We had flown in from Israel. Ostensibly to share a warm family Passover, though in reality, we had come to bid a final farewell to our cherished Grandma. Though she was not young, her advancing age had somehow never imprinted upon me the possibility of a world devoid of her presence.
Sitting by Grandma's bedside, I massaged her hand, freckled with age. Holding tightly to that hand, I thought that perhaps I might stave off the inevitable. I firmly grasped those tenuous threads that bound her here with us. After all, a Grandma can't die while holding on to her granddaughter, can she?
And so we sat and held each other, wrapped up in the implicit knowledge that our time together was finite. Ever mentally acute, she chided the nurses who viewed her as an invisible puppet, and we, her family, were left to accord her the dignity she was due.
I had never attended to someone who was on the brink of departing this world, and I had no expectations of what it might entail. My Grandma, a deeply religious Jew, and a self made one at that, could not have lay there, vacillating between this world and the next, without some serious introspection. But I was not privy to her meditations, and we carried on with our standard fare of affection, as if time was not a force to contend with.
As the days passed, Grandma began to flit in and out of a sleep induced haze. One moment we were conversing, laughing, stroking, and the next moment her eyes would close and she would seem asleep. What began as periods of apparent relaxation, quickly progressed into moments of intense agitation. My Grandma would writhe in her bed and call out in distress.
"No, No. I'm not finished, I'm not finished." She seemed to be reckoning with something, or someone.
"No, No. I'm not finished, I'm not finished." She seemed to be reckoning with something, or someone. Then a peace would spread over her face and she would call out, "Momma, Momma." Those who surrounded her were grateful that perhaps she was receiving some measure of comfort from her mother in the next world. Eventually, her eyes would open, and she was herself again.
"Grandma," I asked her softly. "You seem to be in distress, is there anything we can do to help you?"
She smiled at me gently and shook her head. "No," she said. "I'm not in pain. It's just...." Then her voice would trail off and she would smile a weak smile.
Over the course of the next few days, Grandma's moments of lucidity grew more sparse, and she spent much time in her altered state of being, repeating those same words over and over again like a mantra. "No, no, no. I'm not finished." Each time her eyes would flutter open, she would only gaze at me through her ever intelligent green eyes, and ignore our entreaties to help her.
Watching my beloved Grandma, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the aperture between this world and the World to Come.
Spinning on the fast moving carousel of life, I found that I never quite saw the phantasmagoric writing on the wall, telling me that my life is merely an abrupt flash on an eternally illuminated screen. Watching my beloved Grandma, hovering inexplicably between the known and the unknown, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the aperture between this world and the World to Come.
The Talmud (Ketubot, 104a) discusses the struggle between the upper spheres and the lower spheres over the fate of the soul. When Rabbi Judah the Prince, the redactor of the Mishnaic literature, was ill, those who prayed for his healing were clinging desperately to their leader's mortal frame, willing it to remain here on earth. Meanwhile, the heavens were staking their own claim, anticipating the arrival of this great sage.
This passage, an abstract notion of the afterlife, became a concrete tool through which I was able to better grasp what was happening to my Grandma.
But what makes us human beings cling so tenaciously to this purely physical world? Is it not clear that life on this earth is replete with disappointment?
If every human being was created to fulfill a specific role, then the goal of life is that each mortal should traverse the path to his distinctive destination. My Grandma was clearly at the end of her journey, and yet her destination in this world had not been reached. So the world of the living could not let her go.
It is said that the Vilna Gaon, the great 18th century, Lithuanian sage, was crying on his deathbed. His disciples were perplexed that their paragon of faith would fear the afterlife. "No," he explained to them, "I do not cry from fear. I am leaving the world of doing. My chance to amass good deeds is slowly expiring. That is why I cry."
Life, in any form, has great value, as we do not know what the soul can achieve during its final moments.
It was clear that Grandma was hovering in some metaphysical realm that was neither here nor there. She was clinging to the vestiges of her life in this world, as she appeared to have some unfinished business. I did not know what loose ends she was tying up, but it was clear that she was engaged in some sort of a process. If the entrance into this world is an event heralded by protracted pain, then it suddenly seemed apparent to me that the migration of the soul might entail a process as well.
My husband went in to my Grandma and asked her if she would like to recite Viduy, a prayer of atonement that would stand as a merit for her soul. Drawing on reserves of untapped strength, she whispered the words of this ancient prayer.
Saturday night, my husband and I brought in a candle, wine and spice to recite the Havdala, a farewell to the Sabbath. Grandma mouthed amen to our blessings, and a faint smile played about her lips as we sang, my voice too choked with emotion to continue.
"More," she mouthed. We continued to sing as curls of smoke rose in ghostly wisps from the extinguished flame.
On Tuesday, the anniversary of her husband's death, Grandma slipped into a coma of sorts. It was clear that she was still struggling with something, but we no longer had the brief moments of reprieve where she would return to herself. My father told us that at the end he finally heard her say, "I'm finished."
For me, hearing that she had merited fulfillment in her life's mission, provided immeasurable comfort. Her task completed, her personal destiny fulfilled, my dear Grandma passed away, and the heavens surely opened wide to receive her.