When my maternal grandparents passed away within two years of each other, I was still in elementary school. Obviously life happens: nobody can plan when it’s supposed to end. (I’m not even sure if anyone would want to plan the timing of that milestone.) Those of us who are left behind usually say things like, “I wish she were still living” or “He died way too soon” or, as if to justify feeling robbed of more time, “Only the good die young.” All I knew as a young girl was that I was going to miss my grandparents terribly, and I have.
Lucky for my sister and me, Marilyn and her husband Jack–who were my grandparents’ best friends–stepped in as “Bonus Grandparents”. They didn’t have grandkids of their own and whether or not they verbally promised (as best friends do) our grandparents that they would be in our lives, they picked up–in their own way–where our grandparents left off.
When we lived away from Chicago for a while we’d come back to visit and Marilyn would always have a table full of food: overfull, really, because that’s the Jewish mother way. She would implore us to eat more corned beef, new pickles, bagels, everything, even though we were stuffed and couldn’t fit in another bite. Her fussing over us all came from the heart and if there ever was an ideal hostess, she was it.
Her pet name for all of us was “Dolly”. It tripped off of her tongue naturally and, especially because nobody had ever called us that before (or since), it made us feel so special.
She and Jack traveled from Chicago to Tennessee for my high school graduation, and they were there for the surprise party I was given when I turned thirty.
Not too long ago, she said to me, “I was not happy when you got married so young.” So honest, and she wasn’t alone in her feelings back then. She understood though, having been married to the love of her life, and nodded when I said, “Yeah, but it all worked out very well, don’t you think?”
She was a link to my “real” Grandma, and we shared memories of going to lunch with my mom and grandmother, Marilyn laughing along with us as my mom smuggled our then-new dachshund into the mall in a big purse, or all of us spending what seemed like hours to a child, browsing on Chicago’s Jewelers’ Row (specifically at a shop owned by Mike Pope).
We loved talking to Marilyn about how she met Jack. They were quite the dynamic duo and her stories were fun to hear. Upon finding a picture of the two of them, cigarettes in hand, on the beach back in the 1940’s, my sister said to her, “YOU SMOKED?” Marilyn said, “Oh yes, it was glamorous back then…” When we were going through her condo in preparation for the move to the nursing home in May, we found a box of cards that Jack and Marilyn had given to each other over the years. They were so in love; it was incredible to have a glimpse into that, more than five years after Jack’s passing.
Moving Marilyn into the nursing home was a difficult (while eye-opening) experience for my sister and me, along with Marilyn’s daughter-in-law, with whom we have become close as we banded together to be a “Three Muskateers” team of sorts in dealing with Marilyn’s care.
For the last two weeks, Marilyn was in the hospital right next door to her nursing home, stricken with pneumonia. For someone who was wheelchair-bound and barely had the use of one hand since a stroke years and years ago, someone who could barely do anything for herself, this was a devastating blow. We went to visit her as much as we could, even just to sit there mostly quiet next to her, just to be with her. On the day when we made the 45-minute drive and walked in only to hear her tell us that we shouldn’t be there and that we should leave right then, we did just that, telling her that we loved her and that we’d be back soon.
One day my sister burned a CD of Johnny Mathis songs–Marilyn’s favorite; she was even a long-time member of his fan club–and we brought a boombox to leave in the hospital room. We were talking with Marilyn and she would pipe in with song names as each one began.
We discussed the act of winking and how my sister can only wink with one eye but I can wink with either eye at will, both of us leaning in close enough for Marilyn to see us both at the same time, demonstrating our mad winking skills. The sight of Marilyn’s face scrunching up so she could wink with us in a forced moment of levity is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Marilyn wasn’t getting better, in spite of the medical staff’s best efforts. The most recent plan was to move Marilyn from the hospital back to her room at the nursing home today, so she could be in hospice care surrounded by her pictures and other familiar surroundings. We were worried how she’d take the move, knowing it would be traumatic because she wasn’t understanding everything anymore.
We just got word that Marilyn passed away last night, just after midnight. We are saddened but relieved: relieved that she doesn’t have to suffer anymore, relieved that she doesn’t have to go through that move back to the home, not understanding what was happening or where she was being taken. We’re relieved that, according to the nurses, she died peacefully, just drifting away in sleep.
Though she will be missed greatly here on earth, I love the idea that in some way she will be reunited with Jack. They were meant to be together forever.
Thanks for everything, Marilyn. I love you.