The Lies We Tell Our Grandmothers

As a young child, I remember that my grandmother — known to everyone as Baba — would frequently warn us she might "go soon." I listened to her platitudes on a daily basis.

"Any day now."

"It's my time soon. I can feel it."

"Jenny, I'm dying. Don't you know this?"

"I want you to have my dining room table."

Her relationship with death was an intimate one, bordering on obsession. She didn't believe in telling half-truths to soften the edges for children. It was always made clear to me, from a very young age, that some people get sick and some people just, don't.

She started saying these things at the age of 60, but didn't actually die until just after her 89th birthday. Other than chronic pain and a hint of pre-diabetes, her overall health was nearly perfect until her death, when she slipped and fell one morning after breakfast.

When my mother called to tell me the news about Baba's fall, I was in the midst of deciding whether to call an ambulance for my then two year-old son. He had a cardiac arrest only a handful of weeks before, caused by an incredibly rare genetic disease that left him unable to breathe properly on his own. On the day my grandmother died, he was using supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, and we were turning it up daily. He was slowly dying, but as far as my grandmother was concerned, he was just an average kid with some minor bone issues. Baba knew nothing more.

I hadn't put much thought in my decision to lie to her. I might have discussed it with my mother at some point during those hazy post-cardiac-arrest ICU days, but it's quite possible I didn't. My memory of conversations might be fuzzy, but I clearly felt a self-imposed urgency to protect this 89-year old woman from the pain of possibly losing her great-grandson.

But my grandmother already knew pain.

A World War II refugee from Russia, Baba was temporarily left alone — and pregnant — by a husband who traveled ahead to Canada with the intention of securing a new life. She spent most of that first pregnancy in a German labor camp, hiding her fecundity with layers of aprons after hearing rumors of forced abortions. Even as a 23-year old pregnant newlywed refugee, her newfound survival instincts — combined with a fierce love of family — contributed to her success in hiding that pregnancy and eventually leaving the country.

She had that first baby, my aunt, as secretly and quietly as possible on her bed in the shared barracks of the labor camp. A woman who called herself a midwife helped out, but as my grandmother recalled, "the girl didn't do much."

Baba had a nearly annoying way of loving people. She believed everyone deserved love, attention, affection, and most importantly, borsht. Her love for and loyalty to her family was unrelenting and impressive; Baba hitchhiked for hours through the snowstorm of December 1977 because my mother went into labor and had no way to get to the hospital. My fearless grandmother used a blanket to flag down a passing pick-up truck, then insisted my mother sit in the front seat. Baba rode lying down in the back.

She called one day as I was on my way to a pilates class. My siblings showed her how to use FaceTime and it was lovely to see her face light up as we spoke. It was also the last time I would see her alive.

"How is he doing?" she asked. I breathed in deeply, preparing to lie to her once again.  I have a feeling these pained conversations would have been easier if she were indifferent or cold. Less like a Baba.

Hating myself more with each syllable, I muttered, repeatedly, "Fine. He's fine."

I worried over whether my siblings would show her a recent photo, and she might question his pallor and oxygen cannula. I texted both of them immediately.

Only old pictures plz! No oxygen.

I didn't want to acquaint her with my world of genetic disease and pneumonia and intubations. She had seen enough. Baba lived in another country without knowing the common language, she was separated from all relatives in her early twenties, and she endured temporary single motherhood while her husband created roots on another continent.

My master plan was to keep lying until he got better, but that never happened. Even at her funeral, as I kissed other wet cheeks and held hands with the people who loved her, I was consumed by my son. My tiny two year-old boy was far too sick to come, so my husband stayed home with him. He was the worst kind of sick, the mysterious kind, when you know something terrible is in front of you though you keep blindly rationalizing the hell out of each symptom. Even after she was gone, I wasn't fully present at that final ceremony, beautifully created to celebrate her life. Instead I clutched my phone awaiting responses to texts: What's his heart rate now? How's his color?

I never fully got to feel the weight of her death. It was almost a gift to me at the time, to be incapable of mourning her completely. My heart, exhausted, begged for reprieve: I'm full and I'm done and I'm reserved solely for this tiny boy who might just leave us soon.

I kept his health a secret, creating awkwardness, distance and aloofness with my favorite person in the whole world because of one simple fact: Baba furiously loved my son. She loved him more than some people could comprehend, because she already experienced life's hardness, the stuff that's recognizable only to those who have parried the darkest beasts.

She could have held my hand through that darkness, but instead, I chose to walk without her. I kept her away. I suppose I protected her, but I'm not sure from what, exactly. 

Even though he was only two years old when Baba passed away, my son, now nearly five, still recognizes her in a photo we have on the fridge. He calls her "Mama's Baba," a distinction necessitated by my husband's mom also being an Eastern European grandmother.

"Yes, that's my Baba. But she's your Baba too."

"Why is she my Baba, too?" His sticky hands gesture to his tiny chest.

"Because, sweetie, she loved you the most."

Guest post written by Jennifer Philp. Jennifer is a teacher and mother of two children. She writes at Mother of Bones and can be followed on TwitterFacebook, and Medium.