One woman’s journey to assist her dying grandfather in writing his memoir opens a beautiful window into his life and soul.
One woman’s journey to assist her dying grandfather in writing his memoir opens a beautiful window into his life and soul.
Legacy with a Deadline
It started with a question.
“Will you write a book about Grandpa?”
My mother sat in the hammock in our country house in Tannersville, New York. Tears whispered down her cheeks. She clutched the phone tightly.
“Write a book about Grandpa. Before he’s gone.”
I stared at her. “When he’s__”
“Gone,” she repeated. “I just spoke to Jeanie. The doctor gives him six months. We need to hold onto him for longer.”
I waited until she had gone back into the house. Curled myself up in the green hammock.
Suddenly I was no longer a twenty-five-year-old mother of one, but a six-year-old child tumbling with my seven siblings into my grandparents’ low rise house in New Orleans. Grandpa meets us at the door, opening his arms wide and we rush laughing into his arms, fighting over who gets to pull his blue suspenders, waiting to hear that delightful ping as it bounces against his generously sloping stomach.
“Attention,’ he says with a trace of his army training, “welcome to our home. Now, all “ch” children on the right, and all “non-ch” children on the left.” We form haphazard lines, Yudi, Lakey, Raizy, Shneur on one side, Chaya, Rachel, Menachem and me on the other, divided by those of us who had the Hebrew guttural “ch” in our name. We laugh at his pronunciation. It amazes me that after twenty years of having a daughter who became religious and eight Hasidic grandchildren, he still has a hard time pronouncing my name. “Hami,” he says, “Come sit on my lap.” I snuggle up against him. I don’t have to say anything. He doesn’t try to make me talk when I feel like observing, never tells me that big girls don’t suck their thumbs, never asks me why I looked so sad like all the other grownups love to do.
I ask him why people think I look sad. “You have beautiful eyes,” he says looking into mine. “They are deep brown with flecks of green. You have thinking eyes.” He pats me on the head. “With your thinking head and your thinking eyes, you can do just about anything.”
I look into his eyes so similar to mine and smile.
Visits to New Orleans are a small wonderland, where we camp on the living room floor, jump on the beds as much as we want and take a trip to Toys “R” Us to buy the toy of our choice.
“Thanks for coming,” my grandfather says as we leave, stuffing a twenty into my hand. “Buy yourself something you want and don’t need.”
My family visited my grandparents every year. After I got married, I continued the visits with my husband and then my baby. I had spoken to my grandfather a few months before I heard the news of his diagnosis.
“I wish I could visit,” I said wistfully.
“Why don’t you?” he asked. “Do what’s best for you, but I would love to see you soon.”
I was noncommittal. It was too hard to bring my active two-year-old into the senior complex my grandparents lived in, and I would have to travel without my husband.
“I’m just going to have to wait until you come here,” I said. When I hung up I tried to erase the uneasy feeling of disappointment I had sensed in Grandpa’s voice when I told him I wasn’t coming.
I hunched closer to myself in the hammock. Wondered if the obstacles I had felt so insurmountable really couldn’t have been worked out. Wondered if Grandpa had sensed something was wrong and I had ignored his cues.
I thought of my mother’s idea. To gather the threads of my grandfather’s life, weave it into a narrative, and memorialize him. I didn’t feel capable of the project. I thought of my grandfather encouraging me to write. The writing pieces I’d emailed to him. His emailed responses were short and succinct in his signature style, but he always gently pushed me to write more.
“I think you write wonderfully,” he told me on more than one occasion. “Any time you want to take formal training, the money is there.” I was hesitant to tell him when I’d found a course that cost several hundred dollars. His emailed response was instantaneous. I’m sending out a check today. Enjoy your course.
He’d believed in me enough to pay for my writing. Here was an opportunity to finally repay him.
Grandpa loved the idea of the book. I was scared of the challenge and relieved when he vetoed a phone interview. My slightly mumbled Brooklyn accent was difficult enough for him to understand in person, and at age eighty-seven his hearing was very poor. Logistically it seemed too difficult to visit for a long enough time to gather information.
Then a hurricane warning blew my grandparents my way. They arrived winded and out of breath from their hurried escape.
Grandpa walked in practically on tiptoes, unsteady on his feet.
“Neuropathy,” he said in response to our questioning looks. “It’s hard for me to walk. I can’t feel my feet making contact with the ground.”
He looked small inside his dress shirt and suit, having come directly from his office to the airport.
I could overhear Grandma talking to my sister in the next room. “Glad you got out on time,” said Rachel.
“Yeah,” said Grandma vaguely. “It was a long flight.”
“Why are we here?” she asked a moment later. “There was a hurricane warning, Grandma,” Rachel said patiently.
“I’ll be darned,” Grandma opened and closed her purse, rifling through her wallet trying to find something familiar. “I knew that, I just forgot.”
“It kills me to see her like this.” Grandpa made his way to the couch, sighing heavily. “I’m not sure what will get me first, her dementia or the cancer.”
The predicted hurricane never happened; instead we had a whirlwind of interviews.
My mother manned the camera and I typed as he spoke. My siblings gathered around. Grandpa sat hunched in our maroon rocking chair, rocking as he went back into time, his green eyes rheumy and clouded behind his large plastic glasses.
He talked about his years in medical school. When I edged the conversation towards his childhood he evaded the questions.
After three days of interviews he called me into the living room. “Chamie,” he said haltingly. “I’ve been avoiding talking about my childhood for a reason. There is so much trauma and pain that I wanted to protect you. I need to tell you though, because if you want to really know me, you need to know about my childhood.”
“I can handle it. I want to know as much as you’re willing to say.”
Grandpa adjusted his chair, placing a small cushion behind his back. “My first memory is at the age of three, running through my cramped New Orleans home, hanging onto my mother’s skirt, and stopping short at the sight of my papa lying dead on the floor, a bullet wound in his head.”
I stopped typing to look at Grandpa. He was in another world.
“The event was so horrific I blocked it from my mind. My mother blocked it from her mind as well, and papa was never mentioned in the house. I grew up feeling there was something horribly wrong with me, that I didn’t have a father. My mother wanted to protect me, to ensure I would never leave her like my father did. I was her baby and she held me tight.”
He then added that if there had been an Olympic award given for low self-esteem, he would have won it.
His light quip sent out a clear message. Sympathy and pity were not welcome. I typed instead, barely paying attention to my fingers, my gaze following Grandpa.
Inside though, my thoughts were churning. I hadn’t known about his early childhood trauma, didn’t know the fears and anxieties that plagued him. I had only known the kind, sensitive, highly successful psychiatrist, always ready with a funny quip, delighting in being the center of attention.
My grandfather’s life was ending.
And I was just beginning to understand him, I thought. To really know him as he allowed me to enter into his hidden past.
“If you could give your children and grandchildren one final message what would it be?” I asked.
“Just do it,” he said.
I stared at him. “Grandpa, just do what?”
Grandpa smiled. “First I’ll tell you a story and then I’ll explain. Remember the swimming pool in our old house before it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina?
“Well, I don’t know if you know this but there was a time I was terrified to swim. That changed when your Uncle Larry was six years old and we were at a neighbor’s swimming party. When Larry begged me to play in the water and I refused because I was afraid to swim, he said ‘Don’t worry Dad, I’ll catch you!’ He imitated Larry’s sweet high voice.
“The next day I hired a swimming instructor. I started babbling about my overprotective mother, stifled childhood and years of psychotherapy. He interrupted me with a casual, ‘Just get in the water Doc. No one learns how to swim by talking.”
It was a pivotal moment in overcoming my fear and in my psychiatry career. Talking and analyzing could give insight into life, but true change came from just doing it.”
“Did you learn how to swim?” a neighbor asks. Stopping by to borrow some eggs, she was drawn into the story.
Grandpa smiled. “I learned how to swim the width of the Olympic sized pool in Tulane University. The day I swam across, the entire swim team stood around and applauded. I built a pool in my backyard to celebrate the victory over a lifelong fear and that night I created a ‘Just do it’ list.”
“What was on your list?”
“Most are too private to share,” he said mischievously, “but I’ll share a few. They included public speaking, ballroom dancing, running a 10k race, and acting.”
“Acting,” I interrupted. “You love to act- you always flew in to act in my father’s puppet show videos and you played a part in ‘West Side Story’.”
“Yes,” said my grandfather. “And I was so afraid of forgetting my lines, I planned that if I started to mess up, I would fall onto the floor pretending to have a heart attack. The play would be ruined but at least I wouldn’t be embarrassed! I did fine though; in fact I got more applause than the lead part because so many of my group therapy patients showed up to give me a standing ovation.”
Grandpa looked so happy remembering what he called his finest hour. I couldn’t bear to think of the time when I wouldn’t be able to laugh and share and talk with Grandpa again.
I mentally shrugged off the pain. Grandpa continued talking.
“It took me three years to cross off the thirty-six things on my list, but I did them all despite the fear. And that is my message to you all. Write your own list and just do it despite your fear.”
There were new surprises every day. The more my grandfather bared his soul, the more our bond intensified and deepened. He had achieved success by most standards with a loving marriage and family, flourishing career, and acclaim in the psychiatric community. Underneath though, he had battled the same twin demons of despair and insecurity plaguing me.
The hurricane warning over, Grandma and Grandpa returned to New Orleans, leaving me with pages and pages of interview notes.
I arranged the information into chapters. I spent hours googling the cheapest way to produce and copy the book. Emails were sent out to every member of the family asking them to write a letter sharing their favorite memories and life lessons learned from Grandpa. Wikipedia became my favorite source for researching information about New Orleans in the early nineteen hundreds. I hired a graphic designer. In fact I did everything but sit and write the story of his life.
There wasn’t time to wait out writer’s block. I was fighting a ticking clock guzzling hours and days of Grandpa’s life while I procrastinated.
“Nechamie, I’ll be happy to help you edit anytime you want,” my mother said seeing me sitting for hours in front of the computer.
“I haven’t written anything yet.” I pounded the computer keys harder than I intended.
“This job is too hard for me. I can’t do this. You’ll have to find someone else.”
Mommy got serious. “Nechamie, you have to do it. Grandpa asks me for updates every time I speak to him. I’ve never seen him want something so much.”
I called a mentor for help.
“I can’t do this,” I finally broke down in tears. “It’s the final goodbye. I write this book and that’s it, it’s the end. I somehow feel if I can just push off writing this book, I will push off his death.”
“Then don’t write it like an obituary,” my mentor said. “Write it as a celebration of his life.”
I thought back to the gleam in Grandpa’s eyes when he spoke his stories. The laughing and crying our family had shared as he told his stories. The energy that would flow into him as he reviewed his life, instead of sitting apathetically on the couch, thinking about death.
Perhaps the book was making him live.
Perhaps I could present him with a small slice of eternity by capturing some of his soul on paper.
I then wrote as if possessed, writing for five or six hours a day. I started with a short prayer. “G-d,” I said. “I don’t have time to make this perfect. Please help me get it right the first time and let the words flow of their own accord.”
Two months later I visited my grandfather with a sizeable packet of writing. My mother babysat my little son, while I spent precious hours with Grandpa reviewing the material for accuracy. The cancer was eating away at him; we no longer took leisurely walks around the park discussing everything from psychology to music to the daily news. He fought to keep his eyes open, pausing frequently to let the pain and nausea wash over him before continuing. A yellowish tinge crept into his skin and for the first time in his life, he refused the cheesecake I brought to snack on.
The cheesecake didn’t taste nearly as good eaten alone.
In his good moments he told me more stories of his life. Sometimes we sat silently holding hands. When he was sleeping, I spent hours crouched on the floor searching through eight decades of pictures, letters and memories in the old cedar chest.
The book enabled me to ask him personal questions. How are you affected as your wife of sixty years begins to vanish and is replaced by the ghost of Alzheimer’s? Is there anything you regret? Are you afraid to die?
He wasn’t afraid he said. He had lived a good life without regrets. He was ready to let go of this world.
I wasn’t ready to let go of him.
Before Passover, while most women were scrubbing floor tiles and banishing leavened bread, I was adding the last editorial touches, calling the graphic designer every ten minutes and scanning pictures.
“Grandpa’s doing pretty well,” my aunt said when I told her I wished I had more time to make the book even better. “It doesn’t look like his death is imminent. I think you have time if you want to do further revisions.”
Instinct told me otherwise. Minutes after sending the file to the printer, only two hours before Passover, my mother received a call from her sister.
“Grandpa’s doing really badly,” she said. “We don’t know if he’ll make it through the week.”
I cried for two days. Begged G-d, promised anything for Grandpa to live long enough to see the book completed. Felt an exultant sense of release two days later when Grandpa was doing somewhat better. The doctor said he was holding on. Waiting for something.
The printer rushed the job, sending me a bound copy of the book that arrived the day after Passover.
Two days later I was on my way to New Orleans. I traveled alone, holding only the book. I couldn’t stop looking at it. My grandfather’s smiling face was on the cover, with two hundred pages of text, interviews with his patients, pictures, and letters of love from friends and relatives.
It was hard to see Grandpa’s deterioration. His skin sagged, his legs thin in the good pants he insisted on wearing. A sallow yellow color dominated his face and whites of his eyes. One eye closed of its own accord.
“Chamie,” he said, voice raspy from medication. “So good to see you. I’m so glad you came.”
I handed him the book, relief at finishing the book in time tinged with sadness that I was finished, wondering if I had done him justice. He read it alone in his room.
“It’s hard to read,” he said later. “It has all the people and the life I’m going to miss when I’m gone.”
He took my hand into his. “When I was younger, I dreamed of being famous one day and having a book written about my life. I even thought of the title.” He squeezed my hand. “I never dreamed I would have my own personal biographer.”
I stroked the book cover. “Grandpa, I finally thought I could do something for you, but you ended up giving me the greater gift. The gift of knowing you.”
Years ago Grandpa had given me the gift of seeing myself with different eyes. Now he had given me his final gift of seeing him with different eyes.
Two days later, Grandpa went into a coma. He passed away six days later.
Before he died though, he asked me for a pen. With his limited energy he inscribed my book.
To my beloved granddaughter Chamie,
You found more in me than I knew was there.