I am plagued by the greatest regret of my life, which took place almost exactly 10 years ago.
On a late November day in 1999, I visited my Grandma Herz at her apartment on 181st Street in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. I was living in the city at the time, and probably saw Grandma every other week or so. She was 86-years old; a German/Jewish immigrant who came to America in the late 1930s. She lost her mother in a concentration campâ€”a subject that, 60 years later, still made her cry. She lost her husband, Curt (my grandpa), in 1989â€”a subject that, 10 years later, still made her cry. Grandma was sort of simpleminded, in that people were categorized by “good,” “bad,” “nice,” “mean.” She repeatedly told the same five or six storiesâ€”my mother walking out of a shoe store; the necklace she bought that turned green; the customer who was rude to her on the phone in Macy’s (it always ended with a co-worker telling her, “Marta, you are better than they are!”). Even though we hailed from different worlds, I loved her terribly. I loved the smell of her apartment, which I chalked up to a combination of old person and wheat germ, and the way the wood floors creaked. I loved how she always had a bottle of ginger ale waiting for me, and routinely gifted my brother, father and I with chocolate bars. She was my grandmother, but also one of the best friends I ever had.
Anyhow, I’m babbling. I went to visit Grandma on that November day 10 years ago, and she wanted to eat at the Riverdale Diner, which meant taking a 20-minute bus ride. I didn’t want to make that commitmentâ€”I probably had something to do or someone to see or somewhere to goâ€”so I asked if we could just go across the street, to the Hilltop. We did, but the place sucked. Grandma ordered some sort of eggplant dish. I don’t remember what I had. The restaurant was nasty and dirty.
The next night, I was sitting in the kitchen of my apartment on 64th and York. The phone rangâ€”it was my mother. “Jeff,” she said. “Grandma died tonight. She had a heart attack.”
I couldn’t believe it. I sat there, in one of those computer chairs with wheels on the bottom. I cried and cried and cried and cried. Then I grabbed a taxi and rushed to her building. I beat my parents to the scene. The door was open, and when I entered there were two police officers. I told them who I was. “I’m sorry for your loss,” one of the men said. He directed me to the bedroom, where my grandma’s body resided. I peeked through the door, and there she was. Eyes closed. Mouth slightly open. As I write this, I can see her, clear as the cup of coffee four inches to my left. I remember thinking how nice it might have been; how after fleeing Germany; after losing her parents; after losing her husband; after absorbing so much painâ€”physical and emotionalâ€”she was gone. It felt oddly … warm.
My parents arrived a few minutes later. My dad broke out the ol’ “She lived a good, long, interesting life …” line, which I’ve always equated with, “Someone’s dead, and we need to find a positive spin.” We gathered a few of her belongings, and before leaving I reached into her pocketbook and grabbed a beige scarf she used to wear everywhere. I smelled itâ€”it was her. That scarf is still with me, nestled alongside my sweatshirts on a shelf.
All these years later, I find myself haunted by the last time I saw herâ€”at the Hilltop, too busy to go to her preferred diner. What could have possibly been so important? What could have been more pressing than a nice evening with my grandma?
I hate myself for that, and always will.