My grandma had cancer for many years, yet it never really got to her. They only ever found a secondary cancer, about a decade ago, and they promptly got rid of it, but the primary cancer remained an unsolved mystery. This much landed her in medical textbooks.
I actually think Grandma was ready to go since that time of that secondary cancer. At least. She kept up some pretty good spirits, I think mostly for the purpose of greeting her grandkids.
I mean, it wasn’t *just* us; she had quite a lot of friends. She had even partnered up again, with a quiet, stern fellow named Sam who traveled around with her and regarded us kids with resigned bemusement. (Sam’s kids traveled a ways to attend Grandma’s funeral; it was the first time I’d met them. I told them how we’d come to love Sam too as part of the fam — this had surprised us, though I didn’t mention that. They held my hand and told me, ’She made him a better man.’)
But we all knew: Alice was ready to move on. She was ready to see her Danny.
Everyone says they were just the most wonderful couple — they’d fallen in love at first sight, after which Alice and Danny became the axle of two sprawling families. My grandfather left us 30 years ago, not long at all after they’d retired down to Florida.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she’d say to us. “I’m just afraid my Danny won’t recognize me when I get there.”
Over the last few years, I had argued with my family: Grandma shouldn’t have been living alone in that house. She’d been there since she moved in with Danny, and she stayed after he died. Stayed when she took up with Sam, and then stayed after Sam died. The house seemed to me like a small box of ghosts, every inch and cranny of which she had memorized. We could have moved her to ‘The Palace,’ a Miami retirement community that seems to live up to the promise of its name. But Grandma only ever politely tolerated such talk when I or my siblings were around. The minute we weren’t in the room or on the phone, she got angry when even being asked to discuss the possibility. She did not want to leave that house. As her primary cancer still lurked, still biding its sweet time, Grandma’s friends kept dying around her. So Alice was done with new people and new places. She had us, the sounds of our voices, at least one of us each day; hugs and held hands, every other month or so. And that was enough for her, thank you very much.
I thought that we shouldn’t have accepted ‘no’ for an answer. That one conversation among all of us would have been different than all of the conversations among just a few of us at a time. That we shouldn’t have allowed the option of her staying alone and blind in that house, an hour’s drive away at least, when she could live closer to us, in a place designed to make people her age feel comfort and security and even happiness. That she had another chapter yet to be written.
I still feel this. But in retrospect, now that she’s gone, I’m ambivalent about it. Because she went on her terms.
Her descent began at Passover. Our Seders aren’t anywhere near the marathon length were in Danny’s day (my father values economy in ritual) but this time Grandma didn’t have the energy to participate even a little, and she ended up staying in bed all the next day. That began a fortnight hospice; not so sudden, but swift. Within a week, we were all making plans to fly down to Miami for one last weekend together. We spent a Saturday and Sunday at her house telling stories and eating bagels.
Just about 48 hours after her grandchildren had kissed her goodbye, that Tuesday, sitting down next to her aide (against whom she’d fought us bitterly, yet soon enough came to dearly love — her knack for friendship undimmed despite it all), she leaned her head back, closed her eyes, sighed, and stopped. In her chair, in her house.
The text below is, roughly, what I said at her memorial service at B’nai Israel in Elmont, NY, where Grandma worked for almost three decades before retiring to Coconut Creek, Fla.
For me, Grandma Alice Bloom was unconditional all-enveloping love. All of us here here know something about that.
So I want to take this time to tell you about the conversations that she and I would have over the past few years — how we would spend our time. I would call at least once a week.
I would say “Hi Grandma!”
And she would say,
“Oh, well hello, my grandson!” — a cantorial meter — “How are you?”
And I’d say, “I’m good, grandma!”
And she’d say,
“Where are you?”
This was a salient question, as almost every other call I placed to her from a different city. (In recent years, she’d ask it with some excited anticipation, ever since that time she got to tell all her friends that I was sleeping in a closet in San Francisco for a few weeks.)
Without fail, this was followed by:
“How’s the weather?”
She always wanted to know about the weather! To the point where I would even call her when it was raining just so that, when she’d ask, I could get a big laugh out of her by promptly responding, “it sucks, grandma!!!”
And then we would talk about what’s happening with me a bit. Then about what’s happening with other people. And I’d tell her about something I saw that Micki or David shared online, and she would laugh and she would say “My dear, I’m so sorry that I don’t get to be there, with you, in all that, the Twitter, the Spacebook. But …”
She’d often remind us that getting old is not for wusses. Among the various pains and indignities of senescence, this was her great despair (second in her life only to losing my grandfather so early): that she could not see the world that her grandchildren saw.
And I would tell her,
“Grandma, yes the world today is weird, and sometimes it can be fun…but I feel like deep inside everyone is seeking the kinds of things that you used to have. A world of your own, with people you really knew. One you shared with your family, your community.”
Then I would talk about the work I do: trying to make it easier for people to find and use information about their community, and for technology to help people work together to improve their lives. And I would ask how information flowed and how things got done in her day.
And she would say ‘well if you had such and such problem, there was this person who knew that, and this organization who you could call.’
And I would say to my Grandma, ‘well if I have my way, it will be easier for people to find what they need right there in Google — because it’s actually not all that easy to find now, you know. The best way is still that you know someone who knows someone.”
“Well that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “knowing people who know people.”
And then, chuckling at herself, she’d add:
“Gregory, back then I was the Google.”
That sounds rather immodest but I’ve been assured that it was hardly an exaggeration. Grandma was always a hub, sometimes the hub. The person people called when they needed to figure stuff out.
For me this was a revelation. Even after tracing our sprawling family tree and hearing some of her vault stories, I then realized the lives and passings still more networks, great lost webs she weaved here in New York, in South Florida, in any community she went. Thirty years it took me to know that my grandma ran this very synagogue for twenty five years. She saddled the new rabbi who’s now running this very service. And today I see it for the first time with my own eyes, alongside our family and friends and even friends’ families.
There are so many more people and organizations in the world today, yet it seems fewer communities like these, with fewer people like Alice Bloom. In his eulogy, Dad called her “the Collector” — an endless accumulation of friendships, vast treasure troves of people.
It took me so long to realize this, since as far as I knew Grandma’s world always revolved around me (an orbit I only ever reluctantly shared with younger siblings and cousins). Yet now that I consider it, this history reveals many things which seemed normal to me for so long now reveal themselves to be rare blessings.
Like how how the Aptman kids could be like siblings to us Bloom kids, still sixty some-odd years after our fathers played in their adjacent backyards in Laurelton. Like how Alice’s own long-single mother could find a new love at the end of her life with danny’s father’s long-widowed best friend.
Like how it can be that I — having walked away from the Judaism that animated Grandma, her family and her community — still felt called, as if by some cryptic yet familiar instructions, to always seek that mix of people and purpose that can make the world a better place. This calling came first from the women all around me — my mother and my aunt, on one side, and my grandma on the other.
Now, when I tell people about what I do, they typically ask early and pointedly: ‘Okay but how are you going to get paid?’
Do mitzvot — sure.
But if tikkun olam is your occupation… who’s gonna tikkun your bank account?
The question is valid. I just don’t find it to be all that interesting. And I don’t think Grandma ever asked it of me.
Grandma only ever asked me one question:
“Are you happy?”
Yes, Grandma, I would say. (Thinking, but not saying: I am sometimes fearful and I am often lonely. And yet…) I am happy.
“Well that’s that, then,” she’d say. “You do what makes yourself happy, and everything else will work out.”
This is how I try to live my life. Most days, in my head, it’s actually really hard to believe. But it’s always there in my heart. And for that I have Grandma Alice to thank.