(PICTURE: My family -- Grandma is in the middle, as always.)
While we were traveling in India, my Grandma Cele's health started to deteriorate. Huyen and I immediately tried to change our flight home but the cost was astronomical. We called my grandmother a few times every week and constantly checked in with my parents to see how she was doing. With about twelve days left to travel, her health got a little bit worse. Huyen and I quickly called the airlines and once again tried to change our flights. This time the cost was reasonable so we booked it and canceled the rest of our travel plans. We ended up landing in the USA ten days earlier than we had planned and drove right to see my grandma. Well, thank god we did. My grandma was very weak when we arrived but she was lucid and able to communicate with us. She got to meet Huyen and talked to her whenever she had strength. The two of them held hands and constantly exchanged kisses on the cheeks. Right around the time we were supposed to land home, my grandmother's health declined even further. She passed away two days after we were supposed to come back.
There's no good way to die, but my Grandma did it right. She had a great life and passed away with almost her whole family by her side, holding her, as she took her last breaths. It was sad but also beautiful at the same time.
At her funeral, I spoke for my siblings. Here's the eulogy I gave:
I want to start off by apologizing to Grandma for three things. First, Grandma, I’m sorry for throwing Zev off the bed in 1983 when you were babysitting us. Sure, I meant to teach Zev a lesson not to mess with his little brother, but I didn’t mean for him to have to go to the hospital to get stitches. I know you had a little anger bottled up towards me over the years so I just wanted to say sorry.
Secondly, I’m sorry if there’s any incorrect grammar in this speech. Growing up, if I said, something with incorrect grammar, Grandma would strain her eyes and pretend like she couldn’t hear me. For example, if I said, “Grandma, Zev and me were wrestling on the bed and...” Grandma would stop me and say, “Who was wrestling?”. I’d say, “Zev and me”. Grandma would say “Who?” again and again until I’d caught on and said, “Zev and I were wrestling on the bed and I pushed him off and he hit his face and he’s bleeding a lot.”
My grammar was so bad that Grandma had to pretend to be hard of hearing so many times that I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for her actually going hard of hearing.
Thirdly, Grandma, I want to apologize that this speech is gonna be more than thirty seconds. I know you liked to keep everything short and sweet and well, this speech is a gonna be a little bit long.
When Grandpa Leo was alive, if you called over to my grandparents’ house, Grandma would pick up the phone, talk to you for ten seconds and then pass the phone to Grandpa who would talk to you for roughly twenty five minutes to around three and a half hours. After Grandpa Leo passed away, here was a typical phone call with Grandma:
Ring. Ring. Ring. Grandma picks up.
ME: Hi, Grandma!
GRANDMA: Oh, hi Justin.
ME: No, it’s Ben, Grandma.
GRANDMA: Oh, hi Ben. What’s new?
ME: Well, A, B and C are new.
GRANDMA: So, when are you coming home?
ME: I’ll be home in a month.
GRANDMA: That’s too long.
BEN: Well, I’ve got midterms.
GRANDMA: Well, okay. Goodbye.
ME: Wait, uh, Grandma. I lo--CLICK.
I swear, I didn’t get my first full “I love you” out until I was in my thirties.
But that was Grandma’s way. For Grandma, actions always spoke louder than words. Grandma didn’t need to tell us that she loved us. The proof was in the pudding. Or really, the proof was in the chocolate squares, the apple crisp, the strawberry cheesecake, the fruit mondolas, the chocolate chip cookies, the oatmeal/raisin cookies and about 2,867 other sweets that all of us grandkids will think about fondly the rest of our lives as we’re dealing with diabetes. Frankly, we all knew Grandma loved us because she wanted more of us – thirty to fifty pounds more of us.
But Grandma didn’t just cook. She could eat with the best of them too. Grandma always finished everything on her plate…even her second and third plates. Whenever everyone comes over to our house, we usually do buffet style. Whenever I’d get Grandma a plate I ‘d ask her what she wanted. Her response was always the same, “Everything.”
Zev was saying to me the other day how Grandma would eat a full rack of ribs, with two sides, at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que when she visited us in Syracuse. Let me just tell you that a full rack of ribs with two sides even makes my dad full. And well, my dad weighs a little bit more than Grandma did. But Grandma, as always, would clean her plate.
Besides in the kitchen or the dining room, I always think of my Grandma at Temple Beth Shalom. If you’re a temple member, you knew exactly where to find my Grandmother on high holidays. She’d be on the right side, about five rows back and would have a wall of protective siddurim around her, saving seats for her family members who didn’t want to show up to temple at 3:30AM.
I just want to be clear about something though, Grandma was a proud Jew, but I know she only went to temple at the crack of dawn so that us grandkids could have the furthest walk possible through the crowd so that every temple member could see who her grandkids were. And just in case people weren’t absolutely sure who her grandkids were, she then introduced us to every person over the age of 40 who was within seven rows of us even though she had introduced us on every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur since we were able to walk.
On a side note, being at temple with Grandma on Yom Kippur was the only time us grandkids were ever with her when we were hungry. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that nobody had a harder fast than us because our stomachs had been trained to expand whenever we were within sixty feet of Grandma.
Us grandkids are so fortunate to have grown up so close to Grandma and Grandpa. Throughout our childhoods, they were at every event we participated in. Whenever we’d finish playing a sport, or finish up a concert or a play, Grandma and Grandpa would be there, beaming with pride. We’d always be greeted after our event with a “How about that” from Grandpa and a smile and kiss from Grandma.
I know that all of us are gonna miss Grandma. But nobody is gonna miss Grandma more than my mom, who not only lost her mother but also her best friend. With Grandma, actions always spoke louder than words. And well, my mom did every action there was for Grandma. She took her to the beauty parlor to get her hair done and to salons for manicures. She took her grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments and anywhere else my grandmother wanted to go. Sure my mother takes after my grandpa in that she can talk A LOT, but her actions were always those of an angel. My mom is an amazing person and I know my grandmother loved and appreciated her with every bone in her body.
Like I said before, Grandma used to hang up the phone before she said I love you. In fact, until the last couple of years she never said I love you to me – although in retrospect maybe I’m the only one she didn’t say I love you to since I threw Zev off the bed.
Anyway, I know she loved her whole family and in the last days of her life, she couldn’t stop saying “I love you” to all of us. She loved my mom and she loved Barry. She loved my dad and she loved Donna. She loved Adam, Justin and Dana and she loved Zev, Hannah and myself. She loved Kathy and Rachel and she loved Huyen, who she liked to talk to on the phone more than me and who she got to meet in the last week of her life and smothered with kisses. And of course Grandma loved Lilah and she loved Max. And she loved Linda, who took such great care of her over the last couple of years.
Us August and Zucker kids are so lucky to have known all of our grandparents. My Grandfather Macky died eighteen years ago and my Grandpa Leo died 10 years ago and I still think about them all the time. Just as I know Adam, Justin and Dana think about Grandpa Leo and their Grandpa Harry.
As I lay in bed two nights ago, just as I did after Grandpa Leo died, I could picture the scene up in heaven between all of them. Grandma arrives and is greeted by Grandpa Leo, Grandpa Macky, Grandpa Harry and all of Grandma’s sisters and brothers and parents. Grandpa Leo greets Grandma with a big hug and kiss and says, “How about that. Cele, you lived to 94. What were you trying to show off?” And Grandma smiles at Grandpa and everyone else and says, “Is anyone hungry?” And Grandpa Leo says, “Of course. But first let me finish explaining to Max and Harry how to properly plant a hydrangea.” And then Macky quickly gets a word in and says, “Cele, maybe you should start cooking. Leo’s been explaining this since 2001.” And then Grandma heads off to the kitchen and starts to prepare a brisket and an apple crisp. And well, lets just say everyone up in heaven is about to get a little bit fatter.
We love you Grandma.