Disappearing Act of the Soul That's So Hard to Bear

To have lived a good life. Everyone wants that.

My grandmother lives in California and she is dying. She has a ‘'do not resuscitate’‘ order and her opportunistic infections are not being treated. To manage excruciating pain from the bones she broke in a fall she’s been heavily sedated. In this manner will she slip away from us, relieved of suffering but unable to say goodbye.

Because I live a million miles away I’m unlikely to arrive for more than the funeral. It won’t be the same as my grandfather’s memorial. He made his own luck, lived on his terms and died that way, too – suddenly one morning, head in the breakfast bowl. My grandmother’s life was like that of many women of her era: complex and unfinished.

She was a good girl who never got her reward; a smart woman who returned to university to prove this was the case but never believed it herself. Indeed, much of her life was spent coping with perilously low levels of self-esteem and depression – the psychic ravages of rage turned in on the self. As an adult, I found it oddly shaming to bear witness to her disappointment, especially when I was one of the children she insisted were enough.

She did love us all passionately, even to a fault, but wanted more for me than motherhood. Rather than take the tack of the small-minded – seeking confirmation of the rightness and inevitability of her own life by encouraging others to repeat it – she stoked my vaulted ambitions. Encouraging my grandfather, who controlled the purse strings, to assist in the cost of summer camp, summer school and university while she went about providing the more basic services a child such as I, from a divorced and chaotic home, required. She picked me up at school to take me to the dentist and dance class, arriving early to be the first car in the queue so I never had one moment of doubt she wouldn’t show up.

I never worried. She was reliable and I knew I could trust her, something I could say of few in my life to that point. Which may be why she felt it so important to communicate it to me, in words as well as actions. By the end, she had become quite deaf. Desperate to speak to her,

I rang the hospital after her fall suspecting – rightly as it turned out – this might be my last chance to tell her I loved her and to thank her for all she’d done. She didn’t answer the phone so I called the nurses' station. They went to investigate but returned to report her hearing aid was broken. ‘'She says call your uncle.’‘ I hung up, devastated.

Preparing to fly home, my family urges me not to hurry. They say she’s lost consciousness and won’t return to it. That there’s no sign left of the mother, grandmother, aunty we knew. They say that the drawn-out disappearing act of the soul, ageing’s cruellest blow, is nearly done. ‘'She would hate you to see her this way,’‘ my aunt said. It’s true.

But I wish life had been kinder to Hilda Abramson and that she had been kinder to herself. I wish her death could be more dignified. But most of all I wish I had been able to be by her side, whispering words of love and comfort, as she has always been by mine.

Publication history

Disappearing Act of the Soul That is so Hard to Bear   Moral Maze: The Sun-Herald (Sydney)