Celebrating Passover While Waiting for the Angel of Death
The other night I celebrated Passover with my family, and I wanted to cry. The holidays have always been big, fun events in our house: lots of food, lots of people, lots of laughter. Passover in particular was one of my favorite holidays. We'd take turns reading from the haggadah and reminisce about the time someone was actually at the door when we opened it for Elijah. We'd sing Chad Gadya, although I use the word sing quite liberally here. Really we yelled as fast as we could while laughing hysterically and pounding the table and trying not to get the words wrong.
This year, though, my grandma, Geegee, has been bedridden. The woman who normally cooked for five armies and organized everything and sat at the head of the table and lit the candles now lies in a bed and sleeps most of the time. She's had cancer for four or five years now, and while the doctors thought she was going to die when they realized the cancer had spread and become stage 4 a couple years ago, she just kept going. Then a few months ago she had surgery to put a stent in her bile duct followed a nasty bout of pneumonia, and the doctors said, for real this time, she was headed toward the end of her life.
She's been bedridden since the pneumonia, but it wasn't until the other night that she truly appeared to be declining. We gathered around her bed, fewer of us than in years past, and did a five-minute improv Seder. We quickly told the story of Passover and laughed as we tried to remember all the plagues and the meanings of the items on the Seder plate. (Eventually we caved and looked a few things up.) We didn't have our haggadahs or or Seder plate because Geegee kept those at her house, and everything from her house is now packed up in storage, so we just held up the Seder plate items and ate a bite here and a bite there and interjected the four glasses of wine when we felt like it was time.
Throughout all this Geegee became more and more irritated, eventually yelling at us to stop. I'm not sure if she was angry because she was hungry and wanted to eat or because she didn't like that we were butchering the Seder. Maybe she was just confused. She had called me her daughter-in-law earlier in the evening. Whatever the reason, we finished the gist of the Seder and then gave up and ate. We had chicken from Publix and matzo ball soup that I made. I asked Geegee if it was as good as hers, and she said, without missing a beat, "no." It was funny, but also sad, because I'll never get the chance to have her help me perfect it.
I laughed that night, but I was also angry. This was just the most recent holiday to be stripped down, a pale comparison to the celebrations we used to have. I thought I was mad that our traditions were being thrown by the wayside, that I was the only one who even cared if we still celebrated these holidays. But eventually I realized I was mad that Geegee was dying, that we are finally moving into the stage where we can no longer pretend everything is normal. The Angel of Death may have passed over our house for the moment, but it will return, probably sooner than later.
I think part of the reason I'm upset is also that it's taking so long for Geegee to die. I know that sounds horrible, but I feel like she's been gone for a while now, and it hurts to see her slowly fading away. She can't leave her bed, and on top of her hating that, she's also got sores from staying in one position all day every day. She can't remember events or people or conversations that well anymore, and she's constantly confusing who's who in the family (like when she thought I was her daughter-in-law instead of her granddaughter). She's nothing but skin and bones and jumbled memories at this point, and seeing her like that is like saying goodbye over and over again. I don't want her to die, but I don't want her to live like this either. My family is living in this weird liminal space between life and death, and it's populated by the Food Network and takeout meals and the huge cowbell tied to the side of Geegee's bed that rings when she forgets she can't walk and tries to get up. Everyone is doing their best, but the situation is taking a toll, and feeling bad about ourselves while Geegee lies there dying only adds to the stress.
Death is hard. It's messy and painful and awkward, and all of that is only made worse by the fact that no one in our society knows how to (or even wants to learn how to) talk about death. So I'll talk about it, about my anger and my sadness and my stress. I don't know how much longer Geegee has left, but I know that when she dies I will feel relief right next to my grief. She doesn't deserve to live like this, semi-conscious and a shell of the incredible woman she used to be. I'll miss her when she's gone, which is a weird thought, because I miss her now. But I will stand by her when she goes, and I will say goodbye one last time. I'll continue to make matzo ball soup in the years to come, but it will never be as good as hers.