November 20, 2004
I've been absent from the blogosphere for a few days in part because my grandmother-in-law passed away. I only knew her for the last dozen years of her life, but she was pretty remarkable during those years. Well into her early nineties she still cooked, insisted on washing dishes at Thanksgiving, and crawled around on the floor to play with her great-grandchildren. She was an amazing lady.
Her passing took a week, from the time she stopped eating and drinking (no hunger strike, just a kind of unwillingness to deal with ingestion) to the end. During that time her daughters stayed by her bedside, holding her hands, telling her it was okay to go. Many of her grandchildren came to see her that last weekend, and though she wasn't really verbal anymore, I'm told she met their eyes and smiled.
My last interaction with her was in the spring. We were in Boston for BloggerCon II and swung north to celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday at a favorite restaurant. She proudly withdrew from her purse the birthday cards her family had sent, to show them off (though I'm not sure we knew we had been the ones to send them), and when the waitress brought the birthday cake with the big "9" and "5" candles on it and teased that she didn't look her age, her social graces were intact enough for her to respond graciously.
Hers was my first Christian funeral, so it was my first open-casket viewing. I couldn't seem to help thinking in clichés when I saw her body. It was like seeing a perfect wax-museum replica of her. The features were hers, the hands were hers, the hair was hers, but it was not her anymore. I guess there's no way to have an original reaction to seeing the shell which used to house a person.
The minister was tall and graceful, and she spoke warmly about the life we were celebrating. I was impressed by her ability to weave anecdotes and tidbits (I do not think she knew my grandmother-in-law well) into a eulogy that felt meaningful. The singing reminded me again that I love hymnals, and I love being able to sightread simple harmony.
The graveside service was very brief. The headstone was already there from the passing of her husband some thirty-five years ago. I was prepared for the liturgy to be unfamiliar, so I was struck by the difference I didn't know to expect: we did not lower the casket into the earth, and we did not fill in the grave ourselves. (In Jewish tradition, helping to fill in the grave is considered the final act of lovingkindness one can tender.) I hadn't realized how accustomed I was to closing with this process, each person moving a symbolic shovel-ful or handful of dirt.
The traditional Jewish blessing said upon hearing of a death is Baruch dayan emet (Blessed is the true judge). The notion of God-as-judge isn't very comfortable for me, but I know that by any metric that matters, my grandmother-in-law's life was righteous and good. She was warm and generous to me from the moment we met. Her kindness, practicality, eye for bargains, and all-around joie de vivre live on in her children and grandchildren, and I feel lucky to have known her. Zichrona liv'racha: may her memory be a blessing.