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Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home

Several years ago, at an ALEPH Kallah in California, I was blessed to take a week-long sacred storytelling class taught by master storyteller Debra (a.k.a. Dvorah) Zaslow. The class was wonderful, not least because Dvorah's way of telling stories, and teaching the telling of stories, goes straight to the heart. So when I heard that she had a new book out -- Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death (White Cloud Press, 2014) -- I knew I wanted to read it.

Here's a video trailer for the book:

"Seventeen years ago I was immersed in my life as a professional storyteller, wife of a rabbi, and mother of two teenagers when I felt compelled to bring my 103 year-old grandmother, Bubbe, who was dying alone in a nursing facility, home to live and die with my family. I had no idea if I'd have the emotional stamina to midwife her to the other side."

The story unfolds with slow inexorability. There is nothing easy about bringing an elderly relative home to die, and this slim but powerful memoir doesn't gloss over the hard parts. And yet once I started reading, I didn't want to stop; I wanted to know how it would unfold. It's not exactly that I wanted to "know what happens next" -- obviously the book was going to lead to death, the end of every human story since time immemorial. But I wanted to see how it would happen, and how Dvorah and her family would get there, and what blessings might be there for the finding.

Bubbe_cover_finalThe book is beautifully-written. I found myself particularly moved by passages where Dvorah was reflecting on what she was doing and why:

Below us the metal rails of Bubbe’s new bed gleam. I don’t stop to think that maybe I’m bringing Bubbe here because I couldn’t be with my mother at her death. I can’t really see the hole in my heart or hear my mother’s voice. Bubbe’s voice is all I hear, as if she’s calling from under deep water. I’m answering her, ready or not.

Her descriptions of caring for her Bubbe, even with caregivers employed around the clock, remind me of the sometimes bleak exhaustion of caring for a newborn. It's an obvious comparison, of course, and it's one which Dvorah makes, too:

Each morning I descend the stairs to Bubbe’s room and come up for air at bedtime. It’s lucky if I can sneak upstairs for a shower, and if I find time to go out, I’m too exhausted to speak to anyone. Apparently I’ve forgotten how to say anything interesting anyway, so it’s better that I keep my mouth shut. Again, this is very much like new motherhood, but the baby is not as cute, much harder to lift, and she spits like a sailor...

In the midst of the chaos, Bubbe remains at the center. When I come in, she grasps my fingers and rubs, as if pulling the warmth of my hands into hers, stirring the blood. Our foreheads tilt together until they meet, and my heart stretches. I’m reminded of the long nights with a cranky baby, when you’re so sleep-deprived that you’re beyond sanity, then just as you contemplate hurling the baby out the window, he looks up and gives you a gurgly smile. Your heart melts and you decide to keep him and nurse him for the eighteenth time on that sore, cracked nipple.

I remember how difficult our son's infancy was for me -- the dark days of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression (chronicled week by week in Waiting to Unfold) -- and I am awestruck at Dvorah's ability to take on this kind of care for someone at the equally-needy other end of life.

This book awakened both compassion and anxiety in me as a reader. Compassion for Dvorah and her Bubbe and her family; anxiety about death and aging, about what indignities or difficulties might come next, about my own loved ones who will some day leave this life. And then every so often I'd come across a passage which just made me smile:

Bubbe looks up at the dancing light, takes in the singing, and says, “I never vould hev believed I’d live long enough to see dis. To be here vit my grendchildren, and great-grendchildren, singing at Chanukah. Who vould believe dis? Ven I get home, I’m going to tell dem about all of you; dey’re not going to believe dis.”

"When I get home." Is Bubbe just confused, does she not remember that Dvorah's house is her home now? Or is she thinking about the going-home which comes at the end of every life, the return to the Mystery none of us can quite imagine? Either way, it touched me.

One of the scenes in the book which has stayed with me the most is an argument between Dvorah and her husband Rabbi David Zaslow. At this moment, she is angry with him for not going downstairs to see Bubbe for almost a week, and now he's getting ready to leave town to lead services for a weekend in another place -- doing the work to which he is called, and also the work which pays the bills, but there's no escaping the fact that it's also work which allows him to leave the house with the dying woman in it.

“You think you’re so holy, but you can’t handle doing something simple. You tell me how meaningful it is to sit on the deathbed of a congregant’s mother, sharing the profound moments with the family, but you don’t sit on the deathbed at home.” I’m pretty sure now that I’m morally superior to him and even if he gets angry and defensive, it will be worth it. I’m on a roll.

“You tell stories of how bonded you were with a girl with a brain tumor, how she played a tape of you singing that echoed through the halls of the hospital—but you don’t bond with Bubbe, because it doesn’t serve your ego.”

I steel myself for a counter-attack, but David just sits down on the bed and shakes his head. “I know,” he says. “It’s true. I don’t know why, but the more intense part of life is what I’m good at. The day-to-day stuff is harder for me.”

This conversation resonated for me for at least two reasons. One is that I remember feeling resentful when our son was an infant and Ethan left the house to go to work three hours away. And the other is that I worry about being "the rabbi" in this scenario. I know there's a risk of my family feeling that I'm giving them short shrift because I'm too busy focusing on the births and deaths and lifecycle events of my congregants to be present to the small dramas of every day at home. It's a testament to Dvorah's writing that I came out of this scene empathizing with both of them.

I'll offer just one more short quote from the book. This is near the end -- of the book, and of Bubbe's life:

It’s silent for a while, then I begin to stroke her arm and speak.“Passover is coming tomorrow, Bubbe. It’s time to go out of Egypt. It’s time. The Red Sea is going to part for you, Bubbe. Moses is going to lead you out of Egypt.” She nods, flicks her eyelids, seems to hear. “It’s okay for you to go now, Bubbe. We love you. We’ll be fine, and we’re going to remember you. Rachel and I are cooking chicken soup with matzo balls, just like you used to. And we’re sewing, like you taught me. We’re going to make popovers from your recipe all during Passover. We’re going to always remember you. We love you, Bubbe. It’s time to let go.”

It's a beautiful passage, and a beautiful modeling of how to grant someone permission to leave this life.

Bringing Bubbe Home is poignant, real, painful, and peaceful. I recommend it -- not only to anyone who's considering bringing a loved one home for end-of-life care, but for anyone who's curious about the end-of-life journey, and anyone who's interested in exploring how we relate to our elders and to the stories which shape us.