Getting to Know My Grandma

Grandma Katz was growing weak, appearing older than her 76 years, afflicted with an illness that grows in the soil of a life time spent worrying, compulsively focusing on a perfection that lives ever on the planes of impossible. She lost weight and her ability to speak. She needed lots of sleep, to be fed like a baby.
I was her kin, so I sat at the kitchen table, listening as she struggled to be understood, when she may have only wanted to have a sip of water. The time and effort necessary to communicate that simple request was exhausting for caregiver and patient.
In February 1990, she went to the hospital. It was serious, so we were called to her bed side in a quiet wing, distinctly missing the bustling pace under the surface of relative calm normally associated with hospitals.
I spent most of my time down the hall, alone in an area full of couches and tables. I had a pair of head phones, several Simon and Garfunkel tapes and a bright yellow notebook. Now and then I wandered to my grandma’s room, saw my aunt, grandma’s caregiver Agnes, or my mom by her side, holding her hand laying on top of tan covers, stroking her thin, perm-scorched hair.
This scene was often silent.
I might linger in the doorway a moment but since I had nothing to offer, I would slip out again, head for that large comfortable lounge, turn on my music, open my spiral and write what I saw: the sun coming in the window just so; grandma laying there small and helpless; the immense quiet. I also wrote poems of flying, painted words of fire streaked sunsets and shared my hopes for the adult I would one day become.
I can still feel the motionless air of a hospital corridor brush past my face as I wandered about, knowing I couldn’t feel impatient. I nearly filled the yellow spiral. Alone in my haven, I would leave the overhead lights off until the last bits of day light faded.
I was in another universe, a land of slow sadness, beautiful wondering, each breath a meditation. I wandered back and forth between the lounge where I was cocooned by my art and grandma’s room. A few times I stood beside her, awkwardly whispering small talk and sympathy. It wasn’t my place, to be a comfort. She would grow frantic if I stayed too long, convinced I was four years old and liable to wreak havoc.
Grandma didn’t die at the hospital in February.
She went home, held on until December. I know her old house well, but no details of the mundane aspects of our visit have lasted. I remember my grandma in her bed. She was small. Her legs moved of their own accord beneath green covers, almost constantly. I could hear her raspy, labored breathing no matter where I was in her house. That hollow, endless sound penetrated every moment until she parted.
At this time in my life, I slept hard, was difficult to wake, aggressive toward anyone who disturbed me. But not December 18th, 1991 when I fell asleep to the rattle of my grandma’s sighs. I slept on the special-company sofa in her decorative living room with a seldom used fire place, her prettiest furniture, and familiar ornaments collected over a lifetime.
I sat on the same couch with my grandma eleven years earlier, explaining the Baha’i Faith; to her, a mysterious religion her daughter disgraced the family by joining years before. This was the only time I had her full attention, no fretting, no discouraging remarks. My legs stuck straight out over the edge of a flower-printed cushion, grandma and I angled toward each other in deep conversation. I explained progressive revelation, the teaching that religious truth is revealed by God in stages and through different Teachers or Prophets who come to various parts of the world, over time. She wanted to understand, earnestly repeating the same questions.
Normally, my grandma was busy cooking and cleaning, usually afraid, often uncomfortable, muttering phrases of discontent and insecurity, anger that things weren’t better and frustration that her daughters were a disappointment. Just us on that big couch, together in the middle, her listening respectfully, having a regular kind of conversation, was golden to eight years old Heidi.
I woke just before 8am December 19th, when an unseen force drew me off the couch to her bedroom doorway. My mom woke at the same moment. We met there, beneath a pale wood frame, unexplainably aware that we were witnessing grandma’s last breaths, that this was a time for her to be alone, an invisible shield keeping us at a respectful distance.
Right now Carlos Nakai Earth Spirit is playing on Pandora. I listened to his calming flute music the miracle morning my first son was born. Now I listen again as I re-experience the moment my grandmother was born into the Abha Kingdom*.
O God, I didn’t know I had any sadness left for her parting, anything I’d miss, then I saw us in the pretty living room, grandma with her only grand daughter, talking the way I wish we could have done often while she was alive in body.
I have talked with her many times since that winter morning she left earth. With her new arms, she’s hugged me and comforted me through countless painful times in my young adult life. She even jokes around and cracks me up. Once, crying in the cemetery, looking for her head stone, I rested on the grass, opened my Prayer Book and said,

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