“Heidi, my wee love! I was just thinking about you,” she’d sing out in her Irish lilt as I walked through her front door. Taking my face in her hands she’d kiss my cheeks and lips and forehead.
“Come sit and tell me about your day,” she’d say as she set the kitchen table with china cups and saucers, the little porcelain milk jug and sugar bowl, and a plate of cookies or Little Debbie treats.
She was 4 ft, 11 inches with bright ginger locks that just brushed her collar. She favored burnt orange lipstick and cinnamon red blush, clip on rhinestone earrings and animal print blouses. She made Florence cake and lemon meringue pies from scratch and always, always had a kettle of tea brewing on the stovetop.
My Nana. I was her first grandchild and we had an incredibly close bond since the day I was born. She gave me my name and was my biggest cheerleader and the one I ran to when I had good news to share or needed a shoulder to cry on. Sewing my Halloween costumes, listening to my poetry and stories, adoring her great and great-great grand kids and showering me with unconditional love.
Over the years our roles changed and I became her protector and champion, having to make the tough decision to move her to a care facility when she turned 94. Dementia took her short-term memory, but not her recollection of days long past. We spent afternoons sitting in the garden singing her favorite hymns and I loved hearing her stories of growing up in Ireland. I couldn’t imagine life without her.
And then she was gone.
We went as soon as we got the call, arriving within minutes of her passing just after midnight. I put my head on her still warm chest and sobbed. Then I took her face in my hands and kissed her cheeks, lips and forehead and told her I loved her.
Life changed the instant she died; I became a shape of grief. A heavy cloak of sorrow enshrouded my every sense with a dense layer of gray, as if I was living in a fog. My eyes only saw death in the beautiful autumn leaves, I preferred silence to any sound, and her scent lingered in my car where bags of her clothing sat untouched, triggering tears every time I opened the door. I was certain that whoever I encountered knew of my pain. It felt as if I walked around with a sandwich board over my shoulders that read, “My Nana died and I am lost.”
I went through the motions of life. I went to work. I shopped and cooked dinner and kept our home tidy. I spent time with my husband, kids and grandchildren. I stopped meditating and exercising in the mornings and drank too much late at night. And I coveted every moment alone to simply let the tears flow without judgment.
“Let’s get mani-pedi’s. It will make you feel better,” a girlfriend would suggest.
“Meet me for a glass of wine?” another would offer.
I’d agree to the plans and then cancel. I didn’t want to put on a happy face. I didn’t want to let go of the grief. As long as I had the grief, I still had a connection to my Nana.
“She’s in a better place now.”
“98? Wow! She lived a full life.”
No, she wasn’t in a better place. She wasn’t here with me. If she had lived to be 100 it wouldn’t have been long enough. I always would want just one more day.
I poured my grief into handwritten daily journals, tears smearing the ink on the pages. I cried over my morning cups of tea, made precisely to my Nana’s English standards. And late at night, after my husband was sound asleep, I’d sob silently in my pillow. I didn’t share this grief with anyone. It was mine alone and it was exhausting.
As I was doing dishes early one morning, I caught a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise from my window. Venturing outside, I stood in awe of the gorgeous palette of changing colors … soft lavender and powder blue giving way to crimson and gold and Nana’s favorite shade of Northern Ireland orange. I turned to the west and gazed at the inky violet and deep indigo hues still clinging to the night horizon. My little piece of the earth was caught between day and night.
And then it hit me. She was gone and no amount of tears would bring her back. I couldn’t keep living stuck between what was and what is. I would always miss her and love her, but it was time to look towards new horizons.
Before my eyes, the vibrant sunrise colors disappeared into a cloudless, royal blue canvas sweeping from east to west. I wiped my tears, took a deep breath and whispered, “It’s a new day, Nana.”
Written February 2018; Read at To Live & Write in Alameda’s “Alameda Shorts Duo Reading,” March 2018. In loving memory of my Nana, Agnes “Elsie” Parker McKittrick Hanna, January 29, 1919 – October 25, 2017.