My mother and sister called to tell me that my grandmother had died. She was 88 years old.
I had just been down in San Diego last week for Christmas. My grandma hadn't been feeling well a day or two prior to our usual Christmas Eve celebration, so my aunt, whom she lived with, took her to the hospital. She stayed in for 2 days while they drained some fluid from her lungs and treated her for anemia. We put off our celebration till Christmas Day.
She seemed tired but in relatively high spirits when she greeted us on Christmas Day. I'm sure she was relieved to not be in a hospital for any longer. My Mom confirmed that she seemed a lot stronger and healthier than before she went in. All news was positive. We had a great evening and we were all there, save my Uncle who lives in Idaho. As I left I gave my grandma, or Babcia (bob-chee, the Polish word for grandma), a big hug and then I put my hands on both of her shoulders and said something to the effect of, "You get healthy. We need you alive for next Christmas." She said okay and seemed pretty positive that she would be. Over the next few days, I thought about what I had said to her, and that I would feel like a real shithead if those were my last words to her. And here we are.
As far as anyone can tell at this point, she died peacefully in her sleep. That's obviously the best possible outcome under the circumstances. No pain. No moment of terrified chest clutching or gasping for air. For that I am grateful. She had been through so much in her life already, to go through any more, even momentarily would've seemed a cruel joke of nature.
Babcia grew up in Krakow, Poland. She was very proud that Pope John Paul II was from there as well. At age 16, she was taken from her home and put into a work camp by the Nazis. She survived that and eventually met my grandpa after the war had ended. Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure of the details. It was always a conversation I wanted to have, to know more, but always felt uncomfortable breaching the subject because it's hard to talk about and there was still a bit of a language barrier between us. My grandpa had been a POW for 5 years as a member of the Polish Army. When they married, my grandpa's uniform was long gone, so he wore an American uniform. He became a butcher and she a schoolteacher. They had my Uncle Ted (of Idaho now), my Aunt (or Ciocha) Christina, and were pregnant with my Mom when they decided to come to the U.S. Fortunately, they had friends who were coming as well and a sponsor family to help them once they arrived.
One of my greatest disappointments is when I went to New York 4 years ago, I didn't make it out to Ellis Island, where they had all passed through in 1951. I'm sure there's still record of them. Maybe even photos.
They settled in Chicago, IL. They bought a house and a butchershop/corner store. The story goes that Babcia was home alone when she went into labor with my Mom. I'd been told that she gave birth to her alone as well, but I think that's been clarified and I'm not remembering the details. 10 years passed and an unexpected surprise resulted in my Uncle Joe being born. In the late 70's/early 80's, my grandparents decided to follow their sponsor family out to California to retire. They ended up in Alpine, CA, a mountain suburb of San Diego. My parents and sister were the last remaining holdouts in Chicago, where I was born.
When I was 4, my parents decided to be closer to my Mom's family and moved us out to Alpine. I spent my first year as a Californian living in my grandparents' home. It was kind of wonderful for a rambunctious little boy to live in a place with plenty of rocks to climb and ways to get dirty. But it was also terrifyingly quite and remote at night. I'd seen horror films at this point. I'm fairly certain my grandma made the effort to convert me from left-handed to right-handed during this time. I can't be sure but my left/right wires definitely feel crossed during various activities. We moved out a little while after my grandpa's death in 1987.
Babcia continued to live out there, at times alone, other times with either of my uncles living there. I believe it was the late 90s, perhaps early 2000s, when my aunt finally convinced Babcia to sell the house and move into her ever-renovated home overlooking Mission Valley. Babcia survived several health scares from breast cancer to a broken pelvis during the past decade, always showing resilience that I can only hope to have. She could still be found pulling weeds and chasing off squirrels out in the garden as recently as last week. She loved birds, particularly Cardinals which always made me happy.
Oddly or coincidentally enough, she survived her husband by exactly 25 years and 25 days. Even further significant because she was born on the 25th (of April). Maybe I just love stats too much but these came to me almost immediately upon hearing the news.
Again I must stress, if only to myself, that she lived a long, full life and she died peacefully and painlessly. No prolonged illness. No degeneration. I'm told that she even went with my aunt and uncle to the Auto Show the day before and was feisty as ever. I take what comfort I can from that.
R.I.P., Babcia. I love you.
"No take picture!"