My Nana died 7 years ago yesterday. At least, I think it was yesterday. I’m much better at birthdays than I am at deathdays. I feel as though I should have reached out to my mom, let her know I was thinking about her and my grandmother, but it can be kind of awkward if you get something like that wrong.
What I do know is this:
My Nana-banana was an extraordinary woman. Born in 1912 she became, like so many women of her generation, a teacher (the other option, nurse, was the chosen profession of my grandfather). She met my granddad and they fell in love, did what young people in love do, and ended up getting married just 6 months before my mother was born.
Like so many women of her generation, Nana gave up her ‘real’ job after she got married to look after her home and her two daughters. She was a strict matriarch, although by all accounts, it was my grandfather who really cracked the whip and held his girls in line.
And then he got sick. Tuberculosis. He had to go to the asylum (that’s what they called the TB hospital back then, and for years I was sure my Granddad spent his early life in the loony bin. The fact that he had worked at the ACTUAL loony bin surely figured into the confusion.)
For those two years, my Nana was, like so many women of her war-years generation, a single mom. She went back to work, managed her home, children and ailing husband, and still found time for church. Or maybe it was the church that got her through the rest of it. The TB. The Great Depression. The War that took her big brother.
My Nana was without question my biggest role-model in work-life balance, long before it became trendy to think about such things. Her husband was her hero, her leader, her partner, and she would – and did – do anything to make and keep him happy. And yet, she never sacrificed herself. She never gave up her own interests, hobbies or friends. She was a contributor to the marriage, financially and otherwise, for over fifty years. Quite simply, she was able to do it all, and do it all well.
My grandfather died in 1986, the day before his birthday. We did the things that death makes us do: the emotional things like crying and mourning and grieving, and the stupid, mundane, administrative things like funerals and obituaries and asset transfers.
And then Nana did something that surprised no one: she kept on living. She kept going to church (which now also got her through her husband’s Death), she moved into a new apartment, she bought a luxury car.
And then she got cancer. There is a picture floating around the family albums of my Nana, standing proudly in a red University of Kansas sweatshirt, a gift from my American cousin the Christmas that she was living with a tumor in her breast, and the secret in her heart.
She hadn’t told anyone about the diagnosis because she didn’t want it to ruin the holidays.
God would have his hands full to get her through that. (I choose to believe she got herself through it without any help from him.)
And once through it, she knew that life wasn’t over; in fact, she had a new life. A reason to celebrate (and yes, to worship) and participate.
And then Nana did something that surprised everyone: she fell in love again.
Walking, dancing really, hand in hand through the streets of Victoria, bringing spontaneous smiles to the faces of strangers who saw them, my 82 year-old grandmother and her 85 year old beau would come to meet me for lunch. He was smitten; she was a schoolgirl experiencing courtship again and yet for the first time. Their wedding a year later was a celebration of life, love and spirit, a celebration of how it is possible to travel a dark and foreign road, and still find your way Home.
* * * * *
There are many stories to be told, and hopefully I will tell them, preserve them for myself and my children with all the care and dignity and deference they require. But not now. This post is too long already. It started as a recognition of a memory, and now it ends with this:
The last time I saw her, I knew it was the last time, and leaving her was one of the most heartless and difficult things I’ve ever done.
I had brought my babies for a visit – an introduction for 7-month-old Tee – during our annual pilgrimage West. I don’t actually remember how it was that we ended up in Vancouver that time…dropping out of the sky at that particular point of the voyage is usually kind of a logistical nightmare but back then, when there were still grandparents to see, we made more of an effort.
Nana had fallen, and had been taken from her comfortable independent-living facility to hospital, then to another residence nearby until she could convalesce to the point where they would let her go back home. Home to her husband and friends and familiar smells and her own, dear, things.
Except she wasn’t convalescing; she was dying.
She was 93 years old and had lived a good life or three. Her body was failing her once again, and she was fed up and tired of trying to get it to behave itself.
I brought the girls in to the common room, and balanced the baby on her knee and snuggled in beside her with Dee for a couple of pictures. She was so pleased. I believe she was both relieved and self-satisfied that I had found someone as wonderful as Gee, and that I had been rewarded for my patience with a beautiful family and genuine happiness. It was as if she’d been waiting to see my life reach that point.
When Gee took our daughters to the garden I stayed behind and sat with my lovely Nana, having nothing to say and so much to say and not enough time to say any of it before it was time to take her back to her room for another rest. I wouldn’t be coming back to BC for a year. She wouldn’t be here in a year. We both knew it, but wouldn’t say it. How could anyone say it?
So I felt the lump grow in my throat and the hot sting of tears in my eyes, and I mumbled something about being so far away, living too far away, and I gently hugged her tiny body, desperate to give and receive some sort of earthly or otherworldly comfort, and I walked away, waiting until I was outside before letting myself cry hard and ugly.
A month later, home in my comfortable, insulated world, I got the call: Nana had done what we all knew was inevitable, but couldn’t believe.
She would have been 100 years old this past July 20. (I’m good at birthdays.)