“Flight 405 will be departing shortly to Detroit. Please be sure that your seat belts are fastened securely. Enjoy your flight.”
Holiday break. One of those marvelous times in a student’s life; a lull in the storm between classes and final exams.
This year, however, was different. He had moved to an out-of-state school. Hundreds of miles seemed like a never-ending gulf between him and his family.
As the plane left the earth into its long, homeward-bound flight, his grandmother’s illness became foremost in his mind.
“The cancer is widespread,” his mother said to him on the phone. “The doctors decided to try chemotherapy, but it doesn’t look good. Six months, maybe a year.”
His mind was filled with questions and fears of his grandmother’s illness. Hoe would she be when he got home? How bad was she?
And a selfish thought: How would he get along without her?
He and his grandmother had a special relationship, a special friend ship that existed only between grandparents and grandchildren. They frequently kept in touch with each other, even after he went away to school. Somehow, they could discuss any topic, any time, without the stigma of parental judgment overlying each conversation. She provided a unique window to his past, a mirror to his present, and a doorway to his future.
After the plane touched down, he met his parents at the arrival gate. Funny, he thought, how much older his mother appeared that day. In her early fifties, she prided herself on her appearance and always looked younger than her age.
The usual warm greetings awaited him. They gathered his luggage and walked to the car.
“Grandma’s not doing too well,” his mother stated as they pulled out of the parking lot. Suddenly, the air seemed more chilled than usual for a winter day.
“She’s very weak. The chemotherapy took a lot out of her. She just doesn’t look good.” A difficult silence descended over the car.
“Can we go to the hospital now?”
“I think it would be a good idea.”
I think it would be a good idea — a simple, yet complex statement. What else was there that he should know? It was as if the protective rug of childhood was being pulled out from underneath him.
“What did her doctor say?”
“The chemotherapy is working. In fact, it’s incredible. But she looks so weak. Just don’t look shocked when you go into her room. She’s lost a lot of weight.”
The rug was suddenly pulled out even more.
The rest of the ride to the hospital was quiet … too quiet. They talked of his exams, his brother’s life at school and other items of family business. Work was going well for his parents. Being teachers, though, they appreciated school vacations as much as their students. Sometimes even more so.
As they approached the hospital, the grey sky threatened. A few trees stubbornly held onto their leaves in front of the hospital, as if in defiance of the changing seasons. The hospital stood out against this near-winter background, a concrete monolith that appeared out of place in the surrounding neighborhood.
Cars pulled up at the entrance, depositing visitors and patients. Nurses and a few doctors were leaving through the front door. Must be shift change, he thought to himself.
Entering the hospital, they obtained their visitor passes from the front desk. The brightly lit lobby was extremely busy with families entering and leaving, patients leaving for home and delivery trucks depositing flowers and other gifts for patients. With a perfunctory nod from the guard who inspected their passes, they entered an elevator for the ride upstairs.
His grandmother’s floor was a stark contrast to the lobby. Dimly lit, it expanded in numerous directions, each wing long, dark and quiet. The universal antiseptic smell of hospitals permeated the air. A barrage of messages descended from the ceiling, each summoning an unknown doctor to an unknown task.
Like all hospitals, this one seemed friendly, yet barren. Nursing stations were placed as oases among deserts of illness. The one on his grandmother’s wing was quiet when they arrived for their visit. One nurse, recognizing his parents, said his grand mother was sleeping but was happily awaiting their arrival.
As they quietly entered her room, he saw a small figure lying in the bed, curled up in the sheets like a child in deepest slumber.
“Hi, Mom. We brought you a visitor.”
The figure slowly turned to face them and suddenly came to life. They frail person that he saw was transformed into the person he always knew. Fighting back tears, they hugged each other for what seemed to be forever.
“How are you feeling?”
“Tired, but better now. It’s so nice to see you. How did your exams go?”
He smiled at the question. “Fine. It’s just nice to be home. You look pretty good,” he lied. She had lost quite a bit of weight. Her face looked drawn and tired.
“Well, the doctors say I’m better. I’m just so weak. The therapy takes a lot out of me, but I think it’s working.”
The four of them spent the next hour in family gossip, school and the like. The subject of his grandmother’s illness was never brought up again.
His grandmother grew tired as evening approached, so the family went home for dinner. Conversation reflected the weather: dreary. The three of them, now joined by his brother, seemed to discuss everything except his grandmother’s illness. Finally, he brought it up.
It was obvious that the best that her doctors could do would be to give her a few more months. His mother, however, could not totally admit that to herself or to her mother.
“I just can’t tell her,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “She’d give up hope.”
Nonsense, he thought. His grandmother had to understand how badly she was doing. If his mother told her, he thought, then his mother would give up hope, not his grandmother. As he went to bed that night, he said two special prayers: one for his grandmother’s recovery and one for his mother to have the strength to deal with her mother’s illness.
The next day was busy for the family. He spent several hours at the hospital talking with his grandmother, although he abided by his family’s wishes not to reveal the poor prognosis.
He spent the vacation at home, with friends, or at the hospital. His grandmother seemed to grow stronger with each visit. Her appetite was getting better. They talked of many things, mostly the present and the future. She told him how proud she was of him, of how well he’d do in school and in life. She spoke of her parents, of how much they would have loved him. They gave each other advice and support.
He sensed that she indeed knew that her time was limited … that she wanted to compact as much as possible into each visit.
The conversations went by too fast; vacation ended as quickly as it began. As he went to bed on Saturday night, he wished to see her just one more time. Somehow, he thought to himself, there was some unfinished business that they needed to discuss. Sunday morning, he asked his parents to change his flight. He told them that he needed to see his grandmother one more time before he went back to school. “A funny feeling” is how he described it to his parents.
Their visit, indeed, surprised his grandmother, who had not expected to see him again for another two weeks. The four talked a lot … she looked marvelous, he thought to himself. Her strength was slowly returning. She ate lunch (“homemade lunch, not that garbage they serve here!”). Perhaps her prognosis was not as bad as they thought.
Suddenly, she confronted his parents with a simple question: “How am I doing?”
They all looked at each other, waiting for someone to break the silence.
“The doctors say you’re doing much better,” said his father. “But they found that the cancer had spread.”
“In other words …” she countered.
“In other words,” he continued, “they can’t cure it.”
Words such as “palliation” and “terminal” were discussed. How much time? Months, maybe a year. Radiation. Treatments. Somehow, the tension drained out of the air. His father asked her about more chemotherapy.
“Well I want to live. Let’s try it and see what happens,”: she replied matter-of-factly. “It seems to have worked so far.” She paused. “I want to live.”
It was as if a wall had been broken down between his mother and grandmother. The tension on his mother’s face left for the first time in days, if not weeks. They began to talk to each other again like they always did .. . mother and daughter, friends.
As they got ready to leave, he told his parents to wait for him in the hall. The two of them looked at each other, a brief frozen moment.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’ll be just fine!’
“I love you, Grandma,” he replied.
They hugged, forever sealing the bond between grandparent and grandchild.
“I love you, too!” she said.
“Just remember that I wish all the best for you. I’m so proud of you!’
He began to cry. She wiped the tears from his cheeks with her fingers; her own eyes filled with tears of their past
“Now don’t you worry. By the time you get back home, I should be out of here.”
“You take care of yourself, okay?” he said as he wiped the tears from his eyes. “I’ll call you when I get back to school.”
“Fly safely and do well on your exams. Don’t worry about me … I’ll be just fine.
I’m just so glad that you came in for the break.”
“I’ll see you in two weeks,” he said. As he began to leave the room, he turned back to hug her again. Two weeks, he thought, won’t be too long a time.
“I love you,” he called from the doorway.
“I love you, too.”
Back to school. The first week went by slowly with studying and exams. They spoke to each other on the phone almost daily. On Thursday night, they spoke briefly. She sounded the best that she had in weeks, he thought. They spoke of school and family. She said that she felt much stronger . . . in fact, his mother was going to eat lunch with her in the hospital the next day.
Friday began with lectures and the usual mundane school activities. Classes ended early that day, so he was back at his apartment catching up on a never-ending pile of schoolwork. The headlong rush to final exams had begun.
The quiet of the apartment was shattered by the ringing of the telephone.
“Steve?” It was his father. The sound of his voice foretold the conversation.
“It’s Dad. I have some bad news.”
“Grandma passed away this morning.”
“What happened?” was all he could manage to say.
“She was taking a walk with her nurse and suddenly became short of breath. The nurse got her back to bed, but there wasn’t anything they could do. She passed away peacefully.”
“As good as you could expect, I guess. She’s lying down right now.”
“I’ll call the airport and arrange a flight home tonight, okay? I’ll call you right back?’
Mechanically, he informed his roommate who offered to take him to the airport. Flights were arranged; friends were notified. Only then did the loneliness begin. The next few days disappeared in a blur. Funeral. Friends. Relatives. The bustle of activity that surrounds a grieving family enveloped them like a comforter around a child. Relatives that they had not seen in years stopped by to pay their condolences. A yahrtzeit candle was kindled to burn for seven days. The seven-day shivah period began at his parents’ house.
As quickly as the activity started, it ended. Back to school. Back to finals. Back to reality. His parents drove him to the airport so that he could catch his flight back to school. This time, he thought, there would not be a last-minute flight change. This time, he thought sadly, there would be no more phone calls to her.
His mother looked terrible. She had seemingly aged ten years in a week. “Give us a call as soon as you touch down,” she said.
“Take care. We love you.”
“I love you, too!” he replied as they hugged each other.
The flight from Detroit seemed to take an eternity. As time went on, as the city was left on the horizon, the magic carpet of childhood seemed to slip away even more. As if the plane was pulling on a snag in a rug; the further it flew, the more it unraveled the carpet.
A light rain began to fall as the plane landed. He watched from the window while the plane taxied to the terminal, making its way slowly across the tarmac. Running down the window, the raindrops traced many patterns … some intricate, others coalescing into mere rivulets of water. Yet, a few seemed to strike the window individually, momentarily suspended in time before they trailed downward.