Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen Meets Her Departed Grandmother

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen

It was a great pleasure to interview Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen for my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. Although Rachel had included this profoundly moving story in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, I asked her some questions so I could add more detail to the story. Here is an excerpt, beginning with her bio.

Dr. Remen is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, a co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, and the founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal. She is an internationally known teacher, and the author of the New York Times bestsellers Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. Her course for medical students, The Healer’s Art, is currently being taught in fifty-three medical schools nationwide. Click here to visit Rachel’s website.

When I was in my middle forties, my mother, who was almost eighty-five, elected to have coronary bypass surgery. After surgery, she was wheeled to the coronary intensive-care unit. For the first week, she was unconscious, peering over the edge of life, breathed by a ventilator. As I sat with her, I remember feeling awed by her will to live and by the capacity of the human body to endure such a massive insult at such an advanced age.

When she finally regained consciousness, she was profoundly disoriented and often did not know who I, her only child, was. The nurses were reassuring. They told me they saw this sort of thing often. They called it Intensive Care Psychosis and explained that, in an environment of beeping machines and constant artificial light, elderly people with no familiar cues often go adrift. Nonetheless, I was concerned. Not only did Mom not know me, but she was hallucinating. She saw things crawling on her bed and felt water running down her back.

Although she didn’t seem to know my name, she spoke to me often and at length, mostly of the past and about her own mother, Rachel, who died before I was born. I had been named for her, although I was called by my middle name, Naomi. My mother and my uncles had always lovingly referred to their mother as a saint, saying that “no one needed to be homeless or hungry if they could make it to her back door.”

My mother also spoke of her mother’s humility and great learning, of the poverty and difficulty of life in Russia which she remembered as a child. She recalled the abuses and hatreds the family suffered at the hands of the Russians, and that while many others had responded with anger, her mother had reacted only with compassion.

Days went by and my mother slowly improved physically although her mental state continued to be uncertain. The nurses began correcting her when she mistook them for people from her past or pointed at the birds she saw flying and singing in her room. They encouraged me to correct her as well, telling me this was the only way she might return to what was real.

I remember one visit shortly before she left the intensive-care unit. I greeted her and asked if she knew who I was. “Yes,” she said warmly, “you are my beloved child.” Comforted, I turned to sit on the only chair in her room but she stopped me. “Don’t sit there,” she said. Doubtfully, I looked at the chair again. “Why not?” I asked. “Rachel is sitting there,” she said. I turned back to my mother. It was obvious that she quite clearly saw something I could not see.

Despite the frown of the nurse who was adjusting my mother’s IV, I went into the hall, brought back another chair and sat down on it. My mother looked at me and the empty chair next to me with great tenderness. Calling me by my given first name for the first time, she introduced me to her visitor. “Rachel,” she said, “this is Rachel.”

My mother began to tell her mother about my childhood and her pride in the person I had become. I was very touched to hear this as my mother had never spoken of it to me. My family had not been a family that openly offered much praise, but instead encouraged one another to reach higher, to achieve more. I knew she was proud of my achievements. I had not known that she was proud of me as a person.

My mother’s experience of my grandmother Rachel’s presence was so convincing that I found myself wondering why I could not see her. It was more than a little unnerving. And very moving. Periodically, she would appear to listen and then would tell me of my grandmother’s reactions to what she had told her. They spoke of people I had never met in the familiar way of gossip, people like my great-grandfather David and his brothers, my great-granduncles, who were handsome men and great horsemen. “Devils,” said my mother, laughing and nodding her head to the empty chair. She explained to her mother why she had given me her name, of her hope for my kindness of heart, and apologized for my father, who had insisted on calling me by my middle name, which had come from his side of our family.

Exhausted by all this conversation, my mother lay back on her pillows and closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, she smiled at me and the empty chair. “I’m so glad you are both here now,” she said. “One of you will take me home.” Then she closed her eyes again and drifted off to sleep. A few weeks later, it was my grandmother who took her Home.

Was my grandmother truly in that chair? I don’t know. Such happenings can never be known or understood but only wondered about like the mysteries they are. Nonetheless, I feel grateful to have witnessed my mother in this way and to have been given something to wonder about for the rest of my life.

Click here to view all my posts related to my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything.


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