There is a wonderful story in the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling about the brothers Peverell, who each received a gift from Death himself. The first brother received the strongest wand in the world, capable of defeating all challengers. The second brother received a magical stone that could bring back the dead. The third brother received an invisibility cloak that could hide him from sight, even from Death.
The first brother quickly perished, having boasted of his superior wand and was caught unaware by a cunning adversary. And thus, Death claimed the first brother.
The second brother used the stone to bring back his late wife. To his horror, she was soulless, a shade of her former self. In his despair, he took his own life. And thus Death claimed the second brother.
The third brother was wise, and used his cloak only to escape from harm. He lived a full life, with children and grandchildren. When he was old and bent, he removed his cloak and gave it to his son. Then he turned and greeted Death like an old friend.
My grandmother was 96 when she died, on December 28th, 2013. She passed away peacefully, from complications from a stomach flu. The last person she spoke to was her upstairs neighbor Yvonne, a woman who had cared for my grandmother’s sister and had become like a daughter to my grandmother.
Throughout the funeral, burial and first night of Shiva (a Jewish grieving ceremony), I didn’t cry. In fact, since hearing of my grandmother’s passing, I only cried once, for about a minute. I have wondered why I have not cried. I am sure I am holding something in, and will let it go at some point.
But now, I only feel an odd sense of calm and peace. I will miss my grandmother, my Bubbi, but I do not feel any sense of regret or missed opportunity. My grandmother lived a full life, full of happiness and sadness and joy and grief. The sort of life people are supposed to live. She married a man she loved, she had two daughters she adored as well as a niece and nephew she saw as a daughter and son. She had 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren with more on the way. She was an active and vibrant part of her community, her synagogue and her local politics. She was friends with Chuck Schumer!
My grandmother cared for the people in her life with an intensity and surety that I try to emulate. No one had more confidence in me and my potential than Bubbi, and I suspect my brothers and cousins would say the same.
My grandmother treated everyone she met with respect and kindness, even those that treated her poorly. When she left the hospital after she had her pacemaker adjusted, she managed to find out the names of every nurse and doctor that cared for her and send them hand-written notes, typed on her typewriter, thanking them for their care and energy.
My grandmother was religious on her own way, on a deeply personal level. She was not afraid of dying. In fact, she told my mother a few years ago that she does not dread it because she would be able to see her sister Sarah, her best friend her entire life. She was Jewish and belonged to (indeed, was a pillar of) an Orthodox synagogue, but she cared not for the myriad of rules and regulations that often govern religious life. When my brother Jonathan dated and eventually married a non-Jewish girl named Amy, my grandmother’s only opinion of Amy was that she had wonderful dimples, and Jonathan shouldn’t let her go.
My grandmother was a dignified and quietly proud woman, who was independent and self-reliant until the day she died. She lived in her own house, which she paid for, with no nurse or aide. Outside of slight slowing of her walk and an occasional lapse in hearing, she was completely healthy. Her memory and mind were as sharp as ever, capable of telling stories of her childhood and when she was courted by my grandfather. But she did not live in the past, preferring to thrive in the present. Rather than tell stories of dusty old rooms from her childhood, she preferred to tell you of her newest great-grandchildren (with pictures, of course) or the latest social happenings at her synagogue.
She died peacefully, as she wanted to. She would have hated to have her family, friends or even strangers to care for her. Cleaning her, feeding her, changing her. Like her husband, she was a private individual and took great pride in her ability to live on her own with only the smallest assistance. And that assistance was not needed by Bubbi, but rather evidence of how much the people around her cared for her. She shoveled snow from her driveway into her eighties, until Yvonne’s family had to hide the snow shovel.
I do not know her final thought of me, but I am sure, as sure of anything I have ever been in my life, that it was loving, and kind. Perhaps it was of my red hair, or my name which I proudly received from her husband, and my grandfather, Benjamin, or perhaps that my final conversation with her was helping her fix her cable box. Despite an absolutely microscopic amount of effort required from me, she thanked me profusely as if I had ran to Brooklyn and rewired the box myself. I know that she loved me, and my brothers. I know she loved my mother, my aunts and uncle, my cousins and second cousins and cousins I don’t even know I have.
She lived a life that I envy and will strive to emulate. She had no regrets, no unspoken thoughts or unexpressed emotions. All the hatchets were buried, all the bridges were crossed.
When Death offered my grandmother a gift, she asked only for his address, so she could add him to the list of weekly letters she wrote. And when Death came for my grandmother last Saturday night, she kissed him on the cheek, spoke glowingly of her newest great-grandchild and walked with him, content and at peace.