October 20, 2015 by Katia
To my grandma on the eve of what would have been her ninety fourth birthday.
I don’t know what it is about bedtime. Maybe it’s that quiet time of day that welcomes contemplation. A time for withdrawing inward and staring at your fears. Maybe it’s the sheer visual likeness between sleep and death, but time after time as I lie down in bed with him my six year-old son will bring up my mortality and occasionally his own. Sometimes he’ll hold back his tears, because he’s a big, six year-old boy and sometimes he’ll succumb to them whimpering softly or sobbing inconsolably.
Last night I saw the signs. His voice became so tiny, it felt like I was witnessing his inner dialogue, the words came out of his mouth rapid and slurry then all of a sudden loud and clear, even if choked:
but I never want to lose the feeling of his hand! And I never want to lose your cuddle!
He would be so sad, he explained to me fighting back tears and occasionally losing, if he ever forgot what his parents felt like.
But here’s the thing. You never forget that!
So I told him about Babushka Tala’s hands.
My grandma passed away last December when she was ninety three. Before experiencing loss, I read my fair share of accounts of others on how they’ve dealt with loss and grief. A recurring detail in some of those stories was the grainy quality and gradual blurriness that much too quickly takes over your memories, initially playing in your head on an HD screen. You start forgetting what the voice of the person you’re grieving sounds like. Some would mention forgetting facial expressions or even certain features. It made loss seem like an active, ongoing process. I now know that indeed I have to struggle some days to resurrect Babushka’s voice unique as it was — naturally low and fuelled by a lifetime of smoking, the subject of endless internal family jokes. Anecdotes about her don’t pour out of me on demand, when my six-year-old asks for an entertaining story about his great grandma. But I am haunted by the touch of her hands.
The sensation of those firm fingers visits me unexpectedly, like a ghost, and brings me much comfort.
What were her hands like? He asks.
Strong, I tell him, firm.
Unapologetic. Unlike her. Her touch was reassuring. It promised stability, even if she never believed in it herself.
Maybe they were a reflection of her biography, in a way. Withered. Sturdy. They were a vehicle channeling her different attributes: a lit up cigarette, a pen and notebook jotting down sarcastic thoughts, holding a book for hours, holding the phone to her ear as she worriedly dials you.
You know, Babushka Tala had healing hands, I remember all of a sudden.
When I was a little girl and she’d put me to sleep, if I ever complained about any pain, she’d place her hand over it. I remember her hand on my tummy. I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion, I tell him in not so many words, but it always worked. He immediately takes it to the superhero realm, and I calmly walk him back to Tel-Aviv in the 1980s.
Although, she must have had some real power, as she was able to stop her own bleeding and would always tell us about it proudly.
His eyes widen as things get so much cooler all of a sudden.
See, I told you how I’ve always had cats growing up and all of our cats, for some unknown reason, had real passion for Babushka Tala’s hands. Her hands were a cat magnet and unfortunately they used to scratch them, bite them, scrape them, you name it. Babushka would then stare at her own hands and make them stop bleeding.
He is satisfied now. He wants to hear stories about ways that Babushka Tala was funny and again I struggle a bit but come up with some examples. How do you explain sarcasm and self deprecation to a six-year-old? Before he falls asleep he asks to look at a picture of the two of them together on one of our visits back home and I tell him that in the morning, I will show him one.
But there’s also another picture. One that I don’t tell him of.
The last picture of Baba Tala and me together. It was taken at the hospital when I flew back home to see her, when we thought we were about to lose her, three months before she died. When I walked into the hospital room she was firmly grasping the metal railing of her bed. And I was flooded with memories of grasping hands. Babushka holding that little handle above the passenger seat’s side window in the car, something I’ve never seen anyone else do. I remember her hands grasping the sides of her hospital bed years earlier, when she’d broken her hip for the first time. Always grasping. Maybe that was her looking for stabiity.
When I last saw her, Babushka Tala wandered between sleep and wakefulness, both startlingly similar. When our eyes met her face would light up and shine and then she would stare into something unknown and wander back into sleep, seamlessly, always holding my hand.