By Jennifer Reinharz
On October 15th, I lost my grandmother to cancer. The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.
Three days earlier, when the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home from my hospital visit, gathered my notebook, and made plans to capture my grandmother’s unusually talkative mood.
There were so many possibilities. Perhaps, as my husband’s Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll; or maybe, as a member of her church’s quilting guild, she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.
But by the time I reached my grandmother’s home hospice bedside, she was already in a final sleep. Weeks whittled to hours. Before sunrise, she was gone.
Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain-free, and at home surrounded by loved ones. Her last days, passing, and funeral had been a fluid waltz. Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.
Without her words, I had to stretch my accordion memory file for tucked away treasures. Two came to mind; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.
Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Sixteen was her forever age, the age at which she liked to remember herself.
Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”
My notebook soon filled up with Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.
1. Listen for understanding. When talking with other people, don’t uh-huh, right, or yes them. Take it all in. Dot was everyone’s ear—mine included.
2. Visit the sick. My grandmother was not afraid of the fray. She recognized that a friend’s comfort was more important than her own. The key to helping those failing feel alive, she had recently told me, was to talk about old times. Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.
3. Create a warm and inviting home. Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house. Even as the family grew, her apartment was “the place to be”; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table. A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.
4. Keep an open door policy. Dot always left an empty plate on the table. Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends would traipse through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parmesan, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle. Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them in. No appointment needed.
5. Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest. My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting; she could work any room. From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged. In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology. “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said. It made her sad.
6. Be a good time Charlie. Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing. Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.
7. Send cards. I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark. My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise. Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.
8. Watch your television stories but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant. When my grandmother told my husband she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.
9. Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility. Although my grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties, she loved to drive. With a dashboard tap for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go. But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.
10. Forge ahead. My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication. Not once did she complain to anyone.
11. Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever you see fit. My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as Homemaker. More so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.
12. Say “I love you.” Dot had a hard time saying “I love you”; showing love seemed easier for her. In the hospital, the last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.
13. Avoid self pity. Dot was a Depression kid with an estranged, alcoholic father. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to work. These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.
14. Communicate. My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time. “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised. “Grudges are worthless. Life is too short.”
15. Keep the faith. Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church, attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement. She embraced what spoke to her in this universe, and in the end, it was her faith that helped her to let go.
16. Love well. During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort. At her funeral, it was no surprise that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot. She was a special lady.”
Before Dot’s death, my five-year old said goodbye to his great-grandmother.
He stood at the base of the hospital bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”
“You do?” she replied.
“I will miss you when God comes.”
God came—all too soon and all too suddenly.
People speak of rocks; Dot was mine. Her spirit and legacy fill me today and always.
I am one lucky granddaughter.
Jennifer Reinharz writes for children, and blogs for grownups. She is a teacher, CrossFitter, and most importantly, Mom to Bubbe and The Skootch. Jennifer is the creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? (www.redsaidwhat.com). Follow her on Twitter @redsaidwhatblog.