The Hardest Thing

The hardest thing about moving to another country is the distance. That may seem obvious, but I’ll explain. When you’ve made the decision to spend such a big portion of your life so far away from your family, there’s always the possibility that something serious will happen and you’ll be called back. Or that you won’t make it in time. I write these words as I sit at my old desk, in my old room in good old New York City. Friday I was on an airplane for nine hours. Three days before that I didn’t even know I was coming. One phone call, a hastily booked flight, and a couple of stressful days later, here I am.

What am I doing here? Well that’s hard to talk about. My beloved grandmother—the one we thought would outlive us all with the sheer force of her strong opinions, embarrassing questions, and astonishing loudness—is dying of lung cancer. Even writing the word “dying” is difficult, and I realize I’ve avoided saying it for fear of sounding dramatic. Or perhaps for fear of having to deal with the sympathy of others. I never knew how to respond to a simple “I’m sorry” or “our thoughts are with you,” and with the few people I’ve told and heard that from, I haven’t known how to reply. When they say “I’m sorry” I almost want to say “what for?” After all, my grandmother is about to turn 90. (She may make it another two months until she does, but my parents wanted to be sure I got to see her just in case—a decision I fully agree with.) She is not lucky to be dying, but she is lucky to have lived. I think she knows this, hope she knows this, and it is a sentiment I share with her in ways that become more and more apparent: How lucky to have lived. How lucky to be alive.

They live in New Jersey just across the river. In fact, I can see it from my window, and they can see my house from theirs. I hadn’t been to the apartment in years, and it was a strange feeling, getting reacquainted with all the photographs, the paintings, the pictures on the wall I had done for them—badly—at age three. We used to go over there all the time when I—and they—were younger. Grandma would serve plates of cut vegetables on the balcony, and we would eat them looking at the cars passing on the George Washington Bridge, or down at the swimming pool where we would later take a dip. Sometimes we would come over in the evenings and have a big dinner along with apple pie that my grandfather always ate with cheddar cheese. One of the most “famous” pictures I ever drew was of the six of us—mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, sister, and me—sitting around a table and raising our glasses to my birthday, however old I was. Wandering around their small but packed apartment now is like exploring a lifetime through objects. There are so many photographs of my mother and father, when they got married, with the two of us their children, and so many others of my grandparents—looking different through the ages in each one, but always together and smiling.

What do we do when one of us dies? What do spouses do when it appears their other half won’t last much longer? In my grandfather’s case, it involves looking at those objects and pictures on the wall, asking us if we might want them—acknowledging that they’ll all soon be finding new homes, if not this year than in the next five or ten. This is his process, his way of coping. In my case, it’s sitting on my grandmother’s bed with her smooth, cool hand in mine, trying to assure her that she matters—has mattered to me—greatly. It is difficult to see her there, for the first time without her makeup, her fancy clothes, her crazy accessories and jewelry I used to have so much fun with as a child.

It is hard to look at her barely able to sit up in bed, barely able to speak. I wish I could read her more closely, because I can’t tell whether she is content or restless, in pain or merely just tired. She has this look on her face, with the corners of her mouth turned down and her eyes closed as if in a permanent sigh, of a kind of disappointment. It isn’t resignation yet, but that will come soon too I presume. When I think of myself dying one day in the future, the only thing that scares me is that I will not have gotten to do all the things I wanted to. I wonder if she feels the same. After all, she married at 23, traveled the world, had two children. But she came from a generation where women relied on their husbands, didn’t have careers. She went to college and was an educated woman, but she didn’t get to use that the way her daughter did. Women were educated to find husbands; not to become doctors like my father, or run museums like my mother. I wonder, as I sit there watching her face for slight twitches and changes, signs that she wants water or perhaps wants to speak, if she can be happy or proud about the way it all went. Are a loving husband, and two children, and two grandchildren enough, or would she have done more, if only she had been born thirty years later?

At one point, when everyone else had left the room to prepare lunch, I took her hand and asked her to open her eyes and look at me. “Thank you,” I said, “for being such a big part of our lives. Even when we were too busy to notice, even when we were teenagers and didn’t want you there, even when you were loud and annoying and opinionated as you always have been” (and, I thought secretly, as I wish I could still see you now). There was a slight change in her face, the corners of her mouth at last not turning down but up in a smile. “It was a pleasure,” she whispered. “It was a blessing. It was heaven.”

That was all I would ever know.