Grandma Mary

We Love You and Miss You

Grandma Mary loved three things most: caring for others, eating chocolate, and enjoying life

My grandmother, Grandma Mary, was born the third and youngest daughter into a Russian immigrant family in Manhattan on December 26, 1915.  She grew up speaking Yiddish and only learned to speak English at school. Grandma completed high school as a dedicated and diligent student with a thirst for knowledge. But as fortune would have it, college was a luxury out of her means, and she began to work in a Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Albany, New York. It was in Albany where my grandmother married my grandfather on October 31, 1943.  The two soon thereafter relocated to Brooklyn and finally Staten Island after the birth of their two oldest children. While living on Staten Island, Grandma Mary worked in the traffic court in lower Manhattan – commuting an hour and a half each way from Staten Island (bus, ferry, and train) to a building called the Tombs – until she was promoted to Court Assistant at the courthouse on Staten Island. Although processing traffic tickets may not sound inspiring, especially by today’s standards, I imagine my grandmother doing important work in that building that was featured on a TV program known as the Defenders (starring EG Marshall). My mom told me that my grandmother once brought home an envelope from Eleanor Roosevelt, who had sent in her traffic ticket – pretty neat that my grandmother got to literally touch a piece of history.

Following the death of my grandfather and my grandmother’s retirement, Grandma Mary kept busy – for years – caring for my uncle, who was afflicted with mental illness from an early age, as well as my great aunt. But one February day in 2000 (after my grandmother moved to Cleveland), my mother, on her way to a meeting out-of-town, listened to her voicemail messages while on the road. There was a message from Grandma Mary: “Help me, help me.” Since my mom couldn’t get to Grandma fast enough, my father raced over to her apartment where he saw that my grandmother had taken a fall. She entered the hospital for nearly six weeks during which time her physician tried and tried to locate a bleeding site, but could not. Grandma would need surgery, a subtotal colectomy or she would bleed to death. The decision for surgery was Grandma Mary’s (even though her doctor and my mother feared that she wouldn’t survive). But Grandma Mary chose to undergo surgery – and she did … with flying colors … no complications whatsoever.

On the day she was discharged from the hospital, as she was getting out of the car, something snapped (her hip as it turned out) and she fell to the ground. Grandma was returned to the hospital, this time to pin a fractured hip. Again, major surgery, and again she came through successfully without complications. There were several short hospitalizations over the next several months – for diarrhea, congestive heart failure, a urinary tract infection, and CO2 narcosis. Two months before Grandma’s death, she developed confusion – a sign of a serious medical problem with Grandma since her mind was normally so sharp.  Sure enough, her “confusion” was diagnosed as bacterial pneumonia, and during the middle of the night, she suffered severe and acute respiratory failure. At that point, my grandmother had a choice to make – did she want to be intubated? Yes, she did, and despite great odds, recovered from this illness. She had more lives than a cat, going in and out of the hospital so, so many times and nearly bleeding to death several times toward the end of her life.

It was during the month of February in 2001, when my mom was having brunch with Grandma Mary that my grandmother complained of a pain in her right arm.  Rest did not produce any improvement, and so the next day, three weeks and three days prior to her death, Grandma was taken to the hospital. Test results indicated that she had suffered a small heart attack and that she had influenza. She seemed to be doing well, when, all of a sudden, her breathing deteriorated, and she needed to be intubated. We all thought this would be very temporary, and indeed, a few days later she was extubated. Then came the ominous call indicating that her breathing tired, and she had to be intubated once again. It was becoming increasingly clear that Grandma Mary had become ventilator-dependent. My mom and her brother discussed with Grandma the options – performance of a tracheostomy and placement of a feeding tube which would keep her alive but dependent on technology, or removal of the breathing machine and possibly death from respiratory insufficiency. Grandma chose life. In the second week of her final hospitalization, she underwent the tracheostomy and placement of the feeding tube. My mother began to discuss with the social worker plans for discharge and how to care for Grandma with all this high-tech machinery. As it would turn out, such plans were premature. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Grandma one day literally ripped out her feeding tube creating a hole in her stomach through which blood, acids, and bacteria gained access. She developed peritonitis and overwhelming sepsis and died at 8:19am on Thursday, March 22, 2001. My mom was at her bedside for several hours before she passed. Tears were in Grandma’s eyes for two days before she passed – I do not believe these were tears of suffering but rather tears of loss – loss of her life and loss of her relationships to family and friends.

Grandma, I hope the end did not bring you too much suffering.  I shall forever bathe in your love and your wonderful memories.  As I continue to reflect on you and your life there is so much that I have learned from you and continue to learn from you which I would like to enumerate to honor your name.  In a reading from the book, A Minyan of Comfort it is written:

Blessed is the person who lives with a good nameAnd departs this world with a good name.

Of such a person did the Bible say:
“A good name is to be treasured above precious oil.”

Wealth, like health, may pass away,But a good name can live on forever.

It can adorn a person throughout life;
It can be bequeathed as a precious inheritance,

Conferring honor on family and friends,Inspiring and challenging those who carry on.

Therefore our ancient Sages taught:
“The righteous need no monuments;
Their good deeds are their memorials.”

The earth of the grave does not cover them;The hand of time does not erase them.

The kindness they have shown, the love they have given,
Remain an everlasting remembrance.

Their achievements are more lasting than granite,Their devotion is an enduring legacy.

Years before she passed, Grandma told my mom that when her time was up she did not want to be kept alive artificially. As she grew older and more frail though she always chose life – without hesitation – even when it meant major surgery and performance of a tracheostomy. And Grandma Mary never complained.  She valued her life as it was, with joy and hope, always thankful for what she had rather than thinking about what she didn’t have or might have had.

My grandmother spent her life caring for the needs of others but ironically not at her own expense. She still took care of herself and enjoyed her life – eating chocolates, fresh pastry, apple pie a-la-mode, drinking coke and coffee, reading, and watching favorite television programs and Broadway – these were her endless joys. Grandma didn’t give because it was required or expected. She gave from love and expected nothing, except her own self-fulfillment in return. Grandma Mary was endowed with a life of purpose – helping others and growth of herself until her last breath.  I love you Grandma. Rest in peace.

* Based on a post on eFuneral.com - a website that provides helpful information and support to those caring for a sick loved one, thinking about end-of-life, or grieving a loss.