Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Lessons of a goodbye

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 12:37pm

In the past several days, my 92-year-old grandmother’s health has starkly declined, and she is currently in the hospital. The consensus among my family, based on what doctors have told us, as well as my grandmother’s chosen course of action, is that she is going to die soon.

My grandma — my father’s mother, whom I call Bubba — is the only grandparent I’ve ever gotten to know. My mother’s parents were both gone by the time I was born, and my dad’s dad died when I was almost 2 years old.

I think this made it difficult to establish a precedent of having large family gatherings. Without that generation’s input — without my parents and their siblings being held accountable by their parents to stay consistently connected to their family — people drifted apart. Families picked different coasts and, for the past several years, I have seen my cousins and relatives once every other year or so, for a few days filled with rushed catching up that is only performed to maintain the collective idea of a nondescript, hazy in-the-loop-ness with one another

My childhood was centered, then, around my immediate family: my older brother and sister and my two parents. To make up for this absence, my parents would frequently invite friends for dinner. I looked up to some of these people. I gossiped with my mom about their lives and what I noticed versus what she saw. They became extensions of my family.

Indeed, my parents, from a very early age, taught me to try to make family out of my friends. To create a chosen family for myself.

My grandmother and I, then, never really established a strong, specific, intimate relationship. I would call her every now and then to tell her about my goings on; I played piano for a long while, and she had played all her life, so we connected over that. Or when I went to the University of Michigan, and she lived nearby in Novi — staying in Michigan after my dad grew up in Detroit — there was some excitement about being able to connect more often.

Once, I bought her a disc of sonatas composed by Bach and played by Sir András Schiff, whom I heard play at Hill Auditorium during my sophomore year. She loved it, hugging me as she told me how sweet a gift it was. She consistently sent me checks for my birthday and for Jewish holidays, even if my name was sometimes spelled wrong. One time I was in the car with my parents and Bubba. I mentioned that Diego Rivera, for some time in his life, was rumored to have experimented with cannibalism. (The rumors are true.) Bubba, with fantastic comedic timing, dryly said, “One should not eat his own kind.”

These are some of the stories that first come to mind when I think of Bubba. During my time in Ann Arbor, I have only seen my grandmother — except the times my dad visited her — once, when we met at The Lunch Room and debated the merits of Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders. Seeing my grandma, I think, reminded me of that absence of extended family. Reminded me of her strained relationship with my dad and of the possibility that families can gradually drift apart forever.

And since she has been in the hospital, I have only just begun to confront all of this. The holes in my relationship with my grandmother, the things we did not share about ourselves with each other, the stories we did not tell. I feel sadder now, in her impending death, than I ever felt happy with her in life.

Bubba’s health decline has brought to mind that I used to lie very casually and habitually to my friends, family, teachers, school administrators and friends’ parents. Lying of this sort is still something I struggle with. One lie I have told most frequently over the years is that of my grandmother’s death. I have used it as a way of escaping some responsibility or other, an excuse to not have to attend some tedious outing or once, even just, in eighth grade, to evoke sympathy and compassion in a girl I had a crush on. My grandma and her body and her life became props for me to play with as I navigated the social situations of my adolescence.

I feel guilty about that. And now, in my Bubba’s sickness, I feel that guilt bubbling to the surface of my mind. What more could I have done to cultivate a relationship with her?

I don’t know, really. I have long understood I’m not as close to my extended family as many of my friends are with their families. But the sadness I feel now, I think, stems from a sense that after my Bubba is gone, I will never be able to change the content of that relationship. Instead, this will be my grandmother, this will be what she was.

But maybe that’s not true. Maybe, as I grow up, I will begin to adopt new ways of thinking about my relationship with my grandmother. To learn a blunt fact of relationships — that some of them simply end, even those that were once important to you. And they will end in unsatisfying ways that will make you question if more life could have been juiced out of what you had with that person. And to know that is part of it, part of being a social being : the chance that it will fail, that you will not be able to wrap things up in a nice bow and share the wonders of that gift, together.

But I ought to know, also, the potential beauty in taking this risk. To know that each time a friendship does blossom, it is despite this risk, this potential sacrifice that both parties have made. To think about successful familial relationships in the context of this risk. To remember my mother and father, for example, who came to New York City to follow their dreams to be psychoanalysts and met at a Marxist psychoanalytic conference in 1980, ultimately falling in love and themselves creating a beautiful, expansive family that means everything to me today.

My grandmother, without whom my family would not be possible, lived a full, long life. Born in 1925, she witnessed a fundamentally transformative period of human history. She made and raised four children, who have collectively produced seven children themselves.

No matter the extent of our closeness in life, we will always remain connected, contingent, knotted to the same web of lineage. She produced and nurtured half of my genetic makeup, half of me and my siblings. This connection with my Bubba will continue to express itself as my ongoing relationship with my family — both given and chosen — develops and evolves.


Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at