My Last Visit with My Last Grandparent

I didn’t know it at the time, but April 11th, 2015 marked my last visit with my last grandparent.

Joseph Achtman (Zaida) died two weeks later, and I am so grateful not only for my final visit with him, but also that I took the time to journal about our visit right after the fact.

Here is an excerpt from exactly what I wrote in April 2015.

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Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.

Chasing Memories

This evening a friend of mine shared with me about how she had led what she described as “a pretty death-free life” until the death of her grandmother.

Since my friend was a already adult when her grandmother passed away, this experience led her to make a few observations.

First, she noted that this grandmother, who had been a quiet, trusted presence in the family until the end of her life, was somewhat taken for granted by the other family members who presumed that this matriarch would somehow always be there.

Then, when she passed away, my friend said, “She became her whole life. Suddenly, everyone was pulling out family photos and trying to piece together the narrative of her early life. She became 5-year-old her, and 20-year-old her, and wedding day her, etc. seemingly all at once.”

The other realization my friend had was about all of the things that she didn’t know about her grandmother; her grandmother’s death became a reckoning for what my friend had and hadn’t taken the time to learn about her.

After losing a loved one, many people wish that they had taken the time to interview the person, to ask certain probing questions that never seemed urgent before, and to really capture a person’s story in their own words.

Accordingly, think of those you love the most and set out to encounter them in their depth and to record this encounter through writing, audio, or video. In the future, you may be very grateful for having done so, but the activity will also present the occasion for an encounter of depth during the relationship while you are both alive.

Photo: Screenshot from an hourlong video interview of my Zaida telling the story of how he came to Canada from Poland in 1937.

A Feast of Encounter between Generations

“When anxiety was great within me,
    your consolation brought me joy.”
– Psalm 94:19

Today Christians celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord commemorating when Jesus was brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph.

About this feast, Pope Francis says:

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Emails from the Dead

Some years ago, I dreamt that my mom began receiving emails from my grandfather. They arrived sporadically because they had been auto-scheduled by him to be delivered to us on different dates in the future after his death. For fun, he used a pseudonym formed from aspects of his early life. The electronic letters always included at least one of the humorously crass jokes he’d so delight in telling at the dinner table, especially when clergy were over for dinner. The letters mentioned each of us in turn; first, my mom, then me, then my brother, then my dad. Every time an email of this nature would arrive, my family would all gather around my mom’s computer to read it as if it were “news” for us. Even though the email letters always had the same style and structure – a few jokes, some affirmations of our respective courses in life, and a reminder of his love, receiving them as emails made them seem exciting; we had no idea how many epilogues there would be.