How Ignoring My Grandma's Calls Helped Me Grieve For Her

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
By Sara Goldfarb

“What’s the matter with you? Is your finger broken?” This was my grandmother's typical refrain when I hadn’t called frequently enough. She needed to know: what I had planned for the weekend, what time I got to bed last night, and whether I was eating enough, but not too much.
Answering questions on the phone was rote. "Yes, grandma; no, grandma; fine, grandma; I promise I’m going to schedule the baby-naming, grandma." I fed her information like an IV drip — enough to scratch her itch, but not enough to elicit additional questions. As it was, I only allotted her five minutes of call time on my drive to work. I told her, and convinced myself, that I was only able to fit in that short call — sandwiched between dropping the kids off at daycare and busying myself in the law office. Every other moment was spoken for.

But, I gave her those five minutes, every day, because I owed it to her. She was my mother when my mother couldn’t be one. She was my sister because I didn’t have one. And, she was always my Jewish grandmother. With the Coney Island apartment that smelled like matzoh balls and white fish. With a wardrobe that seemed to consist exclusively of two extremes: housecoat vs. wedding best. With her hand always holding the phone — her lifeline to everyone who had made the exodus from New York.

I, too, made my exodus. To Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut. And, life in those states got busy. So busy that — I can now admit — I sometimes sent my grandmother's calls to voicemail. Sometimes, I did that daily. Sometimes more than once daily.

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Sending someone to voicemail is the equivalent of shutting a door in their face. Without a word, the message is loud and clear: I’m busy. Don’t interrupt me. You’re not important enough right now.

She knew. I knew she knew, because she’d leave a message that was laced with smirk. Instinctively, her innate Grandma Radar knew when I’d hit the red button for no good reason at all. “I know you’re very, very busy, Sara," she'd say. "Too busy for your grandmother. But…” I’d laugh and roll my eyes when I got around to listening to the message. And, sometimes, I’d call her right back. But, not always.
Then, one day, she fell. Though it wasn’t too serious, she hurt her shoulder enough to go to the hospital for a fix. But, when you’re over 80 and you land in the hospital with a shoulder fracture, sometimes, you don't leave — until you're transferred to hospice.

A few short weeks after my grandma was admitted, my father called to tell me that I should fly down to Florida. One day later, I arrived in Deerfield Beach. Despite the unseasonably mild weather in Florida, I pressed cool washcloths to my grandmother's forehead in a vain attempt to keep her sweat at bay.

I had never, in 35 years, seen my grandmother without blow-dried hair. Now, I combed it back against her scalp, wet from the dampened cloths. Despite the gray walls, the somber staff, and the heavy weight of goodbyes that hung in the air, we laughed. We ate Blackjack Cherry ice cream that I snuck in from the local market. A decades-long tradition — a flavor I only ever ate while visiting her. Sometimes, you don't know when a moment is your last; sometimes, you do.

My grandmother told me to make sure we all took care of each other. Then, we said goodbye.

I don’t cry often. But, I cried while walking to my car. And, I cried on the flight home. I cried, days later, when my father called to tell me she was gone.

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
I cried every day on the drive to work. I refused to call anyone during that drive, because that time belonged to her. Instead, I listened to songs that reminded me of her. I mourned her in that sacred space, alone in my car — my private, morning sanctuary.

And, wallowing in my Jewish guilt (doing Grandma proud), I thought of all the days I could have heard her voice, but chose not to, because I sent her to voicemail. Then, months into this somber routine, I realized she was still there…in my phone. In years’ worth of voicemails I had collected, disregarded, but never deleted.

I pulled over and scrolled down the list. They were all there. I closed my eyes and listened to her sing "happy anniversary" to me on October 26 the previous year. I listened to her invite me to sleep over at her Brooklyn apartment on Rosh Hashanah, in case I didn’t feel like driving back to Connecticut. And, I listened to her chastise me, in the way only a grandmother can, for not picking up the darn phone. But now, instead of rolling my eyes, I shut them and let her voice fill the car. Fill my ears. Fill my soul. She was with me. And, though the tears continued to fall, they were drawn from joy as well as grief. Because anytime I needed to hear her, I could.

My phone, once a virtual weapon against my grandmother's ceaseless intrusions, was now my one passage to her — to my childhood, to my home, and to peace.

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