Today is the day that my maternal grandmother died seven years ago. I still feel the loss of her in my life like a swift wave of pain that fills my chest and takes over my head until the tears start streaming down my face, which seems to release the tightness valve in my chest. My mouth opens automatically, breathing out the large gusts of air that had been trapped inside me for a few moments, reminding me once again that I am still alive and that I have survived the pain of losing her love once again. Throughout the year, these moments of breathless pain arrive quickly on the heels of aching to have a conversation with my Nana. It happens when my kids do something wonderful and I want to pick up the phone and share the joy with her. I feel it when I’m reading about Ancient Mesopotamia and I ache to tap her knowledge of Sumer. When I took my kids to New York City this past December, I wanted to share dozens of our moments with her and ask her about dozens of her moments in New York. The desire to be with her is quick to produce an ache, which moves quickly to breathless pain and there I am – gasping and crying.
Given how often find myself in this challenged state, it might seem odd that I deliberately place myself in this headspace once a year. Yet, I do.
Every year, to mark the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I stand in synagogue and chant the Mourner’s Kaddish. Every year, as Aleinu approaches and I know that Mourner’s Kaddish will swiftly follow, a picture of my grandmother’s smiling face enters my head and I am flooded with the sadness of not having my grandmother on this earth. I stand with tears streaming down my face and weep my way through Kaddish – often gulping for air as I go. In the moments that follow, I have always been joined by someone standing near. An arm, sometimes two, will move around my shoulders and usually someone will offer me a tissue. This sweet comfort encircles me through announcements and kiddush and then when we stand together, holding hands to say hamotzi, I feel the warmth and support in the hands on either of side of me, as they grasp mine firmly, reminding me that I am not alone in my pain.
I rely on that circle to make it through those hard moments of remembering. Through the warm physical contact, I receive the message that we’re in this together. That knowledge guides me through the intensity of longing and gently moves me to a place where I feel loved and comforted. It is only then that I feel how much my grandmother is with me, how much I carry her within me and see her around me. This knowledge doesn’t erase the pain, but it comforts me nonetheless and through it I always feel my grandmother’s love for me.
I won’t be in the company of others when I chant Mourners Kaddish this year, at least not in the ways that I have become accustomed. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to go without my annual cathartic experience. I think it heals me – gives me what I need to make my way through the pain of loss for another year. I’m longing to bring my love for her and her love for me to the surface and then feel supportive arms around me, so I can get through the most intense parts of the pain of missing her. I’m longing to tell some of my favourite stories about my grandmother.
This time of physical isolation is teaching me that there are many ways to get what we need and that it’s worth making the effort to find them. I’d love to share a few stories about my Nana with you. I want to share how her fierceness, her curiosity and her incredible capacity to love has lit up my life from the very beginning and continues to now. It’s mostly selfish of me to ‘share’ these stories with you. I’d like to spend some time in these memories, and I don’t want to do it alone. My grandmother taught me long ago about the magical connection between a reader and words. I have felt that connection for so long when I read delicious books – the feelings and images lift off the page and enter my mind and body, connecting me to the writer in intense and visceral ways. I’ve started to feel those same interactions as a writer. I can almost feel you, the reader, reaching through the page and grasping my hand warmly and asking me to tell you about my grandmother.
I always remember my Nana as a force to be reckoned with. My memories of laughing the hardest as a child involve her telling me, my sisters and my brother the story of her day, when she would arrive to babysit the four of us. She was far and away our favourite babysitter. The four of us would have our ear out for the bus turning the corner that marked her arrival. As soon as she would come in the door, we would surround her, begging for stories about her day. She must have herded us into the living room, so she could sit comfortably in the red chair (which is still there, forty years later) and the four of us would gather around her, 3, 5, 7 and 9 years respectively. How did she hold our attention and have us rolling on the floor laughing until our faces and stomach hurt? By telling us about her day – specifically about the people who had given her a hard time and how she had responded to their rudeness, ineptitude or misplaced anger. The subjects of many of her stories worked for the Toronto Transit Commission. There was the bus driver who didn’t accept her transfer and asked her to pay another fare. My Nana told him he could take his transfer and shove it. There were the drivers that closed the bus door right in her face and drove on, ignoring her waving arms and loud voice calling for him to wait. When we stopped rolling around on the ground and howling with laughter, we would look up into her face and see the sheer joy of being with us.
During those years, before she lived with us, she refused to tell us how old she was. I can’t remember how old we were before we realized we could ask my parents. She applied Oil of Olay faithfully every night and with her short wavy reddish blond hair, green eyes and tastefully lipsticked mouth, she was as beautiful and young looking a grandmother as you can imagine. It boggles my mind that I am now within a decade of how old she was in my little girl memories.
In my memories, my grandmother is always in school. While working full-time and caring for my grandfather, who had a debilitating stroke a few years before I was born, my grandmother started pursuing a university degree part-time. I don’t know how she managed it all – working, classes, homework, running her home with my grandfather and taking care of us – her grandchildren – at least once a month on a Saturday night. After two philosophy and one history degree, she stopped pursuing post-secondary education, but she never stopped learning. We shared the basement, my grandmother, my older sister and I, for my high school years. My grandmother’s apartment was at the front of the basement and was separate from the rest of the house. I needed to walk by her door to get to our bedroom at the back. When I was on my way to bed, I would knock on her door and move through the dark kitchen/dining room area to her bedroom. The door was always open and the light was always on. I had learned during the months that we shared a bed after my grandfather died, that she slept with the light on, so the light wasn’t a good indicator as to whether she was still awake. I would tread quietly into her room and see whether she was sleeping or absorbed in a book. Half her bed served as a bookcase for her favourites – the tomes that she didn’t want to be far from – a full collection of Shakespeare, Gilgamesh, Dante’s Inferno and maybe Chaucer. I don’t remember the titles as well as the sight of the piles of the books in the dim light. They were stacked against the periwinkle blue walls and would sometimes fall behind the bed at which points she would call on me to retrieve them. If she was asleep, I would kiss her soft forehead and tell her I loved her. If she was awake, I would clear some of the books and settle in so we could talk about our days. I was always so excited to share who I had learned about in my Ancient and then Modern Western History courses, eager to hear her opinion – which was sure to be well constructed and a little angry. I gobbled it all up and offered many of her views as my own in high school and later in university.
My last memory of my Nana alive is also in bed. I was sitting with her during the afternoon, the day before she died. She was 89 and had been living in a long-term care facility for what felt like years but was actually months. Her lungs were weak and she had never regained mobility after breaking her hip the previous year. Most of her days in the long-term care facility were spent sleeping, doing the crosswords and reading the books that my mother and uncle brought for her and probably waiting for our visits. I would bring my three kids – 12, 10 and 7 – and with tears streaming down my face, I would watch Sophie, my 7-year-old, and my Nana write notes back and forth to each other, “No, I love YOU more.” “Impossible – I love YOU more.” Oblivious to my tears, they giggled away, happy to play their game for ages. That last afternoon, I was on my own. It was a Saturday, so the kids could have been with me, but they were not. By that time, my grandmother was barely conscious, so maybe they stayed home because they found that hard. I was sure that every time I visited her would be my last hours with her. I remember sitting and holding her hand feeling the preciousness of the moments. I brushed her hair away from her forehead, the way I did with the kids when they were sleeping and listened to her breathe. Her breathing was very slow and I would often wonder if the breath I had heard was her last. In those moments, I was aware of very little in the world, except for my grandmother. The pungent urine-tinged, sweet, bleachy smell of the facility faded in those moments, as did the starkness of the pea green walls and the scratchy polyester blanket. It was just me and my Nana, sharing these last moments together. Her eyelids barely fluttered for the entire visit, but when I made a motion to get up and leave, her hand squeezed mine and her eyes opened. It was the first time in days I had seen her look even a little awake. She looked into my eyes and said, “I love you Nicola” – a pet name that only she has ever called me. I don’t remember what happened next or how I drove home with so many tears running down my face. All I remember is my grandmother’s eyes locked into mine and the feeling of her fierce love.
This fierce love that she gave me is so powerful. I feel it in my love of learning and my endless curiosity to discover more. I feel it in the way I love my children, a love so deep and wide, that I learned from her.
I think that it is not just our love for those who we have lost that we are charged to remember when we mourn, it is also the love that we received. Remembering that love can feel painful, because all we feel at the beginning of the memory is the loss. Yet. I find if I hang on to the warm arms around me and find my way through the intense feelings, then the pain ebbs and the love remains. I believe we all need that love – now more than ever. Thank you for being my warm arms and for letting me share these stories with you. The pain has eased, the comfort arrived and the space has been made to feel great love.