I said goodbye to my nana over the phone last week.
My sister held it to her ear so I could talk to her one last time. Her breathing was rapid. It was her only response when I told her about the drawing I received in the mail that day from my 5 year-old nephew L. It was a picture of our family tree that he had illustrated.
I told Nana that she was perfectly depicted in it – a wisp of a figure with a ring of curly white hair and bright blue eyes. Then I told her I loved her. She died a few hours later.
I regret not thanking her in person for teaching me about badassery. About how to come back after you put your head through a wall and break your neck. About how to continue living after you bury a child. For a woman barely five feet tall and about 90 pounds, Nana was a formidable presence.
She was always calm and claims she never swore once in her 93 years. She said she never felt a need to. She simply did what she felt was right and never looked back, never asked permission, and didn’t always apologize if she was wrong. Nana had a big heart and little tact. And she was a horrible driver.
I will always remember going to dinner with her and my sister one evening in Florida. She drove and got particularly creative in the parking lot. She wedged her vehicle between an occupied police cruiser and a no parking zone, cut the engine, and marched inside the restaurant. J and I just stood on the sidewalk with our mouths agape.
“What’s he going to do, arrest me?” she asked shooting a glance towards the police officer.
The thing is I know he saw her do it. And he likely even heard her say it. But that was Nana. She lived by her own set of rules and she bent them for no one.
Nana appears in some of my earliest memories. I remember climbing over the granite boulders in her backyard to pick wild blackberries and finding a litter of feral kittens she wouldn’t let me keep. I remember waking up on Christmas mornings and her always being there.
I saved most of the notes she wrote me after I graduated college. Words of encouragement. Articles she clipped from magazines that she thought I would enjoy. I know I didn’t always write a thank you note in return.
I’ve had three decades to learn most of her stories. One I have never forgotten is from when she joined the Waves during World War II. She was stationed in California and served as a dental hygienist. That’s where she met my grandfather. But the story I’m referring to isn’t about how they met — although I know that one too — it’s about how sometimes at night, she would sit in the dark, holding the hands of dying soldiers when they no other hands to hold.
Nana didn’t want services. There is to be no funeral. No obituary to mark her passing. I didn’t ask why. I should have, but that would have meant actually acknowledging aloud what was happening. And I guess even at 36, I’m still a little immature.
Instead, I sliced a one inch cube of cantaloupe into 16 pieces hoping she might be able to eat a few. I soaked coffeecake in butter so that she might be able to swallow it. And for the last three nights I spent with her, I sat at her bedside, pulled up her covers, and held her hand.