Goodbye To Teddy: A journal of my visit to see my grandmother on her deathbed

Goodbye to Teddy
Caleb John Clark, 02-1999A journal of my visit to see my grandmother Teddy on her death bed. With an epilog by my mother.

Prolog

February 8th, 1999

My mother has called to say in couched words that I should get my tail to Santa Fe to say goodbye to my grandmother. It’s my first goodbye of this type. I fly in the morning.

She’s 87, her names Teddy Gordon. “Teddy” is short for Theodora, her middle name. Maiden name, Sophie Theodora Blanshaft. Sophia was chosen by her Zionist/Socialist parents, for a Russian revolutionary named Sophia Petrovskaya. Her parents were rebels in Poland and stowed away after getting caught for setting up an underground printing press in their basement to print up rebel posters. Her grandmother escaped from prison by faking TB during a train transfer. She chewed up her mouth a little so she spit blood and they let her escape rather then infect the guards. She and my great grandfather stowed away on a banana boat in the hold for the trip to Ellis Island. They ate bananas the whole way, with the peels on because they’d never seen a banana. Jews all, and they first hit Ellis Island right before 1905 I think.

My great grandfather designed ladies compacts and then made bullets during the war. My grandmother lived in Manhattan while raising my mother. She was a babe. Even did a stint as a Powers model in the big time. Smoked Pall Malls for a while. Went to the “shore” of Connecticut for summers. They then moved to West Hartford where my grandmother owned a kitchen store for 20 years. A time when businesswomen were rare. She’s always been a master of guilt, and a pusher of school of any kind. She has a biting sense of honest humor and never holds back saying what she thinks and what she means. She was pregnant while my grandfather was adventuring in British Honduras. She’s a walker. She worked retail for pennies in her older years on the side just to keep busy. But her mind when before her body and she never really knew how not to work. She was a worker her whole life and retirement was just not healthy for her. She makes a KILLER kugel (Jewish noodle dish) and told me that in NYC they used to freeze Matzo balls and trade them around between the wives for other food.

She’s been suffering from dementia for years. Last week she broke her hip and ever since has not eaten. Imagine not eating. She is saying it’s time I believe. And so It’s my time to fly and hold her hand, even if she doesn’t know it. Going for funerals is a little late in my mind. I feel sad, but good, It’s her time, and my time to see her off. I’m not really distraught, or angry, so I think that’s good. We all die. All we can hope is that we go softly (The docs say not eating is very soft and a common way) and that we get to say goodbye to loved ones.

Wish me luck.

Day #1

February 9th, 1999

Teddy lies 6 feet from me in a hospital bed. She is dying. Frail, her leather skin clinging to her bones. She is on her side, tubes everywhere. Morphine, but not enough, IV, oxygen. I’ve turned some Jazz on her tiny radio that she used to listen to talk radio on. It drowns out the painful noises coming from the hall. My crazy uncle Cove is here. My mother and aunt are down the hall talking to the Hospice folks, who are about to take over her care.

A moment ago a priest came in. He was making the rounds I guess. He asked if Teddy’s roommate, a certain Dorothy Mares, was catholic. She didn’t want him around I guess so he was going to leave when my uncle introduced himself to the priest. And then my uncle introduced him to me, and, with a gesture towards the bed, “my Jewish mother in law”.

As if by some invisible Catholic understanding the priest took Teddy’s hand and said a common prayer. I assumed it was common anyway because my Uncle followed along and he hasn’t been to church in decades, and I think I heard it in a movie once.

I am of course, in a nursing home. Teddy moans in pain every few minutes. Her soft cries join the other cries of pain and anger in the halls. Medicare has a thing called “hospice” a service for making the dying more comfortable through creative chemicals and human comfort. They are right now meeting with my mother and aunt. Once they’re on the job, the painkillers are jacked and the anti-depressants are stopped. I agree with this. Make it comfortable, and give the family anti-depressants, not the patient. After all, we’re the ones who will be left here to live, not her. As my mother said in the hall on a break while the nurses changed Teddy, “You don’t remember pain…right?”. I pointed out that actually you do remember it, it just doesn’t hurt.

Everyone deals with death in his or her own way. My aunt has always owned her own business, and she took care of Teddy in her home for years. She is not doing well as can be expected. She is pacing and trying to control all the things she is used to controlling – the time, the place, the people working for her, the actions of what is happening. She cries a lot. She has met her match here. My mother is the oldest daughter. She is not as close to Teddy, but she is still doing her best to give herself an ulcer in quiet internal strife, this is her way. Her husband Jack is doing things his way, siltenly and by painting. My aunts husband, Cove, who also took care of Teddy for years, is doing things his way, by giving his time and love, smoothing her eyebrows, and being calm.

Teddy just needed a little comfort and I had to get up. Like a baby she will clench a hand when you give her one and she coughs the low deep cough of death. She is still strong and wants to move.

Teddy has not seen me yet. She has not heard my words. She doesn’t know I’m here. But is that true? No. Just because she gives me no sign, doesn’t mean she has not received the signal. I told her I was here and that I love her and I know on some level she has realized this. But no wait a minute. Am I just believing this for my psychological benefit? She may in fact not realize a thing and that would be fine. It all has to be fine.

I start to think about death in general. First boyhood memories of dead birds come to mind. Dead birds I killed. We didn’t have video game to avoid the girls with, but we did have air guns and I was in Maine. I had a one pumper from Czechleslovacia. Rifled barrel, wooden stock. I’d practice hitting the one inch thick metal polls that held up my Mother’s edibile pod peas. I could hit them at 40 feet pretty often, after that the lead pellets dropped like a stone.

I’d hunt for hours. Alone, stalking, thinking, being still. I had to get about 25 feet from a bird to even have a chance in the woods. I remember several kills. They were each surprizing because after hunting and missing for hours, you really don’t expect to hit anything. And, it is a rare feeling to silently move through nature with all your energy focused on killing an animal. Prime evil comes to mind. It is surprising how naturally a young boy learns how to do it as well.

One kill I remember was a small sparrow like bird, instantly taken out of the food chain by a lead pellet to the neck. Kicking it I remember thinking it moved like a pupet with a neck devoid of a finger to support it.

I remember a blue jay that I winged as well. I walked up and watched it flutter on the ground for a second. Then I shot it in the head. Both kills I remember touching the dead animal after. I remember thinking about life, and about death. At the time, to be honest the death of this little bird was no big deal really. I just buried them, thought about death, and moved on. Now I wouldn’t do it unless I war really hungry. I think most people have killed more birds then I did by choosing to own and drive a car.

I also held my childhood cat down with my own hands she tried to escape the needle of death the vet had. Three tries and the vet put her away. I felt her body go slack. I watcher her eyes glaze over. It was amazing to see the life leave the eyes of an animal.

I had been crying for 45 mintues before and was covered in tears, cat hair and milk. She was dying from a skin desease, and not able to hunt, or go outside. She was an outside cat, a hunter. I met her as a kitten in the woods. Her mother has birthed them under a stump. She was a manx cat, no tail. She trapsed by my window with a rabbit much bigger then her.

So, I made the call. Since I did I felt I had to be the one that held her down for the needle. I commisioned her killing and it was OK, but it was my call and my responsibility. I believe in avoiding the paying of others for doing your dirty work.

This whole thing about death and people avoiding it angers me right now. You want those fucking leather sneakers, well you better damn well be ready and able to shoot the cow. You want that lobster, drop it in the pot. Chicken? If you can’t chop its head off, don’t eat it. Now I don’t mean you should chop a chicken’s head off every time you want a sandwich, I’m just saying you should be able to. It’s about being responsible for your desires and actions.

The hospice nurse is here now. She’s a Sikh. She’s dressed in while robes and a flowing white turbin. If Teddy where to awake right now, I think she’d fear the worse!

Teddy’s kids are back, at either side of the bed. They look young in the situation. It is a deeply memorable visual, to see two daughters on either side of their dying mother. It is a triangle of motherhood, a shape of time and the end of time. My aunt is saying “we love you so much” and she is crying.

Dorothy, Teddy’s neighbor, is up in the next curtain. She is thirsty. “I peed,” she says to the room. “I didn’t pee much”. We tell her it’s OK and go call somebody. A man shuffles by the door “Am I walking better?” he says to the hall.

The daughters are talking about medical records, “1994 Normohydrochephelous 1994. Glaucoma in 1995.” I can’t help but think that this is not the place to discuss the patient. Maybe outside?

I sit amid this sadness writing this while it happens. It is my way of dealing and it works for me. Before everyone came in I took a photo of Teddy dying. This is my way; to record and share so she is remembered and I feel like I did what I could.

Some guy down the hall just couched so loudly and violently that I’m getting overwhelmed. Deep breath. A son is loudly saying “hello papa” in Spanish. This is good.

Life is hard. We should try not to make it harder, ever. We should strive to help, to calm, to support, and not to let our own issues make things worse. When things are bad, it’s all our jobs to say they are bad, feel the feeling and then strive to make them better. Isn’t this the prime directive? To make the struggle as good as possible?

Day 2

February 10th, 1999

The hospice folks have her on more drugs. Teddy lies in bed, mouth open, breathing loudly. She moans in pain now and then, but much less. She looks smaller today.

The IV just started beeping. I thought she was going to die, but she didn’t. I want to take all the tubes out and carry her into the sun. She would be light carry. But she would be loud. I wish I could gently wheel her bed outside, maybe in the shade. I with I could gather the family, wheel her outside, all hold hand, and let her die.

Her roommate Dorothy is sleeping as well. I wonder why this sleeping thing happens, this endless rest. Is the body conserving energy, trying to still live? Is Teddy such a fighter that she’s still fighting? Does it matter what culture you grew up in? Or how you view death? If you were not scared, and ready to go, would you go quicker then Teddy and Dorothy who sleep in front of me?

I had to walk down the hall for a minute, overwhelmed. Old half-blind men walk sideways with nurses help. Some folks are with canes trucking around. TVs are on. A man drools in a wheel chair. I see in him a proud WWII soldier, strong and dangerous. Now a cat could kill him.

I can’t help but think that ideally these folks would be around young people at this point. Maybe this is me wanting to avoid death. Now I’m getting depressed again. It’s just hard to be around this.

I don’t like IVs. This fucking water sack is just prolonging things I think. What if she’s not thursty? And oxygen? The air is fine. I’m getting mad. I wonder why?

OK, time to go? For what is sure to be last time. Am I ready to leave her?

Interesting that I think now of living with her in 1993 for a month. She was hard to live with, ran a tight ship. She also knew what was going on everywhere with all the kids at the beach we were at in Connecticut. She loved her beach house. All the women would come up there with the kids while the father’s worked in NYC and visited on the weekends.

There is a certain caustic sense of humor with Teddy. Wry, biting and always funny. She taught me to try and say what you mean, and that what you think is probably right, especially about people. Don’t waste time trying to justify against your gut.

She taught me to keep the seat down and pee on the side of the toilet bowl by the water when at a guests house to keep from making a lot of noise. She wanted me to be an engineer, because the work was good and you always had a job. She liked money and wanted me to make it, but she was just as glad if I was in school trying to become a professor. One of the two though.

The nurse came in to feed her. Or to try. I said she hasn’t been eating. The nurse said that this morning she looked at her and was awake, and recognizes her and even ate a little. I was sleeping in. Can’t fucking believe it. I should have known to come in early. Ahhh, anger again.

The doctor just came in. An outside one that is our family doctor. She is a young woman and is dressed in jeans and sandles. She asks me if we’re OK with her passing. I have to speak for the family. I think for a mintue and say yes. She is worse this doctor says, a new heart murmur. But since she’s a fighter she said this could go on for a long time.

And so before I leave I must sit and look at this old woman fighting death to the last breath, and at the same time starving herself.

I see in her the fight that is in all of us. The unstoppable machine that keeps us stumbling forward. There is a machine in our body of a machine. This machine has only one job, to keep going, to keep the systems functioning. It does not rhyme or reason, there is no time. This machine works while unconcious, blinded by panic, asleep, sometimes it even works while dead and brings one back.

An image comes into my mind of what I am doing.

Deep space. An old space ship on auto pilot with a dead crew floats in the void. This ship in space, this vessel of a body and mind crippled by age, this ship, I have come to visit in my own ship. I can’t leave my ship though. I have to cruise up beside it and just look. I can only hope that this dying ship will still have sensors working on a basic level, and that the logs will record my ship being here.

And I must head home after bidding my goodbye in space. I stare out my portal window of consciousness and say goodbye to the drifting ship. The glass and walls between us makes my words only for my ears, but I came and was here for the record, my record.

Teddy just woke a little with moan. A loud one. I got real close to her face and said “Teddy, it’s Caleb. I’ve come to say goodbye and that I love you.” and she opened her eyes. They were very groggy and not responsive though, but she did look in my direction while she shook her hands and tried to get the tubes out of her nose.

I’m having trouble leaving. Then, the a hospice women comes in. She is nice and has a warm smile. She ups Teddy’s pain medicine and goes to talk with her nurse. I see my chance to leave while she is being cared for. A chance to leave without leaving her alone. I go into the hall and find the hospice person, “I’m leaving,” I say, “I just came to say goodbye, thank you for taking care of her.” She pats me on the shoulder.

I head back to Teddy’s room thinking that this is enough for me.

Time to kiss her leathery forehead one more time and go.

Epilog:

By my mother, Molly Clark

February 12th, 1999.

I went to see the Rabbi this afternoon and am so glad that I did. I wish you could have gone with me, as he clarified some issues for me and calmed my mind.

You know I’ve been very concerned about the possibility of Teddy dying alone, without one of us there, but it seems that often people choose to do that (to spare others, like a good Jewish mother, or for whatever reason). It just happens, as if the dying person had been waiting for everyone to leave. No need to feel eternal guilt, then, about not being there.

We talked about the need for honesty and truth, and how being without the truth may be the loneliest place of all. About how important it is to tell Teddy directly (hearing being the last sense to go) that she is dying, that it is time for an end to pain and suffering, and that it is ok to let go, that we love her very much and always have. That we will be alright. I’ve been so afraid of using the ‘d’ word, afraid, I guess, that if I say it, it will happen. But I’m definitely no longer in control of the situation, and her dying isn’t up to me, it’s up to her. This is the opportunity to speak honestly and truthfully, about something important…I don’t think there has been a lot of honesty between me and my parents for a very long time.

When I told Nahum that it seemed selfish to me to do what would help ME, he said that it is a mistake to believe that if one does something for oneself, it takes away from another person.

He said that there is no dementia of the soul, and that somewhere inside, Teddy is clear and with God. That death is what makes life so precious. There’s a part of the Yom Kippur service where we are asked if we would accept eternal life if it meant that no babies would be born, and of course the answer is no.

When Teddy does die, we will have a service at the temple, on the bima before the Torah; will honor her with our memories of her, and say the Hebrew prayers, including the Kaddish. Will light a candle for 7 days, and I will say Kaddish every week (preferably at the temple) on Friday night for a year. The Kaddish, by the way, extols God and never mentions death. I can send you a copy…

So, I went and told Teddy much of the above, and pray that she heard me. I continue to sing songs in Yiddish. I felt able to do this because my discussion with the Rabbi, and I am grateful that he was there for me. I hope that this helps you too, as I know this is a difficult time.

2 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Allen Cohen
Allen Cohen

I came across this while looking for the usability template. I am taking a couple deep breathes. This is so insightful, moving and beautiful. I can't find more words to describe what I am feeling. Thank you for writing it.

Vivienne Coutant
Vivienne Coutant

This is very moving Caleb. I too stayed with my Grandmother as she slowly died. You have captured something very special. Thank You.