Sitting On An Aeroplane, While Grandma Dies

By Nigel Savage

Originally posted at –

I’m writing this on Tuesday 26th August 2003, on a plane en route back to New York. I came back to Manchester last Thursday to see Grandma and to say goodbye to her. She’s 95, has liver cancer and, according to the doctors, she has at most “weeks rather than months” to live. So when I said goodbye to her last night that will almost certainly have been the last time I see her.

My other grandparents died more suddenly that this, when I was younger and at a different stage in life. I’ve never had this experience of “saying goodbye” to someone in this way.

I don’t know how I feel. Sad, certainly, though I’ve only really felt the feelings, as opposed to thinking the thoughts.

One thing that was very moving was seeing Grandma, knowing that she was dying, visibly opening up in various ways. One small example was that she wanted flowers in her room, and I brought her roses. Until recently she said she was allergic to flowers, didn’t want anyone to bring her any.

A more significant example was seeing her, for the first time in my experience, becoming much more physically expressive. I visited her at Heathlands every day I was there in Manchester: Friday through Monday (on Shabbat I walked there and back), and every day she held my hand, wanted to hold my hand, kissed me, went out of her way to say that she wanted to hold my hand. “I didn’t do this when you were little, but I want to do it now, isn’t that funny,” she said to me on Shabbat.

No-one in our family asks private questions, least of all Grandma. But before I visited her, Mum reported that Grandma had asked her about my relationship with Jo – “how come he’s come over by himself, without Jo?” Then, when I was there, Grandma asked me directly how we were. And she was happy, repeatedly, to talk about dying, about knowing that she was dying, about hoping, at this stage, that death would come soon.

Some of the time Grandma seemed in good spirits, talking and fairly animated. On Sunday afternoon it was beautiful and we wheeled her outside in a wheelchair. She took great pleasure in the garden and the flowers and a kid playing ball with his parents.

But some of the time, including most of yesterday, she was weak and very vulnerable. Prone to tears. In considerable physical pain and discomfort, and suffering also from the horrible loss of dignity involved in her situation – unable at times to move or to drink without assistance, sometimes wetting herself or soiling herself, needing help to fulfill the most basic human needs. She knows that she has cancer and is dying from it. Her greatest fear is to be like this for a long time. It seems clear that she won’t, in fact, have to endure this for long.

I didn’t ask her for any big truths. I wouldn’t have known what to ask, and she probably wouldn’t have known how to answer. But being around her for so much of the last four days was its own lesson, a reminder of some of the most striking aspects of her character.

One aspect is about poverty and generosity. She has savings of just a few thousand pounds. (And even this small amount is probably as high as my grandparents’ net worth ever reached, an amount saved Mr Micawber-style over many years by receiving a relatively tiny state pension but spending, week by week, even less.) Yet it was important to her to insist, when Mum and Dad and I went out to dinner on Saturday night, that she treat us to dinner. She’s always given tzedakah, even though the amounts have been small. She always got by. She made reference at one point to being proud that Mum and Yvonne had more education than she had, that she and Grandpa had tried their best to encourage that despite having so little money.

My instincts are almost unrecognizably different from hers. She has an instinct of thrift and I have one of wastefulness. She wants little or nothing and I want everything. She, even in her pain, would say “please don’t trouble the nurses, please don’t bother the staff” – even though she was in pain and they were there, in fact, to look after her. Whereas I can’t bear pain of any sort and would certainly be awful and insistent if I were bedridden and suffering pain or discomfort. She (like my parents) respects rules and limits and I do not.

I have no idea how to become, as it were, more Grandma-like in these ways.

It’s striking that Grandma takes such pleasure in simple things. In a fairly un-Grandma-like moment, she was happy to encourage me to smuggle into Heathlands the cooked liver from the JS Kosher Restaurant which she used to love. She actually had lamb chops and potatoes for lunch yesterday, followed by fruit salad and cake. I took the lamb off the bone for her so that she could get it on the fork in bite-sized pieces. And she really enjoyed her meal, just like she really enjoyed the flowers. She needs so little, but she enjoys so much what she has.

I was struck also by the strength and consistency of her Jewish observance. She told me that in her whole life she had never cooked on Shabbat, which I never realized. She had a dreadful childhood: her mother died when she was seven, and she was forced to live with an awful stepmother, who was both very frum and quite unpleasant. Later, when she was married, Grandpa was not interested in observance and was happy to work on Shabbat or to go to see City or United play football. But somehow despite being pushed away from observance by her step-mother and being pulled towards being less observant by Grandpa, she was always steadily keeping traditional mitzvot, in her gentle undemanding way. She didn’t mind what others did, she certainly wouldn’t tell anyone what to do, and she ended up with two daughters who are signally unobservant, yet through her whole life she tried, in fact, to be as observant as she could; and I didn’t fully realize that, I think, until this trip.

She maintained a similar balance with non-Jews. She is totally un-politically correct in the way that she sees non-Jewish people as different, and takes for granted that this is so. Yet at the same time she is insistent, and always has been, about treating everyone with respect, Jewish or non-Jewish. I think Mum has this latter quality from her and I have it in turn from Mum.

Yet at the same time that I celebrate Grandma, I don’t want to mythologize her. Mum was often irritated by her in the past, as I am irritated by Mum. Ours is a family at least as dysfunctional as the average Jewish family (which is to say, considerably dysfunctional) and my mother and thus my Grandma must be responsible for some of the faults of her children, as she is certainly responsible for many of our strengths.

For our nuclear family it’s the end of an era. Grandma was born in 1907, remembers the start of the First World War, lived through the Blitz, was married for more than fifty years and lived alone, after Grandpa’s death, for another twenty years. Until these last four or five weeks she lived by herself in a council flat in Salford. Grandma was friends, to the very end, with many of her neighbors. She never owned a home, never learned to drive, left school when she was 13. She was born when there were horse-drawn carriages on the streets and when powered flight was newer than the internet is today. She had two daughters, tragically lost two sons each at an early age, and lived to see and chat and play with her great-grandkids. For many years she went and visited “old people,” though long before she stopped doing so the people she was visiting were mostly younger than she was herself.

Even over the course of this last weekend, on the moments she was happy, and there were a good many of them, she smiled a big smile, with her soft and quite smooth old lady’s skin and her white hair and her false teeth (though you wouldn’t have known). Her smile was genuine and warm and I think she smiled so comfortably because her facial muscles were used to smiling so genuinely for so many years. As long as I’ve known her she’s smiled at me with love and happiness. She represents to me a lot that’s good and clear in the world. I hope I manage to smile some of her smile and live some of her kindness after she goes.