My Grandmother The Introvert

My mother tells me that today would have been my grandmother’s birthday. She died in 2011 of complications from a stroke. She was relatively young.

Depending on your tolerance for the diversity of human behavior, you could describe my grandmother as either a recluse or an introvert. In 1996, she moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York, and, with the exception of one Thanksgiving in 2001 and two months after her stroke, that was the last time I saw her. She was invited to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah but she never showed up. She was invited to my mother’s second wedding but she never showed up to that either. She and my mother had gotten into a fight on the phone at some point, and my mother hung up on her. My grandmother never called back, and they didn’t speak for years.

Being alone was the most important thing to my grandmother. She loved reading, doing crossword puzzles, watching movies, and she spent maybe a dozen years working on building a beautiful and obsessively detailed dollhouse for a family of Jewish dolls (all the doorways had mezuzot).

There has been much damage control done lately to correct the public’s perception of introverts: We’re not misanthropic, we just prefer our own thoughts. We’re not antisocial, we just need time to ourselves after being around people. It’s not that we find extroverts vapid, but because it takes such an incredible amount of energy to keep it together in public, we prefer to use that energy on more meaningful interactions.

In my family, we are not The New Introvert. My terminally rude mother who leaves everything early is constantly grousing about how exhausting and boring everyone else is. My dad, a hoarder, has used boxes, bags, electronics, mail, torch lamps, Aeron chairs and toys to keep people out of his apartment and life for decades. And my grandmother has missed out on every single milestone achieved by her entire family since the mid-‘90s. I get incredibly impatient in casual conversations because suddenly I’m aware that I’m going to die soon and I don’t know if I can spend the rest of my limited life trying to think of more Things to say. I joke to my dad that all I want out of life is to buy a studio apartment in the city, and then, 50 years later, die.

Here is how my grandmother died: In May 2008, on a Friday night, she had a stroke. Because she was Sabbath observant, and, because she was so reclusive, nobody thought it was odd that they hadn’t heard from her all weekend, despite there being warning signs (confusion, mini-strokes). The following Monday, a neighbor had to break down her door with an axe and found her lying on the floor of her kitchen. She had been bleeding into her brain all weekend, and had broken her leg in the fall. She was in an induced coma to control the swelling in her brain for weeks and, because my mother is really melodramatic, she arranged to have the breathing tube removed on Mothers Day. Miraculously, she survived, for almost four more years actually. She gained mental function back, was able to understand the gravity of her situation, to talk and to articulate her environment, but she was paralyzed and unable to take care of herself. She would beg my mother to kill her. She was unable to return home, to be alone, to work on personal projects, to have any control over her time and her solitude. She died two and a half years ago of kidney failure following an infection. She barely existed in anyone’s life.

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