A word of warning: I’m going to get all emotional in this post. Don’t worry, the snarky person you all know and love will return tomorrow. But like an onion, I’ve got layers.
Two years ago today, my greatest hero died. My grandmother, whom we all called Nam (because my oldest cousin couldn’t say “Gram” when he started talking), took her last breath, surrounded by her family.
Before I get to how she died, let me tell you the more important stuff — how she lived.
This is Nam as a young woman, fresh out of nursing school.
She didn’t know it yet, but her nursing career would be short. Well, I take that back. She’d be a nurse her whole life, but to her family. And she got a lot of practice. My Nam and Pap had 10 kids. Yes, you read that right — 10! There’s one set of twins in there, and my father was kid number 5.
I was grandchild number 7. This is one of my favorite pictures of me and my Nam. I loved that rocking chair my whole life. It made that perfect squeaking noise as you rocked back and forth. She rocked me in that chair all the way through my 20s.
My grandparents’ farm was the most special place on Earth to me. In many ways, it was the only consistent home in my life. So many of the things that shaped the person I am today are a direct result of that old dairy farm in Pennsylvania.
You see, my parents got divorced when I was 4. But even when they were married, we moved a lot. My dad was in undergrad, then graduate school. And after the divorce, he moved out west for a year. And my grandmother did the greatest thing a grandmother can ever do for a child in that situation — she took over shared custody with my mom. So, every other weekend, I went up to the farm.
By this point, I had many more cousins, and they became my siblings. Hours and hours were spent exploring the farm, building secret clubhouses, and playing board games with Nam at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking tea and eating frozen cookies.
And as I grew, I kept coming back to the farm again and again. Even after my dad returned, I’d beg him to let me sleep at Nam’s on some of the nights I was with him.
My grandmother had the biggest heart in the world. You met her once, and she was your Nam. You couldn’t call her by any other name. And I still marvel at her memory. When I was in high school, I brought my boyfriend up to meet everyone (by this time, my mom and I had moved two hours away). I’m not kidding — 15 years after meeting him, she would STILL ask me almost every time I saw her how he was doing and by name!
And there was no such thing as “ex” to her. With 10 kids, there were obviously some divorces. But to Nam, once you were a daughter- or son-in-law, you were always family. She NEVER said a disparaging word against an ex — they were her grandbabies’ parents, so you better not say anything bad either.
That’s just the kind of person she was.
At the time of her death, my grandmother had 10 children (and their spouses), 37 grandchildren (and their many spouses) and 21 great-grandchildren, including. E.
The only saving grace with living so far from my grandmother was the letters. I have dozens and dozens of letters that my grandmother sent over the years. She wasn’t much of a phone person (and computer? ha!), but she loved to write and receive letters. To be honest, in many ways, they were blogs. My grandmother was a lifelong journaler and every journal was left out for all to read. She wrote about everyone’s comings and goings, and her letters were much like that. I would hear about which cousin was on the honor roll, who made the all-star teams and what the weather had been like.
And because I was so far removed from a lot of the family drama, I think she opened up to me more too about who was arguing with who and why it needed to stop.
One of the most special letters I got was shortly after I told her I was pregnant. With all those kids, you’d think babies were no longer a big deal in our family. Not true. Babies are revered in my family. Even all my gruff uncles get downright mushy around babies. And I can just remember being bowled over by how accurate she was when she wrote to me that I was probably in that phase where things no longer fit well but I was still too small for maternity clothes — I’m not kidding, I had hit that point the DAY BEFORE her letter arrived. How could someone whose youngest child was nearly 40 remember that down to the week? But that was my Nam.
My biggest regret is that she only got to meet E. twice. The first was when E. was six months old, and we took her to Pennsylvania to meet her big, crazy family.
At that age, E. was SUCH a momma’s girl. No one else could hold her, ever. Not DadJovi, not my mom, not my dad. But she never cried once for Nam. It’s like she knew that this woman knew what she was doing. She sat there in Nam’s lap for hours and even dozed off a little. I was stunned (and frankly, didn’t know what to do with my suddenly free arms!). It was one of the most special nights ever for me.
And then, in June 2009, I got the call I always dreaded. My dad had been keeping me informed about her health. From 2008 on, she was starting to deteriorate. She had trouble with her lungs and her heart was starting to have issues. Every cold suddenly became a concern.
By the spring of 2009, she was hospitalized and on a vent. I kept asking my dad if I should come, but then she would rally. But by June, one of my closest cousins called me and said, “Look, I think you need to get up here and get up here as soon as you can if you want to see Nam.” The next day, E. and I were on a plane.
I arrived on a Friday and went right to the hospital. She couldn’t talk because of the vent but she kept blowing me kisses with her fingers and squeezed my hands as tight as she could. Her eyes spoke volumes.
Over the weekend, she made her wishes clear — she wanted to go home to die. She wanted to see her beloved farm, the place where she had created a family that now swelled to nearly 100 people, one more time. It was a struggle to get the hospital to let her come home, but fortunately, it helps to have my father and my cousin as doctors at the hospital. The decision was made.
So, on Sunday morning, with her oldest daughter by her side in an ambulance (who, by the way, had just suffered a stroke herself), my grandmother made one more trip up the hill to her farm. We were all there. And as she was carried out of the ambulance by stretcher, her children and grandchildren lined the sidewalk the whole way to the house. And Nam gave us a thumbs up.
They paused for one moment on the porch where she had spent thousands and thousands of hours rocking on her swing so that she could look out at her barn, her fields, her pond, her horses and her family.
Once she was in her bed, the family gathered. Family by family, we all took a turn to say private good-byes to her. I don’t know where she got the strength to do it. She was hooked up to her vent and her breathing was very labored. She couldn’t talk but it didn’t stop her from mouthing words (we’re a chatty bunch). When my dad and I came in, she gestured to me to put E. in the bed with her. By this point, E. was 16 months old and very wiggly. But again, she just knew. She laid down next to Nam so that Nam could snuggle her. Nam hugged her tight and kissed her. Then, it was my turn to climb into my Nam’s arms one final time.
After we all said our good-byes, we all gathered again. My uncle led us in prayer, then recited the Lord’s Prayer, which Nam mouthed along. We sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Happy Birthday” to Nam — she would have turned 84 just 8 days later.
Then, my cousin read Nam her favorite book, “Love You Forever.”
“I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be.”
Nam just kept looking around at all of us, her legacies gathered.
It was time to turn off the vent. I couldn’t stay in there anymore. So I went out on the porch and sat on the porch swing with E. One of my cousin’s kids came over and asked me to read a book. Next thing I knew, I had six kids gathered on the swing with me as I read them books.
It seemed fitting — Nam was a voracious reader and encouraged us all to read from very early ages.
After a few minutes, I looked up and saw the most gorgeous rainbow (it had just finished raining). And a moment later, cousins started filtering out and told me that Nam was gone. It was the most surreal moment in my life — how could there be a rainbow at the exact moment she left us? I’m not an overly religious person but Nam was. And God was at work in that moment. She was telling us all that it will all be OK.
My cousins in the room told me it was so peaceful. She just closed her eyes, took a couple breaths, then fell asleep.
I was so happy that she got to leave on her terms, surrounded by her family and back in her own bed. We should all be so lucky.
There’s not a day that goes by where something doesn’t remind me of Nam. It could be my flowers finally coming up in the garden, laughing at DadJovi stubbing his toe (my grandmother and many of the us in the family have a bad habit of laughing when someone gets minorly injured. We can’t help it!) or the smell of tea steeping. I can’t even begin to explain the enormous effect she had on me in countless ways.
So, tonight, to remember her again, I pulled out “Love You Forever” and told E. we were reading it for Nam. The child who usually fights me on every book selection suddenly didn’t fight me tonight. She just knew.