Some of us live to 30, others to 100. But, in the end, life is not about the number of years we are alive. Life boils down to a handful of defining moments that give shape and meaning to our time on this earth. Some moments are so unpredictable that they shake up your life – such as the double layoff in 2009 which resulted in David and me leaving New York and coming to Spain. Others are so intense that they shake you to your very core.
It was towards the end of May, during my parents’ and my sister’s annual trip to Spain when we received the news. My grandmother had taken a turn for the worse. The news itself, while disturbing, didn’t stop my world as news like that should have. So what if she was spending more time in bed? She was 104 after all. Who could blame her? But that didn’t necessarily mean that it was anything serious. Maybe she was just passing into another stage of life just as she had when she had gone from walking to being confined to a wheelchair… a phase that she had stayed in for more than a decade.
Call it denial.
The daily calls home offered varying reports, but nothing was too alarming. She still spent every day in bed – a drastic change for my grandmother who, in her later years, waited impatiently every morning for her caregivers to come so that she could get out of bed. But my grandmother was strong. She would pull through.
I had rented a car while my family was here, and the plan was to drop them off at the airport in Madrid where they would then fly back to California and I would drive back to Altea. David encouraged me to go back to the US with them. He had ever since he had first heard the news. I resisted, thinking of the various reasons why it would be reckless to do, still refusing to believe that this was anything really serious.
And I would have stuck with that plan if not for the fact that we were in Spain and everything moves slower in Spain – even the wheelchair pushers. It turned out that my family had checked in at the airport and were waiting for the wheelchair that my sister had reserved for my dad. My dad doesn’t need a wheelchair, but my sister has started requesting one for him whenever he travels in order to make the long trip less tiring. In other words, he very easily could have walked, if necessary. The agent confirmed that the wheelchair pusher was on his way, so they stayed put. The minutes ticked by but no one came to push the wheelchair. The agent held fast. The departure time approached. No need to worry. Yet, my sister was worried and then started to seriously stress. She knew the Madrid airport and knew that it was not a short distance between the check in desk and the gate. At last, the wheelchair pusher arrived. But he was in no hurry to get anywhere. And as he took his time pushing my dad, the minutes continued to tick by. Too many minutes. It turns out that everything is late in Spain – everything except for that plane which was leaving right on time. By the time they finally arrived at the gate, the flight had been closed out. No apologies were given. And, just like that, they had to figure out a different way to get home if they wanted to travel that day or they had to try again for the exact same flight – the next day.
Meanwhile, I was about a half hour away from the airport when I decided to stop for a coffee. I sent a quick message to my sister to make sure everything was OK. When I heard what happened, I drove back and picked them up. We would try again the next day. But, until then, I was just happy to have another day with them.
It was later that evening that my dad called my aunt for an update. The report was dismal. And that’s when the reality finally started to sink in. Maybe the end really was drawing near – as impossible as that was to imagine. The next day on the drive to the airport, at the very last minute, we made all the necessary arrangements for me to go with them, and I flew back to California with my family.
We drove up to the Big Bear house – the beautiful, mountain home that held so many memories for me. This was where we had spent every Christmas when I was growing up. We would surround the base of the tree with presents, and, every Christmas morning, grudgingly abide by my grandmother’s rules to eat breakfast before opening presents. It was in the backyard of this house that David and I had gotten married nearly 13 years ago. We had chosen the Big Bear house not only for the idyllic setting, but also so that my grandmother could be present. I still remember looking up and seeing her in her wheelchair watching from the porch. This is where the big family reunion would take place every August, when family would fly in from everywhere, and my grandmother would host her growing family. In the later years, when she was no longer capable of cooking or even standing up to greet us, she would stress at how useless she had become. What my grandmother could never see was how she was the core of our family and that she, singlehandedly, kept the family together. We all needed her but for so much more than the meal or drink that she might have once served. She was the source of all that was good and pure. Somehow my grandmother had weathered life and hadn’t become bitter or negative or weighed down. My grandmother loved unconditionally and gave unendingly – not just to her family but to everyone who was fortunate to cross her path and mostly to the underdog. She took care of those who it seemed life had forgotten about or given up on.
We entered her house in Big Bear. On any other occasion, my grandmother would have been there in her wheelchair to greet us as soon as we entered the front door. But, now, it was only peace and tranquility that embraced us. My grandmother was in bed. And that’s where she stayed – only once in the three weeks that I was there requesting to get up. The day that she did, we all rejoiced as she was helped into her wheelchair and we sighed with relief when she took three bites of scrambled eggs and two sips of coffee – for she had barely eaten over the last weeks. But, as she slumped over, unable to keep her head up, we realized that what we had hoped was a miracle was nothing more than a valiant last demonstration of strength, and most likely, ever the self-sacrificer, my grandmother was probably doing it just for us.
As I visited her bedside every day, and I watched the string of visitors, and I heard the phone ring endlessly, and I admired the flowers that arrived, I realized how many lives my grandmother had touched. And, as my grandmother’s body shut down more and more every day, it occurred to me that this might be the only time in my life that I would witness someone die of nothing more than just old age.
In those three weeks, my grandmother didn’t say much at all, especially as it became increasingly difficult for her to speak. On the occasions that she did initiate speech, it was to ask after her kitty which she did daily. Where was her kitty? Had someone fed her kitty? And then once more on the day that we were leaving – when she asked for my dad. I had to fly to Mexico and my parents and my sister were coming down the mountain to drive me to the airport. We anxiously summoned my dad who had already said goodbye and who was waiting for us in the car. And, as we all crowded around her bed, excited to see her more aware than she had been in a while, we said goodbye. And, together, we recited “Crossing the Bar”, a poem that had become one of my grandmother’s favorites especially during those last weeks of her life. My grandmother knew it by heart, and at our prompting, would recite it often and fervently during those last weeks – as if she hoped that by saying it, she could speed up the process so that she, too, could cross the bar and enter into heaven. And I realized that this might very well be the only in time in my life that I would witness someone exit this world as elegantly as they had lived in it.
After we first arrived to Big Bear, Anne, my grandmother’s physiotherapist, often said that she thought my grandmother had hung on until we arrived from Spain in order to say goodbye. But I think what my grandmother needed was for us to come back, say goodbye and leave again. Because, as fervently as my grandmother tried to let go, she couldn’t when we were there sitting next to her, encouraging her to eat, saying goodnight to her every evening and anxiously checking in on her every morning. Two days after we left, following a perfectly clear day, the sky opened up and, in the middle of the night, the rain came. And Big Bear, which had been suffering from a serious drought, was treated to a storm so grand that the entire valley was left without electricity. By dawn, the skies had cleared up once more, and my grandmother was at peace. She had finally found the way to cross the bar – one month short of her 105th birthday.
My sister felt bad breaking the news to me on the very first day that I had arrived in Mexico and just as I was reuniting with many of my closest friends from college, several of which I hadn’t seen in years. But as the words registered and the tears fell, they gathered around me, and I couldn’t help but feel that it was somehow fitting that they were the people I was with at that moment. They had met me just out of high school, we had all lived together in our second year of college, most of them had personally met my grandmother when they had attended my wedding held in her backyard. These were some of the people who knew me best, but, most importantly, they were the ones who best understood what it meant to me to lose my grandmother.
Those three weeks beside my grandmother shook me to the core and will forever be some of the most precious and defining moments that I have lived. I so easily could have missed that opportunity to say goodbye, to tell my grandmother in person how much I love her and how important she is in my life, to personally feel the love and positive energy that filled her room during those last weeks. I came so close to not being at her side. But thanks to David who pushed me to go, and thanks to Coral who made it possible for me to fly standby on that flight back with my family, and thanks to the wheelchair pusher who arrived late, I made it right where I needed to be.
My grandmother was – and continues to be – a pillar of strength for me. I am stronger because she gave me the tools so that I could be, I am a better person because she modeled greatness for me, I am me because she empowered me to be who I wanted to be. I don’t believe that I am even capable of coming close to emulating my grandmother. I believe few people really can. But I hope that, through AlteArte, when I help someone to showcase their talent, or reach out to someone, or make someone feel part of a community, I am – in some small way at least – honoring my grandmother’s very beautiful spirit.
I love you, Gaga.