The night my grandmother died

Marta Herz, my grandma.
Marta Herz, my grandma.

Fourteen years ago this month, my grandmother died in her bed.

Grandma was 86; a German immigrant who came to New York in the early 1940s with her husband, Curt. She worked a series of blue-collar, make-it-here jobs (sweeping a movie theatre floor is one that stands out) before ultimately landing a gig as a clerk at Macy’s—which she probably held for 20-something years.

Through the decades, as I rose from tyke to boy to man, Grandma became one of my best friends. She was old and wrinkly and outdated, spoke with a pronounced accent, lived in an apartment at 801 West 181st Street in Washington Heights, couldn’t ride a bike, always brought us chocolate bars, enjoyed classical music, told the same stories repeatedly, dug Ed Koch, refused to consider moving to assistant living. I was also living in the city in the mid-to-late 1990s, so we’d see one another, oh, every two or three weeks. A movie. A diner. Whatever.

On a day in November, 1999, I visited my grandma for a lunch date. She wanted to go to the Riverdale Diner, I believe, which was a bit of a hike from her apartment. I was in a rush … didn’t really wanna invest the time. So we ate at the Hilltop, a shithole dump across the street. She had eggplant. I don’t recall what I was served. It almost certainly was gross. A night or two later, Grandma went out to eat, then to a concert, with her friend.

My phone rang at, oh, 9 pm. I was sitting in the kitchen of my tiny apartment, rolling around on a black office chair. It was my mom. “Hi Jeff,” she said. “I have something very sad to tell you …”

I hopped into a taxi and rushed to Grandma’s apartment. The door was open, and there were a couple of cops in the kitchen. I told them who I was, and they offered condolences. I peeked into the bedroom, and there was Grandma, dead on the bed, her mouth slightly ajar, as if she were merely sleeping. I took comfort in the sight—a woman who escaped Nazi Germany, who never fully moved past the passing of her husband … now, at peace.

I also, however, felt terrible guilt. That last meal; the one I rushed to get through. Why didn’t I make the time to eat somewhere nice? Why didn’t I better consider her needs?

It sticks with me. It also inspires me.