The winter of 1976: Gramma’s Transition and a Sense of God

Oddly enough, everything seems like a distant memory, even though they’re my own memories. Perhaps, I needed the distance from them, so they wouldn’t have the emotional charge they had when I was closer to them. Although, I’ve heard that memories and emotions stay locked up inside your body, creating havoc, so it’s best to embrace them eventually. Now, though, most of them seem like movie clips.  

 Like when my Gramma died, the first few weeks I felt almost nothing; it did not seem real that she was gone. Then, one night at 3 a.m. when I woke up to pee, I came out of the bathroom and suddenly, in the dark, on the short staircase down from the bedrooms to the kitchen, with just a sliver of illumination from the street lamps outside, it hit me. I sat down on the stairs and just cried. She was never coming back, was she? She had been sick (pancreatic cancer) for six months, and I had only cried when she died. 

I had called my gramma during spring break; it’s one of the few vivid memories I have. I was by the pool at a hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, talking into a pay phone, attached to the wall. I knew Gramma had been to see the doctor and asked her how it went. She replied in a comical tone, “Looks like I’m gonna kick the bucket. They gave me 6 months to live.” I chastised her for being so flippant about it. How could she joke at a time like this? And she died almost 6 months to the day.

My aunt Carol had been holding Gramma Lily’s hand as she lay in a coma in the bed in which I used to sleep, in the communal bedroom in Brooklyn. Gramma ended up sleeping there when she could no longer take sleeping with her husband – not because she disliked him, but for the same reason that every woman eventually sleeps alone – the snoring, the lack of mattress space, the flailing of arms. It used to be Carol, Joan (my mother) and me in that bedroom, but when they left to pursue their own families, it was Gramma and me. When I moved to suburbia at age 14 with my mother and her new family, it was only Gramma in the bedroom, unless I came back for the weekend to visit. 

Carol held Lillian’s hand; a bony, scrawny hand attached to a virtual skeleton with sunken eyes in a face that had become skin stretched over bones. There was a hint of life left in her when I got there 2 days before, or at least I thought I could detect acknowledgement. As Gramma Lily lay in the bed, I sat by the mirror and talked into it as I talked to her; maybe because I didn’t want to look directly at her failing body. It was a long, rectangular bedroom with 3 beds and black-paned windows that opened with rotary handles. The mirror was large, 6 feet X 4 feet, with no elaborate edging, on the wall in front of a long, wooden dresser, and seemed to be held on the wall by magic. As a youth, I spent a lot of time in front of that mirror, talking to myself or my imaginary friends, since I had no siblings yet. The dolls, who lived in the mirror because I lined them up on the other side, were my audience and I gave many a performance for them. I am certain that is why I was attracted to “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” later on. I still have the annotated version of the book. One day, while I was having a conversation with the me-in-the-mirror, my grandfather opened the door of my bedroom to relay a message. Not expecting anyone to intrude upon my mirrored world, I am pretty sure I did the one and only back-flip I’ve ever done, off the dresser.

 I told Gramma that I was going to be the first one in the family to finish college, meaning our strange, little nuclear family as there were plenty of my uncles and aunts and cousins who had finished college. I figured that if you made a promise to someone on their death bed, you had to keep it.  I didn’t actually end up being first; Aunt Carol finished before me because I quit in my 3rd year. I would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree at 38, so it only took me 21 years to finish, and a master’s degree at 46 years of age, and another masters at 57. The point is, I kept the most important part of the promise, which was that I would finish. 

          At the time, I was enrolled in an entomology class (minoring in science, I chose all sorts of unconnected classes) and I had to collect 50 different genus and species of insects. For the record, an insect is an arthropod that, in the adult stage, has 3 segmented body parts and 6 legs, so technically, spiders, mites, and scorpions are not insects. During one of my sessions talking into the mirror to Gramma, something I had never seen before, let alone in my old bedroom, ran across the mirror – a big, juicy, hairy centipede. It didn’t have 100 legs and it looked like a caterpillar, but it was definitely a centipede. I ran to get a cup from the kitchen and caught me a centipede, placing it in alcohol to kill and preserve it, then gingerly pinning it to a piece of cork fastened on my entomological corkboard. You just never knew where you would find a good specimen.  

 I could barely stand to sit by the bed, simultaneously fascinated by the enigmatic shell of a person Gramma had become, yet devastated by the idea that she could no longer recognize or communicate with me. Where, exactly, was she? Was she still in pain? Was she scared? Had she resolved her destiny? Would she miss us? And where was she going? 

I grew up with some sense of God. For a while, I prayed every night, sometimes kneeling by the side of the bed, sometimes up in bed. I simply thanked G—d for all the good things and people in my life. I didn’t really know if God existed or what it was, but I had some vague image of G-d as a wizard who sort of looked like Moses, with a very long white beard and long white hair, who wore a long robe. Actually, the image in my mind’s eye looked like the character Gandolph in the “Lord of the Rings” movie series. He was, of course, wise and powerful, and always good. I likened him to my own grandfather, who spoke few words but was always fair and decent, but clean shaven with short hair. I knew that one should never spell the word out completely, as in G-O-D, but I had no idea why. Eventually, I guessed that the reason for this written rule was that G-d was so powerful, the mere presence of all the letters of his name on paper could start some avalanche in a distant land, or some other natural disaster.

As I got older, and more inquisitive, and being the gifted brainiac that I have always been, I began to question these ideas. In college, I embraced philosophy and devoured the words of Voltaire, Des Cartes, Spinoza, Socrates, Neitchze, and the like. Not yet savvy to inner dimensions or metaphysical realities, I understood only 3 dimensions and so became a hard core atheist. I won’t divulge in this passage how I came to other conclusions about reality, except to say that it’s been a fabulous journey of exploration. I mention all this because I was speaking of my grandmother, and how I felt when she died.  Although I had known a few other people who had died, no one of such importance in my world had passed on, so it was probably the first time I was confronted with these deeper questions. Where would she actually go? As an Atheist, I had to believe that she would become the dirt into which her body would decompose, and nothing more.  That existential answer was not only frightening; it was depressing, and utterly unsatisfying. There had to be something else. 

Carol was the only person in the family who had the courage to sit with Lillian as she came to the end. Carol described the moment for us later. Lillian’s skeleton, motionless and barely breathing, suddenly, upon the moment of death, turned her head towards the window, opened her eyes wide, squinted, made a sound, and was released from the misery she found herself in. 

A few weeks after I sat on the stairs and cried, I had a strange experience.     I was asleep, and then I had a non-dream. My grandmother visited me. Ordinarily, in dreams, there are visuals and audio, like a movie, and in my case, everything is usually in Technicolor. In this instance, there were neither. There was darkness, except that it didn’t feel dark because there was no sensation of seeing with the eyes. There was conversation, except no words were exchanged. The “person” I “communicated” with was definitely Lillian Finke, formerly known as Lillian Horowitz, and most often addressed as Lily. There was no form, only essence. 

Some people, especially my Atheist comrades, would say that it was a dream and nothing more, and that almost everyone who loses a loved one will, at some point in time, create some version of that person who comes back to visit. But to me if felt like something more and thus began my exploration into a world that was much more intriguing and palatable than the existential no edge of nothingness.  

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