I never once called her “Grandma.” She was always and always will be Nan—a title given to her by my oldest cousin who, as a toddler, couldn’t say the word “Grandma.” Always Nan. Never Nana.
She was sharp and funny and strict and kind and (sometimes infuriatingly) independent and while she wasn’t ever what you’d call warm and fuzzy she was unfailingly generous to everyone who knew her. With her own kids she believed firmly that sparing the rod really would spoil the child but with us grandkids well, while we always knew she was In Charge and Had Rules, as long as we didn’t spill her coffee or make too much noise, we could do just about whatever we wanted.
And no matter what, no matter how far apart we were or how long we went without seeing each other, we all knew she loved us—even if she wasn’t quick with those specific words.
I don’t talk a lot about what life was like for me as a little kid or as I grew up. I talk about moving around and I commiserate over being bullied in school but I don’t typically go into detail about what life was like at home and I’m not going to go into detail now, save for this: it was hard.
But here’s the thing: even though it was really hard and even though it could get really lonely the one thing that I never ever ever doubted was my extended family.
I knew (KNEW) that if it were to ever get bad enough that I couldn’t handle it on my own, that if I ever started to feel like I was breaking, I could pick up the phone and call. I could call at any time on any day and all I’d have to say was “I need you.” And with those three words I would have an army of people racing to help me. I knew that literally dozens of people would drop what they were doing and move whatever mountains they had to move to get to me and that they would, for lack of a better word, save me.
I knew this and still know this in large part because of Nan. She passed her love and affection and independence down to all of us. She built a family who love each other fiercely and constantly but who are independent enough to not need to prove it or need to have it proven to them.
I used to think this was how all families were but now that I’m older and have been out in the world I know and appreciate just how rare it is to be able to have complete and confident faith in a family’s love…to the point of being able to, often, take it for granted. I’m super lucky to be able to have this total and unwavering faith in my family. And Nan gave that to me.
Nan started to really struggle a few weeks ago. I woke up one morning to the email from my Mom: “Nan’s not doing well at all. I’ll call at lunch” and not much later (I had slept in), the news was real. Nan was in the hospital. She was terminal. She might last for a while longer but she definitely wouldn’t make it longer than a year.
At first we were hopeful—she was yelling at her doctors and nurses and complaining about the hospital bed being uncomfortable around her butt—all good signs. She even managed to do a little physical therapy and it looked like she might even be able to go home and live on her own for a while. Never underestimate the determination of an 81 year old woman who hates the hospital.
But then the news worsened. It looked like she might only make it a few weeks. She was transferred to a nursing home and was finally allowed to be taken to my aunt’s house…where a visit from a home nurse confirmed that she would probably only make it a few days…if that long.
I was able to call her and tell her how much I love her and how much I’ll miss her and listened as she said her last few messages to me (sorry guys, they’re private).
I didn’t say anything here or on social media because she was adamant (ADAMANT) that only immediate family know what was going on. She didn’t want word to spread around her town to her friends because she didn’t want them to fuss over her or stress out about her. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time and she wanted to spend the time she had making sure her kids and grandkids (and nieces and nephews) knew that she loved them and that she was okay with what was happening. It was really important to her that we all make peace with her time coming and to make sure that we would be okay when she left.
I can tell you about all of it now because really early this morning she passed away and, frankly, I don’t care if this makes her mad. She can haunt me. I’ll be happy for the company.
She was alive to see 2014 become a real thing and then, surrounded by the family that could make it to my aunt’s house in time, quietly and peacefully slipped away. I like to think that she held on that long not only because she loves us but because she wanted to be able to say to whoever she meets wherever she goes next, “Yeah? Well I made it to 2014.”
She was a wise-ass but never truly sarcastic. She was a coffee guzzling, chain smoking, mystery novel reading firecracker. She loved Chinese food and liked to flirt with servers at restaurants. She never met a buffet she didn’t like. She was tight with the pennies but used coupons even if she had no use for the product (“but look! I got one free!” she would say about the five boxes of kids cereal that sat untouched in her cabinets for YEARS). Her favorite thing to do was sit at the kitchen table with a beverage and a friend and gab the day away (sound familiar?).
She was incredibly creative and a really talented artist. She was an elaborate crafter who makes Martha Stewart (and Martha Stewart’s team) look like a hack. She was a gifted baker and her cooking…if you grew up in a city where the norm was to have more plate than food you probably won’t know what I mean but she made Good Country Food. Everything she made felt like comfort food whether it was intended to be or not.
She could garden like nobody’s business. Give her some dirt and some time and she could (and would) grow anything. Next to her “stall” (her chair at the kitchen table), her garden was her favorite place to be.
She’s the one who taught me to crochet. I was seven. I’m pretty sure she taught me because I was being rambunctious and she wanted something that would settle me down but you guys: She gave me yarn.
It’s been hard to wait over these last few weeks. It’s been hard to keep this to myself and to respect her wishes about not talking about what was happening. It’s been hard to try to get the things done that I need to get done. Every chirp of my cell phone made me jump out of my skin. I was checking my email every thirty seconds, anxious for more updates (thank you to my aunts M and C for keeping everybody so well informed by the way). I was afraid to stray too far from my apartment because I didn’t want to miss an update and for the last few nights I’ve slept with both phones next to my head because I didn’t want to miss the inevitable call that came this morning. I didn’t want to make plans because I didn’t want to get the news while I was out and in the world.
And I would do it all over again. Because Nan has always done things her own way and I wanted to respect that. Because Nan is worth it.
I’m going to miss her every day and my whole self is just aching with grief but I’m glad that she didn’t have to suffer for months in a body that was defying her. I’m glad we had the chance to say goodbye and I’m glad we all had time to at least try to come to terms with what was happening. She wasn’t unexpectedly ripped away from us. We sent her off on her next adventure. I hope they have the instant coffee ready and allow chain smoking when she gets there or she is going to be PISSED.