Goodbye, Bubbeh

chairsThere was no sadness in her voice when she said it. My grandmother, always Bubbeh to me, was in the hospital and we knew it was close to the end.

“Didja like the fruit we brought ya?” my dad asked, his eyes open a little too wide. He was close with his mom and didn’t want to let her go.

I stood there. I wanted to say, It’s ok, Bubbeh. You can die. I can see that you are ready. We will be ok. We can let you go and still love you all at the same time. But I didn’t. I deferred to my father’s denial and watched him rearrange the room four times so the rest of us could gather around the bed. He’d sit with us and then get up to talk with a nurse, sit and then go wash his hands, sit again and then stand near the door.

Bubbeh floated in and out of this world until she finally left it. Sometimes, she would suddenly awaken from a dull, distracted state, stare out the window, point to nothing, and say, “did you see that man leaping across the grass?!”

My grandfather, Papa, sighed and said, “there’s no man there, poosel.” I had always assumed poosel meant sweetheart in Yiddish, until Papa told me it didn’t really mean anything. But after sixty-three years of marriage, every word between them expressed affection, even when they argued. He signed every letter to her the same way: Your Everloving Daniel.

Bubbeh was terrified of the nurses who entered her room in the middle of the night to draw blood and check oxygen. I did not see the point of taking blood out of her body when she was telling us she was ready to die, but I did not say anything to my family about that either. It was awful to watch her shriek and cry every time they took out the needles. I decided to stay overnight and do my best to distract her from procedure and powerlessness.

I pushed two chairs together, thanked the nurse for the extra pillows, and accepted that I wouldn’t sleep much that night. The hospital smell alone was enough to keep me up. I could almost taste it, a combination of iodine and processed food left too long in the microwave. I tried to exhale more than I inhaled, but Bubbeh didn’t seem to detect the stench. She asked if I could smell the schmaltz and the baking bread. I went along with it. “Yeah, smells good!”

She perked up. She couldn’t actually sit up, but she started to speak with such clarity and vigor that I wondered if she had been faking the delusions. She told me amazing things, how she had one dollar to spend on her wedding night and so she bought a sky-blue nightie from Woolworth’s for 89 cents and with the remainder got a pack of cigarettes; how she loved Elvis but thought it odd that women wanted to take home his sweaty towels after the concert; how my dad, her son, once stole a handful of walnuts from Mr. Levine’s store and she made him take them back; how she loved Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand and making brisket and farfel and fudgies and apple pie and watching all of us eat; how she was so angry about the pain in her life and where was God?; and how she wished she was a little more decadent and divine like Liza Minelli in Cabaret, but anyway I should have seen her back then, she had great legs and good taste in clothes; how she was so proud of her husband and proud of herself for learning how to pay the bills. She loved the glittery red frames on her eyeglasses and I knew she had fire in her, but I had never heard her say anything vaguely erotic until she finally sighed and said, what I wouldn’t give for a good, long drag of a cigarette. Her right cheek started twitching from the neuralgia as if to remind her that emphysema had now claimed her lungs. She winced from the pain and lost the dreamy look in her eye.

In the pre-dawn morning, she started squirming around and complaining that her back hurt. Her face was small, tight, and pale. “Get it out!” she kept insisting.

“Get what out?” I asked.

“The stick!”

“What stick, Bubbeh?” I was having trouble understanding her. This was the only time I’d ever seen her without dentures. She lost her adult teeth when she was still a child because her family found it cheaper and easier to pull them out than to take her to a dentist. We only have anecdotal evidence, but we believe there was more than one kind of abuse going on in her childhood home.

When she was little, my grandmother often brought live chickens in a gunnysack to the shochet to be ritually slaughtered. She hated this task. The chickens would squawk and bite and fight to free themselves, like she was doing now, knowing that her liberation was no longer in this body. One time, she hit the sack on a nearby fence too many times, and killed the chickens on the way to their death.

“THE STICK! THE STICK! GET IT OUT!” She was getting more upset and I felt useless. I knew she was on the way to her death and I wanted to help her get there peacefully. She started banging her arms against the side rails of the bed.

I’ve got to help her, I thought, as Bubbeh’s decibel level increased to match her discomfort. She started shrieking “GET IT OUT!” repeatedly. “I can’t lie like this! Who put this STICK in the BED?!”

Ok…there’s a stick and it’s in the bed. I looked into her eyes and said, “I don’t know who put it there, Bubbeh, but I’ll get it out.”

I reached under her sheets, made sure she could feel my arm under her back, and pretended to pull a thick yardstick from her spine. “Ah, that’s better!” she sighed, and immediately calmed down. The impact was instant and she fell back asleep.

Wow, that was easy. I watched her sleep and whispered to her in the dark…I love you Bubbeh…I am going to miss you when you are gone…I know you love me…I’m here and it’s ok to go…it’s ok…. The tension in her jaw released.

In the months before she was hospitalized, I noticed flakes of my grandmother’s skin on the floor in front of the couch where she sat all day and all night. Her skin was visibly peeling away from her hands and feet—not the moist peel of sunburned skin renewing itself, but tough layers of life falling away, softening her to a former state. She became childlike in those last months and often blurted out “I love you” not only to family members but also to strangers. Even without her teeth, she looked beautiful to me. She knew that acknowledging death did not mean I was hastening it. She also knew that I heard her, and I’m still listening.


Bubbeh at age 25 holding my dad at 3 weeks old, 1942


…and her everloving Daniel, 1939

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