August 16, 2013

A Family’s Life After Death. ~ Rachel L. Bergman

The last time I saw my Grandpa Art alive in Michigan three years ago his eyes were electric blue and glowing like planets.

When he slept, his mouth hung open and the light went away but when he opened his eyes they glowed with the brightness not of life, but of the whole universe.

Near the end, my Grandpa had run a finger over my painted-black fingernails and reached up, staring, to grab the end of a lock of my hair and looked at my mother and said, “You used to have long hair like this.”

We had to lean close to understand him.

I knew his world was mostly a dream at this point, one long awake dream, one perceived reality that blended not fact and fiction but the tangible and the subconscious. He was there between those two worlds, me a present reminder to which he tied his past, viewing all of time in front of him at once.

He already was where he was going—he had straddled the two worlds for some time now.

Grandpa Art was my mother’s father and the first husband of her mother, my Nana Thelma. They met when my Nana was 14 and he was 15, when he approached her randomly at the park and asked her to hold his watch while he played softball with the boys. A family, an affair, a new family, and 65 years later, he asked his 26-year-old son Robert if he’d wear his watch for a while because he hadn’t been moving around enough to keep it working.

The more he became confined to his bed, the more he was convinced he was still responsible for chores like walking the dogs. Eventually, he asked Robert for his watch back. He wore it until he died.

Whoever my Grandpa had been before, he left it behind twice; once when he moved to Michigan when my mom was a teenager. He married my Grandma Charm and had a son, my uncle Robert, just three years before I was born.

The second time he left his life behind was when his brain tumor, the one he battled for six years, stripped him of that thing we call a personality, all those defense mechanisms and conscious decisions masquerading as our real selves but only standing in the way of just that.

What was left was his soul.

My mother recognized this and she loved and forgave him fully. She had thought her whole life that maybe he didn’t love her and now, when he looked at her, it wasn’t that she could convince herself otherwise, but that she could accept the past as it was and allow herself, in her own words, to be “bathed in pure love.”

Now, when he touched my hair, she left the room so he wouldn’t see her cry, especially since we didn’t know if he knew he was dying. He never seemed to, with the exception of a few surprising sleep-talking episodes Grandma Charm recounted for us in which, speaking at full volume, something we didn’t think he had the strength left to do, he prayed Hebrew prayers we didn’t know were in him and addressed and thanked the people in his life.

I have the strength, apparently, to sit with a dying man—and to clarify, strength doesn’t mean not crying—I can sit for it though, I can stay with it and allow myself to be in it, but have never been able to watch my mother cry.

When my mother displays sadness I feel 100% responsible for her happiness and become resentful of my impossible role. I don’t want to love her anymore when that happens and my capacity to comfort her feels as though it’s behind a locked door—existent, but inaccessible.

I didn’t want to acknowledge my mother but there she was, in pain and I realized that if nothing else is true, I love my mother. I went to her in the bathroom to offer my arms and ask nothing back.

Despite 24 years of best friendship, affection, and dramatic, rocky, strong love between us her body would not accept my hug and I knew at once how rare it was that I actually offered her my support and that if this moment had never happened, I would never be able to imagine anything could ever be weird between my mother and me.

When my Grandpa died three days later and I came home from work, my mother had become a little girl again.

She stared at her hands, which were shaped just like his, blankly, turning them over to see the palm and the back, again and again.

In the morning, we made our way back to Michigan where our whole family was gathering for the funeral.

Robert wore the big gold Chai necklace, the one Grandpa never took off, under his shirt; Grandma Charm kept Grandpa’s wedding ring and the watch, which had read the wrong time for a while now, in her bedroom.

She hadn’t slept up there since she’d set up a cot next to Grandpa’s sick bed over a year ago.

Now, helping her transition back to the bedroom, I slept next to her, with my thoughts asking my Grandpa permission to sleep in his spot for the sake of supporting my Grandma, the love of his life.

We lay together and she told me how the best time of her life was when she’d gone to Europe for two months with two friends and no plan just after her first husband left her.

She told me a story I’d never heard about her last memory of that first husband—she was 22, and he helped her into the bath after she burned her hands making eggs.

She told me that after that, her cardinal rule was never to date just one man at a time—when you find one who’s really special, then you can drop the others.

It was a policy she stuck to until she found my Grandpa and altered the course of all of our lives.


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Assistant Editor: Leace Hughes/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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