Judy, 90, about a week before her death. Pictured with the author and daughter D.
Elizabeth, center, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania
Before my mothers there were their mothers, and before them, theirs. I was fortunate to know my two wonderful grandmothers, Liz and Judy, before they died in 2007 and 2009, respectively. My oldest daughter was lucky enough to know seven of eight great-grandparents, none of whom are now living.
Elizabeth, my mother's mother, was a talented musician, playing the viola in a chamber group into her last year of life. She had a magically green thumb, and grew great, abundant organic produce before "organic" came into style. She was an accomplished scientist, a loving parent, an inspiring teacher, and a ray of sunshine in the lives of everyone who knew her.
With a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Granny Liz held positions of influence (Director of Medical Technology at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, and teacher of Clinical Chemistry) at a time when such appointments were rare for women. She was charismatic, brilliant, loving, and funny. She didn't waste a thing. She told the truth, lived with compassion, and dealt advice with kindness. She gave freely of herself. She never begrudged anyone anything, and never made anyone feel anything but totally welcome in her company. She lived selflessly, and fully, and with love.
Liz died at home of emphysema (second-hand smoke induced) at 91, and I was very lucky to have spent five of the last eight years of her life living near her Massachusetts home and getting to know her closely. She was a woman well worth knowing.
Judith, my father's mom, died of cancer last November. She taught us all something in her last weeks of life—how to go with peace, bravely, and with eyes wide open. She played tennis into her late 80s, joined a ukelele band as an elderly widow, and took up watercolor painting after the death of her artist husband (and with compelling results!). She lived alone, maintaining herself, her home and her friendships until her last days.
When I took my two youngest daughters to see Grandma Judy on her death bed, I expected a somber and wrenching experience. She had gone from "90-but-feels-60" to "90-but-dying" in a matter of weeks due to the effects of fast-spreading cancer. Surgery and radiation treatment had bought her some time, but by the autumn of last year she went back to the doctor complaining of back pain. Her spine was riddled with tumors, and within days of her appointment she was paralyzed, with five vertabrae broken by the growths. She entered hospice care at home, and made arrangements to see her family.
Grandma Judy was all smiles when I arrived from the airport with my toddlers, one of whom she'd not yet met. "I had no idea there'd be another chapter," she had exclaimed upon waking to our arrival after a rough night. No one was sure we'd have made it in time.
There was no tiptoeing around Judy's hospital bed . . . she was chatting, glowing, reveling in old stories and new faces. She had a powerful, serene, and exultant presence. Partially paralyzed and largely immobile, she spent every moment fully enjoying the presence of her three children under one roof for the first extended visit in many decades. She was never caught uttering a word of complaint, nor of self-pity. She was fearless.
Being in Grandma Judy's house during her last week of life felt like being in a place of birth; it reminded me of nothing so much as the calm between early labor and pushing. The hospice nurses, like midwives, taking up their knitting and waiting through the quiet hours. The family, with held breath, looking to the mother for guidance. What do you need? When is it time?
Grandma Judy, Granny Elizabeth and I were all skeptical agnostics, but this had no bearing on the solemnity of their passages. They have had their turn in the stream of time, washing into the water and eventually out of it. Left to sail on without them, I carry something of each of them forward. I only hope my time is as long and as well spent as theirs, and my death as fearless.