My first memory of my grandmother was when I was around 3 or 4. We'd been over at her house on Isabella in Sioux City, Iowa, and I was waving goodbye to her. Mom didn't see me waving, and she shut the car door. Mom realized her mistake in horror and I was back in Nana's house again, soaking my hand in a glass of ice water. I remember Nana stroking my hair, telling me it would be okay.
There were three very key influences in my childhood: my Mom, Aunt Onie, and Nana. Where Mom was someone I tried to care of like she took care of me all through Dad's anger and alcoholism, and where Onie was the loving worrywart who doted on us, Nana was like a mythic figure who was kind of larger than life. She taught me to draw. She taught me to dream. She taught me to look at life with a bit of romance. With Nana, everything seemed possible, and there was beauty in the littlest of things.
After she married Jerry and they moved to Rockford, Illinois, they came back to visit when I was about 8 years old. There was a 50-pound bag of dog food in the back of ol' Jenny, her blue Pontiac wagon.
"I'll bet you can't even pick that up," she said to me.
And there was something in the way she said that if it would have been the Empire State Building, I still would have tried to lift it.
"Oh yes I can."
A minute later, I was shouldering my way under the bag and then rose up under the weight.
"Oh my god - you lifted that bag of dog food. It weighs almost as much as you!"
Then with a twinkle in her eye, "Bet you can't get it to the house!"
I did pretty good. Got it into the house and was almost to the last step of the basement when I slipped and fell, the bag landing in my lap as my feet spread out before me.
"Are you okay?"
And I burst out laughing. "Told ya I could."
Something in her challenged me to be more than I was, to realize every dream in me, to see the potential and goodness in others like she did. Life was not work to her. Life was delicious, to be devoured and savored. Nana found enjoyment in whatever she did, and she taught me that. Just being beside her and working on whatever she was doing was fun.
The picture I posted here was her at her prime. She was working as a chef at a restaurant in Rockford. She had a good man in my grandfather, Jerry. Nana labored long hours in her huge backyard garden, out in the sun, where she would relish the smell of the dirt and its grainy feel smushed into her fingernails.
A year or so later, Jerry decided that he didn't like her working at the restaurant. So she quit. And from my perspective, that was the beginning of the end. She still enjoyed her garden, and totally loved my grandfather, but her friends dwindled to his friends and she didn't get out as much.
I told her throughout my childhood that smoking would be the death of her. Only within the last ten years did she quit, but too late to avoid the diminishing effects of emphysema. She had to stop gardening - because she couldn't walk the steep bank in her backyard. She still managed to grow tomatoes, but gone were her days of playing in the dirt. Then Jerry died two years ago. She was caught between the horrible loneliness of being there in the house by herself and the need to be right in the place where she had built a life with a man she loved so much.
Mom told me that my relationship with Nana was special. Nana would brighten when I showed up, she would say. Mom marveled at this picture that I took of Nana in Panera:
"She's smiling. She looks happy."
"Well, I took her to Panera for a pecan roll and a caramel coffee."
"No, Brett. She smiles like that for you."
If that's true, then she was only mirroring my own smile. I loved being near Nana.
I got the call last weekend that Nana had pneumonia. I was set to leave for Rockford on Sunday when Mom said that Nana was looking and sounding better.
On Tuesday, that changed. Mom told me that Nana had taken a turn. I left my house at 1 PM, and rolled through Iowa, evidently with the roads closing behind me as I went.
In Illinois and well into the evening, I had to drive with my lights off to see the patches of pavement. Too much snow in the 50-mph winds choked my view with my headlights on. Until I absolutely couldn't see the road, I was going to get to where Nana was.
I got into Rockford around 10. The security officer let me in after verifying who I was. I went to Nana's room. She had a bipap machine on her face. She was struggling and her hair was all over the place. Mom leaned into her and said loudly, "Brett's here, Mom."
Nana opened her eyes and connected with me. She mouthed "I love you" through the mask. I took her hand and told her that I loved her. And then she started crying. In her weakened respiratory state, her sobbing looked like torture. Mom told me later that the only time Nana cried through the ordeal was when she saw me.
The first night, we stayed at Nana's house, but after that, I pretty much stayed at her bedside. I knew it was the end, and I was there to make sure that she got her morphine. Her back and neck were killing her. Occasionally, she would be vaguely awake for a minute or two, but only in extreme pain and never again like the moment I got there. Mom thinks she waited for me and then let herself go. Maybe so.
She moved to in-patient hospice care. She was so quiet. Her heart was beating so hard to push oxygen through her body that it lightly shook her bed. Mom and I stayed in the room with her the final 36 hours. Late yesterday morning, all that work started to subside. I stood up by her bed, took her feverish hand, and just counted her breaths.
She saw the look on my face, and got out of the chair. Mom and I stood next to Nana as she drew her last breath. And then the color in her face changed slightly and that was it.
I love her. And I will miss her. But she is fiercely so much a part of who I am, that I will always have her with me.