Don’t get a dog: the worst piece of advice my grandma ever gave me

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I’ve traveled a lot of places, and nothing compares to these faces.

It’s common to canonize somebody after they die. When someone we love passes, we often think of them in their most angelic, pure form. At least for a while. It feels awkward and uncouth to recount a recently deceased person’s negative traits. Sometimes it can take months, or even years, before you’re ready to remember them as the flawed, layered person they were in actuality, rather than the holier-than-thou version of themselves you wistfully create as you grieve.

And so, it took me a while to admit to myself that the last piece of advice my grandmother ever gave me was complete and utter bullshit.

It was the Summer of 2013, and grandma had recently been moved into a nursing home. Her husband George had just died, and she was struggling mightily with her Parkinson’s disease. Her spirits were low and she all-but-begged us to help her die, conveniently ignoring the fact that my 59-year-old mother was in a hospital just 15 minutes away, slipping away slowly in palliative care after a massive stroke.

After sitting by my mother’s side for eight or ten hours a day at the hospital, we would go to visit my grandmother in the nursing home (did I mention it was the most depressing summer ever? It was).

“At least grandma will be able to talk back to us!” I said optimistically, on the drive over to visit her with my father. I was exhausted by my mother’s inability to communicate — the stroke took away her language center, meaning she could neither understand or speak to us — so our days dragged on in silence. The prospect of carrying on an actual conversation was a welcome change.

“I wouldn’t count on it. She’s not always lucid,” Dad warned.

As we arrived at the nursing home, my father was intercepted by a nurse wanting to show him a new prospective room for grandma. “You go see your grandmother. I’ll be in shortly,” he told me.

I sat down next to my grandma, who was unusually frail and chatty. Her room had stark white walls, a television, and was outfitted in the same furniture as my college dorm room. I couldn’t help but empathize with her depression. I hated being in this place, and I certainly didn’t have to live here.

“What’s new?!” She asked, chomping at the bit for some news from the outside.

“I am thinking of adopting a dog,” I said. At the time, I was convinced that adopting a dog would help me through my grief, and was the best possible thing I could do.

“Why would you want to do that?!” she asked, appalled.

“Grandma, you know I’ve always wanted a dog.”

“And I’ve never been able to understand why. A dog will chain you. You won’t be able to travel or take off spontaneously or do anything at all. You’ll be stuck with the dog! Don’t tie yourself down with a pet. It’s not a good idea.”

Her words hit me like a gut punch. Was she right? Was I unable to commit to a dog? I’d always wondered if I was really ready; if I should take the plunge or wait for a better, more stable time (note: I did end up waiting for a better time — about 2 more years, and I’m really glad I did). I wanted to say “grandma, you’re one to talk — you already had 3 kids by they time you were my age!” but I didn’t. I couldn’t bear her response and fighting her didn’t seem worth it. Besides, the damage was done.

I said nothing. But I internalized her words, and the hurt that they brought.

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What I should have said: “Grandma, you’re full of shit.” Because LOOK AT THAT FACE!

It’s been nearly two and a half years since that conversation, and only now it strikes me as funny that it was the last lucid talk we ever really had. As I stare down at my puppy Alfie, sleeping peacefully next to me while I work, I am pulled to thoughts of her.

She was right that I used to prize my freedom above all else. In my teens and early twenties, I traveled like I’d never get the chance again. If there was a trip and I could somehow afford it, I went, without thinking much about what I was leaving behind. I stayed gone for as long as I could, often abandoning my apartment for months at a time, soaking in all that the world had to offer me. My wanderlust knew no bounds — I was young and unattached and free.

Sure, coming home to all of my creature comforts was nice, but in truth there wasn’t much there waiting for me; an empty fridge and piling mail.

All of that has changed for me.

Today, my apartment is bursting with love. I have a family to come home to: Dave, our cat Penny and of course, now Alfie. We do almost everything together and being with them fills my heart up to its brim, and makes me feel whole in a way I never imagined before. Leaving them is hard, but not because of logistics or the cost of pet sitters. It’s hard because I love them and I miss them, and frankly, I hate being away from them. They’re my favorites!

Although I have to admit, in many ways, having a dog does bind me. I have to get up each morning at a reasonable time to take him for a walk. I have to plan out my days around his needs: I must make sure he gets his meals, enough exercise and socializing, and that I spend adequate time training and bonding with him. I can’t just pick up and go whenever to wherever. All of that is true.

But when I think about how much I’ve gained — a sweet, loyal companion, a furbaby who loves me no matter what is going on in my life; an unrelenting best friend — I realize that ultimately, “freedom” is not the most important thing to me anymore.

If I could talk to my grandma again, or if I could go back to that conversation, I would kindly tell her what I know now: I could keep my life set up forever so that I am unattached and free. That would mean I could do whatever I want, and I wouldn’t have anyone to answer to. But having a partner and a cat and a dog to love and to love me is worth more than all of that to me now. They give me something to come home to; something to miss, something to work towards. I’m more patient, more giving, more loving and more myself.

I don’t feel tied down or imprisoned; I feel complete. I feel whole. I’m no longer trying to escape my life. I’m right here living and loving it.

I gave up my “freedom,” and I found something that’s worth a lot more: the beautiful feeling of home.

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I’d choose him all over again. 🙂


Lessons from Grandma (AKA, Newsflash: You’re Not the Center of the Universe!)

Last night, my grandma passed away.

For those of you who have been following along, this is my second great loss in 2013 (my mother, and best friend, died in July). Obviously, it’s been a difficult year for myself and my family. I haven’t written anything new for the occasion. If I did, I’d undoubtedly regale you with memories of museum visits, egg sandwiches, long walks and being spoiled to no end. And speaking of “no end,” that’s a perfect way to characterize the patience with my grandmother played “Sorry!” the board game with us, over and over and over. And over.

But this isn’t about that. This is a piece I wrote, about a year ago (November 2012), when I heard that my grandma had taken a turn. I was on the Peter Pan bus on the way to the hospital, feeling desperate — for the first time, fully aware of time and its inherent finitude. There was so much I wanted to ask her, and uncover about her past and our family. Unfortunately, she never grew strong again. I never was able to ask her all of my questions. But I’ll tell you what I was able to do: slow down.

I finally stopped running from country to country, life to life, looking for my great new adventure. I spent more time with my family, and less time thinking about myself. I bailed on moving to Buenos Aires with a friend (sorry Laura — but you know it was worth it!) and instead put time in at home.

I took a more patient tone with my mother, and apologized every time I failed. I listened a little bit more intently and said “I love you” at every opportunity. For the first time in my life, I was present.

And I am so incredibly thankful for that.

Grandma may never have been able to get oversized-flannel-and-ripped-jeans-8-year-old me to see the importance of table etiquette for all of the future dinner parties I’d be attending (“WHO still goes to dinner parties, Grandma?!” “You will, one day.” “Sounds boring — I will never care about this stuff!” I declared. Funny thing is, nowadays, dinner parties are just about my favorite thing. Oops!). But, practically on her deathbed, she was able to teach self-involved-26-year-old me this valuable lesson:


Yesterday, I got the text I dreaded, “Your grandma has taken a turn for the worst. Your father is heading to the hospital now. I will let you know as soon as I know more.”

No. It’s far too soon for this. Only weeks ago, we lovingly spoke on the phone, with our ceremonious familiarity; her, totally lucid and reasonably healthy. Sure, she had her complaints; Parkinson’s has certainly taken its toll on her demeanor. She moves slower, sleeps longer and vocalizes her ailments more readily. But she’s not this — paranoid, disabled, hooked up to machines. She’s not failing. She can’t be failing. She can’t be losing her will. How could this have happened so quickly?

How could I not have been there more?

I had so many questions for her. It was only last Spring that I realized that this woman has lived a full life – grown up, gone to college, traveled the world, married, birthed (times three!), endured abuse, divorced, built a career path in a time when it was unheard of for a woman to do so, remarried… and undoubtedly a million things in between. And yet I had never seen her as anything other than my grandmother – a vessel for my love, stories and triumphs. She never missed one big event – she was at every graduation, every championship basketball game, every show. She even bothered to witness some of my minor achievements; choir concerts and art shows… supporting me in hobbies she knew deep down inside I’d never keep. My grandma let me shine, and she shined for me. She let it be about me, and I was happy with that relationship.

But now I’m getting older and realizing more and more that the world does not revolve around the young. We cater to the young, to be sure. But they are not the immensely interesting set – with their fumbling through life, trying desperately to figure out how to be extraordinary, surrounded by screaming peers trying to do the same. Who was I to take all of the attention and to never ask, “Grandma, what was it like when you went to college?” Selfish, selfish, selfish.

Now I want to know, and I want to know everything. In all of the years in my relationship with my grandmother, who was essentially the only grandparent I had growing up (after the age of 8), my best day with her was the day I finally asked her about her life. We were walking around West Hartford Center, choosing a place for lunch, and she was telling me a story from being young and having far too much control over her mother’s decisions. That was the moment it dawned on me that I really knew nothing about this woman. I knew my father’s history, vaguely. But I had never thought to ask my grandmother about the world that she knew. So I asked, timidly at first. As the stories began to roll, I asked, and I asked, carefully unraveling my fascination and adoration. I even told her, “I really don’t know anything about your life, Grandma.”

“You just have to ask.”

We spent the day talking, sorting through her attic, going through old photographs and documents, and getting to know each other as adults.

If she never speaks another lucid sentence, I will always have that day to cherish. That one day where I stepped outside my own selfishness and let my grandma shine, for once.

I want to give her more of those days. I want to fill her life with those days. As her health fades and her will is tested, I want her to feel loved and cared for and valued, not as a vessel, but as a full person.

I hope with every fiber in my being that I will have the chance to give that to my grandma, and frankly, to myself. If I am to preserve our family’s history, as I’ve set out to do, I need to know hers. She is the last living link to our Holocaust story. That is not what it is important right now, and I logically know this . . . but the weight of my waiting is so heavy I can hardly stand it.

No more waiting. The time is now and I know what I have to do. I am on a bus to CT and I am going straight to the hospital to see her. To tell her I love her. To tell her I want to know more about her, and to ask her if she wouldn’t mind sharing (if she’s feeling up to it). I will sit next to my beautiful, incomparably strong grandmother, lying in her hospital bed, and I will listen, to the woman who listened to me my whole life; the woman who asked for nothing more than an occasional visit or phone call, the woman who always showed up and was always proud…

I will let go of all of these words, and I will listen. 


Rest in Peace, Barbara Clark. Jan 15 1929 – Dec 19 2013.