Around this time of year, I always think about my grandmother. She had an autumn birthday and she’d often come to stay with us just as the leaves started to fall. She’d take me on long nature walks as I gathered falling leaves, twigs and pebbles in an empty egg carton. She even helped me catch my first silkworm, hanging onto a giant maple leaf. Autumn connects me not only to my grandmother, but to everything she represents for me.
My grandmother and I had amazing memories together. As a child, she’d always yell at me for going barefoot on the cold kitchen tiles. She didn’t want me to “ketch a kolt” as she’d say in her thick Polish accent. My grandmother made the most amazing noodle pudding and always made sure I was well-fed. Every holiday was filled with homemade chicken soup, brisket and leftovers for weeks.
My grandmother was the happiest, generous, strongest woman I’ve ever known. She was my role model, my hero, a powerhouse of a lady that connected me to my faith, my legacy, and my home. My grandmother was my hero. At 18 years old, she survived the concentration camps. She often told the story of the day she was liberated from Auschwitz. As planes flew over their heads, a soldier told her, “You’re free,” and she couldn’t even comprehend what that meant.
My grandmother was a creative soul in and out of hard times. In the camps, she survived on this creativity. The Nazis forced her to sew their uniforms because she was an amazing seamstress, which is how she was able to stay alive, along with her determined spirit and unwavering faith. Growing up, I felt this strong connection with her, although I didn’t understand the depth of her struggles as a young child. She was simply “Grandma.” She and I would take nature walks, she would sew buttons on my coat, make her delicious puddings, hug me so tightly I couldn’t breathe, and although she never liked to discuss the pain of what she went through, I could always see that depth in her eyes. My grandmother always filled our house with joy, gratitude, love and food. She always exclaimed that she “was going to dance at my wedding,” which would be her biggest pride and joy.
At 18, my grandmother was faced with life-threatening circumstances and little did I know, I would connect with her struggles so deeply. When I was 18 – a week before my high school senior prom – I randomly found myself in intense pain. I woke up six months later, only to learn that my stomach had literally burst to the top of the OR and exploded, and after both my lungs collapsed and 122 units of blood, I almost died. Here I was, suddenly displaced from my former life as a carefree, audacious, musical-theatre-loving teen, and thrust into a world of tubes, bags, beeping machines, and a world of crisis where everything became minute to minute – a fight from physical, emotional and spiritual survival.
My grandmother passed away ten years ago and it pained me deeply that I would never see her again. She passed when I was in a coma, and, understanding that waking up to the jarring reality of the ICU might be a bit of a shock, my parents chose not to tell me until months after I was eventually discharged from the hospital.
When my mother told me, I didn’t know what to think. I was too numbed by surgeries, medical interventions, and the tormenting flashbacks of sexual abuse shortly before my coma to really feel anything. Worse, I was home and not even able to have a sip of water for years, so I tried not to feel anything at all. Feeling the slightest bit of sadness, loss or any bit of human emotion might make me feel the deadliest feeling of all – hunger.
I didn’t want to think of my grandmother – I couldn’t bear the weight of her gone from my life. But I needed to feel her as a beacon of hope at a time where hope was extremely hard to find. So I decided I would take the first step to mourning my grandmother. I decided to feel again in the desperate attempt to keep any last scrap of hope alive.
My mother and I often searched for her spirit in the many seagulls that flew around our tiny house by the water. We would pray to any seagull we saw, feeling my grandmother’s presence in their glorious flight. The seagulls helped us believe in miracles, that things would get better, and that my grandmother was still with us, watching over us all in loving protection. It made us feel less afraid of what the uncertain future would bring us at a time when it was hard to keep believing in anything.
When my grandmother passed away, I didn’t lose that connection. The day I decided to really think of her, mourn my losses and cry over her legacy, that was the day I was able to incorporate her back into my life. Her spirit stayed with me and her love guided my way. Her love guided me all the way to meeting the love of my own life. This June, I added another connection of family into my life – my amazing husband.
My grandmother always told me she would dance at my wedding. And I feel her spirit guiding me more than anything – I don’t need a seagull to know that! She was there as I twirled around in the first wedding dress I tried on, and she was there as I declared my vows under the chuppah made of her own lace. The miracle is learning that she has been with me all along, watching over me and ensuring that not only did I keep my body alive, but my spirit, my will, and my heart. She is the music as we dance, the food that warms my insides, and my guidance into the unknown world of married life. And every now and then as I walk out of the new house that my husband and I now share and will spend the rest of our married lives in, I sometimes see a seagull soaring over my head.
The tears I cry now are tears of joy, of loss, of a life so well-lived and loved. I cry the tears of being alive and feeling my aliveness. Thank you Grandma for guiding me back to myself.