12.15.2011

there would be nothing tragic in all my dreams of you


Two years ago today, my grandmother passed away. I remember sitting by her hospice bedside, reading her excerpts from "Foreskin’s Lament" by Shalom Auslander and knowing that if she was responsive, she would be laughing. Or, rather, nodding with the faintest hint of a smile and muttering under her breath that it was funny or clever – that’s how my Bubbie "laughed". I read to my grandmother frequently towards the close of her life, a bittersweet homage to the years I spent cuddled up on her lap, downing a glass of chocolate milk and listening to her read stories to me. It didn’t matter what the stories were so long as she was there, so long as she was reading them. Our favorite was a dog-eared copy of “Our Snowman Had Olive Eyes” and I begged Bubbie at the cease of each chapter to move into our house like the grandmother in the story did.

Growing up, many of my classmates and friends had grandmothers who spooked them. Theirs were crotchety women with wrinkled-up skin and age spots who rocked in wicker rocking chairs; women who their parents made them visit, promising a stop for ice-cream if they’d give them a hug. This wasn’t so with my Bubbie. She was my greatest friend and ally; a seemingly immortal piece of my life who was always there for sleepovers or Klondike bars or poetry readings and interpretations. My grandmother was a product of the depression, someone who poured the remaining milk out of the cereal bowl and into a glass for drinking. She refrigerated her nailpolishes with a determination that they would last forever and when I deemed a shampoo bottle empty, she’d fill it with water and insist I could squeeze several more washes out of it. In the same vein, she loved us all with every last piece of her heart, unwilling to let the slightest sliver of love go unused.

My Bubbie was dignified and proud. She was a singer and dancer who was automatically retired by the depression and by the death of her parents. She was a caretaker to her siblings and to everyone she met: “did you have enough to eat? Your plate isn’t full enough. Put some socks on your feet before you catch a cold.” My friends referred to her simply as “Bubbie” and she welcomed them all into her home, even during her years battling Alzheimer’s, offering the contents of her assisted living facility refrigerator: a cup of orange juice, a Klondike bar sliced into quarters. I can see her still, in her pink bathrobe, tapping her fingers to Cole Porter against the wood of her tiny dining table. As Alzheimer’s began to steal her from us, the lyrics from her favorite songs were the last things she was able to remember. Her name, her birthday, what year it was, what state we lived in – these were foreign concepts, words and ideas pushed so far back into her memory that when asked about them, she’d respond only with a foggy and confused stare. The lyrics to her favorite songs, however, they lasted. Five foot two, eyes of blue, oh what those two eyes can do, she’d sing from her dining room chair in the cafeteria of her Alzheimer’s unit. It was on the day that my Bubbie no longer remembered Frank Sinatra, asking if she’d ever met that man before when I asked if she wanted to listen to his songs, that I knew this would be the end. I knew that my Bubbie would never want to live without the light and magic of her music and then before long we were visiting her on the hospice floor of the hospital.

There is a photograph of my Bubbie on October 6th, 2009, her last birthday with us. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of us in her entirety, making her unable to be found until her last days of life on that hospice bed when she reached for my hand and exclaimed, “mamelah!” On that birthday, my Bubbie dug into her cake with her bare hands. She shoveled handfuls of cake and icing into her mouth, something that my proud, tidy grandmother would never do had she known what she was doing. That photograph of my Bubbie with blue icing remnants on her lips fills me not with sadness but with the slightest bit of happiness, knowing that she really got to live before she died. She earned those handfuls of frosting and flour and sugar. She earned every last sweet, delicious bite of it.

At her funeral, I rattled off an abreaction that broke my heart with each word I read; each sentence a declaration that she was no longer here to read my poems or sing us her favorite ditty. In my reading, I mentioned that it broke my heart to know that my future children would never know her, that she would never hold them. I acknowledged that they would be a part of her as this was inevitable given that she was so much a part of me. It wasn’t until my son was born, until I watched him gravitate towards the musical instrument toys and babble along to music that I realized how correct I was. She is a part of Ethan despite the fact he will never know how warm her hugs were or how delicious her homemade mandel bread was. She is here, in him, in all of us, strands of her built into my son’s body and entwined within his heart.

Two years ago today, we didn’t light the menorah or open any Hanukkah gifts. Instead, we said goodbye to the most incredible woman I could imagine knowing. Ethan and I snuggled up to Frank Sinatra this afternoon at naptime, taking in the sound of his voice and as he crooned through my laptop speakers, I remembered that photograph of Bubbie on her last birthday, the icing squished between her fingers. I have relatives who don’t wish to remember her with Alzheimer’s but that image of her on that birthday is how I’m happy remembering her: living, without holding anything back.

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