To Betty Ann Merck

I was in the hospital when I found out my grandmother passed away. Unfortunately it was not the same hospital where she was, but rather a hospital 4,500 miles and an ocean away. I’d just been called back into the Centre D’Imagerie Oculaire at the Hôpital Ophtalmique Jules Gonin in Lausanne when I got a message from my mom to call her immediately. I knew what she would tell me, not that it made me any more prepared. I frantically tried to figure out how to make an international call (the trick was to dial “00” before the number) and thought of what I could say to comfort someone who had just lost her mother. As the phone rang, I could feel the tears forming at the corners of my eyes and I tried to hold them in at least enough to say that I would buy a plane ticket and be there as soon as possible. Luca wrapped me in a big bear hug as the tears pilled from my eyes. I was glad to have someone there to comfort me, and sad at the thought that my mother was in the hospital in Columbia, now alone.

The nurse had stepped out briefly before I received the message, and returned almost immediately after I got off the phone. He explained about putting the catheter in my arm, that they would do an angiogram and watch as a fluorescent dye entered the blood vessels in my eye and take a picture. He explained the effects of the dye, and prepared the catheter. He asked why I was crying, and I tried to remember if the auxiliary verb in the past tense of mourir was être or avoir. He gave his condolences, injected saline, and quietly instructed me to wait in the waiting room.

I did not arrive in South Carolina until the next afternoon, just two days before her funeral. My mom had made all the arrangements by the time I arrived. Betty Ann Merck would be laid to rest in the perpetual garden at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a perfect place for a woman who was always tending to flowers in her apartment.

So here’s to you, Grandma Betty. Nonna Bettina. The woman who, while she began to forget many things in these last years, always remembered: “Do you know what my claim to fame is? I am one day older than Elizabeth Taylor.” Born one day before, and died just more than three years after her death. The woman who had Arthur Murray awards in her closet and a large collection of costume jewelry. The woman who made the best fried chicken in the universe. The woman who helped shape my own wonderful mother. May you rest in peace among the flowers.

Originally published at

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