Thirty years ago, my 92 year old grandmother tried to kill herself. They called us from her personal care residence to say she had been found unresponsive, with an empty bottle of pills by her bed. My brother and I rushed to the hospital and heard the sound of her stomach being pumped. For all of you who have never heard this before, it is an awful sound. My brother and I looked at each other, wishing they had not found her in time. Shouldn’t a 92 year old be able to decide when enough is enough?
My grandmother became a widow with two children at 21. Seventy years later, she had buried three husbands, both of her children and one grandchild. Pain from persistent shingles, “pleurisy” and arthritis was constant and all consuming. When doctors gave her enough medicine to control her pain, she was too lethargic and nonfunctioning to live independently. So she faced her own brand of Sophie’s choice — live with pain and be independent, or be pain-free and live in a nursing home. She opted for a third choice.
Everyone called my grandmother Anya, short for Anyuka, the Hungarian word for mother. I think the first grandchild determines what grandparents are called, and my oldest brother chose Anya. In 1931, not knowing any English, Anya left her children with her parents in Hungary and came to America to make a better life for her family. Two years later, she married a widower with children and brought my mother and uncle to this country. Life during the Depression was hard, for Anya and millions of others. But over time, she lived the American dream. She started businesses, and although many failed, some succeeded. Her son became a doctor, and her daughter married a pharmacist. Both had single homes in the suburbs!
From my earliest memories, Anya ran guest houses in Atlantic City, and ran bazaars for the Hebrew Old Age Home. Anya was a strong woman, a force to be reckoned with. For years, whenever my husband wanted to annoy me, he would say, “You’re just like your grandmother.” Since I knew that he meant her stubbornness and domineering personality, he succeeded. But over time, I’ve come to realize that I probably am a lot like her. I am, most people would agree, very driven. I’ve decided that being “a force to be reckoned with” does not need to be a bad thing. A lot of good things get accomplished by people who are forces to be reckoned with.
As hard as Anya was on me, and that is a topic for a different blog, I so respected her independence and knew what it meant to her. Although there were Board and Care homes back then, there were no assisted living residences — not that she would have agreed to go to one. She was adamant that she live within her means and not touch her “principle.” I wish there had been other living options, as there are now. I wish “The Conversation Project” existed, helping families have important end of life conversations. But this was 1989. Jack Kavorkian had just been charged with first degree murder. Ironically, my grandmother died both too soon and not soon enough.
As we listened to the stomach pump, my brother and I seriously contemplated helping Anya die, if that was what she wanted. When we saw her the next morning, she was disoriented and did not mention her failed suicide attempt. She was discharged to a nursing home where she shared a room with three other women. Two weeks later, we received a message on our answering machine that she had died. I like to think that today, news of this type is not shared via message machine.
My brother and I felt relief when Anya died. We felt it was what she wanted. We were both young parents and could not fathom burying our children. We couldn’t fathom living with constant, excruciating pain. But we could fathom what losing independence meant to Anya, and we were glad she had found a third choice. It was the right choice for her.
Twenty years later, when my children asked what my grandchildren should call me, I told them, “Anya.”