I was looking forward all week to seeing Nana. When she saw me, she burst into tears, happy tears. She hugged me tight and would not let go. We stood in the middle of a busy dining room full of residents and staff, and Nana gripped me as though she hadn’t seen me in a long time. She didn’t remember it had only been four days.
I led her to a quiet table in the corner. As we sat, her cold, fragile hand held mine. It was just the two of us and my heart was so happy.
It’s been a struggle to keep her caloric intake up, and it was clear the more I distracted her with conversation the more she ate. So I kept talking and she kept eating. She spoke a few times about the pain from her cancer. Then she followed up with, “But it’s okay, I’m a tough old broad.”
Gulping down my awkwardness I asked, “What helps you stay a tough old broad, even under these circumstances? I really want to know.”
She smiled, got a little teary, and replied as she squeezed my hand, “Family and God. After all, he’s in charge.”
The sun slowly set over her shoulder. Every now and then my gaze wandered from her to the fiery colors of fuchsia and orange bursting from behind the clouds, fading to hues of purples and blues, eventually extinguishing to black.
One-by-one, residents finished their meals and left the dining room. The staff cleaned up around us but allowed us to linger.
Searching for a lighthearted topic, I asked her if she’s still enjoying her favorite television shows. “No. I don’t watch TV,” Nana scoffed. “Nothing matters anymore,” she continued. “Family matters. God matters. But nothing else.” She stared off into the distance, and continued, “It’s like I don’t care about anything anymore. But I don’t mean that to sound bad. It’s just what used to be important isn’t anymore. What I used to spend my time and energy on, it all really doesn’t matter.”
I quietly sat at the table and drank in her facial and body expressions, trying to sear them into memory for the day our conversations end. Nana was allowing me priceless insight into the perspective of someone with an aging body and ailing mind. I applaud her honest candor.
Listening with full attention, I saw a woman who is letting go.
Finding words for her sentences is like searching for seashells on a shore cluttered with incomprehension and nonsensical thoughts. Yet, with enough time and patience, her feelings, thoughts and opinions eventually reveal themselves through the sands of confusion.
These days, the TV sits silent in her apartment. Mail is tucked away. Her phone stays unplugged and she often doesn’t know where it is or even that she has one. The daily word searches delivered by the staff that she has so enjoyed over the past year lie untouched. Even ordering food from the daily menu is a struggle as a task that she couldn’t care about in the least.
There is a stark correlation to her recent decline. Rewind to last September. As best we could, we delivered the news to Nana that doctors gave her about six months to live. That is a post for another day. Her response to the news was, “I want to live as normal as possible for as long as possible.” This meant no more treatment of any kind. We respect her decision and asked, “So how do you want to spend your time? What is on your bucket list? Whatever we can give you, we want to. Want to go to the beach again? Go to New York one more time? You name it and we’ll try our best to make it happen.”
She sat with a quizzical stare. Between Alzheimer’s, angiosarcoma and aging, her mind is losing its footing. I, on the other hand, had fabulous aspirations of us going on amazing adventures. I could already see the selfies snapping in my mind’s eye. I saw us stepping barefoot into the coastal tide with water and sand tickling our toes. I envisioned a trip to the mountains where we open the sunroof and let the wind toss our hair as we spend the afternoon at apple orchards, which reminds her so much of home, and picking apples at the local fruit stands. I fancied the ideas of expensive restaurants, pondered playing with puppies in animal shelters, and even going to Disney World if that would delight her heart. Yet, the profound simplicity of her answer surprised me.
“I just want to see my kids one more time.”
Nana is a mother of four grown children with their own families; only one family lives locally. Her family is spread across three states from Texas to New York and over the following months they came to see her. Everyone tried to make it as fun as possible despite the bittersweet taste of the trips’ purpose – to say goodbye to Nana.
How does one say goodbye? Are there truly enough words that justify putting a period at the end of a relationship separated by death?
For my husband, her son, he wrestles with this every time he sees her. “It’s so hard knowing that every time I’m with her, I leave knowing it could be the last time.”
Saying goodbye over and over and over wears on a soul. Our rides home together are often spent with reflective contemplation inwardly while processing together outwardly.
And for our family out of town, they came with the somber realization that they were going to have one last hug, one last kiss, one last eye-to-eye, “I love you.” The finality of a final goodbye is unbearable.
But enter our tough old broad. Nana knows where she is going and she knows who is waiting for her. She’s told us for years that as much as she loves her kids and grandkids, she’s got a lot more people waiting for her in heaven than she does on earth. It’s a little twingey to hear, but I understand her point.
When her youngest son drove her home one last time on his trip to say goodbye last month, Nana looked at him and said, “So I guess the next I see you will be in heaven.” “Yes, I guess it will, Mom.”
I have not stopped thinking about their conversation. How raw. How real. How rare.
Most people cannot even talk about death, much less the direct impact it has on loved ones even while the person is still living. Yet here are mother and son, openly talking about this last face-to-face time they’ll see each other on this celestial orb of water and clay. What a gift of closure for them both. It was a lifetime of relationshipping wrapped up in two sentences and a mutual I love you. How remarkable!
Nana is certainly a tough old broad. She’s sat through endless doctors’ appointments talking about surgeries, recoveries, physical therapy, home therapy, and even hospice. Now she is speaking about the last chapter of her life and the only things that remain important – God and family.
Her daughter and grandson came to say goodbye. Again, how can a lifetime together be summed up in one word, seven letters – goodbye. But this is a blessing that many don’t get to experience. Those who lose loved ones quickly or unexpectedly would give anything in the world to have one last conversation; one more “I love you;” an “I’m sorry;” an “I forgive you.”
My mom died I when was 16 years old. My family, out of love for me, wanted to protect me from the pain of her dying. However, by not including me in conversations about Mom’s grim prognosis, they weren’t protecting me, rather they were preventing me from grieving her illness and death.
If I had known that doctors had not given her hope of surviving her last night, I never ever would have gone out with friends that night. I wouldn’t have had a friend spend the night for goodness sakes! I never ever would have left her side. But I didn’t know, and the guilt of leaving her in her last hours is something that a 16 year old then, a 49 year old now, has carried ever since.
To have had that night to apologize for my hormonal, bratty teenage years and the aloof dissing as an insecure middle-schooler would’ve been a blessing beyond measure for us both. To reminisce about the good and let go of the bad would have brought immeasurable healing and peace. Just to be with her in her last hours…after all, she once told me in the throws of brutal chemo and radiation, “I’m only going through all of this for you girls. <my sister and me> Ya’ll are the reason I’m living.” My place was by her bedside that last night. I owed her that much, but I didn’t know.
On the contrary, I sat with my biological father as he laid dying in the hospital. I first met him when I was 12 years old. We didn’t reconcile until I was 33 year old. We were given eight great years until he died of cancer. Our relationship was unique and unlikely, but with God as our witness we gave our relationship to him and he blessed it. When I got the call to come to Atlanta to say goodbye, my husband and I were in the middle of a home remodel. I tossed the keys to the contractor and our family of five piled into the minivan and we hit the road. I wasn’t going to miss (again) my last chance to say goodbye to my only living parent.
Sitting at his bedside, I asked if everyone clustered in the crowded, tiny hospital room wouldn’t mind leaving. My husband, children and my dad’s wife left the room and it was just my dad and me. Lung cancer held his words and breath hostage. I had never seen him weak and watching him lie there with oxygen tubes and IVs was overwhelming. I knew I had one chance to say it. Three words I could never bring myself to say in our eight short years, nor in my entire life. I knew I needed to say them as much as he needed to hear them.
I needed to say them in hopes to overwrite one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever said to another human being. Years before, he stood in my home (to which he traveled hours to see my family and me) and I said to him straight to his face, “You can be a grandfather to my children, but not a father to me.” A hurt little girl deep inside still longed to feel like a daughter. I had been in counseling off and on for years, but still had so much unresolved anger, hurt and resentment which is too complicated to pen here. The thing is, I meant those words at the time– but I didn’t mean to say them to him.
Fast-forward several years, more counseling, and much heart change, maturity and personal growth later, I was a different person. I desperately wanted to take those words back knowing how much they hurt him. I did my best to show it to him that I didn’t mean those words anymore and that I did want him in my life, not just in my children’s lives. We made great memories together until cancer came calling. The photo album would have a hard stop in its timeline. But I wondered if I said three words, that they would perhaps elude time and distance, sickness and health. So much had not been said in our lifetime, could three words possibly bear the weight of it all? Could three words erase the negative and amplify the positive conversations and shared moments between us for three decades? Are three words that powerful?
Kicking aside the scattered stones of pride and human emotion that were leftover from a very thick and high wall that guarded my heart, I left myself wide open and vulnerable in a moment in an Atlanta hospital room. My palms were soaked with sweat, the back of my neck stung with prickly anxious heat, and my pounding heart welled up in my throat. Taking a deep breath, and deciding not to overthink it any longer, I gently took his hand, looked him in the eye and softly said, “I’m sorry I can’t fix this. I’m sorry I can’t make you better.” He looked at me, unable to move, but I felt the hug of his heart.
Then I said in one breath, and without blinking, “I love you.”
A wave of relief and freedom washed over me. It was my first, and last, I love you, to my dad. He died not 24 hours later.
Some may find my openness and lack of filter about such personal and painful topics audacious, off-putting, uncomfortable, and even offensive. I totally get it and don’t blame them at all. But I’ve lived both scenarios – saying goodbye and not saying goodbye. Not saying goodbye is far harder to live with than momentarily swallowing pride, overcoming awkwardness, leaning into the opportunity, and saying what needs to be said.
Likewise, Nana and I have had lots of positive conversations about dying over these last months. Having Christ as Savior changes the entire perspective on living and dying. We talk about the certainty of Jesus’ promise in John 14:2-3, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” There is so much for Christians to look forward to!
Christina Rossetti wrote the poem, “Let Me Go,” with its words, “…For this is a journey we all must take, and each must go alone. It’s all part of the master plan, a step on the road to home…” Although its words are comforting, they are conventional.
Nana and I are going about her journey in an unconventional way. And in many ways, I feel like we’ve grown closer in the past year than in the 33 years we’ve known each other; largely due to our continuing conversations.
I want to walk Nana as close to heaven as I can get to minimize her aloneness in the journey as the poem wrote. My hope is to hand her to heaven when the Lord calls her home so there is not one moment spent unaccompanied between her last breath on earth and her first glimpse of eternity.
So we’ve escorted the elephants out of the room and talk about “it.” It being whatever the day brings – an emotion, a decision, a thought, a memory. She knows she can tell me anything. She also knows this is the time to say it.
This is Nana’s epilogue. Her moment to reflect and respond to the 80 years she has lived. When I think of all she has seen, lived through and overcome I’m amazed at her perseverance, strength and how she has kept her sense of humor through it all.
From stuffing newspapers in her shoes as a child to replace insoles long worn out; how as a 12-year-old girl home alone, she bravely brandished a shotgun to scare off two drunk men who came looking for trouble; she walked the college stage to receive her degree very married and very pregnant, even holding up the ceremonial line for her extra restroom trip (oh the joys of pregnancy!); she marveled at snowfalls as high as their roof; she enjoyed summer camping on Maine beaches and ice fishing on the lake; she hosted countless birthday parties and lived through too many world wars; from spirited poker nights to scary bomb shelters; dogs running amuck all over the house; a house always needing repairs; all-you-can-eat Friday fish fries at the local HoJo and 4th of July fireworks at Lake George; Martha’s ice cream and Dirty John’s hot dogs; Studebakers and station wagons; dancing into the night and nights spent sitting up with sick babies; giving up smoking and giving her life to Christ; cooking with Julia Child’s and crying with Billy Graham on tv; raising four active children and sending them off into the world as adults; all of her countless prayers and answers to prayers; owning her own store and working as an elementary school teacher, Nana never sat down unless it was to knit or read an Agatha Christie mystery. She walked her husband home to heaven and spent years serving the church, and now the church is serving her through its widow ministry, and it is our family’s turn to walk her to heaven. As Nana rounds the corner of life, in her home stretch she reflects on the big, releases the small, and reminiscences about the millions of life’s moments and lessons in the middle.
These stories deserve to be told and retold. So we spark her memory with a story-starter and then sit back and let her talk. This is her epilogue, worthy of hearing, recording, remembering.
I know she is letting go because she tells me even without admitting it. Because with every conversation, she talks to me regarding “us” in past tense. “I’m so glad I got the chance to love you like a daughter.” “I’m so glad God brought you into our family.” “I’m so glad I got to know you.”
I swallow hard but freeze my smile, so she won’t notice. In some ways it feels like I’m talking to a ghost. In other ways it feels like I’m talking to someone who has never been so alive as a lifetime lived on this earth, bound by time and space, waits patiently to escape this world and enter eternity. Where in heaven, the stories of old once again are retold, this time with all the actors alive, well and immortal. A gathering of life and love that will never end.
We, the family who will be left behind for now, will gather her stories and hold them close to our hearts. We will retell them to our children and grandchildren in countless conversations so they know their roots; an intangible legacy of life and love binding us together now and in the eternal.
None of this is possible without one thing – a conversation. Have the conversation. Say what needs to be said, in love. Bring peace where possible. Embrace closure. Give grace to all…including yourself. Escort the elephants out. Invite the Holy Spirit in. Laugh together. Cry together. Hold hands. Hug. Reminisce. Dream. Talk about life goals and final wishes. Sit in silence, but be together. Bless and pray for each other. Mend wounds. Heal hurts. Share joys and sorrows, victories and disappointments. Admit wrongdoings. Say I’m sorry and accept apologies. Agree to disagree when needed. Celebrate successes. Focus on what we have in common. Love one another. Savor the moments we have together now as tomorrow is not promised for any of us.
It all starts with a conversation.