Grandma

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I used to spend every Sunday morning in nursing homes. I used to try to imagine what the old and wasted looked like when they were young and full of life. But now I’m not just some stranger on an altruistic visit. I’m family, sitting in hospice, while my grandmother is dying. And I am dying with her. I can feel it, because the part of me that only she brings out is dying too.

The life we had together is coming to an end. Her muscles are shriveled, her skin hangs loose on her bones like Spanish Moss on tree limbs, her words sound like car tires turning on gravel, and her breathing rattles in her throat. But now more than ever I see her as young. The more her body withers, the more her beautiful soul appears.

When asked to describe her to a friend, I said without thought or hesitation, “She is like sunshine. She turns everything into a song. If once she smiles at you, some infectious moment of happiness compels you to smile back. She is simple in a world that makes everything complicated. She spreads love everywhere she goes. And the day she dies, the world will change forever.”

Lifeless and weak as she is, she still has strength to hold me, pat my head, and stroke my cheek. I kiss her hands and face, and lay my head gently on her shoulder. I sing a lullaby in her ear until she sleeps. Her smile hasn’t changed. Sometimes she looks at me in a room full of people, and her pale, thin lips stretch in that same familiar smile she has only for me. I am closer to her now than ever, even though my fellow Wayfaring Stranger is crossing the final border, “only going over Jordan, only going over home”.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said.

“Save a place for me in your house,” I replied.

“I will,” she promised.

The days in hospice drag on. She grows weaker, but she still shakes her finger at me. I’m onery and she knows just how I came by it; she shakes her finger at me because she knows I’m just like her. “Don’t get sunburned,” she says. “I won’t, Grandma,” I promise.

It is not hard to watch her die. She is ready and so am I. I only weep because I am tired, because I know that the time is coming when I will have to carry on without her. I dread the lonely days of wayfaring ahead: the dark clouds that lie out before me, the days when I want to call her, have coffee with her, read her my latest story, share my joys and sorrows, or ask for her prayers, and can’t. But perhaps I will not be as alone as I expect. Souls and the ties between them are not ruled by death. What are the laws of physics to supernatural souls? For the first time I realize that we are fascinating creatures, humans. We are part physical, part mental, and part spiritual. We are capable of ever so much more than we realize. Perhaps when my grandmother’s soul is at last set free, we will be even closer than before.

She sleeps more and more often. One day she’ll wake up in that other world that I only just catch glimpses of in that space between waking and dreaming. I can see heaven behind her eyes.

Hi, Grandma.” I have to shout in her ear now because she can’t hear me anymore.

“Who… who is it?” she asks. She can’t see me anymore either.

“It’s Sarah, Grandma.”

Her hands flutter immediately, reaching for me almost desperately, and words tumble from her too-dry mouth. “I love… you. I …love… you.”

“I love you too, Grandma.” She struggles to form the words. “You’re …shuss… to me.”

She can’t swallow and her tongue and lips no longer communicate her thoughts properly. But I know what she’s saying. You’re precious to me. It’s the same script we say every time.

“I’m not going to tell you goodbye,” I say firmly, “because we will meet again. So I’ll just say, see you soon.”

Something feels familiar about this experience, and I gradually realize as one day presses into another, that I have walked in the shadow of death before. I hear echoes of words spoken ages ago: come let us cross over. I see a forlorn face borne away by the train to places I cannot follow. I see the stars at 3 am twinkling in a dark foreign sky and confide in my best friend, “I don’t want to say good-bye.” “So we won’t,” came the reply. “Because we’ll see each other again. So I’ll just say, ‘See you soon’.”

Okay, then. See you soon!

See you soon…

It seems that all my life I have been learning letting go. Practicing little pictures of death. Perhaps this is so that one day when I too am dying, I will not have to be afraid.

Grandma is still teaching me, even as she sleeps now. And this is her final parting gift: by her faith that I am coming after her, by my faith that we will meet again, by her peace and her desire to be quit of this world, by her love, by her very dying, she is saving me.

I am homesick already.

On her last good day, she asks for her swab to be dipped in coffee. She sits up and plays the electric keyboard they brought just for her. On this day, I make my last confession.

Hey, Grandma.”

“What?” 

“I got sunburned.”

“Uh-oh…”

“I’m sorry, Grandma. I love you. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

She summons the strength to lift a skeletal hand, her thumb reaching for the ceiling. “Okay!”

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go

I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather around me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

I’m going there to my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

Unfinished Business

My mother asked me to look up an old friend of hers before I left for Ukraine in September 2012. We met Kitty on that fateful first trip in November 2002, and lost touch with her not long after. Fortunately, this is an age of technology, information, and connection. One quick search and I found her in less than 5 minutes. Years had fallen prey to those bittersweet words “lost touch”, years during which I had simply never thought to look.

I sent a message to Kitty. You know the kind: Hello. Remember me? Mom sends love. I’m coming to Kyiv. Can we meet?

She was thrilled. Of course, she wanted to meet.

Yaroslav the Wise

Me with Kitty and Yaroslav the Wise, Golden Gates

One morning in Kyiv, Kitty called me, waking me out of a deep slumber. Communication was always an adventure of its own. And this time was no different. Between my broken Russian, my morning stupor, and her few words of English, we were able to arrange a meeting time and place. She took a bus down from Chernihiv and met me by the Golden Gates.

I wasn’t sure I would recognize her after 10 years. But every so often life brings you those rare, beautiful, and perfect moments. Because when I saw her, I knew it was her. I knew it was her and I was certain. She said I looked exactly the same. We talked and hugged and walked arm in arm down the street. I swore to myself the next time I saw her I would be fluent so that we could talk about everything. 

She had been my mother’s friend, true, but as my mom’s emissary and bearer of gifts, Kitty and I discovered that we shared something that gave us a common bond: love for my mother. In a way, that sort of made us sisters.

Mom had sent her a picture before they lost touch. Kitty had kept it framed so she would remember always, that awful picture where her eyes were closed. The memory of that time and place was so dear to her; it kept her going. She never thought she would hear from me or my mother again. She thought that we were lost forever.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

And yet here we sat in an Italian/Sushi place in Kyiv, Ukraine, reunited and sending good thoughts to Mom, who was far away and probably sleeping soundly in America. Kitty said that when she received my message she cried buckets, tears just running down her face.

Kitty and Me

Kitty, 27, and me, 25. I never realized until I posted this, how much I look like my mom. Spooky!

But as often as life gives you little moments of bliss, it will also contrive to be cruel.

We rode the metro together, both headed for home. I was off to my flat, Kitty to her bus. I was promising to come back soon and bring my mother; she was begging me to do so with tears in her eyes.

Then it was my stop. Levoberezhna.

A fierce hug. A swift good-bye. And I was out of the train car. I could see her through the window. We waved as the doors closed, a sad farewell through the smudged glass.

I’ve noticed that Ukrainians generally don’t do prolonged good-byes. None of this: “No, you hang up. No, YOU hang up! No, you…” Just “see you” and gone. Sometimes it’s better to simply walk away. But I waited. And then I understood a little better the value of a swift good-bye.

When you say good-bye to someone through a train window, you can see them, you can smile, you can wave, you can cry, but it doesn’t change anything. You can’t reach them, speak to them, or hold them. You can only wait for the inevitable. And then suddenly, with a rush of wind snatching at your hair and clothes, they are gone. You blink and your loved one is vanished. And you all you can do is just stand there on the empty platform.

So I stood there, left behind, alone in a sea of people, who didn’t know and didn’t care who I was, who Kitty was, or about our story. And that’s the thing about Ukraine: no one pays you any mind, whether you’re waving a sad farewell through a train window, or crying alone on a street corner.

Goodbyes on a train are the worst.

For all I know, when the subway train took Kitty away, it might well have taken her away forever. Phone numbers change. Profiles deactivate. And long-lost loved ones are swept back into the oblivion they emerged from, as unreachable as ever before.

Sometimes I feel like I am always losing people, even as soon as I find them.

It makes me wonder, what’s the point? People come and go. They waltz in from the wings onto the stage of life, and then they dance right on through and off the other. Would it be any better, if they never danced through my life at all? Friendships that seem strong can shatter into pieces. Grudges can start with only one little misunderstanding. This flood of time can sweep someone out of arms reach in an instant, and you’ll find yourself like I did: alone at a station, knowing you’ll never see them again, but hoping. Always hoping.

What else can I do, but hope? Maybe there will come a day when I won’t be the only one looking, and I’ll be the one found.

Maybe there is no point. Maybe finding and losing people is just a part of life I need to accept. But suppose for a moment that every person who passes through our lives does so for a reason, to teach us something. What if we are given heartbreak in order to make us wise? What if we lose people in order to teach us to appreciate what we have while we have it, and then let go? What if we endure pain so that we will learn compassion? What if without these things, we would have no capacity for happiness or joy? Think of a sunny day, how much more precious that warm sunlight is after a week of cold, grey rain.

Kitty once wrote to my mother, and I feel she said it best: “Unbearable things happen in life, but you keep living — to see, to hear, to understand — and one day, life turns around and greets you again with a smile.”

At the end of the day, lost or found, I am one heartbreak closer to that smile.