a cure for grief and jet lag
Hope and denial – two powerful sides of the same coin. Until the very end, D held onto the slim possibility that he wouldn’t have to make the flight he knew, in the depth of his heart, was inevitable. As the weeks and months dragged on, it was possible to refuse to acknowledge his parents’ increasingly dire reports and to hope against hope that D’s grandma would hang on a few more months, that he would get to see her again this summer, that she’d live long enough to meet her third great-grandchild.
After all, this was the woman who was told she’d have six months to live – maybe a year with chemo; who knew that her time was approaching, but who wouldn’t go until she squeezed the last drop of joy out of life; who hung on with lucidity and tenacity for two and a half more years, the doctors’ predictions be damned.
There were tears, of course, but D will remember his grandmother’s funeral and shiva as a microcosm of her life – surrounded by a panoply of people whose lives she touched, and with joy and laughter drowning out the sadness. A life like hers – 85 years brimming with enough experiences to fill several ordinary lifetimes – should be celebrated, not mourned.
There were hard times – the cold and hunger that only a child living through a world war can know; the pain of surviving the war only to have her husband sentenced to years of hard labor in Siberia, which proved a death sentence for many. D’s grandmother used to recall how she traveled to visit him, bottles of vodka and cured meats hidden in the folds of her clothing to smooth the multi-day train journey into the Soviet Union’s frozen, barren hinterlands – with enough packages surviving the trip to make it into the hands of the right authorities, who once they received their little ‘presents’ would ensure D’s grandfather’s survival.
But there was plenty of happiness too – even during the hard times. Those who knew her in her youth recall how much joy she wrung out of life’s simple pleasures – singing songs, writing poetry, relentlessly welcoming people into her life. D’s mom recalled her surprise upon leaving her parental home at discovering that other people did not live this way: almost every day of every week somebody came to visit, she recalled; the shared room of the communal apartment over which D’s grandma presided might as well have been equipped with a revolving door that ushered in a continuous stream of guests.
Sensing that the end was near, D’s parents wrote to ask if he would come back for the funeral. There was never any real question, though D refused to entertain the thought until circumstances made it impossible to duck the issue any longer. He discussed it with his parents over Skype on Sunday, vowing not to make any decisions until he had to. She died a few hours later. As much as D wanted to make it back for the funeral, he also wanted to be there to help in the daunting task of cleaning out his grandmother’s cramped apartment.
Dismantling the accretion of photographs and knick-knacks that covered the walls from floor to ceiling has proved a full-time occupation these past few days – the many mementos and smiling Polaroid faces a strong bulwark against both grief and jet lag. Denuded of their ornamentation, the empty, pockmarked walls recall the edifices that survive wars and revolutions – the holes that housed countless hooks, screws, nuts, and bolts reminiscent of the marks left by stray gunfire.
For D, his brightest memories of his grandmother are of her boundless energy, which seemed undiminished from the earliest days he recalls, when he and his cousins would lob pinecones into the big pot of boiled milk his grandma would leave to cool on the windowsill of their dacha, and she would give chase, brandishing a broom to punish her little rascals. Little slowed by age and the illness that ultimately took her, she showed just as much vigor and gusto in chasing after Munchkin last year during our nearly yearlong sojourn in the States.
The last time D saw his grandmother in the flesh was last summer, a few weeks before we packed out and departed for Rwanda. There were Skype calls whenever his parents brought her home for the weekend – too few in number, in retrospect, but then again, hindsight always is 20/20. Perhaps the biggest downside of the Foreign Service life we lead is that it takes us far away from our families for extended periods of time.
It’s tempting to engage in self-recrimination, to wish retroactively that we had called and visited more often or that we had had a chance to say a proper goodbye. But such thoughts only lead down a rabbit hole of grief and self-loathing. Better to cherish the times we did spend together and remember them fondly. D’s only regret is that Munchkin is still too young and will grow up with no memories of the amazing great-grandmother who loved him so.