My grandmother died the other day. She was 95. She had been suffering from severe dementia for almost 4 years. It was time, but she fought until the end. Her name was Edith Darling, but I called her Nanny.
My grandmother, Nanny, was a fighter. Her mother died when she was just 6 years old and hated carnations because on Mother’s day she had to wear a red one to signify her mother was dead. She was the only girl in a family of 4 and her younger brother was just a baby when her mother died. Her father was a barber and they lived a very modest life especially through the depression.
Education got her places. Graduating from Trenton High School, she went on to Trenton State and refused to call it The College of New Jersey and always told anyone that her obituary would reach Trenton State. Eventually she married a man who had more than she did. It could have been considered social climbing, but I like to think she just aspired for more. They had a wonderful life and the 3 girls always said they were raised by Ozzy and Harriett. My mother describes her childhood as idyllic. It was that Norman Rockwell painting kind of life.
My grandfather, Pop-Pop, had his first heart attack at 50. His health was always an issue, but he was the kindest man you have ever met. He was one of the first to undergo a bypass surgery. Then he developed a neurological disease. He died at only 72. I was 12 and it was winter. I remember after finally deciding to go to the funeral, I was walking from the church sanctuary and I was crying. My grandmother said somewhat gruffly, “Aren’t you glad you came?” I was sure I was but also not sure I was. I will always remember that moment.
My grandmother never had another man in her life. He was her true love. She was utterly devoted to him in that stubborn way she had about her. When we recommended perhaps finding a new companion in life she would scoff and wave us off.
I have come to realize Nanny was just self reliant. For exercise, she would walk for miles and always took good care of herself. She did yoga before it was even a thing Americans really did. Her daughters ate wheat germ pancakes, wholesome food and everyone only had one pork chop at dinner. There was always just enough, but never too much.
Nanny was not the type of grandmother who would sneak you candy. Although she and my grandfather did walk me to Carvel as an excuse to get themselves ice cream on occasion, the indulgence of a child was against her nature. She was not warm or snuggly like some grandmothers. She was cold and hard and made sure I knew what was right and wrong. Manners were everything and I needed to know what was appropriate and what was not. Everything was definitive because God spoke directly to her.
I was the oldest grandchild by 5 years and sometimes I do wonder if my experience was vastly different than my younger cousins. Someday I may ask them or maybe not. Everyone has their own version of people. This happens when they are here with us and when they are gone. One thing I do know is that I am grateful to have known my Nanny. Maybe she did take me to the Shaker museum instead of Great Adventure. Perhaps Sunday in the Park with George was the best option for a 9 year old who only wanted to see Cats on Broadway. It is possible that the symphony should have been my idea of fun, but alas it was not.
We did not share many common interests, but she certainly did guide our family in its traditions. Christmas and Easter were spent at her house until she could no longer manage. My mother inherited some of her toughness and I think that passed to me. That intellectual thirst for truth and knowledge too. The value system she had about right and wrong. She was more open to things then one would likely assume and never questioned me about my black boyfriend now husband. Not once did she make me feel badly about going against the norm for love. My waistline, manners or my choice of outfit…that was a different story, but she never once said a single bad word about Rolston.
Admittedly there was a rift between us because when I was young she called me fat and I never really forgave her for making me feel bad about myself. I don’t even believe she knew it was there, but for me it was very real for a very long time. Then I had my first child. I made her a great grandmother and in the early stages of her more severe dementia she and my son met for the first time. It was magical.
Nanny adored Brenton and Brenton adored his Nanny. He would sit on her lap and touch her face and giggle. She would snuggle him and he would snuggle her. Hugs and kisses were standard and he would tell her, “I love you Nanny.” They had such a bond. It brought all of us such joy to know that even though she didn’t know any of us this small little being that was a part of all of us, simply made her happy.
So when my mother called and told me Nanny was dying, I asked if she wanted me to go and be with her. You see we are the only local family left. My mother and her sisters have all left. My cousins have all left. All of her brothers have died. It is just me. So I went.
I drove too fast, but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want her to die alone. If I could make it I would do my very best to get there and I did get there.
Unexpectedly, the tears came as I greeted the hospice nurse. The nurse walked me to her room and she was so small and still. I walked to her leaned down and whispered to her, Sally and Linda are on their way. I did not immediately notice the chaplain was there and he sat with me for a while. He told me about how she enjoyed listening to him play the harp and I smiled and nodded. Then he left and Nanny and I were alone.
The classical music was the same song on repeat and I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and put a classical station on my phone. My cousin posted some pictures on Facebook from a wedding they all went to, so I talked to her about them. I told her it was Ellen’s, my cousin’s wife, birthday. Then a hospice volunteer came in and I was comforted. Her name was Linda like my mother. She knew my grandmother. It turned out we had so many common people in our lives as well. She worked at the school I went to and lived in my town. I was reminded how small the world can be.
Linda stayed for hours. When Arlene the hospice nurse checked Nanny she told me it wouldn’t be long. They asked me to leave to change an reposition her to keep her comfortable. I checked in and my mother was over 3 hours away and my aunt a little more than 1 hour out. When they were done and I came back to the room, I decided it was time to sit in the very uncomfortable chair on the other side of the bed so I could hold Nanny’s hand. I smoothed her hair and helped her to settle when she was agitated. The body shutting down was not easy. She was having trouble letting go.
I truly believe she was waiting for her daughters. They both made it. When I left almost 9 hours after I arrived she was still breathing. Smoothing her hair once more, I kissed her telling her how grateful I was that she got to meet my boys. I hugged my mother and my aunt and they told me once again how much it meant to me that I was there with her until they could be. I told them I was happy I was able to be there and I meant it. Before I left the room I said, “Bye Nanny, Brenton says goodbye too!”
It felt like such a long drive home. When I got home Brenton was sleeping and I gave him a kiss. I was exhausted and I fell asleep quickly. I knew when I woke I would have news. In the morning, the message from my mother read “Nanny died at 4am we had classical music playing kind of loudly and I opened the window so her spirit could fly.”
Later that morning Brenton came into my room and asked if Nanny died. I said yes sweetie she did. He said so we can’t see her and I said no we can’t see her anymore. He did not understand. It’s age appropriate of course, but it is so hard to see his confusion about her death.
We took him to her home and to her room so he could see she was gone. This closure is important for children or so I have read. I think it was important for me too. The empty room except for the chair we were there to pick up that will stay in my office now reminding us of her. I have so many memories when I look back. Not just holiday memories, but real true memories 39 years worth. Some good and some not so good but they are mine and hers. She was a true constant throughout my life.
Tomorrow we will gather as a family at the cemetery where her ashes will be laid next to my grandfather. One of her former students who became a minister will say a few words. Then we will leave to have lunch at the club where we all gathered so many times in celebration. We will celebrate her long life and that her suffering has ended. We will all talk about how much we loved her, tell stories about her and smile and laugh as we say farewell to our one and only Nanny! She will be forever in our hearts.