grandma's passing

the ski-man

While decorating their house for Christmas one year, Grandpa curiously eyed a little ski-man figurine. It didn’t match any of the other decorations and we have no idea where it came from. Grandpa walked around the living room, trying to find the best spot for this interesting little piece. He wandered into the kitchen, absently flipping the ski-man over in his hand. His eyes scoured the room and finally settled on the perfect spot.

He pulled a chair out from under the table and moved it over to the door. Climbing up on the chair, Grandpa reached up and placed the ski-man on the edge of the door frame. Quite pleased with himself, he showed Grandma his shining moment of holiday decorating.

After Christmas came and went and the New Year was adequately rung in with Dick Clark, the decorations got boxed up and stored away---well, everything but the ski-man. He stayed right where he was, perched high in the kitchen---where everything happens in an Italian home.

From his high and lofty seat, the ski-man saw my dad and uncle grow up, watched my brothers and I make forts, peered down on a sad family when Grandpa passed away. He saw my dad move back in when my parents separated, witnessed the unceasing prayers of my Grandma, and looked down on loud family gatherings around an overly-full table.

Saturated with the history of our family, the ski-man moved with Grandma down to Florida fifteen years ago. He found himself atop a new door, in a new place, but he remained a constant in our ever-changing lives.

When Gram moved in with my uncle five years ago, the ski-man moved with her but didn’t get elevated to his usual position. Maybe no one offered to climb up and do it; maybe she didn’t want to ask someone for help. Maybe she felt he’d lived a long and full life and didn’t need to be burdened with the job of “family overseer” anymore. I don’t know the reason, but the ski-man was never seen again.

Moments after my Gram passed away, my Dad got Niel on the phone. I walked back into Gram’s bedroom to talk to him. As I talked and cried, I paced around her room, looking at pictures and familiar mementos. I dug through the little bowls and boxes on her dresser, finding treasures and buttons and rosaries. In a small, open basket made of popsicle sticks lay the ski-man. I gasped and scooped him up.

I flipped him around in my hand the whole time I talked on the phone, finding a strange sense of comfort in his presence.

My family came into Gram’s bedroom to check on me. As I got off the phone, I opened my hand and showed them my discovery. Every eye filled with tears as we passed the ski-man around. We decided my older brother should have him. So he flew back to New York with us.

I’m sure you can guess where he put him.

like gram

Ways I am like my Grandma:

  • She was short.
  • People always noticed her smile.
  • She could eat a surprising amount.
  • She was immensely sentimental.
  • She'd do anything for those she loved.
  • She didn't usually have a lot to say.
  • She remembered people's birthdays.
  • She disliked playing games she knew she'd lose.
  • She was a giver.
  • She rather enjoyed sitting indoors on a sunny day.

My beautiful Grandma...

Ways I want to be more like my Grandma:

  • She consistently displayed the fruit of the Spirit.
  • She made the best pot of sauce and meatballs.
  • She didn't care about material things---at all.
  • She had the patience of a saint.
  • She prayed faithfully.
  • She persevered with joy through every trial.
  • She wasn't afraid to let people see her cry.
  • She loved tirelessly, even when it hurt.
  • She remembered everything.
  • She rarely spoke negatively about anyone.
  • She drank a glass of red wine every night with dinner.

i'm the rock?

About the time that my Grandma passed away, I should have been driving my Dad to the airport for his flight back to New York. As soon as I could think clearly enough, I told my Dad we had to change his flight before he missed it. He was a mess (understandably) and couldn't wrap his mind around that task just yet. I jumped online and took care of it for him, delaying his return by a few days. My younger brother was scheduled to leave the following morning. In light of the situation, he wanted to change his ticket too, to stay a few days longer. He squeezed my arm gently. "Can you help me with this? I just can't think straight to deal with it right now." Of course. Ten minutes later, he had his new itinerary in hand.

A while later my older brother came over and hugged me. "Would you please help mom with the funeral arrangements and everything over the next few days. I don't know how to do any of that stuff." "I don't either; I don't even live in this country. But of course I'll help her." He looked me in the eye and said, "I could figure it all out if I needed to, but I'm just having a hard time with all this and I know I won't be able to really focus on it." "No problem..."

It was only as I cried in bed that night (or was it the next night?), that I put all those situations together in my mind, and I felt perplexed. I'm the rock?! For about an hour that day, my entire family had cried together. We'd hugged; we'd sobbed. All of us were hurting and broken. I don't know why I was the one they came to---even just for logistical help. Whatever gave them the impression that I'm the rock?!

Maybe it's true that, more often than not, others see in me things that I don't.

six-minute sunday: sick and tired


I slept for 33 of the last 36 hours. I can’t remember the last time I was this sick. So this is a little late, Hombre, but since I'm still sick, I figure I scored myself a few extra minutes to write this overdue Four-Minute Friday.

Leaving Florida was sad, although a bit muted by not feeling well. It had been an emotional and crazy week, and I was glad to be leaving. Yet at the same time, boarding that plane was like peeling back a new layer of grief.

I still can’t believe that within 24 hours of Gram’s passing, we were already sorting through her stuff, making piles of things to keep, donate, or throw away. I wish we didn’t need to do it so rushed; it felt like we’d dwindled her life down to trash bags. I know it was only because of the circumstances, but still…

I’m trying to forget the worst parts of that day, those moments, and only hold onto the beautiful ones. (It’s a hard task.) My prayers really were answered. I'm so glad I was in America and could be with Gram and my family. I know you and I talked a handful of times over the years about something like this happening; you knew I'd want to be with my family if it were at all possible. It was a priceless gift that I was able to be with Gram for her last few days.

I’d even asked people to pray with me that Gram would go when we were all with her so that she’d be “surrounded by our love and wrapped in His peace”. And that’s exactly what happened.

God was good to me. And to Gram. I can’t imagine that she’d wanted to go any other way.

I’m so grateful she was never hospitalized; she never suffered from any long illness. I’m glad we didn’t have to call the list of hospices we’d compiled that morning or convince Gram to use any of the “old age supplies” we’d just purchased. She was strong until the very end.

I miss her.

I miss you.



When we arrived at my grandma’s house Sunday morning, I realized I forgot my sweater at the hotel. I’m always cold in air-conditioning. “Go get a sweater from my room," Gram said. Just like old times, I wore a hug from Gram all day.

After a while, she said she was tired. She got herself comfy on the couch. With her favorite daytime television shows providing easy-listening background noise, she nodded off. We ran out to do some errands.

When we got home a few hours later, Gram was still asleep. I checked on her a few times as we unpacked bags, making sure her chest was rising and falling.

When I came into the living room to check again, she started to open her eyes. “Gram?” She winced a bit and reached out her hand. I sat next to her on the couch, holding her hand in mine and talking to her. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking past me, through me.

Gram mumbled something. I think it was in Italian; I wish I knew what she said. She squeezed my hand. I knew what was happening. Her labored breathing and unfocused eyes seemed to make it evident.

I called my mom, and she gathered the family.

With all of us---her children and grandchildren---surrounding her, Gram was smothered in love. We held her, prayed over her, and thanked her. She mumbled again.

And exhaled one last time.

I held Gram tightly and told her I love her. Amid my sobs, all I could think was, I wonder what Grandpa said to her. And I wonder what she was saying to him…”


Sitting around the dining room table, conversation flows as easily as the wine and espresso does. I tell Gram that Niel is taking me to Palermo, Sicily---her hometown---in October for our wedding anniversary. Her face lights up. Her eyes shine; her smile spreads slowly across her face. I wish I could see the slideshow of memories that seems to pass through her mind in that instant. “That trip will be so wonderful! I’m so glad you’re going.”

Naturally, Gram starts reminiscing about life in Palermo. She spent the first thirteen years of her life there (1913-1926) before emigrating to America. Life back then was simple but hard; they didn’t have much, but they were content. As a child, Gram walked a few blocks to the bakery at the end of each day with a pot full of beans or lentils. After the bakery closed, customers could bring in food to cook in the already-hot bread ovens. Gram describes the smell of the bakery, the long walk with the heavy pot (“Thankfully the baker would add the water to the pot, so it wasn't that heavy."), and how their food always tasted better cooked in the bakery.

I've never heard any of this before.

Gram switches gears and talks about Grandpa. He died when I was only three; the memories I have of him are really just memories of the pictures I’ve seen. They met on the bus; Gram dropped her handkerchief and he picked it up for her. She was forty years old when they met and married. The year of their thirtieth wedding anniversary, Grandpa died suddenly. Gram talks a lot about that day. “I can’t believe we went to Canada and he lost his life there.” Grandpa worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which made him exempt from fighting in the war. He enlisted in the Marines anyway. He fought in the infamous Battle of Peleliu, where 1500 Marines (in his division) walked onto the island and only 300 walked off. Grandpa, of course, was one of them. He survived that, but not a weekend in Canada…

“He’s been waiting for me a long time,” Gram says. She looks lost in thought; she stares over our heads. “I wonder what he’ll say to me when he sees me. And I wonder what I’ll say to him.” She sits in silence as she ponders the unfolding scene. Her eyes well up with tears.

Mine do, too---I can’t help it.

now i feel old

"You better come down to Florida and say your goodbyes.” Even though Gram is ninety-five, those words felt like a punch in the gut. We booked tickets, not knowing what to expect when we arrived.

When I saw my grandma three months ago, she was the same as she’s always been. We spent over an hour walking around the grocery store, she made “black coffee” (espresso) old-fashioned style on the stove for her and Niel, she regaled us with stories (old and new), she laughed, and her beautiful smile never left her face.

Last week Gram was treated for extreme dehydration. The doctor told her that her kidneys and heart are beginning to fail; he said he could run some tests to find out what’s wrong with her heart. “I’m old, that’s what’s wrong.” She declined tests; she signed a Do Not Resuscitate order.

When we arrived on Saturday, Gram looked pallid. Pale. Fragile. She needs to use her walker to get around the house; she gets out of breath just talking. It hurts my heart to see her suddenly looking her age. “I never felt old,” she said, "until just a few weeks ago. Now I feel old.” Her ninety-five years caught up with her fast.

She rubbed her hands incessantly. “My fingers are cold, but inside they’re sizzling.” She showed us her swollen feet. “I’ve never had that happen before. After so many years, you’d think I’d have experienced everything by now. At least I’m still experiencing new things, even if it’s swollen feet.” Her attitude, despite her frailty and discomfort, is astounding.

Aside from giving birth to her sons, Gram has never been hospitalized.

That night she was feeling pretty down about suddenly feeling her age. Yet, she was so happy to see all of us. She still talked and laughed, same as always. When my dad teased her, like he usually does, she responded with her typical sarcastic, “Yeah…” She slapped Dad’s arm when he poked fun of her; she was in her element.

Gram said over and over again how wonderful it is to have us all together. Her happiness was visible in her face, in her eyes, in her smile.

She just realized that she is indeed ninety-five. But she’s also fully aware just how rich and full her ninety-five-year life actually is.