I’ve always been particularly bad at dealing with death. Once, at a coworker’s parent’s funeral, I greeted the grief-stricken coworker with, “I’m so happy for you.” (NOTE: Clearly I flubbed my words terribly. I meant to say “I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m happy your father isn’t suffering any longer.” Epic fail on my part.)
I’ve largely been insulated from death. My maternal grandmother – the only grandparent I knew – died when I was 9 years old. Since then, I’ve really never dealt with the passing of a loved one. No close relative nor a beloved pet or family friend. For good or for bad my world has been devoid of death. Until last week.
One of the best people in my world passed away on Aug. 17, six days after her 93rd birthday. I only knew her for the last nine of those years, and they were some of the most profound ones of my life. Cecelia Bloom Simon, “Grandma” as she was known to so many people, moved on to better real estate in the sky, and while it’s incredibly satisfying to know that she’s no longer suffering in this world, words can’t be written to describe the sinking feeling that exists knowing that I’ll never see her again.
An extremely selfless woman, Grandma always put her family first. She always looked out for us, no matter what the occasion. I couldn’t walk out the front door without her reminding me to bring a jacket. “Where’s your jacket?” she’d ask. “Don’t forget to bring your jacket. You’ll freeze in these restaurants.” To this day I find myself reaching for my jacket as I walk out the door. Thanks for the lesson, Grandma.
On legal paper and documents, she wasn’t my real grandmother. She was my husband’s paternal grandmother. But for the past seven years I’ve called her Grandma, and she’d do the same. I’ll never forget the first time she referred to herself as Grandma to me. Almost instinctually we both knew calling her “Mrs. Simon” just sounded plain awkward. But were we at that point where she could be referred to as Grandma? I wasn’t sure – until she let me know it was OK, and she wanted it.
Grandma called me up one day to see what I was up to.
“Nila?” she started.
“Yes?” I replied.
“It’s… It’s…” she paused. “It’s … Grandma.”
Orphaned at the age of 18 months, she was raised along with her older sister, Frieda, by her maternal Zaydeh and Bubbe. Grandma was born in Camden, N.J., and raised in Philadelphia. A product of the Great Depression, Grandma grew up resilient and with tough skin – a modern-day woman making waves in the early 20th century. But underneath all of that was a beautiful and gentle heart. She developed a love of culture, specifically film, music and show tunes. She introduced me to classic movies like “Zorba the Greek” and “Mediteraneo.” I so coveted her movie recommendations that I even watched “Dr. Zhivago” on VHS by myself on her 15-inch television that still had a VCR attached to it.
Her love of music was one for the ages. She’d perk up whenever she’d hear a show tune, and whenever Andrea Bocelli or Sara Brightman came on television. Three weeks before her death, as she was succumbing deeper and deeper to Alzheimer’s and becoming more and more distant from us, I played her “Shall We Dance?” from “The King and I” on my iPhone. I held the speaker up to her ear. As she was sitting in her wheelchair at the nursing home’s outdoor sitting area, completely weak and only able to mumble words here and there, she heard three notes of the song’s chorus.
“Shaaall… weee… dance?” the cell phone sung.
“Dut, dut, dut,” Grandma breathed in rhythm to the song’s beat, bobbing her head. It was her only show of vitality during our visit. And one that I’ll never forget.
Grandma had a small rectangular throw pillow that had the words “Grandmothers are special” sewn in crimson red letters. I never really paid much attention to the decorative piece. But in recent weeks, I really began to understand how much truth were in those three words. Grandmothers are special, and this one was no exception.
Grandma and I grew close over the nine years we knew each other. Imagine that: a Jew from Philadelphia and a Vietnamese-American from outside the Bible Belt, separated by nearly seven decades, hanging out together. She showed me what Gefilte fish was. She let me read from the Haggadah during Seder. I learned a little Yiddish, too (“schmuck” now regularly appears in my vernacular).
I’d go over to her place even when my husband wasn’t around and just hang out with her. We’d have deep talks about her childhood and growing up an orphan and then living as a widow. Though others have mentioned to me that they appreciated my companionship to her during her loneliest years, I honestly feel Grandma was helping me out. You see, I had lost my grandmother at an early age and never knew my other grandparents. Growing up, whenever my friends would talk about their grandparents and visiting them, I couldn’t quite relate. So being with Grandma, sharing countless conversations with her, and listening to her perpetual wisdom gave me back a piece of myself that I thought I had lost forever.
About four years ago, as Grandma and I were sitting alone in her couch, probably after listening to some Andrea Bocelli, she said, “Nila, you just get me.” And then she gave me the best compliment I have ever received in my life. She said, “We understand each other because we are the same. We’re alike.”
Grandma: If I am even a morsel like you, if I show any slight semblance to you, then that is the greatest thing anyone could say. For just to be thought of as similar to you is the highest compliment a person could pay.