During the last three years of her life, my grandmother spent much of her time in one small room of the house she had lived in since moving to the suburbs to be closer to her children and grandchildren. The room was about 6 feet by 6 feet, close quarters crammed with a couch, a television set and two fold-out dining trays, one stacked with cards, newspaper clippings and old copies of America, the other with devotional cards, miraculous medals and bright-colored plastic rosary beads for her great-grandchildren, sent by the various religious orders and charities to whom she had given donations, with a little room left on the tray for the meals she would take there. She sat all day long in her La-Z-Boy, looking at the embroidery pattern held on a frame in front of her and talking occasionally to Nicolai, her dog, who wandered leisurely around the house or sat at her feet.
While she worked, the television set was always on, and it was loud. The news made her crazy, each new revelation about the Bush administration driving her further toward apoplexy, but she watched it nonetheless, all the time, as well as court shows like “Judge Judy” or the “People’s Court”—a fascination she shared with her son, my father. On many occasions the three of us would sit together in that small space and talk a bit off and on while Judy sat in session, doing her thing. Grandma always wanted to know what I was up to, what I was writing, whether I had seen a recent story on Loyola University Chicago or the pope.
Although she grew up about 10 blocks from where I work on the west side of Manhattan, she never asked much about the city. It had been maybe 50 years since she had been there, and so much had changed it no longer interested her. Still, any time family or friends came to visit me, I brought them to her old apartment building, a five-story red brick walkup with a Starbucks on the street level, just around the corner from one of the largest Barnes & Noble bookstores on the island, Lincoln Center close at hand. More than once I even tried to contact the tenants now living in her apartment, thinking that to walk through it would be to see the world through her eyes. But the tenants were never home.
Though when it came to religion, politics or my career she could be very outspoken, in another sense during those last few years my grandmother never had much to say. Each time we spoke I would ask her how she was doing, and her response was always the same: a sigh, and then, “I’m still here.” In my mind I would go through the laundry list of what I thought she meant: her friends were all gone or far away; her children didn’t always see eye to eye; and her husband, my grandfather and the love of her life, had been dead 37 years. She was well loved and cared for, mentally sharp and reasonably healthy physically almost until the end. But even so, when it came to life, it seemed as though she had been there, done that. Time for something different. But how long (and why) would she have to wait?
A week before her 91st birthday, she took a fall. While it was not life-threatening, at the hospital her condition deteriorated. She died within a day.
Before the funeral, I went back to her house and spent some time in that room. I sat on the couch, where I always sat. Across from me, on top of the television set, a grinning electronic George W. Bush doll stared back at me. My grandmother loved that doll; she would erupt in a high-pitched, billowy guffaw every time someone made it speak.
Now, however, the room was completely quiet. It was one of the few times, I realized, that I had been there when the television set was not on. And that chair, that chair in which she had spent countless hours, was empty. She was not there. I felt like a child who has just witnessed an amazing vanishing trick: where did she go?
At the same time, soaking in the new silence and emptiness of the room, it was as though something dark and heavy had finally left this place, like some greedy spirit that had been feasting on her soul had lost its grip, and she had finally fled away.
Since her funeral, sometimes I puzzle over what she might have been contemplating as she sat embroidering those last months. The next court case still to come? Nicolai panting on the floor? Maybe she thought about her family—the uncle she loved to talk about, the husband who had died, the great-grandchild who would receive this picture she was finishing. Maybe she considered the holidays, the state of the country or those letters she received from the charities.
But as she heard news from foreign lands day after day, listened to strangers telling Judge Judy their stories, I wonder if she didn’t think about the world, all its strange denizens and wonderful possibilities. And though she insisted still on staying in that close, crowded room, television blaring, maybe at night she dreamed of a journey.