My Nana died last week.
She's been fighting pancreatic and liver cancer in combination with Parkinson's Disease and congestive heart failure for several years. A few weeks after Ben and I got married, she was given about 18 months to live.
With characteristic stubbornness, she survived nearly five more years and saw four (almost five) great grandchildren along with many other events she didn't think she'd make it to.
With another characteristic gesture, she insisted for nearly the whole time she was ready to die and couldn't keep going any more.
Anyone who's had experience fighting her conditions knows if you're really ready to die, you don't outlive professional expectations by some 400%. But if you knew Nana well, you knew what she said wasn't always exactly what she meant.
Death, when it finally came, was probably from the Parkinson's disease. Within the space of about three weeks, she became almost completely paralyzed and lost nearly all ability to speak. When I saw her the night before she died, she was unable to comment on the conversation I had with Papa next to her bed, but she did her best anyway. She commented with her eyebrows and expressions even though her eyes were closed and she didn't say a word. The last reaction I got from her was when I commented that I was ten or eleven years old before I realized she was half German because to hear her talk, she was 100% Irish. She gave a small snort of laughter and made the face she always got when someone told her some fact she thought was funny.
But her real last words to me were, "Oh come here, honey. You and I both knew this day would come. It just is what it is."
That was a couple of weeks ago when I came in and found her bedridden at last, sound asleep and with that indefinable look a person gets when they are near to death. She and I have been very frank about the fact that she's been dying the past few years. I've teased her a little about the number of times in the past she's talked about "kicking the bucket" and she's talked about how after she's dead Papa ought to get married again "as long as it's not to so-and-so, because if he marries her I'm going to haunt him."
I haven't cried about it. Much.
But that day, I had a hard time not crying while she was asleep and when she opened her eyes and said, "Well hello, hello, hello," as she usually did, I melted into a puddle. That's when she put her arm out to hug me and told me "it is what it is".
"I'm going to blame being pregnant," I said. "I cry at Hallmark commercials right now."
"That's right," she said. And that was the end of crying about it while she was alive. Because she was right: death comes and it just is what it is. No matter how much we miss someone, no matter how we want to hold that time back and have just one more day, at some point there isn't another day. And as my dad says, on the day you lose someone you love, you often have to take the garbage out because life goes on.
Throughout my life, Nana has loomed large. Busy, bossy, loving, loyal, gruff and fiercely protective, she's the kind of person who definitely makes her presence felt. Short and plump, she wasn't necessarily an imposing person (unless she got mad), but she made up for it with strength of personality. She was a force to be reckoned with and did not suffer fools lightly.
In many ways, I am a lot like Nana. I look most like her out of my other ancestors and many of my instincts and personality characteristics follow hers. She's taught me many lessons, both in examples to follow and ones to avoid. But when Dad - who conducted the funeral since the chaplain she requested was unavailable - asked me the day before the service to pick a personality trait of hers to write about and read, I chose to bring up Nana Code. The thing responsible for her saying she was ready to die when she was fighting so hard to live.
Nana Code is a system of communication where Nana often said things which didn’t totally reflect what she thought.
My birth highlighted a perfect example of how this code works.
For years, Nana insisted there was no way, no how she was going to share her birthday. “I’ve shared everything,” she would say. “My food, my bed, even my underwear; but I am NOT sharing my birthday!”
When my mom went into labor on Nana's birthday in 1982, my dad was a little worried. “Hi Mom,” he said on the phone. “So…did you really mean it when you said you wouldn’t share your birthday?”
“REALLY? OH, THAT’S SO WONDERFUL!!! Are you sure? How’s Mary Kay?” she said. Nana didn't usually squeal on the phone. This occurrence was fairly unique.
When asked about her sudden change of heart, her response was classic: “It’s different when you’re not sharing with someone who lives in the house.”
Ultimately, if you understood Nana Code it meant, “I’m so excited to have a grandchild I don’t care about keeping my birthday to myself anymore.”
Nana’s words often meant something deeper than what she actually said. In the last year or so, she would abruptly end visits with, “It’s time for you to go home now.” She sounded so gruff because she hated having to say it. She was really saying, “I love you so much but I just can’t concentrate anymore and I hate that I can’t.”
Then there was, “Here, let me hold the baby while you eat,” something she said so many times over the years we began anticipating it before she even said it. For a long time I thought she just liked to hold babies – and she certainly did – but she was insistent about this offer for a deeper reason. With three sets of Irish twins – children born less than a year apart – Nana’s experience with child-raising was very intense. One of the things she remembered most was how it was a stretch to do everything that needed to be done, even sitting down to eat dinner. Another was how much she loved having her small children with her. So she’d jump at the chance to have her arms full again while lightening the load on her children at the same time. It might’ve seemed like a random quirk, but it was love.
Because the essence of Nana Code was that Nana’s words just hinted at what was in her heart. If she said something that didn’t make much sense or even seemed offensive, there was a history you had to know if you wanted to understand.
Nana Code is one of Nana’s legacies. Because of it, I learned you need to know a person’s heart to really hear the words they say. Knowing a person’s heart makes you look past things that might otherwise seem offensive or strange.
I love Nana’s heart. It was worth learning to crack Nana Code to see it.
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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