My family is all pretty close, at least in the geographic sense, if not the emotional sense. We all basically live within about ten minutes’ drive of each other. A strong love of place no doubt factors into why we’ve all stayed so close to the area we grew up in, but stronger still was the near-gravitational pull of my maternal grandmother Mary, aka: Nana.
It’s not that she ever made any of us feel like we couldn’t or shouldn’t move away and do our own things; she just had a way of making people want to be around her. She was funny, kind, welcoming and generous with her time. She liked nothing more than to have people stop by for a visit and tell her all about what they’d been up to. You could sit and talk her ear off for hours, but when you finally sighed and said you guessed it was time to go, she’d always say “well, you don’t have to hurry”, as if she’d be just fine with you going on about your boring-ass day for another hour or two. And she probably would have been, because that’s just how she was.
Nana was the force holding us all together around her, but she was also someone I looked up to and admired greatly. For all her softness, her generosity of spirit and her ability to make people feel comfortable, she also had extraordinary strength of will. She was whip smart, fiercely independent, and when that woman set her mind to do something, you had two choices: get on board or get the hell out of the way. She was born in the middle of the Great Depression to an already dirt-poor family of miners and subsistence farmers. Education and hard work were the only ways out of that situation, and she made a life-long habit of both. Her mantra was that you could do anything you put your mind to, and she was living proof of it. The stories she told affected me from a very early age, both directly from her tellings and indirectly via the way she had brought up my mother and aunts. Nana was a woman I aspired to be like; she was the stick I tried to measure myself against.
The call came early Monday morning that she had quite unexpectedly died. She had been fine the day before – she had gone out for her regular Sunday morning breakfast at the diner, she had done her grocery shopping and washed some windows, and she had spent the evening visiting and watching the Patriots game on TV with some family members. It had been pretty much her perfect day. At some point very early Monday morning she had woken up with chest pains, called my aunt (who lives next door), called the ambulance…and she was gone before they even got her halfway to the hospital. The whole ordeal probably lasted less than a couple hours, depending on how long she waffled before she decided to call my aunt for help. She had high blood pressure but she hadn’t had any serious heart problems above and beyond what would be expected of an 81 year old woman. She had suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis for more than a decade though, and while she didn’t generally speak of it much, she was in a lot of pain on a daily basis – sometimes to the point of being quite debilitated. In the past few weeks she had apparently expressed to several family members her desire to ‘just go to sleep’, and her worries about trying to make it through another tough winter. I don’t think that she would have decided to take something in order to end her own suffering, but I do very much believe in the power of will and the ability to talk one’s self into dying if that’s what they truly want…and I believe that’s what she did.
Nana wouldn’t have wanted a fuss to be made over her. She would have liked for us to take what we wanted of her stuff, give the rest away to people that it might help, and then get on with our lives.
So, that’s what I’ll try to do. It won’t be easy. But, like Nana taught me, I can do anything that I put my mind to.