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In Her Last Hour of Life, My Grandmother Told Her Story

My sister and I sat with my grandmother while she lay dying a few months ago. Against her pale skin, freckled and dotted with beauty marks, I laid my arm.
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My sister and I sat with my grandmother while she lay dying a few months ago.

She was incapacitated from the heart attack and subsequent surgery she had gone through in the week before. Her eyes were closed, her face sallow and transformed by the drugs that were staving off the pain. We sat on either side of her, my sister and I, each of us holding a hand. On the starched white of the hospital pillow, her curly, reddish hair was matted.

Against her pale skin, freckled and dotted with beauty marks, I laid my arm. Our coloring was identical, the marks of deeply rooted Irish blood. For a while, I ran my hands along her arm, ice cold and papery thin. It made me feel proud to carry a piece of her likeness in my own skin.

Despite the trauma of her surgeries, and the physical decline of her body in the last few years, her mind was still sharp as a whip, even in those last hours. She pushed through her exhaustion, and said goodbye to each one of us -- six children, 20 grandchildren, and countless others -- in her own way, which meant that she deflected attention away from herself by asking us questions.

"How's the writing?" she asked me. "Any new ideas?" she said to my sister, who was always inventing something: neodymium magnet shoe adornments, necklaces made out of cloth and glue, bags with hidden pockets. I was the first out of twenty grandchildren, so for that reason (perhaps alone), I held a special place. But my sister had been one of her favorites. "I always loved the trouble makers," she whispered to her. "You're a beautiful angel."

As we talked, I cried and cried and cried. "Stop crying," my sister had told me earlier in the day, as we squabbled on the subway, on the long ride to the last stop on the D train, to Montefiore hospital in the Bronx, where the ghosts of my parents, and their parents before them, haunted the streets of the old Irish neighborhood. "You look like a complete idiot when you cry."

But as my grandmother spoke to her, my sister cried too, her eyes brimmed over and red-lidded. "Are you in any pain?" we asked her.

"No, no," she told us. My grandmother had never complained a day in her life, despite all of the hardships she had endured, and she wasn't about to start on her deathbed. "I'm sorry," she had told the doctor who had performed her surgery earlier in the day. "I'm sorry you're doing all of this work, and I'm not fighting hard enough to stay alive."

But she wasn't all melodrama either. She had a wicked sense of humor. Her death was marked, to the very end, by a lot of laughter.

"Are you hot, ma?" My uncle had asked her earlier that morning.

"Not as hot as I'm gonna be," she quipped back.

She was just ready to go. She was done with this life.

She had lived as well as she could, she had traveled the world, she had worked hard, and she had been loved unconditionally by the large family she left behind: her children, and her grandchildren, and the one great-grandson who was just old enough to call her "Ma." By her remaining brothers and sisters, whom she had dropped out of school at 13 to raise after her mother died, and her father had disappeared with a bottle of whiskey onto the Bowery.

"Are you afraid?" I said, my voice ragged.

"I'm not, honey, I'm really not," she said. "I'm going home to my Michael. I've missed him for 50 years."

My sister and I looked at each other. Michael was my grandfather, who had died very suddenly right after my father was born. My grandmother had never spoken of him to us. In fact, she never spoke about him to anyone. My dad grew up, became an adult and had his own family not knowing more than his father's name. He didn't even know what he looked like. When he was very young, there been a fire in the apartment where they lived, and every photograph had been destroyed.

For her to speak of him now, on her deathbed, to my sister and I alone, was shocking.

"Did you love him?" I asked.

"Very much," she said through labored breaths. She didn't say more. She didn't say that she had never gotten over him. Her long silence spoke volumes and volumes of longing, self-contained in a woman who had trouble saying the words 'I love you' even to her own grandchildren.

"How did you meet him?" I asked her, a bit for myself, but mostly for my father, who wouldn't have the chance to ask. "Oh, he lived in the neighborhood," she said, referring to the Willis Avenue area of the Bronx. "The neighborhoods were different then. Everyone knew everyone."

"When did you fall in love?"

"I fell in love with him the second I saw him," she said, simply.

If I had ever stopped crying, I would have started again.

"Even when I was so angry at him, he would make me laugh," she continued. "He was so funny. A gambler. He was a lot of trouble, but he was a lot of fun."

"Like our father?" my sister said hopefully, wanting to forge the connection between this invisible man and our own dad, and through our own dad, to us. My sister had been (and sometimes still is) a lot of trouble. Deep down, I think that she is afraid that no one loves her because of it.

"What did he do?" I asked.

"He was a bartender," and then unsolicited she added: "We'd go to the Botanic Gardens a lot. We had picnics."

I suddenly imagined her, this woman who was dying before me, so young and beautiful and happy. On a lawn, with a blanket. Wearing a sundress. Laughing at my faceless grandfather's antics. Full of hope at the life they would lead together.

The sorrow of that loss is something I cannot even imagine.

"How old were you when you married him?" I asked.

"Twenty-two," she said.

"So young," I mused. I thought about my own mother, who had been 22 when she had me, living with my father on the combined salaries of a nurse and a gas station attendant. Without the constant generosity of my grandmother, who came to see me every day, bearing gifts of toilet paper, food and warm clothing, I don't know if they would have survived my first year.

"I miss him so much," she repeated.

And then she closed her eyes. "Oh God," she said.

For a while after, we fell silent.

To hear this, from a woman so stoic and independent, was beyond words. A woman who had raised six children alone, on a waitress's salary, until her knees gave out underneath her. A woman who never seemed to grieve, never grew bitter, despite the trials that had been hurled at her by God. He had never made anything easy for her, and she had never appeared to believe in him too much, until the moment of her passing.

And then he had given her peace, a fearless death, and an assurance that after this life ended, she could return to the place where it had broken, and mend it. She could see her true love again, as she remembered him, and they could continue those afternoons in the Botanic Gardens indefinitely.

Death wasn't a black void for her. It was a return to the moments of her best memories -- partially fabricated as memories tend to be -- that for a long time gave her the will to live, and then, on her final morning, the will to die.

A few minutes later, my uncles and aunts began to drift back into the room, and my final hour with my grandmother was over. I kissed her on the cheek, which was like my cheek, and said goodbye for the last time.

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