Alexandra's grandmother on her wedding day

Last visits

My grandmother finished dying last month, ten years after my mom bought me a black dress for her funeral. When I was in high school she kept it in her closet, ready, resigned, with a long zipper up the back. Jane, my grandmother, had started to lose her memory and, away with my family for her last vacation, landed in the hospital with a small stroke. The dress arrived, with only brief comment, a week later.

That was only the first time we prepared ourselves, sure she was going to die before we saw her next. My freshman year of college my grandmother, who had once been a secretary to the president of the NBA, lost the wherewithal to talk with me on the phone. At my Wednesday night poetry club I wrote a poem about her life in reverse, which I thought I might read at her funeral.

My senior year I took a seminar on “the contemporary essay,” and I wrote about how every time I saw my grandma felt like the final chance. Hanging around her bedroom, her babbling met the constant hum of this prediction – the last visit the last visit the last visit – to create an agitating cacophony. “But there comes a point when you only be so preemptively mournful,” 22-year-old me mused.

In the months after turning 97 last June, my grandmother went in to hospice care three times and out twice. When the nurses recommended the change last month, we joked about her nine lives. Even after she’d stopped eating, moving in and out of consciousness, she’d wake right up if we tried to put on the cold, plastic oxygen mask she hated. My grandmother no longer spoke but tried to stab a prodding nurse with a spoon. She wore a medallion on a black thread, spun around the middle button of her red pajamas by the priest who performed her last rites.

Alexandra's grandmother on her wedding day

The writer’s grandmother on her wedding day

Grandma Jane’s long decline was scary for her until she could not remember being different, and exhausting for my mom the whole way. But my grandmother’s watch on the precipice also felt like a precious protection. During her long death, I finished high school, college, and most of law school, lived at nine different addresses, and cycled in and out of love how many times. My mother packed up my childhood home right before my parents split up and my family dog died. I went to my first funeral for a friend, wearing the black dress my mother had bought for me.

Yet my grandmother, the long-time smoker, even as she fussed, even as she dwindled and forgot each of us (me first, my mother last), held on, like the last levy resisting a flood. After she died there would be nothing to hold back the quickening years. Visiting her was boring. But I liked sitting in the room decorated with fake flowers in dry vases and framed pictures of my family from before my parents separated. In the pictures, everyone was dressed in primary colors or matching cable-knit sweaters. “Torrey Kitten,” who would hide under the bed when I visited, was in fact Torrey Cat the Second, successor to the long since forgotten Torrey Cat the First. My grandmother often asked about her sister Charlotte, who had died years before.

Last month, after I said what I thought was my final goodbye but was actually the penultimate farewell, I reread my slightly cruel college essay. “She is,” I’d written, “an imprint on a body exposed to the light for a very long time: the smoker’s cough from years of afternoons in the parlor with Charlotte and a pack to split, the slight frame from a beautiful girl’s vanity.” Twenty-two-year-old me reassured 25-year-old me that her death would feel like just another step of a long progression out of her body.

I was wrong, though. I was wrong about how different it is to be dead than to be dying. And I was wrong about how much smaller a chain of two is than a chain of three when you’re the only daughter of the only daughter of the only surviving sister. Two isn’t much of a tether at all.

Sunday will be our first Mother’s Day without Grandma Jane. I used to take the train to New York. When my grandmother was well enough, my mom and I would drive her to a diner to celebrate, where she would insist on taking home half her plate of eggplant parmesan or spaghetti for Charlotte. In later years, we would bring her soft chocolates and sit in that frozen room. Now, the center of gravity shifted, my mom will make the drive up I-95 to visit me at school in Connecticut. We’ll eat brunch, now unmoored, seeking shelter together from the flood.


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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