“Don’t let it be too long before you call again, honey.”
“I won’t. Love you, Nana. Have a good night.”
“Love you too, darlin.'”
We hadn’t talked very long. She was tired. She had been tired a lot lately. The past few years had seen her in and out of the hospital with more regularity. Last fall, she had given my sister and I each one of her gold rings.
“Just in case something happened,” she told us. “I just want you to have it.”
It’s tucked in my jewelry box now; I forgot to wear it to the funeral. And I waited too long to call.
In the past six weeks, I have been at one deathbed. Two funerals.
Dressed in black and disconnected from what was in front of me.
Watching my aunt receive condolences on the death of her husband. Giving condolences that don’t feel deep or wide enough to communicate my sympathies.
Watching my sister collapse in tears on the side of my Nana’s casket. Fighting the urge to do the same.
One week earlier I had stood with my sister beside Nana’s bed. They were “keeping her comfortable” then, and I knew it was only a matter of time, but there was a little part of me hoping. She had rallied before, hadn’t she? Maybe, just maybe, she would rally again. Maybe, like before, I would hear her again, talking about how “that was a close one, honey.”
Nana wasn’t my biological grandmother. She had been one of my mother’s closest friends, despite being old enough to be her mother. When my mom got married and had kids (my older sister and then myself), Nana moved in to help raise us. She lived with us until I was eleven.
Nana helped us with our homework. She cooked our birthday dinners. She was there for doctor appointments, school plays, t-ball games, holidays, vacations, chicken pox, every bout of the flu, riding lessons…everything. I cannot untangle my childhood from Nana.
I wouldn’t want to.
When I was about seven, she started using the family YMCA membership to walk the track in the early morning. I got it in my head that I would go with her. We would wake up at six am and walk the raised track. Me, seven years old with white-blonde, pony-tailed hair, wearing my swishy 90s track suit, power-walking with Nana and the other gray-haired retirees.
We usually went out for a donut afterwords.
Nana always included us if we wanted to be included. My sister and I would travel with her to visit her mother in Indianapolis whenever she went there. She showed me how to dead head petunias when I wanted to help in the garden. She let me help make egg noodles in the kitchen…until I stole too many, earned a slap on the wrist and a “Now, you just get out of here and let me finish!”
Once, she came along with me to see a new X-Men film…She was well into her 70s at the time with zero interest in superheros or comics, but she ate popcorn and sat beside me just because I wanted to go.
She taught me from the very beginning that family didn’t need to share blood.
My sister and I stood on either side of her bed. It was a Saturday. She wasn’t conscious, but they told us she could hear us. So, we talked.
We said thank you. We sang “Bushel and a Peck” the way we used to when we were little.
I don’t think I actually said goodbye. I didn’t want to. I just said thank you, and I love you. And then I thought it–thank you, I love you–when the words stopped coming.
This winter, I visited her in the hospital with John. She hadn’t met him before, but she knew his name when he came in with me. I was surprised; I hadn’t been hearing good things about her memory.
She sat in her hospital chair, connected to wires and drips and oxygen, and she looked him up and down with an eagle eye.
“You’re a good looking man,” she proclaimed.
“Well, thank you, Nana.” he replied.
We sat with her and visited for a few hours. She never lost track of who I was, or who John was, but she kept losing her place, asking when her daughter would be home, wondering where the dog was.
When John left to go to the bathroom, she informed me that she would “kick his ass” if he ever hurt me. Then she asked if we were going to get married. Then she told me that she would kick my ex-husband’s ass if she could just get a hold of him.
My sister called me on Monday morning. Nana was gone.
My dad had stopped my house that morning, and I collapsed against him, sobbing. He stayed until I steadied. I walked into the house, sat on my kitchen floor, and listened to Doris Day sing “A Bushel and A Peck” on repeat.
What do you do when part of your world disappears? When the sun has the audacity to keep shining as though a great light hadn’t gone out? How dare the universe keep expanding, the earth keep spinning, wind keep blowing? How is it that the flowers outside my window had bloomed that morning?
Tuesday night, the flu hit me like a semi-truck, proof that viruses don’t give one single fuck what you’re going through emotionally.
Fever. Chills. Coughing. Sore throat. Headache.
My dad started watching the animals. I couldn’t get out of bed.
An old friend from high school reached out to me, asking me how I was. I told her that I was having a hard time processing, that I couldn’t quite make it past the physical fever to reach the emotional pain.
She understood. When her grandmother had died, she’d come down with a wretched case of shingles, lending her to that same feeling.
“It doesn’t really feel like she’s gone,” I told her.
“I know what you mean,” she replied. “Sometimes it feels like they took a trip and just can’t get a phone signal.”
The morning of Nana’s funeral, I got a call from my nearest neighbor.
“Hi, Cherity. It’s Connie, from next door? I just…I think one of your llamas is dead. I mean, I know it’s dead. We can see it from the house. The vultures are after it. I wasn’t sure if you knew. I thought you’d want to know.”
Of course. Of course there’s a dead animal in my pasture. …This is how animal sanctuaries wind up getting animal control called on them.
I pulled on sweats and walked out to the back pasture along my neighbor’s property. It was the most I had moved in almost a week. Sure enough, a dead alpaca was laid out in the middle of the field. I got close enough to see the vultures. To realize that they had opened her up past her rib cage. I have a soft spot for vultures, and I didn’t blame them or harbor ill will. They were doing their job.
From where she was and what I know of llamas and alpacas, I’m guessing she went down quickly, probably a heart attack. From what I know of vultures, I’m guessing she had been there a day or two.
My dad and boyfriend both do a great job of taking care of everyone out here, but neither of them know the animals well enough to notice if one of them hasn’t been in. Between losing Nana and coming down with the flu, I had missed her absence.
I went to the funeral, convinced I was getting better. Pastors stood at a pulpit and talked about a generic version of a woman who I loved deeply. It didn’t seem right.
I wanted to stand up and talk about the stories that made her laugh. I wanted to talk about the fried green tomatoes I still can’t quite make like she did. About the time she went up in a helicopter with me over the Badlands on vacation when I was little because I wouldn’t go up with anyone else. Stories and memories bubbled up within while they talked about how much she enjoyed Bible study and going to church. How she played baseball in high school. It seemed like they missed her to me, but maybe that was just to me.
The next day, my abating flu was back with a vengeance. Six days later, I was diagnosed with pneumonia.
It’s getting better now. I’m moving slow, but recovering. Working in small doses. Taking it one day at a time.
I’m taking a lot of things one day at a time.
I drank the last of my Greek Ouzo the night of the funeral, toasting to Nana. John and I watched Pixar’s “Coco.” I thought a lot about the memories we keep of the people and animals we love. I thought about the way they come with us as the world continues to turn. The way we wear their love in our bodies. Love is never wasted; it is handed off like a baton from one person to the next as we walk through our lives, not diminishing in the passing, but burning brighter as it moves from one to the next. The sun has the audacity to keep shining because, even though it might feel like it, the light we feel like we’re missing isn’t actually lost. It’s just been passed along.
Nana handed me a lot of love. It’s my job to make sure it burns bright.