My grandmother had a good death. One that any of us would hope for. She was 99 years old. She had seen her children, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren grow and flourish. She never lost her mental abilities, or her wicked sense of humor. She lived her life devoted to her family and her people. One of the greatest lessons of her amazing century of life came at the very end itself.
My Grandma lived her life with great simplicity. She neither had riches nor required them. She never craved extravagance. Whenever a milestone, an accomplishment or a special event came up through the years, she and my grandfather always marked the occasion in one special way. They would sit down together and have a little vanilla ice cream in a glass of ginger ale . By the time Grandma died, she hadn’t had this treat in many years, maybe not since Grandpa died 20 years ago. But that final day of her life, she told the woman caring for her that she was having a craving: could she get a little vanilla ice cream with ginger ale? It was first thing in the morning, but her health aid, ever the angel she was, went and got this treat for her. Grandma had her vanilla and ginger ale float for breakfast, and asked for second, and even third helping. Not long after this, she simply closed her eyes and died.
It is absolutely clear that my grandma knew that this was it. She knew it was her time. She knew that she had lived a beautiful life, and since it was ending, why not celebrate it?
I like to say that we all learn Torah from one another. I believe that ‘Torah’ is not just the Five Books of Moses. “The Torah” is actually a mirror that we hold up before ourselves that shows us the infinite uniqueness of our own souls. We can find infinite Divine wisdom by studying the Torah. And we can find infinite Divine wisdom by studying each other, by truly listening to one another, by being students of one another. Grandma gave me Divine Wisdom through her good death. She taught me that death is not anything to be afraid of. She taught me that each of us has our time in this life. For some of us, it may be a century. For others, something shorter, for some—too short. But whatever time we have, it is so very precious. We all know that it is precious, in our reflective moments.
But Grandma went beyond this insight. She understood that sometimes, it’s good to have ice cream for breakfast. More than good. Ice cream floats at 8:00 a.m. are sometimes essential; they are what make us truly human when it’s all said and done. Our humanity is at its best when we mark life’s passages through our ceremonies and rituals that direct our minds and hearts to life’s sweetness, to life’s amazing brilliance—so rich, so incomprehensible, so beautiful because it passes so quickly: it could be a hundred years or vastly fewer. When it’s all said and done, length of years cannot compare to quality of years.
We often attempt to fill our lives with entertainments, riches, and extravagant distractions. We’re afraid to face life’s transience. But grandma seemed to know better. She knew that life’s not an impending loss to be avoided. It’s a gift to acknowledge by tasting its sweetness while we have it. I am so proud to be Lucille Klayman’s grandson. I am proud to live and represent her beloved Judaism. Like Grandma, Judaism also teaches us to pause in the midst of life each and every day--in gratitude and wonder--to taste life’s sweetness through our rituals and ceremonies that remind us of life’s gifts.
The Shabbat after her funeral, my family gathered together for Shabbat dinner. And guess what we all had for desert that night? Batya and I have a new tradition now to mark milestones together with our children: vanilla ice cream with ginger ale. In this way, we are blessed by the memory of Grandma’s good death—a sweet treat to remind us that God blesses us, as God blessed Grandma, by keeping us alive, by sustaining us, and by bringing us to the blessing of this moment. May we all be similarly blessed, as my Grandma was. May we all be blessed not only with a century of life, but a life where we know how each moment truly is a sweet blessing.