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Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Merrily Wallach strikes a pose while receiving a hand massage from a Hospice certified nursing assistant on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Merrily never missed an opportunity to ham it up, no matter the circumstances.

Merrily was determined to keep her independence. My 98-year-old grandmother continued living in the home she and her late husband bought in 1958, just in time to bring their fourth child home from the hospital. In the last 15 years, she had “helpers,” as she called them — angels of sorts, women hired to come twice a day to fix meals and keep the house in order — and visits from family and friends, but generally, she lived alone.

2020 proved especially challenging, as it has for so many older Americans.

Merrily Wallach was always a social animal, and isolation because of the pandemic was absolutely antithetical to her very being. She survived long months without much company or interaction from friends and family, and it was the beginning of a real decline. By the time she got COVID-19, in November, it seemed like that would be the end for her. Hospice declared that Merrily was dying. They began coming to the house to keep her comfortable.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Deanne Kapnik visits her mother Merrily Wallach through a bedroom window on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Because of Merrily’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the family couldn’t enter the house at the time.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Two hospice nurses help Merrily Wallach with a finicky catheter on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Hospice nurses visited almost every day to help Merrily feel more comfortable in her last few weeks of life.

She remained in her home, now unable to get out of bed — her failing knees had finally given up for good — and one of her caregivers, Janiece Ferguson, and Merrily’s youngest son, Daniel, moved in with her full time.

For the first few days of her illness, my grandmother was still testing jokes on us, looking to see how we’d react.  She’d say, as we visited outside her bedroom window, “Does somebody have a bucket I can kick?”

We’d laugh and then cry, thinking we’d be separated from her for her final days, and how absolutely crushing that was.

She touched death’s door. She stopped eating; she couldn’t move; she had waking dreams of large groups of Jewish people dancing through the streets and singing joyfully (“Hava Nagila?” she guessed); she heard organ music in a dead silent room.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Merrily Wallach lays in bed across from what the family began to call her “Love Wall”, covered in notes from family and friends on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. When Merrily became bed-bound, this was her only view. Eventually, by the end of Merrily’s life, the mirror was completely covered with love notes.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Ben Kapnik stands in the doorway of his grandmother’s room as she lay on her death bed on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. Because of the fear of spreading COVID-19, family and friends had to keep their distance.

She’d awaken from a nap, delighted to see her daughter’s face looking down at her, but disappointed to be back.

To everyone’s surprise, she recovered from COVID, and passed her quarantine window. We were all kind of flummoxed. Even Merrily. This was her final exit, the last hurrah, we’d all thought. Merrily had even joked, amidst heartfelt, loving goodbyes to friends and loved ones over Zoom, that if she didn’t die, this was going to be really embarrassing.

She got stronger, started eating, regained movement in her arms.

But she continued to ask for a bucket. That request turned to a pill. This was it, she assured her children. This was her time.

After many, many clear and loving requests for a way out of her earthly body, her children found a way. The Colorado End-of-Life Options Act meant that Merrily could, as it were, choose a date to take her final exit. No more guessing, no more questioning. She needed multiple physicians to sign off on her lucidity, and her ability to clearly make this choice for herself. They also needed a two-week window. One doctor would sign off on her choice at the beginning of the two weeks, and two doctors would sign off on the last day of those two weeks, and prescribe for her what they call a “potion” — a cocktail of medicine that would allow Merrily to go calmly, peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, in her home, in her own time.

So we had two weeks. At first, I’ll be honest, that two weeks felt long. So much emotional rollercoastering, so much doubt and questioning within myself. But my grandmother was steadfast. Daniel asked her daily, nightly, during long and honest conversations about life and death, if she still felt the same. She never wavered.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Merrily Wallach lays in her bed next to her son Daniel Wallach on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. The two had a nightly ritual of spending hours talking about death and dying, memories of the family, and what Merrily thought of her life.

Those were the most amazing two weeks I ever had with my grandmother. Any single hour during those two weeks was more deep and soulful and fun than the preceding 35 years of connection. The woman was so at peace with herself. I didn’t put my finger on it until Day 12, but she had let go of trying to control or change herself or others. She was calm, relaxed, so absolutely loose. She was free.

I asked on Day 10 if she had any doubt that the potion was the right choice. I had to know. I had to hear it from her. “No doubt,” she said. “Well, maybe in my heart,” she said, “but not in my body.  My body is ready.” Her voice didn’t crack when she talked about it; it wasn’t a sadness. It was just what was next for her. She didn’t see the end of a road, but a chance for relief — release from pain. She was looking toward what was next: reunions in the next world with her sisters, her husband, her family.

“December 10th is my day,” she said many times, as if we needed to be reminded that the deadline was looming.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Janiece Furgeson, left, adjusts Merrily Wallach’s shampoo cap on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Because Merrily was unable to leave her bed for the last few weeks of her life, her caregivers cleaned her in her bed, including washing her hair.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Merrily Wallach, left, sits with her son, Daniel Wallach, center, and her great-grandson Eri Samuel, 4, on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. After Merrily’s COVID-19 quarantine ended, family were let back into the house at limited capacity to say goodbye to Merrily before she died.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

LEFT: Deanne Kapnik, left, and her brother Daniel Wallach show their mother Merrily Wallach a goodbye video recording made by Daniel’s boyhood friend on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Because of the pandemic, most friends and family members had to say their goodbyes through pre-recorded videos and video calls. RIGHT: Deanne Kapnik, left, holds up a tablet for Merrily Wallach to be able to speak to her granddaughter Hannah Kapnik Ashar over FaceTime on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

A high school portrait of Merrily Wallach sits on her dining room table on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Merrily’s family went through every photograph in the house with many of them ending up on this table in a loose organizational system.

She was steeped in love. Love from caregivers, from family, from friends. She was constantly receiving cards, phone calls, video calls, notes, messages. The wall facing her in her bedroom was covered with love notes. Some of them were subtle and elegant, some loud and to the point. The card from her younger daughter, Joan Wallach, read, “You are love(d)”.  A mantra. A meditation. A truism that was never more true than in those last two weeks.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Semhal Kahassai, left, hugs her longtime friend and client, Merrily Wallach during a visit on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. Semhal was Merrily’s caregiver for 15 years, up until the day Merrily died.

My family cried, yes, but laughed too. At her jokes, at our own, at the absurdity of sitting so close to death. I laughed harder than I’d laughed in months. Maybe years. We were steeped in her love, too. It was a rich and endless kind of feeling.

That’s the paradox, then, isn’t it. That the calm and beauty that comes right at the end can be so deeply delicious that we can’t help wanting more. Feeling that sometimes wrenching sadness of not enough.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Wendy Wallach cries in the backyard of her grandmother Merrily Wallach on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Wendy had come in contact with the novel coronavirus earlier in the week and wore a double mask and gloves to say goodbye to her grandmother through the bedroom window. Wendy had just finished saying goodbye and, because she was possibly contagious, no one was able to comfort her in her grief.

In the end, it was a short two weeks.  Painfully short, not enough.

On the morning of December 10, Merrily had a kind of shift. A quietness took over, and we could tell she was ready. In a moment of clarity, I told her that I thought it was time for me to say goodbye. She asked if I was ready. My whole body told me to say no, to hold on longer and longer. But I nodded my head, and, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, I leaned in to hug my grandmother. I squeezed her harder than I should have. I cried harder than I should have. And then I said goodbye.

She needed us to let her go. It was time to let her go. To seal those blessed two weeks and move into a new kind of change. Our family will have the chance to grow and heal to fill that space she left. She is love, and she gifted that to us in her own time.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel, Special to The Denver Post

Merrily Wallach lays in her bed at her home in Denver on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. Though Merrily was bed-bound for the last few weeks of her life she lived, and died, on her own terms.

Alyssa Kapnik Samuel is a documentary and portrait photographer with a focus on intimacy. She is a third-generation Coloradan.

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