Holding the Roots

Written By: Michelle Mifsud

Oma was the greatest person I ever knew. Describing her as a “person” wouldn’t even begin to illustrate her angelic qualities. She was generous and kindhearted, and always put others before herself. The way Mother Teresa cared for the poverty-stricken was the way my Oma cared for everyone she came into contact with. I even remember at one family dinner while we all sat around a table in the living room, she was sitting alone in the kitchen because there weren’t enough chairs in the other room. She was willing to sacrifice anything and everything for her family, and that’s what I loved most: her strong family values so deeply engraved in her morality. Oma was the roots that assured our family tree stood tall, and grew over time; and all of these branches would soon be affected when the storm came and ripped the roots out of the ground…
Having been around twelve years old when my grandmother got sick, it was definitely a lot to comprehend in a short amount of time. The idea of being sick and not knowing what would happen tomorrow was something I was rushed into contemplating. It was like waking up to a sunny day, then looking out the window to see a blackened sky with broken branches everywhere. It was not like I had not experienced a death in the family, as both of my grandfathers and my other grandmother had passed by this time, but this situation was different. It was prolonged and involved me in every piece of it. It has become a part of me, a part of who I am today, and a part I would not have without caring for my Oma. In January of 2012 at the age of 91, she suffered from a stroke which left her paralyzed in a wheelchair and essentially unable to care for herself. It was definitely a big change for me to escalate from having her care for me to me caring for her. As a child, I recall her rocking me in her arms singing a lullaby in German called “Hoppe Reiter.” She held me while I cried, and did everything she could to make me smile or laugh. And now, I held her hand and did everything I could to take the pain out of her eyes for at least one second. I sat with her in the hospital, and soon after I sat with her in the rehabilitation home, watching as the woman I knew for my entire life slowly drifted away. As I looked into her eyes, I tried to remember the strong woman she was, and saw the strong woman she was still trying to be. I knew she was in pain and what hurt the most was knowing there was nothing I could do about it. I would shut my eyes and try to remember the all of the good times, specifically the last trip to Montauk we took a few months prior. We passed the rolling hills on the old Montauk Highway, introducing us to a week at the Ronjo we would remember for the rest of our lives, the last week she came out east with us, the last week we strolled through town listening to the waves crash miles away, the last week she told us stories of her memories in Montauk with my grandfather, the last week that seemed to exfoliate too quickly. And when we passed those rolling hills to head back towards the city, nothing would ever be the same.
Looking back on the time, it is so vividly engraved in my memory. The days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months when she was not getting any better. Hope became my new best friend as I gripped onto the idea of her being healthy and baking cookies for all of us like she used to. I recall having a dream where she was healthy, happy, and laughing and cooking again; I woke up in hysterics, experiencing the bittersweet sensation yet rude awakening that this dream would never be a reality. The hope for her to get better eventually changed to the hope for her to just be out of pain. And on January 9th, 2013, the pain was exhaled from her and inhaled onto each member of my family in the form of grief. I remember looking out the window, holding my breath to suppress the tears that still ran down my face when my sister told me the fight was over. It felt like an anchor was dropped fifty feet inside my stomach, pulling and pulling me down until my lungs were inflamed. It was then in that moment I knew I had experienced death in its entirety; I had felt every inch of it, both psychologically and physically, as my body ached with accepting the fact that what I had feared for so long was actually happening. As soon as we arrived back home I ran into my room, hid under my comforter and cried, unable to accept the news, the news that became my life. I cried until no words could come out, until I could barely catch my breath. After being in that state for over an hour, a force made me get up out of bed. I walked to my window, looked out, and couldn’t believe what I saw; on a day that started off visibly gloomy, a rainbow now appeared outside my window. I knew then and there that she was still with me, and we would get through the aftermath of this storm together.
And she still has never left. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about her, where I do not feel the effects of her life and of her death. I learned to put others before myself and the true value of life. I learned how to appreciate all of the little phenomenons in life. I learned that fairness does not govern life or death, that death is something you cannot escape no matter how much hope or faith you have. Most of all, I learned that you have never truly experienced life until you have experienced death; until you have felt the pain gripping through your chest, knocking out your knees, trembling your hands, choking your throat. The pain of death is so recognizable, however the aspect of it is still a phenomenon that I question every day. I don’t know what it is, I only know how it makes me feel. And that’s how her death has affected me so furiously like a drug injected through my veins and taking control of my body. Her death makes me question life in its entirety and think more deeply than I ever had before. It has given me a sense of empathy for everything that crosses my path in life.
Oma’s death has affected me as much as her life. Her life taught me the importance of family and the act of generosity. Her death taught me that we cannot control everything that crosses our path in life, but we can control how we react to it; we cannot control the storm, but we can control the recovery. Moreover, I learned that roots can never disappear, and the tree it once held will continue to grow in hopes to be as strong as the roots. Most importantly, I learned that even though she is gone, and the Ronjo is now the Montauk Beach House, the seasonal trips to Montauk will continue, always keeping a piece of her with us when we go.