The following is an excerpt from a piece first published on The Quaker, an online literary journal. Oy!Chicago has the permission of the author to republish it. To read the piece in its entirety, follow the link at the bottom of the post.
I watched my grandmother take her last breath. It was a Thursday night.
Bubbe—as we had come to call her, once she got past the point at which all Jewish grandmothers decide to give in to their age and allow their grandchildren to call them by this Yiddish term of endearment—had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just two months before. Bubbe, by then, had come to represent trips to Florida, hunts in the flea markets, and shelves of chatchke—the Yiddish word for useless stuff that manifested at Bubbe’s house as china figurines. She also made the fluffiest matzo balls this side of the Dead Sea. By that point, she always called us her “sweet girls,” all four of us bearing different combinations of our mother’s features. I’ve never seen a pair of cheek bones rise higher at the sight of me than when I walked through the door to find Bubbe at the sink, shaking the gold bracelets on her wrist, jingling like chimes, prepping some sort of meal to “put meat on our bones.”
She had always told me I was a good Kfesser, the Yiddish word for eater, and my love for food and cooking grew with every lesson she taught me. She also told me what a Kvetch—a complainer—I could be, so I stayed mindful of my humility and my blessings.
I sat in a hospice room on that Thursday night surrounded by my sisters—Abbee, 23, Rachel, 25, Jackie, 27. I’m 21 now, and as a frightened 18-year-old, I endured my first real loss that night. I know it was a Thursday because the weekend before had been my senior prom, and that Saturday was the last time my grandmother ever saw me. Thinking back on that afternoon, I realize she could not have passed away with a better final memory of me. My makeup perfect, my hair all done up in blonde curls. This was the way she had always liked me to look. When I look at photographs of her around my age, she exudes the glamour of the 1940s.
I had chattered nervously to her as she smiled, taking me in. I had kissed her forehead and rushed home to put on my emerald green dress and her favorite ring. She lent me her emerald ring. I cherish it, but haven’t worn it since. I’m not materialistic, truly. I’d rather spend an entire day outside in the dirt and leaves, rolling around with my horses in muck boots and a worn flannel jacket, but sometimes pieces of jewelry can hold more memories and moments than any scrapbook or failing human mind.
In the hospice room, a few of my cousins—a whole generation older than my sisters and I—lined the wall with their parents, my mom’s brothers and their wives, while my mother held her hand.
Mom had been the one to drive Bubbe all over the state for second opinions and alternative treatments. Mom had been the one praying, begging for her life, and Mom had been the one who spent the time, cherished each moment, and savored each meal and meeting just in case it would be the last. After her divorce from my father, I don’t think my mom ever took for granted even the briefest second she spent with someone she loved, in fear that it would all be over in the next minute. My mother is the strongest woman I know, and I think she’d say the same about her own mother, my Bubbe.
We had been watching her a few hours before she took her final breath. The rain fell onto the asphalt outside where the rest of Skokie, Illinois had fallen into a normal night’s sleep. The nurse told us we should take a walk outside. She said usually, mothers wait until their children have left the room to pass on. We all agreed, however, that, if we were talking about Bubbe, she’d want an audience, so we settled into our positions around the room.
She had spent most of my mother’s childhood playing hostess, and she had made the perfect 1950s housewife. She never left the house without her hair and makeup exactly perfect; she even vacuumed the floor in a dress and heels each morning. She had always had her hair “done,” and she had her eye makeup tattooed onto her face, the only exception she accepted to our religion’s taboos. Bubbe had my grandfather build a bar in the basement, separate entrance included, so her friends could drink cocktails and play billiards without interruption from the children. They were jitterbug champions in the ‘40s. They entertained every chance they could, and we were sure she relished the attention.
As we gave her our most focused attention in the hospice room, her breathing became shallow, and we waited, and watched. For a few moments, her breathing sped up, her chest rose, back arched as she struggled to breathe in short, airless gasps. We simply watched, and I can’t be sure now what we might have been watching for.
Why is it that family members rush home when they hear a loved one is about to die? Is it to say a final good-bye? Is it to witness God entering the room? Is it to sneak a possible peek at what it’s like to be gone, really gone?
When the doctors had first diagnosed Bubbe, my mom’s brothers, Bruce and Steve, teamed up to convince my mother to put her in the hospital full time. My mother had just moved her parents back to Chicago from Florida, and she didn’t want to put them through another residential adjustment. She bought them a spacious, first floor condo to compensate my grandmother’s inexperience with apartment living. She had lived in a house since the day she left her rigid mother’s apartment when she married, and she wasn’t willing to give up her own domain. Watching her pace back and forth from her bedroom to the kitchen in their apartment was hard for my mother. Her mom already was a domestic goddess stuck in a cramped quarters, so throwing her into what she would have seen as a prison cell would strip her of her final peace. After Steve and Bruce lost that fight, they withdrew all monetary and emotional support, and left my mother to carry the burden. As a result, their late presence—along with that of their children who followed the tug of their parents’ purse strings—was profoundly unwelcome. We had been there every day after school, had witnessed every doctor appointment, and watched her struggle to make it through every difficult day. We wanted to cherish our last moments with her, alone. They, however, had arrived mostly to ease their consciences. My grandparents were modest people, they didn’t leave behind any real money, but my mother made sure my sisters and I would receive Bubbe’s most meaningful relics.
I watched her chest rise again, deeply this time as she took in a louder breath, like a short gust of wind entering the car window when opened on the highway. Her chest fell, and I watched it there, waiting for it to rise again. She looked no different, if perhaps more peaceful even than before, but her chest didn’t rise. I waited, I didn’t blink for fear I’d miss it. All I felt around me was everyone else’s breath stop; they were waiting too, watching. For a few moments, the room became uncomfortably quiet. My mother broke the silence with a cracking sob and my sisters and I fell beside her—a heap of weeping women had just seen their fierce leader fall.
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