On Friday, June 12th at 12:50am my Grandma Helen Roth passed away at the age of 101. Born in Gliwitz, Poland in 1914, she was one of only three in her family to survive Nazi rule. Both her mother and father were murdered by Nazi soldiers (right in front of her) as well as five of her siblings who perished in concentration camps. At 101 years of age, Grandma still knew how to hold on to life. In our family it was a joke that Grandma would never die, that she would out live us all, but as we witnessed, death takes even those who cling.
Three weeks prior to the very day she passed, I spoke with her late one night, as we liked to do, and she shared that she had no appetite, was throwing up and that “mommy”, (my mom) was going to take her to the hospital. Sensing the severity of the situation, I made the decision to drive from Southwest Florida to New York to be with her and my family.
As a Coach I like to ask questions. Often I like to ask the people around me, “what gets you out of bed in the morning…?” For me, my Grandma and my family became my reason to get out of bed.
Daily for two weeks I visited my Grandma in hospice, simply being with her so she would spend as little time as possible alone.
I sat and spoke with my Grandma when she was lucid and awake.
I sat and spoke with my Grandma when she was disoriented, confused and delirious.
Other times I played my native american flute for her, the adult version of my childhood clarinet.
Sometimes I just sat there, watching her as she wandered in and out of distant dimensions of consciousness, assumingly doing the work necessary to unwind from this reality in preparation to leave her body.
The greatest moment of each day was when I would show up to her room with half of a watermelon. Holding it up in front of her I would say, “look what I have Grandma!”. She would light up and quickly demand, “give it to me!”
To feed her watermelon and to watch the pure joy descend upon her face as she whispered, “this is good….no this isn’t good, this is great!” was sweeter than any fruit I’ve ever tasted.
Myself (on the left) and my brother Aaron, with our Grandma as she drinks COLD! fresh pressed watermelon juice.
Some nights, whether by myself or with my brother we chanted and prayed to her in English, Hebrew and Sanskrit, comforting her, mentally, emotionally and spiritually in what were some of her most dark and fearful moments.
Daily I peered at the face — the wrinkles, the eyes, the lips, the cheeks, the hair, the hands, the cute little feet with purple painted toenails.
I listened to the heartbeat I had grown accustomed to hearing.
I watched the rising and falling of the chest, wondering when it would no longer rise and fall.
I simply sat with, I witnessed, and I experienced as much as I could of the tiny 4’8” body of the 101 year old person that I had come to know as my Grandma.
Yet each day, it became more and more apparent that this body was not my Grandma.
My Grandma was the Spirit, the untarnished, untainted, whole, complete and perfect Spirit that was quickly disappearing and disengaging from the body laying on the bed in front of me.
Grandma sleeping after one of her many anti-nausea treatments.
One night, she awoke from a deep sleep, with my brother and I chanting over her. She was scared she told us, not of the prayer, but of death.
I got close to her face, as close as I could and fixed my gaze upon the deeply recessed, hazy eyes of hers and said with fierceness and sternness,
“…Grandma tonight you speak to God. Tonight you tell God exactly what you want. If you want to live, you tell God you want to live. If you want to die, you tell God you want to die, either way, you talk to God tonight.”
She asked, “what do I say!?”
“Grandma, you speak till this is empty”, as I tapped her heart.
“…whatever you want is ok Grandma, just tell God what you want!”
She nodded ok, clasped her hands, resting them on her stomach, closed her eyes and immediately began talking to God, as if we were not there, telling God that she wanted to die, that she was miserable and that she did not want this kind of suffering anymore. That this life was not worth living for.
Aaron and I looked up, made eye contact and without words mutually acknowledged the magnitude of what was happening. Grandma was letting go of her attachment to living.
We stayed in silence till she went silent. In the depths of my heart I knew that the words I had spoken, the energy with which those words were spoken with had incited her shift from clinging to life to craving death.
I could not help but feel the immensity, the rawness, the realness of life…and the joy, the joy Aaron and I both felt knowing that Grandma was one step closer to the transition we all desired for her.
On June 8th, like the days prior, I arrived at about 10am, watermelon in hand. With a big and bright smile and a child like strut, I entered her room, holding up the beautiful ripe, red watermelon that I had just sliced in half.
Without any warning my Grandma shouted, “Kenny leave, I don’t want you here, get out, leave.” For the first time in my life Grandma raised her voice at me. I started to leave and then turned around, raised my eyebrows, smiled and lifted the watermelon into the air, innocently attempting to sway her.
I sat in the hallway as the nurses continued to feed her the food like substances they called balanced nutrition.
I’m not going to lie, it hurt. Her words hit me right in the center of my heart.
Until I realized that what she said had nothing to do with me.
Of course she was angry, of course she didn’t want me there, she didn’t want anyone there. It wasn’t about me, it was about her and her position on the roller coaster ride to death.
With my head and my heart, I processed and reflected upon her words and the energy in which she so emphatically delivered them.
I sensed she was in a phase of resisting the love, compassion, sensitivity, concern and warmth from those closest to her.
It was easier and far less painful for her to reject love and compassion than it was for her to open fully to it, to receive it in its wholeness. For if she opened up, her ego would have her believe that she risked experiencing a pain beyond the pain contained within rejection.
She was doing her best to stay in control of circumstances that were out of her control. She was doing her best to protect herself from more pain, more suffering, but in the process, sadly she suffered.
Is this why she was angry? Who knows. I’m not her. Maybe she was trying to protect me and our family from suffering by distancing herself. Maybe she was angry simply because she was leaving hospice for another facility.
The above is simply the conclusion I came to based on my own intuitive and introspective faculties.
…an hour later, still angry, she told me to leave. So I did.
On what would come to be her final day I went to visit her at ten in the morning. It was clear she was deeply uncomfortable, in pain and suffering immensely.
The night before she had tried to get out of bed, to leave, and had fallen, slamming her head and face into the ground.
I’m a guy who can swallow a lot, but the sight of my Grandma on this day, for the first time in three weeks, made me feel uncomfortable — it simply hurt to look at her. Her bruised face, swollen eye, bloody head, disheveled hair, the tension in her face, her recessed eyes, the deeply yellow skin…
It was the worst I had seen her, and the essence, the spirit of my Grandma was no where to be found.
As far as I was concerned she was dead, but her heart beat on — she was still here, just not here.
I watched her from a distance, I chanted the Maha Mrityanjaya mantra, I played my flute, I sat and simply witnessed what this body had become and wondered how it was still alive and how much longer it had. I sat with what I was feeling until I could finally sit with her.
After some time, I mustered the courage to get closer to this failing body.
To a body hanging on by a thread.
To a body that appeared so fragile and frail that it would break if I touched it.
I wiped the black mucus she was coughing up off her cheeks and neck. I cleaned the dry blood from her face.
I sat next to her and wrapped my fingers around her pointer finger. I held tight, squeezed and told her over and over, “I love you Grandma.”
I kissed her finger, and said, “I love you Grandma.” And then I did it again.
Maybe it was my imagination or maybe it wasn’t, but just once I heard a faint, mucus ridden, raspy, barely audible, low rumble of a “I love you”. I didn’t need to hear it, I felt it in my heart.
I felt a deep and pervading necessity, a calling, almost a soul yearning to pray. My mind and my heart were being tugged, tugged to acknowledge the spiritual truths pervading these seemingly dark circumstances.
With tears in my eyes, I said “Grandma it’s time we pray. If that’s ok with you squeeze my finger.”
“Grandma is it ok?”
This time she squeezed with ferocity, which was a miracle in and of itself considering that she did not acknowledge anyone’s presence for the prior 36 hours.
With her consent, I initiated an affirmative prayer and with my own fire and fervency recognized that;
“God is all there is. Spirit is all there is — God is complete and at peace always in all ways, God has no work to do, because God is already whole and complete…and that this women laying before me, this individuated expression of Divinity known as Helen, is God, and as God is complete and at peace in all ways, right here, right now…I know and declare that Helen has completed her work in this dimension and that she is done. That Helen has reconciled, healed, released, completed and accomplished all that her soul intended to do while in this human form and that she is now free to leave this plane, to leave this suffering body.”
I finished the prayer by acknowledging the gratitude I felt knowing that her suffering was coming to an end and knowing that it was already done, everything was in motion to manifest this as her reality. I released it into the hands of God, into the the mechanics by which cosmos are created.
I closed with, “So be it and so it is!”
A few minutes later I said goodbye, there was no reason for me to be there any longer.
I left, myself feeling a deep peace and a sense of completeness.
I left, unattached to when I would see her again, maybe later that evening, maybe in the morning, maybe never again. It didn’t seem to matter.
Twelve hours later, at 12:15am I decided to do a late night Chi Gong session.I finished at 1:00am and though exhausted I spent the next 30 minutes typing up some ideas that flowed into my awareness during the practice. At 1:30am I got into bed, intending to sleep, but felt called to do a breath centered meditation.
I fell into what I can only describe as a deep lucid state.
It was there, in this transitional state, neither asleep nor awake that I met with my Grandma again, the Grandma that was missing earlier in the day!
For a brief time, how long exactly, I cannot know, because I had no perception of time, her spirit mingled with my spirit. I could feel her into my core.
She was liberated from her body, I could feel her lightness, and her excitement, it was my lightness and excitement. I knew she was free, I felt her freedom, it was my freedom. She was complete, she was done and she was at peace, just as I had prayed earlier in the day. I was at peace, feeling complete with her.
Less than an hour later, at precisely 2:17am the phone rang, ripping me out of my lucid state and awakening us all, it was the nursing home. Grandma had passed at 12:50am. I immediately shared with my mom my lucid experience, about how Grandma had visited me and gave me a tremendous gift, the taste of a peace beyond words.
I could say that my Grandma was filled with love, but the truth is that she was love. She wasn’t filled with it, she was it.
In Osho’s book, Death, The Greatest Fiction, Osho talks about the final moments preceding one’s death and how they are a pivotal time when the essence of an individual is as clear as the waters of a glacial lake. How the family and friends near to this transitioning individual bear witness to a highly distilled, purified and almost crystallized like expression of who they were in this life.
Being with my Grandma during the days and hours preceding her death, I had the privilege to witness and be in the field of her essence and that essence was the most pure love I’ve ever experienced.
She simply could not stop saying, “I love you” in her sweet, tender and raspy voice, sometimes with and other times without her dentures. In the three weeks I was with her she must have said “I love you” at least 300 times, each time with the tenderness and genuineness as if it was the very first time she was speaking those words.
It did not matter who was there, whether it was, a family member, a friend, the nurse assistants who cleaned her, the aids who fed her, the nurses who gave her the medications which her body did not want or even the doctor who visited with her for no more than one minute a day… she loved all of us and she made sure we knew it.
The recipient of her love did not matter, she loved because love loves.
A love that was so concentrated and so pure that it could warm the coldest of hearts and shatter the deepest of resentments. That was what she gave us till her last breath.
Grandma liked to say, “Forgive and Forget!”, it was her mantra and “I love you” was her mantra in action. She simply held on to nothing, it wasn’t worth it to her, she simply wanted to express the love of who she was.
Many are afraid to watch as loved ones pass, to witness the accelerated decline of the body of their mother, father, brother, sister or partner as it transitions into realms of unrecognizable deterioration. They fear the etch upon their memory of a body that no longer resembles the one whom they loved. They fear flashbacks of darkness, decay and disease.
Initially I was a victim to these fears, especially on the final day of my Grandma’s life, the day my mother implored me not to visit her because, ‘she looks bad…really really bad.” I asked myself whether I was choosing unnecessary suffering and whether it was wise to visit her during this especially dark phase of her transition. Yet, the wisdom of my heart spoke and I chose love over fear, visitation over dismissal.
What I came to discover was what I already knew in theory, but was afraid to know through experience — that I am not a victim to that which I perceive, to that which life presents me. I have dominion even over the memories of my mind and that I hold the power to remember with discretion.
It would be easy to remember my Grandma as she looked on her last day, a sight that I’ve chosen to exclude from this article for its graphic intensity.Truth be told, it’s as easy to remember her as bright and beautiful as the flower she picked from her prized rose bush as it is to remember her otherwise.
I am blessed for all that I experienced during the final three weeks of her transition — the growth, the wisdom, the lessons, the realizations and insights, the coming together of family, but most notably I am grateful simply for the opportunity to have sat by her side during the capstone of her life.