Lessons from my Grandmother: You Have to Breathe

I walk through the neighborhood in what for me is an uncommon pose – earbuds in, sunglasses on, shunning the world. I’m listening to a meditation app I purchased months ago. I programmed it to remind me every morning to meditate, and I ignore it every day. I decide to try it again. I choose from its menu: Stress-reduction, Sleep, Gratitude, Happiness. I pick the last. Everyone can use some more happiness.

It’s sort of cheating to walk while meditating, I think, as the lady’s calm voice tells me to sit straight and close my eyes, but it’s what I’ve decided to do. The meditation lady can’t judge me; today’s 12 minutes of happiness are about self-love, and learning to stop self-criticizing and comparing. So there will be no judgment of my walking-while-meditating. Besides, I once heard that “walking meditation” is a thing, so I have cover.

It’s also likely cheating that I’m carrying letters to the mailbox, but multi-tasking makes me happier, so good for me. Still, my fingers can’t release and relax entirely until I drop those off. Once I release them, I concentrate more on my breath, and not getting hit by a car when I cross the street.

“Feel any physical discomforts in your body. And rather than wish them away, acknowledge them, be aware of them, send kindness to them. Breathe into them.”

I forget to breathe and instead consider that I’m generally happy enough, so maybe this meditation on “happiness” might be wasted. Maybe I should have picked a different category. Patience. Forgiveness.

But as I turn the corner past a gorgeous house, bigger and newer and for sure cleaner than mine, I realize that I have been judging myself, thus decreasing my happiness. I’ve been judging my frustration over my writing not flowing lately. The app lady isn’t saying “don’t feel frustrated,” I think she’s telling me not to judge myself for being frustrated, not to judge my writing being stuck. Embrace or accept the frustration. Let it be.

Hmm, I think I feel happier?

My grandmother had radiation treatments for a tumor in her jaw earlier this year. They were not easy, but the tumor was painful and keeping her from eating, so the treatment was necessary for her comfort. The treatments were twice a day.

Just getting out of her building, into and out of a car, and back again, twice in one day was a herculean task. Her attitude could have been, “Forget it, I surrender.” But instead she chose to face it: “If that’s what I have to do, that’s what I have to do.” I accompanied her a few times.

The waiting room of a radiation treatment clinic can remind you of what you have to be grateful for. As I sat waiting for my grandmother to be called, a 17-year-old boy in Nikes and a forty-something man in a black suit and kipah asked each other how radiation was going for each of them – it was the exhaustion they agreed was most difficult.

For Lilli, the most difficult part might have been going from seated in her wheelchair to lying on the metal platform. At home, she was often scared just to go from her wheelchair to the couch. Courage. Here, she  had to lie down on the cold, hard metal, no cushion, no pillow – no guardrails. They placed a hard plastic mask shaped to her face over her, and she had to stay motionless while the platform ascended closer, closer to the source of the radiation that would hopefully give her more time, with less pain. She was allowed to drape over her a small, soft, blanket knitted by Marni.

I had more than once been in dark movie theaters with Lilli, when she was the only person in the audience to scream out in fear when a slightly startling event took place. Stillness, quietness, in the face of fear was not her natural state.

The two radiation technicians treated her respectfully and tenderly. She was no doubt afraid. Of falling off. Of being zapped with radiation. Of cancer. Of dying. But she did not complain or cry. She did not ask “why me.” She did what had to be done.

They called me back in when the treatment ended.  The two technicians were helping her into the wheelchair.

“The key is meditating,” she said to all of us. “You have to breathe.”

She would be back later that day. The tumor would shrink enough to give her more comfort, more time. To give us all more time. And maybe a few more lessons in happiness.

Dancing

Ballroom Dancing circa 2002

Greatgrandchildren

Laughing with all 7 great-grandchildren, Oct 2015.

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How to See Miracles

My grandmother Lilli Diamond has taught me many things. Among some of the lasting lessons:

  • The Yiddish word for “stickshift” is…“stickshift”;
  • If someone declines your offer of a banana, offer him half a banana (because why would anyone in his right mind turn down a banana??)
  • Laugh every day, even if you “gotta crack your own self up.”
  • Use hyperbole to heighten one’s sunny outlook, as in “This is the best hot dog I ever had! In my whole life I never had a hot dog as good as this!”

This last point deserves explanation. A person could think such extravagant exuberance could dilute genuine emotional power; if everything is grand, nothing is. But it’s the opposite. She says it with such enthusiasm, she convinces you. She convinces herself.

(On the other hand, maybe the hot dog warranted the outburst; she eats fruit for dessert every day, and disdains those at her old folks’ home (her words) who order ice cream. And I’m thinking – Grandma, if not now, when?)

So forget the hot dog. Let’s try another example. A few minutes ago she called to tell me: “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.” Let’s hear it, Grandma. “Today, when the girl went down to the dining room to get my oatmeal, they were all out. Guess what I had for breakfast? I had the scone that you brought me yesterday!” To some, a rock-hard day-old scone; to her, a Hanukah miracle.

“I know I’ve told you this before,” she said to me yesterday as we crept toward the dining room at lunchtime. We were trailing behind another lady using a walker, and a man in a wheelchair passed us – unfair advantage, he had an aide. She paused to allow herself a fit of laughter at the incongruousness of where she found herself and her self-image. “I sometimes imagine that I’m in a play,” she continued, “and I’ve gone to the Director, and he has handed me my sides. ‘You’re going to play an elderly lady. Go to hair. Go to makeup. Go to costume,’ she looks down at her outfit and starts laughing again. ‘Go to props,’ she says, shaking with giggles and grasping her walker. ‘And go live at that Belmont with all the old people.’” She is playing a role – her outside a far cry from her inner life.

I laugh with her. We may cry a little, too. But right now we stand in a bubble, no one else can come in. Not the helpful staff, nor the perplexed residents. It’s our moment. I breathe in whatever I can from her. I inhale her amazement at the ordinary moment, her ability to find something wonderful or hilarious in the midst of a depressing milieu, her determination to sustain and entertain herself, an 18-year-old spirit in a…an older woman’s body.