Being a Grandmother
Once again, I was awed at the birthing process. When I held you, naked little miracle, in my arms, tears came to my eyes. Already I loved you, totally and without limits. As a physician, I had helped many mothers deliver their babies, held the newborns in my hands, but never had I experienced such overwhelming exhilaration. I wanted to sing and dance in the delivery room with you, Johanna, share my joy with the world. I was grateful that you were born into a family that welcomed you and in a country where food and shelter were available. I knew millions of other people had become grandparents, but this night was unique for me. Too excited to go to sleep, I speculated about your future. Already my hopes for you were idealistic, mixed with worries for your health and safety. When you were a baby with big brown eyes and no hair, lying on your stomach in my sleeping bag, on the floor in my room, I talked to you, long before you could answer, Johanna. I thanked you for your smile; which, as your grandmother, I imagined was your way of showing me that you loved me.
It was my good fortune to be allowed to participate in my first grandchild’s life and care. My daughter, Ingrid, and I practiced medicine together and because of the demanding schedule of that profession, we both were on call for the medical practice as well as for childcare.
Johanna was three when her sister, Leah, was born. She became an important person in Johanna’s and my life. She had to stay in intensive care at the hospital and every day, after visiting, Johanna would ask, “Is she coming home with me today? She is hungry, I have to feed her.”
Once school started I picked up the girls every day, helped with homework, piano lessons and play. It became obvious that Johanna loved to learn and it was a pleasure to teach her. The three of us, Johanna, Leah and I, also had time to build dollhouses out of cardboard boxes and tell stories about two fairies, Pixie and Schnibbelienchen, who became part of our daily life. The fairies slid down icicles and flew to the moon. Telling stories was déjàvu for me. My own children loved to hear stories. I told them dog stories because I had a son who was not much interested in fairies. The chance to relive the best moments I had with my own children through my grandchildren was an unexpected delight. Johanna and her sister performed in talent shows to raise money for the community food bank and collected for UNICEF. As a grandmother I could not have asked for more. To be present while Johanna’s life unfolded was a continuing source of happiness for me.
Together, eight year old Johanna and I, traveled to Washington DC to view the Vermeer exhibit in 1996. We were both overcome and inspired by the beauty this great Dutch master left for us. We always remembered how the light came in the windows of his pictures and fell on the lovely women he painted. Johanna told me, “Oma, I really like the blue dress that girl in the picture is wearing, can we find a T-shirt that color?”
We visited many museums in later years, but the magic, the enchantment of that first show never left us.
Johanna, Leah and I, liked to hike in the Colorado Mountains. Inevitably, before we progressed up the trail, the girls would find a cave and set up housekeeping. I walked up and down the path until I received an invitation for tea. With pinecones for pretend cookies, I would delicately sip my tea before suggesting that we climb on up the hill. The girls’ imaginary play led us into the wilderness time after time. To be invited to be part of that play kept my own imagination from drying up.
Johanna grew beautiful in appearance and spirit. Her eyes remained expressive, her skin clear. Her smile suffused her entire face and revealed her ample lips and white teeth. When she was eleven, her thoughtful spirit became evident. On a hot, dry summer day we took a bike ride together from my house to hers. Halfway between the two homes, Johanna paused at the bottom of a rise, below the only shade tree along the unpaved road, and said, “May be you should get off your bike, Oma, and have a rest and a drink before we go on.”
Her concern for my welfare was a reversal of roles that I accepted gratefully as a grandmother.
As she became older Johanna made good friends and spent more of her free time with them, occasionally breaking an appointment we had for a Kaffeeklatsch (cup of coffee). We talked less often, and when we did it was about the news, history, and philosophy. To know what occupied her helped me keep in touch. Her Bat mitzvah was a link, a celebration of her future and her family’s and my past. She embraced all of us with her warmth and knowledge of her role on that occasion. I recognized her maturity and, as her grandmother, knew that another important milestone in her life had passed.
Johanna became a scholar. Teachers and college admission committees recognized her prowess. Now I became a sounding board for her; read and corrected her essays and research papers. We were equals in our striving to write well. I was her consultant, no longer her teacher. This was a chapter of grandmotherhood I truly enjoyed. What a pleasure to be allowed to reflect with a young woman, decades younger than I, to learn what she was thinking about and trying to resolve.
Grandparents, who have lost a grandchild, undoubtedly share my despair caused by Johanna’s death, at age twenty, at the hands of James, a rabid anti-Semite. I pondered, the day she died, whether Johanna had opened my email in the morning before she went to classes and then to work where she was shot. I had told her once again that I loved her, but then I asked myself, ‘What difference does it make now?’ In disbelief, I waited for an answer to my email. Part of me died with Johanna. My love for her had lost its focal point.
“There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief”
Aeschylus, Greek Poet (525 BC-456 BC)
The police stand at the door and screen every mourner who attends Johanna’s memorial in Colorado. The police, in 1936, also stood at the door of our temple in Nazi Germany and harassed us as we were trying to enter to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, New Years. The police at the temple door were not there to protect us, as they are now, but both times it was anti-Semitism that summoned them.
James, according to his diary, felt compelled to kill Jewish college students. My granddaughter, Johanna, satisfied his need. She was a Jewish third year student at college in Connecticut, and he shot and killed her. Whether James acted alone was an unanswered question at the time of the memorial, which was the reason for the police presence. Hatred of Jews killed my relatives and classmates when I was a child during the Holocaust in Europe. It pursued me to New England in the United States in the 1940s. ‘Churches nearby’, at that time, meant Jews are not welcome at this hotel, swimming pool or golf club. ‘Quotas’ kept me out of universities. In Massachusetts landlords would not rent to my family because we were Jews. Anti-Semitism, however, never wounded me as grievously as this time, with the murder of my granddaughter.
Friends have come from far away to share this hour of sorrow with us. There are not enough chairs and people have to stand in the funeral home. Leah arrives from Minnesota. Her college campus also is overrun with police to protect the students from more unforeseen violence. In the cab, on her way to Colorado, she is weeping silently. The taxi driver guesses who she is and why, in the middle of the semester, she is going home. He refuses her payment, but hugs her gently, when they arrive at the airport. Leah joins her mother. They are relieved that Johanna’s face is not disfigured by the bullets that killed her. Ingrid touches her daughter’s hair gently.* Johanna’s father, paralyzed by grief, stares at the coffin. I, Johanna’s grandmother, want to remember Johanna’s smile and beauty; I do not want to look at her immobile, dead features.
We gather in silence and sit in a circle. Ingrid holds her face in her hands, her head on her knees, no tears, no noise, just a gesture of despair. Johanna’s favorite teacher from junior high tells us, during the service, that she is convinced that Johanna’s parents instilled a thirst for learning in their daughter. Her high school teacher talks of her beautiful spirit and how interested she was in sharing her Jewish heritage with her Quaker friends at boarding school. I stand to voice my feelings:
“We mourn, we pray, we question, we join to spend our tears.
Some of us are here because our parents escaped from the pogroms in Eastern Europe, some of us are here because our parents escaped from the Holocaust in Western Europe.
All of us have witnessed fanaticism and anti-Semitism in our own country. Now we have lost a precious life because James murdered Johanna.
She, although young in years, worked hard to combat prejudice and hatred directed at minorities, at the downtrodden and disadvantaged. As a youngster Johanna and the children of the co-housing community, where she played and studied, put on street fairs, rope jumping contests and talent show to raise pennies for the Larimer County Food Bank.
When in high school, Johanna was part of the United Nations assembly at Columbia University, as she became older she interpreted Spanish for Planned Parenthood and volunteered to help with the care of abused and neglected children. She taught English in Europe; did construction work on the Lakota reservation. In college she studied gender politics and agitated for women’s rights. Her goal was to become conversant with international access to medical care by attending graduate school at Columbia.
As devastated as I am, I am determined to continue Johanna’s efforts to make the world a safer place for people of various backgrounds and all religions, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and others. I do not wish to confront hate with hate. Johanna can no longer help us, but join me in my striving to honor her by making a strong commitment to win respect and justice for all people every where.”
As we sit in silence, looking at a beautiful photograph of Johanna, I hear whispers in the hallway. I sigh with relief because I know Johanna’s Blank, which her college friends sent via overnight express, has arrived. Ingrid feels sure that Johanna needs Blank to accompany her; she cannot let her go without Blank.
Johanna’s Blank, decorated with red, blue and yellow clowns, was a soft flannel receiving blanket. Johanna had loved Blank since she was a baby. Blank had been patched repeatedly and mended with Ingrid’s well-worn flannel nightgown. Blank shared many adventures with Johanna.
One sunny day, while driving on a busy highway Johanna’s mother heard a cry of despair from the back seat. She pulled to the side of the road and turned to see her five-year-old daughter in shock, devastated. “What’s wrong, Johanna?”
“Blank flew away.”
She had held Blank out the window to let him get some fresh air and the wind had torn the blanket out of her hand. Four of us, Leah, Johanna, Oma and Ingrid, got out of the car and walked back along the road for quite a distance. Blank was lying in the middle of the lane with cars zooming by in both directions. There was no way we could cross this busy traffic. Then, to our astonishment, a police car came by. We waved, shouted, signaled and the highway patrol person stopped. We explained our dilemma. He must have had children. Without a word he turned on his lights and stopped the traffic. Four of us, holding hands, walked across the highway to retrieve Blank. Johanna hugged the officer and Blank and we drove on, grateful for the outcome of this unexpected adventure.
Johanna grew older. One summer she and her sister, as well as her mother and grandmother worked as volunteers on the Lakota Indian reservation. There they slept with the other volunteers in a veterans’ meeting hall. Blank was very handy for shutting out the noise of the communal snoring at night.
Before her Bat mitzvah, Johanna recited Hebrew prayers and practiced chanting to Blank. She did well when the important day arrived, on which she dedicated herself to continue her studies of Judaism as a responsible adult member of the congregation.
Blank became a seasoned traveler. He accompanied Johanna to Mexico and Spain where she became fluent in Spanish. Johanna volunteered to teach English in Italy, and visited relatives in England, with Blank. She confided to him that she wanted to be a writer. She also wanted to provide access to medical care for people worldwide.
Blank and an old T-shirt of Ingrid’s, which ‘smells like Mom,’ were always packed last and unpacked first when trips to and from boarding school and college started. There was a special spot in Johanna’s large suitcase for Blank as there was under her pillow. The tears she shed when a boyfriend broke up with her were absorbed by Blank. As long as Blank was there, homesickness was not a problem.
When Johanna was shot and killed in May of the year 2009 her Mother gently tucked Blank next to her daughter and while we recited the Kaddish, Blank and Johanna were buried together in a plain pine coffin.
ON THIS DAY
Still, time continues on without pause for our despair. May 9, 2010, a year ago, my Love, you were murdered. Today I cannot imagine not missing you, Johanna, always and all the time. Yet, this seems like any other day of longing, mourning, struggling. Sadness comes in waves, like the ocean, drowning me at times and then throwing me on the beach to continue my effort to find meaning, perhaps even joy. Many of your friends are celebrating, graduating this month. Not you Johanna. You will never be present to accept your certificate, your honors; we will not attend your ceremony. I must take care not to let my despair color the recognition of my other grandchildren’s achievements. Let more days pass. Perhaps the ocean waves will become gentle. Perhaps, I will, once more, participate in life.
The woodpeckers are playing their marimbas in the tall trees.
A yellow crocus is blooming.
I long to tell you of this, Johanna.
Every spring we celebrated the awakening.
Today the shy, humble flower makes me weep.
No longer can I share the joy of spring with you.
As the anniversary of your death passes my dreams become more vivid. I do not usually remember dreams. On waking, they leave me; disappear like mist in the wind. Not now, now they color my day, impose their sadness on my laughter. Asleep, I search for you, Johanna, at school, in the garden, in your home. Overcome with anxiety, I call, I beg, “Johanna, where are you? Call me, email me.”
Tears course down my cheeks as I rouse from dreaming and know that I will never find you.
More than once, I dream of a tiny, naked, emaciated baby, more delicate than a hatchling just emerging from its egg and I hold this infant creature to my body to warm it, my breast to nourish it. My efforts do not keep this child alive. “I cannot rescue you, Johanna.”
As a responsible caretaker I fail. In my dream I am skating with Leah, Johanna and Ingrid. It is a sunny day and we are suffused with joy. There is a sudden, loud cracking of the ice. Johanna drowns. Guilt burdens me. Could I, could anyone, have warned Johanna? No. There was no way any of us could have prevented her tragic death, but the guilt does not leave me with the rational thought that comes with daylight.
I also have a good dream, which leaves me with longing so acute I cannot concentrate on my daytime tasks. Johanna, Leah and I are walking holding hands. The girls are young and on this walk we meet a baby rabbit. Entranced, we stand and watch. We love each other tenderly as we admire the baby rabbit.
Another night I hold two brightly colored leaves in my hand. When I get home, I will put them in a leaf press for my granddaughters. When I wake, my thumb and index finger are curled, as if gently holding the leaf stems. With sudden clairvoyance I realize I only need one leaf.
Fear haunts me. I might forget what Johanna’s smile looks like, how she moves and talks. Dreams, like flashbacks, let me glimpse her. She seems alive when I am sleeping. My dreams, my anxieties, my pain are only mine and as John Updike writes in his poem ‘Pain’
“And shows us, too, how those around us
do not and cannot share our being;”
A single tear courses slowly down my daughter’s cheek. She is lying on the sofa hoping to nap because she is not sleeping at night. Her head is pillowed by an old pair of Johanna’s pajamas; their fragrance has outlasted Johanna’s life. Ingrid’s beautiful face expresses only pain and agony. Her eyes are closed. I see no quietude.
Can I, is there a way to, share her pain and thereby ameliorate her suffering? Can I speed the recovery of her laughter, her energy; the warmth that makes her patients love her? No, I cannot. I can no longer comfort her, which intensifies my own sorrow. I want to offer her warm milk from my breast, calm her with soft noises, shh..shh..shh, as I did when she was a newborn. Offering comfort then was effective, as was patting her back when she was a toddler. Comforting her as a teenager became more difficult and as a young woman my daughter had to struggle with loss and learn to survive. Now we both are grieving. The violent death of Johanna has catapulted us into an unfamiliar state of mourning where we have lost our way. The close, loving relationship I have always enjoyed, both with my daughter and her younger daughter, Leah, has changed. We hardly talk, too absorbed in our own despair to be able to connect. That increases the loneliness and isolation of our pain.
Johanna was Leah’s prototype and advisor. “It is hard to be the only child,” Leah says, “nobody tells me what to do.”
Even as a three-year-old Johanna worried about Leah, felt responsible for her. Johanna adored moths; she knew they were fragile with delicate wings and little feelers to find their way. She would tell me, “This tiny moth was just born; she can’t even fly yet, her feelers might get hurt. She has a bracelet on her arm. Is anyone going to take her home from the hospital?” She felt distressed that her little sister, Leah, had to stay in the hospital after she was born. Johanna never stopped looking out for her sister, giving her advice.
With Johanna we have lost the person we nurtured, worried about, since she was a baby. The habit of being concerned about her welfare, her safety, has not stopped, in spite of the sudden void left by her death. My daughter tells me that, “I keep having the irrational fear that Johanna will be lonely and cold where ever she is.”
We cannot yet incorporate thinking about her nothingness as part of our present, our future. My granddaughter queries, “Do you think we will meet Johanna when we die?”
My response, “I don’t think so. I speculate that death is an emptiness, a void.”
Johanna’s mother says, “I have to hope, or I’ll despair.”
The only way I share my daughter’s pain is because I also feel pain at the death of my twenty-year-old granddaughter. In addition, I feel deep sadness that I cannot help my daughter. We both must go through this valley of death alone, even if side-by-side. Holding each other confirms to us that we are both suffering and that we love each other, but the pain is our own, and only our own.
Death often weighs heavier on us by its weight on others, and pains us by their pain almost as much as by our own, and sometimes even more.
Three years later we dab our eyes with cold water to hide the telltale redness caused by our weeping. We cry in museums, at sunrises, at beauty because we are reminded of how much Johanna cannot enjoy; how much sharing with her enhanced our own enjoyment. Sleep is better, so is concentration; appetite and decreasing memory has improved. The wailing, when I am alone, is less frequent. Yet, it is because my own pain has not left me that I think continually about what Ingrid must endure. Perhaps being together, quietly, in the same room helps her as it helps me. Perhaps embracing helps, candles and flowers help. We gauge each other’s state of mind by asking neutral questions, which do not require specific answers, “Were you able to sleep last night? How did your day go?”
My spirit has become heavy; the effervescence I used to experience when hiking in the mountains, listening to music, or visiting art museums has disappeared. My daughter complains of the same ennui. Nothing excites her. She states, “I have become a different person.”
Leah shares a new level of apprehension with us, “Don’t leave a message to call home without telling me why I should call.”
We ponder whether we will ever again be the people we used to be.
I dread holidays, as does the rest of the family. Should we go out of town? Skip the holiday? Last Thanksgiving we decided that we would change place and manner of celebrating; perhaps, we could ease the pain of missing Johanna at the table.
On vacation we are shocked into silence as the hostess greets us, “Three of you tonight?” This is our first attempt to vacation without Johanna, and we are still learning that there are only three of us not four. When we stop for coffee, on our drive south from Colorado, I know Ingrid’s order without asking, but question, “Leah, do you want coffee or tea this time?”
Then, to myself, I add, ‘I know what Johanna would have wanted,’ and turn quickly to hide the tears flooding my eyes.
In New Mexico we drive through a wild sand storm with howling winds. When we arrive, after dark, at our destination, Ghost Ranch, we find our cabin. There are only three beds, silently we remind ourselves, we only need three. Ingrid tells me that, “We are unbalanced” in our present constellation.
The next morning we are startled by the dramatic landscape. Huge rocks, which stimulate the imagination, arise unexpectedly all around the Ranch. Like Polonius in Hamlet who likens the shape of a cloud to ‘very like a whale’, we see fortresses, castles, animals, and faces in the rocks. The mountains are multi-colored, dark red, brown and tan, the hues change every moment with shifting sun and shade.
In the barn Leah finds four tiny kittens, their eyes still closed. She plays with them for hours. Johanna would have loved these baby animals, would have enjoyed helping Leah care for them. Accepting that this cannot happen is difficult for me.
When, on one of our walks, Ingrid turns to me with tears running down her cheeks and asks, “Will we ever be the same again?”
I answer with honest conviction, “No.”
We miss you, Johanna, even more while on vacation than when we are at work. We are incomplete, splintered, and we cannot become whole. All we have is your picture in our suitcase; all we want is your presence.
We drive through beautiful country, and as we approach home we are glad to be back, glad to have the distraction of work tomorrow. We think in familiar, less exciting surroundings, we will miss you less acutely and constantly.
Every day I remind myself, Johanna, of what you wrote when you were fourteen; it helps me to carry out my intention of not confronting ‘hate with hate,’ but of becoming ‘a messenger of peace’.
Johanna wrote: “I cannot let my hope fly out the window of my spirit when I am in despair about the world’s problems. I am willing to make a difference in many lives, globally, and transform the hatred that exists into the emotion of love. A goal of mine is to become a messenger of peace, a leader in a future movement of spirituality, a lover of all…I know I am going to make my dreams real.”
James’ trial was reported in the national and local media. Friends tell me, “You’ll be glad when the trial is over because you’ll find some closure.”
I look up ‘closure’ in the dictionary. It is defined as: ‘a conclusion, an end.’ The trial has come to an end. I know that I do not hate James. My urgent wish is that, in his confinement, he will not be able to hurt someone else. I feel sad for his family. As to closure, at this time I am not even able to erase Johanna from my cell phone, my email. She is still on my Skype. Ingrid cannot throw away any scrap of paper that involves Johanna, not even her lower-school grades. The visible, palpable evidence of Johanna’s existence we cannot discard; maybe later? I stutter whenever I am asked, “How many grandchildren do you have?”
Does Leah say, ‘none’ when asked how many siblings she has? And what is Ingrid’s answer to the frequent question, “How many children do you have?”
I question, I doubt whether there will be a closure for us in the future. Ingrid and I decided not to attend James’ trial since our presence would in no way influence the outcome. Johanna’s father and his parents did travel to Connecticut.
Since the end of the trial–James was judged innocent because of insanity– I have tried to reason about insanity. As a physician, I am familiar with the irrational convictions of paranoid individuals, like James, that they are victims of pursuit and persecution. The obsessive thinking impairs the judgment of those suffering from paranoia in certain areas of reasoning, but may leave them capable of planning and maneuvering the demands of everyday living and of carefully scheming a crime. Paranoia is not always accompanied by hatred of a racial or religious group, such as Jews, as it was for James. We can diagnose paranoia. We know that it happens; we only speculate about why it happens.
What I have been thinking about is whether those, such as Joseph Goebbels, Charles Taylor and others accused of crimes against humanity, are “normal” but cruel rather than unbalanced and paranoid. It is difficult for me to separate the fanaticism that leads to mass murder committed by these men from the obsessive qualities of paranoia.
I further question whether the phenomena of the Holocaust, the Tutsi-Hutu conflict represent times of societal imbalance, illness similar to paranoia, with hatred of minorities one of the major symptoms. Hatred of groups frequently involves paranoia. The Jews control the world’s wealth, the Romani steal and abduct children and other irrational thought processes nurture group ostracism. Is the effort to eradicate targeted minorities a symptom of societal paranoia? It seems we are all subject to paranoia, as many of us demonstrated during the McCarthy period. Are the individuals that commit crimes against humanity sane or insane; do they represent extreme examples of paranoia, of acting out in the midst of societal, cultural paranoia?
I understand the concept of psychosis, of insanity. In this state, by definition, contact with reality is impaired. Sometimes, in my thinking about insanity, I find that a rather thin line separates sanity from insanity. Recognizing this elusive line makes me extremely wary of crossing into territory where I will be tempted to prejudge individuals, or groups they belong to, because of their religious beliefs or cultural background. I do not want to fall into the trap, as James did, of hating irrationally.
The proceedings, the sentence at the trial and my thinking about it are, in my mind, separated from Johanna. The end of the trial did not seem to lead to an end of mourning for her, to any form of closure as my friends had predicted. It did leave me with unanswered questions.
Johanna wrote when she was 14, “Acceptance: related to the idea of tolerance…a large and dangerous problem for humankind not to possess the skill of tolerance when interacting with one another in the face of diversity.” It is the pain I have experienced because of anti-Semitism that makes me wary of prejudging other people’s belief, of being intolerant, and thereby inflicting pain.
Renate G. Justin is a retired family physician who received a prize from both the Canadian and United States Academy of Family Physicians for her publications and research on end of life issues. She has published numerous articles in the lay and professional press. Several of her essays are included in anthologies. Her e-book, “The Last Time I Felt Safe” deals with her experiences as a child in Nazi Germany.
*This was a mixed Jewish and Quaker service. For clarification of the Quaker influence on the memorial see the ebook ‘The Last Time I Felt Safe’.