For a very long time, I stood straddling my cabin’s floor heater trying to decide. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to honor my sister, the bride, and my future brother-in-law, but attending their wedding meant contact also with my mother from whom I had been estranged.
The promise to myself that I would visit my grandmother at the Hebrew Home for the Aged got me down the eighty-three steps, through the trees to the road, and on a plane flying east.
From the airport I drove directly to see Grandma, recalling the vintage photograph of her holding me as an infant, both of us smiling in the bright summer sunlight.
I found my grandmother asleep in a chair by the Nurses’ Station where she had been waiting for me to arrive. I bent down to wake her gently, and she stood to greet me. When she spoke, though she had become fluent in English soon after arriving in America many years before, I realized immediately that it was in a language I didn’t recognize. In these first moments, and throughout the afternoon I spent with her, she didn’t seem to be aware that we were speaking different languages. She was animated and chatted gaily while we walked and she showed me all around. In her own room, she pointed one-by-one to family photos arranged on her dresser, recounting to me, it seemed, a recollection about each. Later her words sounded tender and amused as we watched from a balcony a cat walking across the lawn in the late afternoon light. Standing so close together there that I could feel her warmth, I couldn’t understand her words, but somehow I could their meaning.
From a nurse I learned that over time my grandmother had had a series of small strokes. Was the language she was speaking, I wondered, a combination of Polish and of Yiddish, the languages she had spoken as a child.
I didn’t want to leave her, but I knew that I would soon be late for my sister’s wedding. At the Nurses’ Station again, I embraced her, and told her that I was very glad that I had come. I wanted her to know also, I said, that I loved her very much. She looked at me, and then in the only words in English she was able to speak to me that afternoon, she said, “I love you too”.
I believe that it is our desire to be in relationship with one another whether realized, wished-for, or denied that defines us, and, given an opportunity and our willingness to be vulnerable and to try, that desire can, it remains my hope, transcend disabilities, both named and unnamed – even perhaps a grandmother’s neurological impairment, or a mother’s limited capacity for attachment, a consequence of childhood trauma, loss and fear, or a granddaughter’s estrangement born not of anger, but of disappointment, of longing, and of love.