We're Sorry About Your Grandmother

What I didn’t know—what I couldn’t know, until I’d stumbled through a few more decades—was that life lay in her hospital room

I ran away.

It wasn’t what you’re thinking: an eruption of adolescent fury, a backpack stuffed with lip gloss and pajamas, a night’s refuge in the canopied bed of a best friend.

When I ran away, I wasn’t a teenager. I was 21, legally an adult. No argument propelled me out the door. I did have a backpack, though I can’t recall one thing that was in it.

I was running from death—or, rather, from dying. I was running from my grandmother’s sad and attenuated dying in a bed at Bryn Mawr Hospital in suburban Philadelphia. I was running from pallid March light that threw stripes on her sheets, from Styrofoam cups of apple juice growing warm on a bedside table, from the nurses and their inscrutable charts.

In May, I would graduate from college. A month earlier, I’d broken up with a boyfriend whose enthusiastic attentions—“Look, I put the toothpaste on your toothbrush!”—made me feel as though I were smothered in gauze.

Soon I would move to Washington, D.C., live in my own apartment and work as a reporter. I could eat Cocoa Krispies for dinner or watch movies until 2 a.m. on my little black-and-white TV. I wouldn’t have to share the phone or the sink or the fridge.

But in late summer, just before my senior year, my grandmother—whom I’d always called by the Yiddish word "Bubie"—had fallen down a flight of wooden steps. “How are you?” I’d ask on the phone each Sunday. Her voice was fragile as milkweed: “I’m … so-so.”

Each week, she sounded further away. While I applied for internships and wrote papers on "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," my Bubie, who had suffered high blood pressure and heart trouble for years, endured a series of strokes that left her weak and small and vulnerable.

We celebrated her birthday that fall with a party in her hospital room: a marble cake she only nibbled, goofy hats we wore askew, photographs we snapped while wondering: Are these the last?

By spring, she seemed to be pulling back from the world. Asleep, she curled softly under the sheets. Awake, she nodded in answer to questions. I sat by her bed, hemming a skirt I’d made, a dirndl of narrow black and cobalt stripes, trying to coax a familiar response.

This was my Bubie, after all, who showed up practically every Sunday afternoon of my childhood, surrounded by bags of laundry detergent (“It was on sale!”), knitting needles and my favorite brand of cottage cheese. My Bubie, who would slip me a crumpled dollar bill and whisper, “Just for you. Don’t tell your mother.” Bubie, who smelled of Jean Naté after-bath splash, who taught me to play gin rummy, who stirred non-dairy creamer into her coffee and let me have a taste. My Bubie, who called me “shayna maideleh,” Yiddish for “beautiful girl.“

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“Do you like it, Bubie?” I said, holding up the bunched fabric in my lap. A slight nod. “Nice,” she said. “Wear it well.” Talk took energy, and she was conserving hers. Maybe dying was hard work. Or maybe it was the effort to stay alive. I held her hand, creased as an old glove.

“You’ll feel her getting colder,” a nurse said, and a lozenge of fear slid from my throat straight down to my gut. I was 21, I’d never seen anyone die, and all I wanted was to be away, very far away from the darkening confines of that room. Outside, my life was waiting—social calendar thrown open, pink lip-smacks of dogwood blossom on the trees, a long-planned road trip to Miami over spring break.

“Do you really think you ought to go?” my mother asked wearily. She’d been holding vigil in the hospital for days, doing work while Bubie slept and keeping anxious tabs on her medication and tests.

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I glanced around the room: carnations browning in tepid water, cards in a row on the windowsill, my Bubie’s nearly translucent skin, her closed eyes, my mother’s own drawn, worried face.

“I want to go.”

On the first day of spring break, I climbed into a borrowed van with three college friends, my cousin and his best buddy, and we drove straight through the night to Miami. I stepped out of the van into a haze of warm, sticky air. Bougainvillea, big as my head. Sunlight so sharp, I had to squint. And a phone message: Call home immediately.

I knew even before I heard my father’s voice. My cousin and I flew back together, while our friends stayed in Miami for the week. Even while I wept at the funeral, I envied their freedom: from sorrow, from the too-tight hugs of aunts and uncles, from the sound of earth falling onto a wooden box.

We spent the week sitting shiva in my parents’ house, observing the Jewish mourning period with shoes off and mirrors covered. I remember endless platters of bagels and whitefish, the phone ringing constantly; I remember crying into my pillow late at night, and early each morning, when I woke up, forgot and then remembered, all over again, that my Bubie was gone.

One evening, my friends called from Miami. Someone had gotten sunburned; someone had lost the copy of "Moby Dick" she was supposed to read for American Lit; their exuberance bubbled over the phone along with their concern. “We miss you,” they said. “We’re sorry about your grandmother.”

I fantasized about getting on the next plane to join them. Then the doorbell rang, and there were more relatives bearing casseroles and stories.

Back then, I thought life lay outside that hospital room, far from our overcrowded house of mourning. I thought life was synonymous with liberation, that growing up meant growing free. It wasn’t the first time I was tempted to close the door and run—fast! faster!—from a situation that felt weighty, sad or complicated.

What I didn’t know—what I couldn’t know, until I’d stumbled through a few more decades—was that life lay in that hospital room. When I ran away, I missed a crucial episode. Dying wasn’t a wrong turn from living; it was the destination we’d all reach, sooner or later. And if I’d been brave enough to stay and look, I’d have seen life in every detail of the journey: a shoulder-squeeze from my dad, a crumpled tissue handed over by my mother, the March light insisting its way through the blinds as my Bubie took her last breath.

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