The Last Thing My Grandma Saw.
One autumn afternoon, I lay in my grandma’s arms. I climbed into her bed and she held me. It was a portal to my seven-year-old self.
When she heard me enter the room moments before, she called out to me and I could feel the joy in her voice. I slipped my shoes off, got into her bed, and nestled into her arms. I felt my body soften to her warm embrace. We snuggled together in the homemade shades-of brown afghan I have lain in a million times. Her arms held my head as my body curled into hers.
That day, she took care of me. It was a gift for us both. I got to be 7 again, and she got to be a grandma who’s not stuck in a memory-impaired assisted living facility with a door code. My heart filled with warm fuzzy love, and time stood still. We fell into our old familiar roles with ease. She’s taken care of me my whole life, until recently, when our roles reversed.
The way we lay in her bed that afternoon, my right hand met her left and we held hands. It felt warm and familiar. Like matzoh ball soup or French toast with piles of sugar. My left hand landed on her arm and comforted her.
My life through the lens of her love flashed through me as I lay there, and I felt gratitude for the years of chocolate ice cream, singing songs, tuna sandwiches on toast cut diagonally with kosher pickles and freshly mixed chocolate milk.
My grandma was a straight-shooting mathematician who never minced words. Death was as easy a subject for her as what to make for dinner. She pre-planned and prepaid for her funeral. Except the limo. She used to say, “If you want a limo, you can pay for it yourself,” and “Don’t wear black to my funeral. Don’t wear red either, because that’s too happy. Just don’t wear black.”
I was the oldest and well-prepped to handle all the details. Her wedding rings were in the drawer waiting for me, and I knew exactly what to do. She talked about her 100 years coming for as long as I could remember.
A few months later, as the dogwood trees blossomed in early spring, the nurse suggested Hospice pick up Grandma that day. Reality suddenly hit me: her 100 years were up.
I felt myself well up with emotion, and then it hit me: I don’t have to be sad, this is a time to celebrate. What a glorious life my grandma lived! Just then, the craziest idea came to me. I followed that thought, and started texting my family, inviting them to a party that night to honor The Bubs, as we lovingly called my grandma. It was short for Baubee, the Yiddish word for grandma.
“You know you’re alive when you feel a river of joy moving through you,” Rumi wrote. Everything in my life suddenly made sense, and my heart felt warm and still.
The party would be a joyful event, I told my family, a celebration of her life. Come to Hospice that evening and dress up, my text requested. We would serve Grandma’s favorites: cream soda, Hershey kisses, and coffee-flavored Nips candy, which she’d been popping in her mouth one after another like a schoolgirl.
Each family member I invited said Yes, they would come to the party that night. Every single one. You’re crazy, and Yes.
Later that night, the Hospice room was filled with games, food, music and warm buzzy electricity. There was a sense of A party for someone as she lies dying in Hospice? What? And yet, it felt very right to consciously choose celebration as Grandma was entering the final moments of her life. We felt the pull to be somber and cry, but the truth is, we felt joyful. Especially Grandma.
Being with her family is what she loved the most. I trusted my intuition to host this party, and my family trusted me.
My sister polished Grandma’s nails purple. We decorated her bed with pink feather boas, and we laughed so loudly that the nurses asked us to quiet down.
What I remember most about that party is my Grandma smiling wide, her eyes bright, holding up her purple nails with the low hum of my family in the background. It could have been any other family get-together. In fact, we had dinner together every Thursday night for the past 25 years.
Every Thursday, rain or shine, we would gather at Grandma’s and she would make us all dinner. Every week she had soft bread with butter waiting for us on the table, knowing we always walked in starving, a fresh salad with three kinds of dressing, meat, vegetables and a potato, sometimes baked, sometimes mashed. And then dessert: chocolate ice cream, Hershey kisses, or our favorite — chocolate-dipped donuts.
The menu was precision blanketed in pure love. Thursday nights were the kind of get-together that didn’t need an invitation; it was understood, and we would all show up after work and school, and would eat, laugh, play games, and often cry or argue. Thursday dinners withstood marriages, divorces, births, deaths, and hurricanes.
The day of her Hospice party was a Thursday, so it made perfect sense for us to be together that night. God sure works in mysterious ways.
My Grandma was tiny the night of her party. The once always-busy North Star of our family was now a small figure lying in the feather-boa-adorned bed, ready to go. She lived a beautiful almost-93 years and made a mark on my heart that is immeasurable.
She showed me how to talk to anyone, anywhere about anything, to always buy whatever children were selling and to write Thank you notes when I received a gift. Her love was boundless.
By caring for her in the last years of her life, I learned the depths of human compassion. I dove into deep crevices of my own humanity in the simple moments of holding her hand while playing Bing Crosby videos for her on my iPhone, helping her from her wheelchair to the bed, or listening to her tell me the same stories each week.
I could feel the party coming to an end. It was getting late, and Grandma’s eyes grew heavy. She was curled up, and her purple nails sparkled on her tiny hands as her eyes closed.
And here’s how divinely perfect it all was: my Grandma never opened her eyes again. Ever. She left this earth four days later, and the last thing she saw was her family laughing together at a party just for her.
The air that night felt like warm thick honey, drizzled over us, permeating our insides, shifting our cells for what’s possible in life, love and death. That party was of the best nights of my life. It changed the way I look at earthy events, and taught me to celebrate the joy instead of crying over the sadness. I wore a green dress to Grandma’s funeral, and felt pure love in my heart.
And this autumn day, months before, in the bedroom at her assisted-living facility, covered in her afghan, her bed was warm and quiet. She spoke softly in my ear and told me stories. Her voice sounded 92 today, sing-songy love mixed with tired and worn. She said she was thirsty, and I knew our cuddling would soon come to an end.
I told her I brought an orange, and that I would love to peel it for us. It was a blood orange, and I loved the bright red color. As I lifted out of her embrace and off the bed, I felt the transmission of a simpler time when there was black-and-white TV and no internet. Days when grandmas and grandchildren would sit for hours playing cards and telling jokes.
She drank her water all the way down and was so proud of herself, saying she’d save the cup for when the nurse brings her medicine later. She held up the cup to show me it was empty inside.
My grandma could only eat one section of that blood red orange because she got full so quickly. She asked me to leave so she could go back to sleep. “Yes, grandma, I’ll see you tomorrow for dinner,” I whispered and kissed her cheek.
Before I got up, she said I should go home with good feelings. She said I was a good girl, and it must be true because she said so. I gave her a kiss on the forehead, put the shades-of-brown afghan back over her and quietly slipped out the door, tossing the orange peels in the garbage on my way out.
Brenda Fredericks is a teacher and Transformational Coach for moms. She guides women to live more authentically, and have better sex and more freedom. She is permission for mothers to be a fully expressed woman and know that anything is possible. She founded the Mother Daughter Closeness Project with her daughter, and works with women to heal their mother-daughter relationships. She’s a goddess, a mother of two, a former middle school teacher of 22 years, and has been on a 10-year journey of claiming her power as a woman and mother. Learn more and connect with her via her website.