I stood beside the hospital bed, looking at Nana, trying to find some trace of my grandmother left in the bloated face, the sunken eyes. For four weeks now, my granddad, mother and three aunts had been taking turns sitting through long days and even longer nights with her. Nana took my hand and smiled warmly, saying, "Nikki, its good to see you." I looked from face to face of all those gathered in the room. They expressed exhaustion and fear as the room cast a neon glow off cold concrete. I felt the cold you must feel as you are nearing death, like you are falling far from home and far from your loved ones. I thought, approaching the end must be like crying yourself to sleep from an overwhelming homesickness. The cancer hit her fast and within days she was talking nonsensically, thinking she was still a young girl, telling my aunts and mother "Youre going to be late for school." That beautiful life she had shared with my grandfather must have been rising up within her and falling, like exhaling one last breath. When her last minutes came, they were all there, her husband and her girls. Although the doctors told them she was not aware of what was going on around her, a single tear fell down her face as she asked her children "Promise to take care of your Daddy?"
At her funeral that is what everyone was trying to do --- take care of Daddy, take care of Ga Ga. Ga Ga was strong, smiling and greeting us all. But I saw in his face, a look of defeat and of fear about tomorrow, the long days without her. I watched as he leaned to kiss her good bye one last time. He whispered to her, "We made a good life of it, girl." And then he turned away. Hearing him call her "girl" reminded me that they were once young, married at 16, and must have been as full of hopes and dreams as myself and my new husband, Brad.
If I were to write the story of Na Nas life, the plot turns sharply the day my grandparents fell in love. The first few chapters would be a tragedy and after that all romance to the end. When she was three, her father kidnapped her from her real mother who died shortly after that. She was raised in a house where she was made to feel unwanted, a stepmother who put her own children first, and a distant father. I imagine she spent those years of her life, feeling an intense loneliness, a homesickness for her mother, like we miss her now. Then you turn the page to meet Gene and Francis French whose love made all things possible. A couple who had four girls, and no money, but didnt let that overwhelm them. Instead they were wrapped up in the love between two people. Their years were filled with making ends meet, welcoming new grandchildren and celebrating birthdays in style. Na Na wasnt sure when her real birthday was so she compensated for all shed missed out on through her family.
She was just like that. Instead of being bitter about the past, she tried to make things better for today. She dressed up her little girls and made them look beautiful. When the girls were all grown, she made over old, beat up dolls. Sewing them dresses, washing their faces, making them beautiful so someone would love them. That is the gift that has been passed down to me, from her to my mother to me, she has given us sympathy and the strength to change things for the better.
Seeing Ga Ga tell her goodbye felt like someone had closed the book and then death hit us with all its finality. I hugged everyone goodbye and waited to get into the car to break down and let the tears flow. My husband tried to comfort me, but he only made it worse, because seeing him reminded me that he and I would both grow old someday too. I imagined losing him and I imagined how my granddad must feel. That night I fell into bed, with all those images racing around in my mind, of life and death of weddings and funerals. I felt that cold you must feel, that homesickness, like falling from earth, far from Brad awake in the next room. He sat listening to my cries until I fell into a deep sleep.
Although it rained the whole day of her funeral, that next day was a sunny fall day. The world seemed to awake for her burial. Young cousins and family members who I seldom see gathered on top of a hill, coats pulled tight against the cold. A young cousin, a little girl with dark hair and blue eyes, was laughing, talking, oblivious to all of this, but so much a part of it. Her parents tried to quiet her, but I thought her babble was a comfort. I looked at them all, of all the young families, and saw a little bit of Na Na and Ga Ga in each of us.
The sun shone beautifully over that valley and the breeze sang a lullaby. The rays of sun burst through the clouds, like Na Na was shining down on all of us. It was beautiful, the shadows rolling over the valley, and a church sitting peacefully in the distance. I felt surrounded by her, everything that had ever been her, the girl, the mother, the wife, more of her than I had ever known stood before me.
That is the last time that I saw Na Na. That day in the hospital, when she was so swollen and sunken, that was not the last time we were together. That face heavy with careful makeup, when Ga Ga leaned to kiss her, that was not her. On that November day they put her body into the cold ground, but I saw her as beautiful and alive as the peaceful, blue sky moving above me. I keep her in my heart, she is etched inside with all the knowing of what love between two people can become. From that day on, I have worn a hidden locket. Inside there is a note, a promise that I have written, to always let love become all that it can in my own heart, between Brad and I, between my mother and I, between myself and the whole world.
Copyright © 1999 Soren Engle