my third year of law school. I had been looking into getting a dog, and I learned that there was a brand new litter of cocker spaniel poodle mixes that had just been born at a farm about 30 minutes from where my grandmother lived. I called my grandmother and asked her if she was up for company that weekend. She said of course, and then I told her there was a catch - she had to come with me to look at puppies. She made this big, dramatic, exaggerated sigh, and said "Well, if you twist my arm, I guess I'll just have to suffer through that trip with you." We laughed, and that weekend, we picked out my dog together. A few weeks later (after law school graduation), I drove back up to pick up my dog. It was my grandmother who suggested the name for my dog - after her favorite chocolate candies.

My grandmother never wore pants a day in her life until she was well into her 80s. For many years, she walked a few miles every morning wearing a skirt and heels (1/4 inch heels - her "walking" shoes). It took us years to convince her that pants were appropriate for around the house, morning walks, and even driving down to visit us, and about as long to get her to buy a pair of "walking" shoes. It was only once her dementia set in that she wore pants on a regular basis. When I picture my grandmother, I envision her in one of two outfits - a royal blue suit (I think she wore it to my high school graduation, or maybe my college graduation) - royal blue was one of her favorite colors to wear - or a white skirt with a seafoam green short-sleeved sweater that she hand-knit.

My grandmother also had a ton of sayings. Here are just a few:
  • buttons on ice cream and see if they stick.
  • Delicious, and nutritious, and pleasing to the palette.
  • Look at all the beautiful flora and fauna.
  • My grandmother often made loud comments about others she saw - she had definite opinions about men with pony tails and tattoos. Without fail, she always made sure to *loudly* point any such men out to us.
  • Good thing I don't live in this neighborhood - if I came home drunk, I'd never find my house. (She mostly said this about one street in between our house and the apartment where she moved after she left Pennsylvania to come live near us)
  • Once the dementia started to set in, every time we drove her home, we would pass a church, and as we crossed through the light and passed the church sign, she would say "Every time I see that sign I know I'm almost home."
There are so many other sayings, and even songs she would sing, but these are the ones that popped into my head as I was writing this blog. Most of all, I just loved talking with my grandmother. She was incredibly intelligent and had a sarcastic and sharp wit about her. We could chat about anything, and mostly laughed. I especially loved her feisty streak, and she had this air of confidence about her. Once she turned 80, she sort of adopted a "who gives a shit what others think of me - I'm over 80" attitude. With that attitude, she bought a silver jacket and a red car, and she stopped worrying what other people thought of her comments. She had a way of making me laugh that I truly miss.

I am so relieved that I was able to be there for her funeral - for my grandmother, for my mother, with my family, but most of all, for me. I needed that final opportunity to say goodbye, but at the same time, I was dreading that final moment. The funeral was scheduled for 3:00 pm today, and we decided to wake up early to make the long drive. I drove to my parents' house, and we met my brother about 1 hour north of here. DH stayed home with Micah, and my SIL stayed home with my brothers' girls. We just knew there was no way to make a 10 hour drive (round-trip) with small children.

Surprisingly, the trip was relatively painless. It was the first time my brother, mother, father and I had all been in a car together (just the 4 of us) for a "family" trip. My family is notorious for fighting in the car. I still sport a chunk of lead in my knee after my brother stabbed me with a pencil on one of those "family" trips. My mom drove the entire way (both ways) and I sat in the front seat. With my morning sickness, I get quite ill if I sit in the back seat, and no one wanted another trip with me throwing up the entire way. My dad mostly slept in the back seat, and my brother worked on his computer for most of the trip. I have to say, I love technology - we had laptops, ipods and cell phones, and we were able to connect to the internet with my DH's myfi card (a wireless internet hub). Amazing how portable technology is!

We arrived in my grandmother's hometown a bit early, so we decided to go eat at her favorite restaurant before heading up to the cemetery. The food was delicious! We had tons of wood oven baked garlic bread, and my mother and I shared eggplant parmesan. We were so stuffed! After that, we drove around town a bit, visiting my grandmother's old house and allowing my mother a trip down memory lane. We then drove out to the cemetery and arrived there a bit early. We took the opportunity to go visit all the graves of our family members. It is Jewish tradition to leave a stone on the graves of a loved one you are visiting. We brought stones from home and left them for our family members. It is sad that the only people we really know anymore in my mother's hometown are all in the cemetery.

The Rabbi showed up first, and he was extremely kind. It was a small gathering - about 10-15 people, including a few cousins, a couple of my grandmother's neighbors, and someone my mother knew in high school. There were just a few quick prayers as we stood graveside in the freezing cold. My mother gave the eulogy:

When I was thinking about what to say today, the usual important words jumped out in describing my mother– loving, caring, fun, a wonderful wife and mother, etc. These words do describe Mom, but perhaps equally as important are these descriptive words—survivor, fighter, feisty, sharp, smart, classy—a lady.

Mom had a privileged life growing up. She was a college graduate before it was fashionable to be one. She worked as a case worker in Public Welfare for 25 years. There were many difficult times in her young life, but she overcame them, held her head high and moved forward. She survived over 21 years after my father’s death. That has been her modus operandi during her entire life. Mom accepted what life handed her and dealt with it -- and her dementia was no different. The dementia began when she was about 85 – until then she would drive down often by herself during the year to visit. When driving became too difficult, when she would get lost, we knew it was time for Mom to be closer to us. She would complain that her memory was awful and couldn’t something be done about it and when I explained that we were doing everything that could be done, she would shrug and say “Ok, then it will be like this” and she would go on. Mom was never angry about her plight and we all worked together to keep Mom independent for as long as we could. Mom moved to an independent living apt. near us and she remained there for several years. When it was no longer possible for her to remain independent we moved Mom to an assisted living group home – there were no arguments, no bitterness—she just said that she trusted us to do the best for her. I hope we did that.

Mom had a bunch of little sayings and when she said them we all would roll our eyes, laugh and say them with her – for instance, in getting in the car she would say “Home, James and don’t spare the horses”, she would talk about the “flora and the fauna” and our favorite was “this was delicious and nutritious and pleasing to the palette”. When I fed her chocolate pudding for the first time in the nursing home, after a few days of clear liquids, she said quietly and slowly “delicious” and then a long pause and then “nutritious” and I finished up with “pleasing to the palette” and a few seconds later she said softly “right, right”. I smiled through my tears – every now and then the old Mom would poke through.

Mom’s last 2 weeks were a true testament to her strength, both physical and mental. She suffered a catastrophic fall and because of her injuries, the doctors said she would only live for a few days—but not surprisingly Mom fooled them and showed her stubbornness - she lived for 16 days, amazing the hospice nurses, the nursing home caregivers, everyone, with her stamina.

Mom has raised the bar high and I only hope that I can reach it as she did. I will miss her and think about her every day of my life. I love you, Mom.

We left shortly after the ceremony concluded, and decided to drive straight home. My mom was buzzing with energy and decided to drive the entire way back home. We had a few hours of good laughing. In our family, it is amazing how we can take something incredibly...mundane...and turn it into a joke. My mother said a number of times that she couldn't believe that the woman she knew from high school was there. My brother, father and I had no idea who this woman was, and next thing you know, my brother is making a HUGE deal out of this. He posted it on facebook, he called about 10 people just to tell them, he jokingly drafted an "inter-office e-mail" announcing her presence at the funeral, and dashing off emails to the Associated Press, Reuters and Matt Lauer. We were laughing hysterically, and couldn't stop joking about the "groundbreaking" news. That is what family is for - they help you find humor again when things are sad. I think my grandmother would have had a great laugh along with us.


Mandy said...

Beautiful ♥

Prather Family said...

What wonderful memories you have to reflect on. Your grandmother sounded like a wonderful woman. (((Hugs)))