My grandmother died today. She was just about to turn 95 years old.
This is a weird one.
My grandmother, Rhoda Brand, had been battling dementia. It is difficult to know exactly when it really took hold but I’d say it has been roughly 8 to 10 years where I can remember being able to observe signs of its presence.
It has been just over 4 years since her husband, my grandfather, and the origin of a Brand Name, died. I try to put these unfortunate posts in the context of how it might affect Julianna and Chloe’s world. They certainly knew and spent some time with her over the years but I’m not sure they ever knew her because of the dementia and certainly not in the way I did.
I’m definitely not an expert on dementia so I won’t try to compare my grandmother’s path with anyone else’s. I’d like to focus more on the grandmother I knew before.
Last night, we decided to have a BBQ dinner. Both Julianna and Chloe wanted to help me cook and it was the first time either of them had helped with the BBQ. Yesterday was also my father’s birthday. We had plans, thanks to COVID-19 to do a family Zoom after dinner with him to celebrate in some small way. A few days ago there were signs that things were not looking good for my grandmother and so those plans were up in the air.
My dad decided to go back to the nursing home where my grandmother was to spend time with her and that the virtual birthday celebration was not going to happen. When we told the girls, they asked why and we explained that Great Grandma Rhoda was not doing well.
“Is she going to die soon?”-Chloe
Yes, she probably is, I said matter-of-factly.
They asked why I didn’t seem sad about it. I said it wasn’t that I’m not sad. I would certainly be sad to not have her in this world but because of the dementia, I believed, however controversial it may be, that when she passed away, it would be like a giant weighted blanket being lifted off of her and that person who I grew up with and the person who I knew for the first 30 something years of my life would be free.
The girls expressed that wouldn’t it be sad if she died on Papa’s birthday? Well, my wife and I told them, maybe it wouldn’t be sad. Maybe that’s just an excuse to celebrate not only Papa’s birthday each year but also to celebrate all the greatness that Great Grandma Rhoda brought to this world.
Do you remember the photograph in the movie “Back to the Future” that Marty McFly carries around? It is a photo of him and his family, standing in front of a wishing well. As the movie goes on, with Marty, in the past, making changes to the future, things in the photograph start disappearing. This is how I imagine dementia is for the people suffering from it. Things slowly start to fade away.
At the end of the movie, when Marty has saved the day, everything that had disappeared comes back.
Now is our chance, as a family, to make everything come back.
We are the photograph and now we have the chance to make everything reappear.
When I was a kid, my family would go to my grandparents’ house every Sunday. My grandmother would cook lunch for all of us and I’m not talking about the way I would do it with 8 boxes of macaroni and cheese. These were multi-course meals and they were delicious, every, single, week.
I have never known anyone who could cook as well as she did. She made, easily, the best meatballs I’ve ever eaten. She called them “Swedish Meatballs” but I think they were more “Sweet and Sour Meatballs” if we’re being honest. She guarded this recipe like an NBA lockdown defender.
Eventually, she relented and now each household in the family has a version of her meatballs and while I wish I had the skills to cook them, I feel very lucky to have a wife who does.
When I was a kid, each year, around Hanukkah time, Grandma would give each of her grandkids a copy of the Toys R’ Us circular from the newspaper. We were tasked with circling the items that we wanted. I remember almost passing out from excitement each year when I would see her coming with that circular. It is only now that I think about how ridiculous it was that she would go and buy multiple copies of a whole newspaper so she could get multiple circulars.
I then imagine her walking around Toys R’ Us, with multiple carts, and multiple circulars, for multiple grandkids, somehow managing to keep it all organized. I picture her with her glasses on holding all that newspaper, flipping pages searching for crayon circles and doing a form of a shopping spree and jumping between the Barbie section and the GI Joe section and everything in between.
I never found out how she managed this whole process. All I know is that her success rate, at least as far as I remember, was always 100%. It is a little like a good magic trick: You sort of want to know how it got done but you are sort of ok just appreciating the art.
Grandma was, in many ways, a classic matriarch in her time. She gave so much and cared even more.
When you look up “grandmother” in the dictionary, there are 2 definitions:
- The mother of one’s father or mother
- A female ancestor
When you look up ancestor, one of the definitions feels close to perfect:
an object, idea, style, or occurrence serving as a prototype, forerunner, or inspiration to a later oneMy Grandmother
Even at the end, when she almost certainly didn’t remember who I was, her nature would still shine through. I imagine, for me, that it would cause all sorts of anxiety if people, or for all intents and purposes, strangers, would come up to me and say hi all the time. I know this is a difficult way to process what I imagine she was going through.
With that in mind, and who knows if she was “pretending” or not, but she would always greet me with a smile. Always. That is far better than I would have done had I been in her situation.
She was just so warm.
My grandfather, her husband, was in the lighting business.
She was and always will be, the light.
I wish my kids really got to experience and know her the way I did.
She is free.
For that, and for all that she gave us and will continue to give us, I am thankful and always will be.
Epilogue: An updated version of this post has been published here: https://jewishjournal.org/2020/05/06/saying-goodbye-to-the-matriarch-from-a-distance/ It covers the mourning and funeral part of the story.