The Condition that Shielded My Grandfather From Heartbreak

Kate Axelrod reflects on the last days of her grandmother’s life, and witnessing as her grandfather’s own decline helped him to survive losing his wife of 66 years.

Kate Axelrod | Longreads | July 2017 | 8 minutes (2,056 words)

 

I sat in the Emergency Room with my grandmother on a cool night last June. Hours earlier, Sadie had stood up from the couch too quickly and fallen. She and my mother had been waiting at the hospital for much of the day. Sadie was bored but wouldn’t complain except to be dismissive of her own pain. This is all so dumb, she’d said when I arrived. I’m really fine, so unnecessary for you to come all the way uptown for this. On the gurney next to her, a woman with a British accent sat erect, and asked continuously for the lighting to be alternately dimmed and then brightened, as though she were both the star and director of a one woman show.

Earlier, an X-ray had confirmed that Sadie had fractured her pelvis, but we were waiting for an MRI to see how bad the damage was. At ninety, Sadie was in fairly good shape; she hadn’t been in the hospital since giving birth to my aunt in the mid-1950s, but she had chronic pain in her right knee and had lost much of her vision to macular degeneration. More often than not, she was her ordinary astute and thoughtful self, but there were also moments of confusion and repetition, and resentment about growing old. Just a few weeks before she fell, she told me she wanted to do something, anything. She suggested to my grandfather that they volunteer in the neonatal unit of a hospital; to cradle abandoned infants in their soft, creased arms.

I sat on the edge of her gurney and smoothed my fingers against her wrist, which seemed newly delicate. My brother arrived and read her poetry from the most recent New Yorker. He has the most beautiful voice, Sadie whispered. Hours passed. I played her a guided meditation on my phone. We closed our eyes together and tried to just be, but after a few minutes we were both restless and I shut it off.

“What if I have to stay over at the hospital and Grandpa never forgives me?” she asked.

“Forgives you for what?”

“For not coming home tonight,” she said.

“You’re in the hospital, Grandma, not out on a date! He’ll forgive you.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never not gone home to him before. What will he think?”

Indeed, my grandparents had been married for sixty-six years, and aside from a handful of brief hospital stays on Max’s part, they had not spent a night without each other.

They’d met in 1948, at Junior High School 52 in the South Bronx. Max was an industrial arts teacher and Sadie a secretary. The story was that he accidentally dropped a set of keys in the hallway and Sadie picked them up. He was instantly smitten and courted her for weeks until she agreed to go out with him.

Sadie wanted badly to go home that night, but she howled in pain when the nurses tried to ease her from the gurney into a wheelchair. While she was being admitted, there was a flurry of texts between family members: we were worried about Sadie, but also about our grandfather. What would he think?

My grandparents had been married for sixty-six years, and aside from a handful of brief hospital stays on Max’s part, they had not spent a night without each other.

Over six-and-a-half decades, Sadie and Max had built and nurtured a life together; they worked in the New York City school system for nearly forty years and lived modestly in a middle class neighborhood on Long Island, where they raised two daughters. They hosted seders and Thanksgivings, birthday parties for nieces and nephews, cousins, countless friends whom they adored. They frequented art museums and the Philharmonic. When they retired, they traveled to Europe, Scandinavia, and Israel. They helped raise six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A plastic frame bordering their Volvo’s license plate read: Happiness is being a grandparent.

Three years earlier, they’d moved out of their house and into an apartment in the city. It was the logical next step to be closer to my parents, along with proximity to supermarkets, doctors’ offices and the 92nd Street Y. But they spent much of the last few years sitting on a tan suede couch together, holding hands and listening to classical music on the radio and having dinner with various family members who came to visit. After my grandmother’s vision worsened, my grandfather would read aloud to her from the Times every day and sometimes whole novels, as well. On Sunday nights, we’d go out to dinner across the street from their apartment, and even in the summers, my grandmother would insist that Max wear a coat and a hat when they went outside. He’d dutifully oblige her and they’d shuffle toward the elevator together, holding hands until their meals arrived.

Old age had been good to Max; at ninety-two he was still the lively, critical, discerning man I’d known, who liked to lecture me about the merits of capitalism and who could recall, with stunning precision, details about his father’s coffee bean shop in East Harlem. But by ninety-five, his quick wit was softened by dementia, his critical eye replaced by a sweet and goofy demeanor, and fits of paranoia. Sometimes, when Sadie got up from the couch to go to the bathroom, he would look around the room and call out to her, panic edging into his voice. Sadie, Sadie, where are you?


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If Max was unnerved by Sadie taking too long in the bathroom, it was impossible to imagine him without my grandmother for an entire night. Earlier that day, one of his caregivers, Goldie—a lovely Hungarian woman with a mane of tight, curly hair—assured him that Sadie would be home soon, she was just out buying a new dress.

We didn’t know if it was the pain itself or the medication that was causing delirium, but with every passing hour in the hospital, Sadie’s mental status was deteriorating.

By ninety-five, Max’s quick wit was softened by dementia, his critical eye replaced by a sweet and goofy demeanor, and fits of paranoia.

“Where is Grandpa?” she asked me the next morning. “We need to wake him up.”

Nurses came and went—they monitored her vitals and applied patches of Lidocaine to her pelvis. A physical therapist arrived in the afternoon and tried to help Sadie out of bed, which had become an impossible task.

“This really isn’t the nicest hotel,” my grandmother whispered after the nurse left. “Do you know who picked it?”

I wondered about Max, back at home, though my mother had checked on him earlier in the day and reported that he was doing just fine. She watched as Goldie placed a sandwich and some slices of honeydew in front of him. “I should wait for Sadie,” he said. But Goldie encouraged him to eat, assuring him Sadie would be home soon. He nodded, satisfied, and took a bite.

Sadie was not getting better, which we attributed mostly to the disorientation of being in the hospital and the fact that she had now been without my grandfather for almost seventy-two hours, the longest they had been apart since 1950. After two-and-a-half days, we decided to take her home. My aunt and uncle rode in the ambulance, while my cousin and I rearranged furniture in the bedroom to make room for a narrow hospital bed with guardrails. We positioned it directly beside the plain mahogany-framed bed they’d slept in for their entire marriage.

My heart quickened when Sadie was carried into the apartment. But there was no special embrace, no acknowledgment that she and my grandfather had been apart or that Sadie clearly was not well. Goldie wheeled Max into the bedroom and he and my grandmother simply grasped hands as they always did. They listened to classical music on their portable CD player, and Max tapped his fingers against the palm of Sadie hand.

Sadie did not get better at home, either, and we waited for Max to process what was happening, but it never came. At night, they slept side by side, separated only by the metal frame of the hospital bed.

By the first week of July, a nurse called and said, Things are progressing. This seemed like misleading terminology, but I understood what she meant. Later, I flipped through the manual the hospice team had given us. Inside, it described how a body prepared for death, carefully and methodically shutting down. Perhaps it was just the way the copy was written, but the whole process seemed improbably kind and gentle. Like a family moving out of a home it loved but no longer needed. Reducing bedrooms to cardboard boxes, packing up photo albums and dishes and books to put into storage.

At ninety, death was ordinary and expected and it was not tragic. I knew these facts to be true and yet they seemed in direct opposition to everything I felt. I was seized by panic and dread each time Sadie’s breath was followed by the ominous death rattle—which sounded as though she were drowning after every inhalation (I was assured by doctors this was not actually the case.) My grandfather sat on the couch just a room away and he watched the news, listened to WQXR, laughed softly as his caregivers flirted with him and encouraged him to eat his dinner, a chicken breast and some steamed broccoli.

Goldie wheeled Max into the bedroom and he and my grandmother simply grasped hands as they always did.

My grandmother died in the early morning of July 6th 2016. Afterward, I held her hand—cool and clammy—and waited for the funeral home to come. I could have sat there for hours, sealed in from the day moving forward beyond us; the din of trucks out on Third Avenue, toddlers and their babysitters playing in the park directly below, and my grandfather just in the other room, lost in the haze of dementia, smiling at Goldie as she brought him a mug of coffee. When the men from the funeral home arrived—dressed in navy suits, wearing kind expressions on their faces—Goldie repositioned Max’s wheelchair so that he was facing the television, away from the narrow hallway where Sadie body would be carried from the apartment. My mother and I stood by the doorway and wept.

That my grandfather was at home, eating a tuna fish sandwich and watching the news tick by on CNN while his wife was buried, was not something I could easily understand. I wondered how long this could possibly go on and grappled with whether or not we should tell him. Didn’t he have a right to know? Would his atrophying mind even allow him to know?

A month passed. Family members visited Max daily. He was delighted to see them and would tell stories—walking over the George Washington Bridge the day it opened in 1931 or the time Sadie was so sunburnt on a Florida vacation that she resorted to sitting inside a refrigerator, her knees keeping the door ajar. I could not bear to be around him. It seemed the cruelest kind of dramatic irony that his wife had vanished, and he did not know to mourn her. And yet, it was also a gift—how lucky he was, to not have to feel the weight of that grief! He asked about Sadie every day—sometimes every few hours—but was always easily soothed by the answers he was given. She was returning a book to the library or having lunch with a friend.

Two weeks later, in the middle of August, Max died in his sleep. At the cemetery the next morning, we recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and buried him beside Sadie. It seemed fitting that he not live without her for too long, and I marveled over the fact that he never really had to. But a few days later, Goldie told me that in the weeks after my grandmother died, Max would yell out in his sleep each night: Sadie, Sadie, Sadie. Somewhere, in a pocket of his unconscious, it was registering. It was blaring.

* * *

Kate Axelrod‘s novel, The Law of Loving Others, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her writing has appeared in Lit Hub, Joyland and various other publications. Some names in this essay have been changed.

Editor: Sari Botton