Allie Blum - Non-Fiction
by Allie Blum
Verna Blum (Nana)
January 15, 1932—January 5, 2005
We overlapped on this Earth for just 9 years, spending eight-ninths of that time over 1100 miles apart from one another. You moved back up north for a cancer diagnosis. Stage 3, lungs blacker than the winter’s night sky. This came as a surprise to no one—you smoked two packs of cigarettes per day every day from age 19 on, even as you were dying.
My memories of you are few but they are strong. You dawned short, pepper colored hair and wore rectangular shaped glasses, mostly for reading. You were educated and independent, insisting that “the more things you do for yourself in life, the happier you’ll be.” (This message was a little over-my-head as a 9-year-old but is now a guiding principle in my life.) We played Uno cards and talked about school and you bought me 101 Dalmatian slippers that I kept until the holes in them grew so large that they couldn’t even pass for socks. Wearing those slippers on my feet made me feel closer to you in my heart.
I do have one not so fond memory of you. You seemed to be having a bad day; the abnormal cells in your body were metastasizing quicker than California wildfires, manifesting in a nasty bedside manner. You got mad at Derd for something; I think you asked him for a glass of water and he wasn’t responding to the request with enough urgency. You grew impatient and implored him to hurry up because you were “waiting to die.” I don’t think you realized I was in the kitchen adjacent to the family room when you announced this proclamation, or you did and simply didn’t care. I quietly fled the room in tears.
Your funeral was the first I ever attended, and even as I child I insisted upon eulogizing you in a way that made sense to me. I drew an abstract picture in your honor and titled it The Colors of Nana. Each shade represented a different aspect of your personality; you were a multidimensional woman. I stood up on the podium, voice quivering yet clear, and explained to the attendees what each color meant. I can only recall that green meant “vegetables,” because you wanted me to eat them.
As I have grown Derd says I have acquired all of your best qualities: your intellectual curiosity, capacity to love, and feminist spirit. We probably would have been best friends. I was bitter that we were robbed of this relationship, but over the years have learned to channel this bitterness into treasuring relics of your existence and never smoking a single cigarette.
Gary Blum (Uncle)
October 6, 1961—September 14, 2009
You made your way out to San Francisco before I was born, and like Nana you only came back to Philadelphia when you were sick. Your circumstance was different, though. We thought bringing you back home would keep you alive.
Derd says he wished you into the world. Nana was content with just one, but he felt incomplete without a baby brother. You were born four years and two days after him. He said you were the best birthday present.
From the onset you questioned the importance of your existence. You were aware of and uncomfortable with your sexuality from a young age, only coming to embrace your queerness when you moved to California. You were as happy there as you could have been given your genetic pre-dispositions.
I saw the life you lived in San Francisco when I was 11. I loved going to Peet’s Coffee with you and your friends, and watching you play by the bay with Rudy, your beautiful yellow lab and closest companion. We knew something was terribly wrong when you gave him away.
Things seemed promising when you came home. You moved in with Pop-Pop and joined the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus. You effortlessly befriended the entire chorus in an instant; your warmth emanated with magnetic proportions. Everyone who had the pleasure of knowing you had the pleasure of loving you, too.
The last birthday I spent with you was my 14th birthday. You took me and Lauren to the Philadelphia Orchestra. We sat so high up that the musicians looked like ants and looking down at them gave me a headache. I rested my head in the crevice of your left shoulder to sooth the dull pain, a cozy and safe nook. I carry that memory in the corner of my heart reserved for the love I have for you and you alone.
You came to our house the day before you died. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was taking a nap. You didn’t wake me up. You told Derd you were sorry if you had ever disappointed us. He didn’t realize what you were really saying.
You used a gun, and you did it in the stairwell of Pop-Pop’s apartment building. I wonder what was going through your mind as you pressed the barrel against your head, just before squeezing the trigger. Were you scared? Were you calm? Were you ready? Maybe you were all of those things.
A janitor found you lying there. I wonder what you looked like when he found you, what the scene around you looked like. Did you look peacefully in repose, eyes gently shut with a soft smile stretching across your face? Or did you look like you had just been murdered, the light blue fading from your irises, lying in a pool of your own blood?
I was angry and perplexed as to how someone with a mental health record as extensive as yours could legally purchase a firearm in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. You tried everything to stay alive. You saw a psychiatrist; were medicated; voluntarily underwent electroshock therapy; checked yourself into mental hospitals. You demonstrated the will to live, but could not withstand the torture brought on by the complex chemical imbalances in your brain. Surely there was documentation of this somewhere?
Maybe you would have found another way if not by firearm. Or maybe you wouldn’t have done it at all. Derd says part of you died when Nana did; maybe you’d still be here if she had lived longer. It serves no purpose to speculate now, but in the immediate minutes that followed that was all I could do in an effort to comprehend your self-imposed end.
I am not mad at you for the pain you inflicted upon us, for I imagine the pain you experienced in your mortal life was much greater. I feel relieved to know that you are no longer suffering, but I wish you never suffered at all.
Your energy lingered in the weeks following your death. It came to life in my bedroom as a firm press on my feet when I would try to fall asleep at night. I’d pop up in bed, heart racing and forehead sweating, thinking that you’d be sitting on the edge whispering, it’s okay, I’m okay, you can sleep well. After becoming acquainted with the energy, I became less fearful and more welcoming towards it; it was still you after all, just not the physical you. This went on for a few months, ceasing when your absence was no longer surreal.
Nine years later your passing remains a tragedy, an obstacle I must continue to navigate but can do so now with greater ease. In your afterlife, you are amongst my greatest teacher on lessons of life, living, and happiness reminding me to nurture my soul by doing things I love and to show others the same compassion I show myself. Knowing this, I hope you continue to rest peacefully.
Ken Blum (Pop-Pop)
December 21, 1925—June 25, 2013
I regret that it took losing Uncle Gary to bring us closer together; but if a silver lining were to emerge from such an event, the forging of our closeness was one of them.
Our relationship was not constricted by geographical barriers, but in ways it felt as though we lived worlds apart until Uncle Gary died. You were a first generation born and raised American. Your upbringing was modest, to put it diplomatically; most Jews immigrating to the United States from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century to escape state-sanctioned persecution came to this country poor, if not destitute, and your family was no exception. These experiences shaped the person you would later become, which is why proximity did not bind us until I was older and wiser and had the capacity to appreciate how the struggles of one’s history, and with equal consideration, the histories of one’s parents, can inform the struggles of one’s present.
You remained of modest means as you entered into a failing shmata* business with your father after the war. This was a source of contention in your marriage with Nana, who made only $20,000 annually as an elementary school teacher, not nearly enough to support a family and send two children to the college of their choosing. The contention possessed atomic properties to that of a liquid, spilling over into conversations around the family dinner table, nights spent around the living room television set, and seeping between the paper-thin walls of your Jenkintown, PA twin house. If there is such a thing as being too transparent with your children, you and Nana were just that when it came to your professional and marital trepidations.
Your lack of wealth was the hurdle that geography could not overcome throughout my childhood, especially as it compared to Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop (Merm’s parents), who could take us on overnight trips to New York City, buy us more than one Hanukkah present, and generally seemed more involved in our upbringing. I suppose when you’re born 70 years apart from another being, leveraging finances is helpful in laying the foundations of a relationship. Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop’s ability to provide beyond necessity was just one facet of our kinship, but through my elementary eyes, this made them the “fun grandparents.”
There is one instance, though, prior to the death of Uncle Gary, that sticks out as a turning point in our relationship. Lauren and I were having a sleepover at your apartment. We did this monthly with Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop, but never did this with you with the exception of this one night. On the drive over to your house, I was struck with gas pains in my stomach. I was crying from the discomfort, and upon entering your apartment you were prepared to remedy my aches with a simple solution: prune juice, or as I like to call it, Grandpa’s Cure (the only people I’ve come to know who drink prune juice are grandfathers). Pinching my nostrils to block the taste, I gulped down all 8 ounces of Grandpa’s Cure that you had poured for me. The pain dissipated within minutes. Your grandfatherly wisdom was magic to me.
We started to see each other regularly when Uncle Gary moved back home. The two of you would come over for Eagles games on Sundays during football season. You were a true lover of Philadelphia sports, football and baseball especially, which was confusing to your Latvian father, as he could not make sense of you yelling at a TV screen while grown men tackled one another over a twelve-inch ovular ball. This served as a bonding point for us as I grew to become an obsessive baseball fan (and generally engaged football fan) in my middle school years.
Football Sundays were amongst the highlights of fall and winter months because it provided a time for me to be with you, Uncle Gary, and Derd all at once. What I loved most about being in your company was hearing you all laugh in unison; a boisterous choir of one sound echoing from the diaphragm of three separate bodies. I still hear you and Uncle Gary whenever Derd loses it over one of his silly dad jokes.
You were different after Uncle Gary died; how could a parent not be different after losing a child, to suicide no less? But in the wake of your grief, we created more opportunities to hug one another, to tell stories, to learn about one another. The role we played in each other’s lives grew increasingly important with each passing day we breathed in Uncle Gary’s absence.
You suffered from a mini stroke while driving to work on May 30, 2013. Your decline thereafter progressed rapidly. In a matter of days, you went from being able to drive, work, feed yourself, wash yourself, to being incapable of doing any of these things independently. You moved into our house, and I gave you my bed when the guest bed became unsuitable for your deteriorating conditions. When my bed became unsuitable, we took you to the hospital.
In the hospital, we learned that the mini stroke resulted from cancer that originated in your pancreas and, having gone undetected, spread throughout your entire body. You were diagnosed on a Monday. The doctor said that chemo could be done, to which you agreed to undergo, before he quickly redacted the statement and ruled it pointless. He rendered you disposable for surpassing the average life expectancy of a white American male by 11 years. You died that Friday in your sleep.
At your funeral I learned of how people outside of our immediately family perceived you. From fellow morning Minyan** attendees, to coworkers, to the friends you and Nana shared predating your divorce, not one person there had a negative thing to say about you. Your polite, mild-mannered, simple nature made you nothing less than likable, only characteristic of men from another era.
Every season brings about a different reminder of you. You were born in the winter, so I am reminded of your naissance in the coldest and darkest of times. Springtime is baseball season, and fortunately the Phillies are in a rebuilding stage, so this is not so depressing as it was in more recent years. Summer is when I am reminded of your death, but also when I give thanks to the universe for allowing me to give you a proper goodbye. And in the fall, when watching football, I hear your shrills of laughter and feel your wrinkled hands pressed gently on my lap, where they rested when we sat next to each other on the couch every Sunday. For all the years we did not maximize in your lifetime, your omnipresent spirit signifies that our love is everlasting.
*‘Shmata’ is a Yiddish word meaning rag, towel, or washcloth, but was colloquially used to describe the “garment industry” by Jewish people in the United States in the early-mid 20th century.
**Minyan is a quorum of ten men (or men and women depending on the denomination of Judaism) ages 13 and older required for traditional public Jewish worship (Jewish Encyclopedia, 2011).