It is so instinctive for my grandmother to play the role of caretaker in my family that my recent trip to Odessa – which germinated as an eager desire to spend a week taking care of my бабушка following her recent emergency visit to the hospital – turned into several days of her consoling me.
Among my various qualms was the very idea of her death, the possibility of which was understandably on everyone’s mind following news of her condition. This isn’t my favorite topic of conversation. Cмерть (death, in Russian) is a word that, as if I am a two-dimensional cartoon character, just fills my cerebrum with the color black. Whichever witty writer once quipped that we mustn’t be timid to discuss death given it is “the one thing none of us will escape,” was wrong; we can’t escape all sorts of things, and the power of language is such that at the least, one can learn to escape discussing that which one cannot escape experiencing.
Yet when uncomfortable concepts are applied to reality, and the black fog of death dares dance close to someone you hold very dearly to heart, one is forced to acknowledge problems they may have otherwise been willingly blind to. Babushka’s recent bouts of illness forced me to confront that, in addition to being the chatty, ice cream loving pal I always think of her as, she is also an aging woman with health problems. So when she brought up the topic of death, I didn’t let the smog fill up my brain and instead listened carefully to what she had to say.
“Death is more painful for those who stay alive than those who die” she began, pausing to smile that reassuring smile which only fearless older ladies can give to youngsters frightened by the concept of dying. “I won’t be in any pain, just happy to be waving down to you from heaven.” She pauses again and mimes waving at me from above to illustrate her point, grin growing wider. I’m pleased to see that her sense of humor is still intact, despite the display making my skin go cold.
Changing tactics, she confides, “The thing I don’t like is open caskets, so few people look good in that last moment.” I recognize the sense of vanity which is pronounced, however unconsciously, in all the women in our family. “My mother looked very scary when she died, and that image of her was frozen in my memory. For a long time, that was the only way I could picture her face when I thought about her.”
Not immune to the vanity gene myself, I thought about this same dilemma years ago, leading me to declare a desire to be cremated when the time comes. I offer this as a potential solution for Babushka’s woes, only to see her shake her head firmly and explain that it must be an open casket funeral. “That’s the most common funeral in Ukraine,” hesitating to expand, “because of religious reasons.” She is vague largely because, like the subject of death, we don’t talk about religion. Many years ago I broke into an agitated fit, telling my grandmother off about not believing in “human beings themselves, our individual power to help and heal and better one another, rather than passively looking up to a made-up mythology who is, nonetheless, typically depicted as an old white male!” (I’m not sure whether my feminist ideas were more or less redeeming at the idealistic age of 15.) When I was finished with my sermon, she looked at me sternly for a long time, finally whispering, “it will come with age,” and the case of religion was forever closed between us.
Interestingly, my grandparents weren’t always religious. In fact it wasn’t until a similarly scary series of hospital visits endured by my дедушка over a decade ago that they began to question the power of medicine and consider the power of faith. Perhaps religion is something that comes with age, particularly when one must find a way to deal with helplessness. If that’s the case, there is still plenty of time for this atheist to evolve into a good Eastern Orthodox. I keep this thought to myself however, preferring to escape false hope and let her change the topic.
“If I am in good shape, I can live a lot longer. But there have been many days recently when my whole body hurts, all my bones scratching at each other, and I can barely get out of bed. That makes you question what sort of existence life has become.” She makes a compelling point, despite how difficult it is for me to hear it. The essayist Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece shortly before his death from cancer a few years ago; in his biting style, he questioned the parable that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. His point was along the lines of “that’s bullshit – what doesn’t kill you can still hurt terribly, and make you weaker by the day.”
Remembering this sentiment makes me suddenly aware of how selfish I have been on this visit. Naïve attempts to engage Babushka in cooking our traditional dishes, or chatting about her art, or going for walks have all been – I now realize – for my own psychological comfort. The threat of death is indeed more painful for those who have to stay alive. Thus we healthy young ones press forward like old times rather than acknowledge that our elders may no longer be in good enough physical condition to indulge our nostalgia. On this trip, I had transformed back into a five-year-old tugging at Babushka’s hand and whining for her to do cartwheels with me in the playground.
“It isn’t scary,” she says, perhaps interpreting my look of shame as one of fear, “most people act as if it is something very scary, but I have come to terms with it.” She sits in front of me on the sofa in her living room, one leg gently crossed under the other, and I see her as she must have been at my age, but confident, at peace. Prepared for whatever may come tomorrow.
It is difficult to know the gravity of my grandmother’s current state of health. There is a risk that she would need to go back to the hospital if her physical condition worsens. But assuming she continues to heal and take good care of herself, such Wednesday night chatter about death may be many years too soon. After all, my grandmother is the youngest of four sisters, two of whom are still alive and wielding impressive mental aptitudes at 87 and north of 90. Her fourth sister died earlier this year after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s, something I didn’t know she was suffering from until a phone conversation which made it clear she had no idea who was on the other line. “We didn’t want to bother you with it,” Babushka would tell me softly as I later questioned, in the angry demanding tones of youth, why nobody had given me the family headline. When she passed away, her sister had no husband or children of her own, unlike Babushka.
“Of course, the thing I worry about most is Dedushka,” she looks at her hands, fumbling. My grandfather has his own health issues – he can only see out of one eye, for one thing. “He is always bumping into things. In the summer he doesn’t wear hats when he works in the garden, so he comes back into the house with a new scratch on his head from a branch, or a bump from a ceiling.” She smiles; this time, a sad smile, an attempt to reverse any temptation to cry. I cannot bring myself to say anything mildly helpful. Having long admired how close my grandparents are – how, after so many years, they continue to dote on one another and flirt and make each other laugh – I cannot imagine either of them alone either. “Yes, he definitely needs you,” is all I muster.
Wishing to change topic, I ask her if she would do anything differently if she could age all over again. I’ve been the benefactor of various bits of her wisdom through the years and am eagerly anticipating new bits of advice. But to this she replies, simply, “no.” Looking around their apartment, which is covered with paintings (many of which she painted herself), adorned with photographs of children and grandchildren, and decorated with various statues and gifts they have collected through the years, she continues, “you know, I never envied anybody else’s life. I think this is really important, because one can waste their whole life just feeling jealous about another person’s life. If you want a different sort of life, just go and get it.”
Her mouth tightens and she is serious for a moment, before suddenly starting to laugh. “I have a friend,” she explains, “who used to spend her afternoons watching this reality show about very rich people and call me crying, literally sobbing on the phone, complaining how unfair it was that she, too, didn’t live in a castle.” I start giggling; it is a classic Babushka move to say something deeply wise and quickly follow it up with a light-hearted anecdote. “How ridiculous is that? I don’t think she tried to work a day in her life, still lives with her grown son and his whole family. What castle?!”
Once we both stop laughing, wiping tears that I suspect are from sadness as well as from the moment’s joy, she stands up and lets out a deep sigh. “That is probably enough for tonight, I think. I must have talked your head off!” Pointing to my room, where I am destined to go now that our night chat is over, she asks “what are you off to read tonight?”
The book I am reading is called The Nurture Assumption, by author Judith Rich Harris. It’s an excellent 300-something pages of psychology porn, the sort of book I love reading on holiday. But I am embarrassed to admit to my grandmother that I spend hours reading psychology books which she somehow already knows the morals to. “What is your book about?”
“It’s about how the mainstream ‘nature versus nurture’ teachings in developmental psychology are wrong,” I respond, “and that when it comes to how children develop their own identities, while genes make up around half of an individual’s identity, the other half is largely determined by socialization with peers- not the upbringing our parents give us. It turns out parents have a more limited influence on how a child develops and behaves outside the home than most believe, besides the obvious powers of feeding them, introducing them to language, and of course, giving them their genes and influencing who ends up in their peer groups in the first place. A very large portion of identity is determined by the child’s social group – the friends, classmates and peers with whom they grow and interact with in their chosen social circles.” I summarize, hoping to impress her.
“Interesting,” she says, “but I could have told you that already. I raised two daughters in similar ways, and they came out completely differently. Parents don’t have a huge influence once children are older than a few years. And of course, when children become adults, they don’t listen to your advice at all. Like you – you are beyond listening to any sort of advice from me!”
I bite my tongue, fighting the instinct to argue. The truth is that my grandmother’s words have, at various times, been hugely influential on me. However, perhaps even against what she would have desired, it isn’t because I saw her as a strict figure of authority the way I saw my mother (the way most children see their parents, according to Judith Rich Harris). If I had seen Babushka as another parent, or simply an old woman who knows nothing about what it’s like to be young these days, I doubt she would have influenced me very much at all.
However, and in the past few years in particular, I’ve rarely seen her in that light. She’s ageless – reflecting the age I am at the moment, or the age I need her to be depending on the situation I’m relaying to her. She has excellent advice which is tailored directly to me, she never fails to make me laugh, she listens with genuine interest, and she calls me out on my bullshit. Thus she has ended up, and will be for as long as possible, a part of my social circle – and this, according to Judith, makes her a pretty big part of my identity.