I was so unbelievably tired on Wednesday morning. I slept in for a few minutes, and then my dad came into my room to turn off my alarm clock.
That’s strange, I thought. Dad never comes into my room to wake me up.
“Sweetie, Grandpa died earlier this morning.”
I had been expecting to hear this news at some point this week. Grandpa had been slowly getting weaker every day for the past few months, and on Monday, the doctors told my dad that Grandpa would probably die at some point within this week. Nevertheless, the news hit me like a pile of bricks. My mind became fuzzy. I couldn’t understand. I had just seen Grandpa two weeks ago. He was too weak to engage in conversation, but I didn’t realize that it would be the last time I ever saw him.
The visit had been uneventful. My brother and I hadn’t seen Grandpa since winter break, so we were excited to see him. Dad had gone to New Jersey alone almost every weekend since Grandpa was first admitted to the hospital. He was diagnosed with cancer, but had a variety of other health problems that kept him bouncing between the assisted-living facility where he normally lived, the local hospital, and the rehab facility for a long time.
My brother and I entered the communal dining hall at the rehab facility Grandpa was currently staying in. He was wearing a brown T-shirt that said “My favorite people call me Grandpa,” faded blue pajama pants, and brown slippers. He smiled when he saw us coming over to him.
“Hi, sweetie pies,” Grandpa said. “How are you?”
“Good,” my brother and I answered.
“How are you?” I asked Grandpa.
“Eh, a little better,” Grandpa responded.
“Do you want me to take your food to your room so you can spend time with your family?” A nurse who was standing nearby asked Grandpa.
“Sure,” Grandpa said.
“Why don’t you wheel Grandpa to his room?” Dad asked me. My mom had taken my brother off to use the bathroom. I was surprised at how easily Grandpa’s wheelchair glided along the crimson-carpeted hallway of the rehab facility without much effort on my part. When we got to his room, I wheeled him next to a table so that he could eat his lunch. However, he showed no desire to eat anything.
“Grandpa, you have to eat,” I said.
“I’m not hungry,” he answered.
“Dad, do you want me to cut up the chicken for you?” My dad asked.
“Sure,” Grandpa answered. After my dad finished slicing the meat, Grandpa still ate nothing. I recalled my dad saying that he was refusing to eat or drink anything other than the protein shakes that Grandpa’s wife had told the nurses to give him. My family had gotten him some coffee and pastries from a bakery with a sign in their window that read, “Voted Best Bakery in Bergen County,” both of which he consumed eagerly. After about 30 minutes of my family and me chatting with Grandpa, his eyelids started to droop closed and he said that he was tired, so I told the nurse who passed by to get someone to put Grandpa into bed.
Fifteen minutes had elapsed, and still nobody came. I went to the nurses’ station at the end of the hallway.
“Hi, can you please send a nurse to room 212 to put my grandfather into his bed?” I asked one of the nurses.
“Really? Marty just woke up less than an hour ago, but okay,” the nurse said. “It’ll be a few minutes.”
“I will stay right here until someone comes,” I said. As much as I wanted to spend time with Grandpa, he looked miserably exhausted. I was kind of mad at the nurses for not coming right away.
We sat with Grandpa in his room for about an hour after two nurses came into his room and placed him gingerly into his bed. When it was time to leave, I walked over to Grandpa’s bedside to say goodbye. His nightstand was covered with “get well soon” cards from all of his grandchildren.
“Be good to yourself,” Grandpa whispered to me.
“I will, Grandpa,” I answered. “I love you.”
I decided to take the day off from school. Luckily, my teachers understood and said that I needn’t worry about schoolwork until I returned. I spent the entire morning and early afternoon scouring my house for pictures of Grandpa and used an unopened scrapbooking kit I had received for my birthday a few years ago to compile all of the pictures. We drove down to New Jersey at 3 p.m. that afternoon with my other grandparents trailing behind us in their car. We all got to my Grandma’s house at around 9 p.m. and had some tea and snacks (Grandma and Grandpa got divorced when my father was a kid and only kept in contact because they had joint custody over my father and uncle. I had only ever seen them in the same room at my cousin Max’s bris and my bat mitzvah). I then took a shower and went to bed.
The next morning was Grandpa’s funeral. Gramps, my mom’s father and a retired rabbi, would be officiating the ceremony. I wore a black dress, a black sweater, black tights, black socks, and black shoes. The only reason I wore a pink headband was that I couldn’t find my black one. I felt so guilty for wearing something that wasn’t the color of my soul at that moment.
The grief didn’t hit me until I walked into the main building of the cemetery and saw my Aunt Marilyn, who was Grandpa’s older sister. As I gave her a hug, tears started pouring out of my eyes. I then hugged some of my other relatives. The funeral took place on a cold, rainy Thursday morning.
All of my relatives drove their cars in a line behind the hearse through the winding roads of the cemetery. We couldn’t have been driving at more than 5 miles per hour. When we arrived at my family’s plot of land, there was a pile of earth with four shovels in it. At Jewish funerals, the mourners actually dig the grave of the deceased. Shoveling dirt into a loved one’s grave is considered one of the greatest acts of lovingkindness one can do.
Gramps said a few prayers in English and Hebrew before opening up the floor for people to share memories. The rain started pouring down even more heavily. As I listened to my relatives speak about my grandfather, I couldn’t help but cry harder than I ever had in my life.
Mom tapped my shoulder. “Maisie, do you have anything to say about Grandpa?”
“Just that I loved him, I miss him, and I can’t believe he’s gone,” I choked out between sobs. I began to feel the torrential downpour soak through my socks. I shoveled a few scoops of earth into Grandpa’s grave, but I was crying so hard that I had to stop. The thud of each mound of dirt hitting Grandpa’s wooden coffin emphasized the finality of his death. He’s really gone now. He was here, and now he’s in the ground.
My relatives and family friends tried to console me, but my mom sensed that it was getting to be too much and told me that I could sit in the car with my brother. I was shivering and sopping wet. A few minutes later, my parents came into the car and we drove to my aunt and uncle’s house in New York (the state, not the city) for the meal of condolence.
When we got to my aunt and uncle’s house, I greeted my relatives and immediately took off my wet shoes and socks. I was cold, so my cousin Hana lent me her sweater. I sat with my cousins for a while and ate and talked about school. Throughout the afternoon and evening, so many people poured in and out of the house to offer their condolences, including some of my mother’s closest friends and their kids.
Although it will be a long time until I can truly be okay again, the fact that so many people came to the meal of condolence made me feel a lot better about the whole situation. Grandpa’s death may be an awful situation, but at least I don’t have to suffer through it alone. My family and friends will be right there beside me the whole time.