Her grandmother was 103 years old, weak and in failing health and had a reputation for being a cranky, negative person. No kin would take her in. But for reasons she didn't fully understand, Debra Zaslow decided to welcome her into her Ashland home and accompany her to death's door.
The journey with the elderly Lena linked together generations of women, brought much healing and resulted in "Bringing Bubbe Home; A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death," just published by White Cloud Press in Ashland.
When Zaslow said yes to taking her in, her relatives said "are you out of your mind?" She and her husband, Rabbi David Zaslow, had chaos with teens running around the house, she says, and Bubbe (grandma in Yiddish) had deteriorated rapidly after two years in a nursing home in her native Los Angeles.
"Although I had vague notions of helping Bubbe to resolve some of her difficult past, perhaps even to forgive her mother and forgive herself, that was clearly not what happened. It was I who needed to examine the past. The long journey of writing the memoir allowed me to sift through a wider lens and move on. I began the journey by saying yes to Bubbe's call to accompany her through the passage of death but the surprising aftermath was allowing the stories to light my own path home. ... A soul can wake up another soul to show up for moments of grace. I am forever grateful to Bubbe for that."
Zaslow had been working as a storyteller in area middle schools and wanted to learn writing. She got her master's of fine arts in writing but was waiting, she says, for a good subject to put to paper. This was it.
The journey toward Bubbe's death was filled with stories of ancestors, especially Bubbe's mother who "used to beat, beat, beat" the children, in Bubbe's words, leaving a legacy of bitterness and anger that was thought of as a "survivor mentality."
Zaslow confesses to having a vision of forgiveness, the "perfect death," but Bubbe surprised everyone, not with healing, but "the hidden jewel was that she had outlived her personality and didn't remember who she was angry with. I would bring up stories of her mother and she would say, 'oh yes, a wonderful woman.' The crusty covering just slipped off."
The Russian-born Lena emigrated to America at age 12. She outlived three of her five children and died in 1997.
The book is also addressed to aging baby boomers who are retiring now and approaching the end with a "conscious death" philosophy that keeps dying relatives at home, surrounded by love, comfort and healing.
"People embrace death more now. But for Bubbe it was an isolating experience. Friends didn't come to visit her. It was like she had something contagious. It reminds us of our own death and that's scary. But things are changing and, more and more, people see death as part of a conscious cycle of life.
In Lena's dying process, they went over old photo albums and stories, tying together five generations: Debra and her teen daughter and late mother, and Lena and her late mother.
"It gave me a wider perspective of how the toxins and gifts get passed through each generation," says Zaslow. "It led me through death and let me see how those stories have lived in me. I saw the past from a different perspective and being with Bubbe gave me the courage to do that."
David Zaslow went to visit Bubbe in a Los Angeles nursing home and told his wife she had to come home to die.
"For Debra, it was like she was in this time machine, sliding back and forth in the interactions between her and Bubbe," he said.
The couple emphasize that not every death belongs at home and not every family can serve as midwife through death.
"It was pretty horrendous too," says Debra Zaslow. "It's not all idyllic. Parts were profound. Sometimes we would just hold our foreheads together in what David called the mind-meld position and she would just make sounds for an hour. On the last day, we knew she was in her death throes. The book is very honest and takes you right there."
The book is blurbed by noted author-philosopher Jean Houston, who says, "This courageous, poignant and truthful book will give you an experience that will never leave you."
Zaslow does a book launch reading and signing at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Havurah Shir Hadash, 185 North Mountain, Ashland, and at 7 p.m., June 23 at Bloomsbury Books.