Two months after my Grandma Leona was diagnosed with cancer I received a call from my mom insisting I drive down to San Diego to see her before she passed away. I had never waited for someone to die before, let alone my loving grandma, the matriarch of our family who always told me I was the next “Steinfeld.”
Leona had a sharp sense of humor, and often made us laugh unintentionally. “I hope I’m not going to hell” she would say. To which we explained Jews don’t believe in hell. I’m guessing her version of hell was someplace with too much schmutz.
Leona was not destined for hell. She raised four girls, including her nieces Janice and Cathy, whose parents died when they were very young. She also took care of her husband, Norman as his health declined in the late 70’s and later her father who moved in with her for the final 10 years of his life.
Every September Leona would fly from San Diego back to her hometown of Pittsburgh to stay with us for a month. She would babysit my sister, Ariel and I and let me watch “Empty Nest” even when I was grounded from TV. After school we played gin, and ate her famous chocolate chip cookies together, and when we went “upstreet” we held hands like a strictly platonic Harold and Maude.
And now on a moment’s notice, our entire family representing both coasts, arrived in San Diego to wait out the inevitable death of the eldest member of our family, someone we all loved and included.
When I arrived at Aunt Barb and Uncle Larry’s house my parents walked me into my Cousin Ari’s room where Leona was laying on a home care hospital bed hooked up to an IV. She looked ghostly, but seemed at peace, unlike her grandson who could hardly look her in the eye without crying.
Later Rabbi Rosenthal visited her room. “Now is the time to tell Leona what she has meant to you,” he advised.
Grown men broke down in that room and my mom and Aunt Barb told their mother she was their inspiration and best friend. I leaned over my 4’9"grandma who at this point shared the bed with Alfie, Aunt Barb and Uncle Larry’s Bedlington Terrier, and Jake, her 3 month old great grandson. Seeing a dog and baby cuddling with grandma on her death bed made me smile.
“You probably know why we are all here…so you can finally tell us who is your favorite grandson.” She still had enough in her for a laugh.
We left her room not knowing if we would ever see her again. We relied on the medical opinions of the family doctors, Uncle Larry, and my Cousin Josh.
“It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow. We don’t really know.”
“She would want us to celebrate her life rather than be sad.” My mom continued to reiterate.
Despite the horrible circumstance, the entire family reunited: Ariel, and cousin Robyn, both pregnant and their husbands Brian/Bryan, cousin Ari, the jungle DJ living out of his van, my cousins Josh and Abby and their two baby boys, Jake and Tyler, Adam and hot girlfriend Sierra, and Sami, Max and Sasha, cousins in their 20’s who could finally sit around the table and participate in an adult conversation with the likes of Uncle Marc, Aunt Judy, Aunt Janice and Rich, and Aunt Cathy, and David.
Thursday night Uncle Larry left to round the hospital so Cousin Josh stood on call downstairs with Grandma. As we drank wine upstairs, snuck out back for a smoke, and told jokes by the fire, Josh kept Grandma alive.
On Friday mom and Aunt Barb spent most of the day by grandma’s side, as did Aunt Cathy. Meanwhile, Delhi, Leona and Aunt Barb’s housekeeper, worked off the clock tending to her friend, Leona. The rest of the day the family split up and eventually came back to the house for dinner and drinks.
Saturday morning my dad schooled me in tennis. When we arrived back at the house Cousin Adam and I played FIFA. In the 80th minute my mom interrupted the game.
Those of us inside the house slowly entered the room. There she was with her eyes shut and mouth open. I stared at my grandma who was now merely a lifeless body. We held each other realizing this was the last time we would ever see the matriarch of our family. 92 years of life had stopped in an instant.
After leaving the room we waited for the others. Ariel, Sami, Sasha, and Aunt Janice came down the steps. We stood in silence, stunned this was now the conclusion.
The rabbi returned and asked us to share our memories of Grandma. She was the “peacemaker who could always keep a secret,” said Aunt Cathy.
Cousin Robyn remembered hiding Aunt Leona’s hair nets.
My dad remembered calling Leona’s office when she worked at the Pitt. Her boss would answer and reply “She’s here, but not all there.”
I shared the time grandma volunteered to type a homework assignment for me and typed a whole story about tuna fish I made up on the spot.
That night some of us watched “The Big Chill,” a film that seemed to capture what we expereinced. After the movie, the cousins and I escaped to Dave and Busters. Cousin Max left with a pair of D & B underpants.
About 40 people attended the funeral. Uncle Larry composed himself better than any of us could.
“I first met Leona in 1967,” he began his eulogy.
“I was in love with her daughter. I knew the first time I met her, that I was also in love with Leona.”
I looked to Josh and Ari, my cousins I wanted to be like the most growing up. Now at 26, I still needed approval from my older cousins to see if it was okay to cry at grandma’s funeral. Not like it mattered; I was defenseless.
“At 92 she was still driving and playing Mahjong three times a week. She was truly at peace with dying and she died in front of the people she loved most—her family. I knew Leona almost as long as my own mother. I will always love Leona.”
During the end of Leona’s life our family spent five meaningful days together. In between playing “Words with Friends” on our iPhones, we became a group of people who could talk to each other, and laugh and cry with one another—a family. Before my grandma passed, my mom asked her if she had any life lessons. All she said was “Be Kind.”
If only we can continue to live like Leona.
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