The black and white photograph shows a young girl, seventeen or eighteen maybe, in a ruffled bathing suit with one foot astride a folding metal chair. Her hands are placed defiantly on her hips and her head is tilted, her eyes, sparkling with mischief, stare off into the distance, and a small grin is starting to creep across her face.
This picture hangs above my desk, mounted by my mother on cheerful lilac paper as if to make me forget when she gave it to me- the day of my grandmother’s funeral. It is my favorite picture of her, because of the grin. I can place that grin in a multitude of situations- the day when I was eight that we calculated the exact number of egg salad sandwiches my mother threw away while she was in high school (it was 546), the many times I forced my grandparents to play “going out” and my Papa would be my date and my Nana would be everything else- waitress, shop assistant, hair dresser…but she never got to join us for dinner. Or even recently, when I had joked with her that the only reason I ever came to see her was that sometimes Papa would make me dinner, and a free dinner was like gold to a college student.
That was her best feature- her unfailing sense of humor and that smile. She carried our family single handedly with those pearly whites, which were actually dentures that she often kept in her pocket and would pop in only during special occasions.
She had been diagnosed with stage three lung cancer about three years earlier This was a diagnosis which carried with it an ominous six months to live. When we received this news as a family, we faced it head on; confident she would push through, as she had before. She had already in her lifetime beaten lymphoma and had open heart surgery. There was no denying her strength.
Using her pride as her shield, my grandmother soared past the expectations of all her doctors. Holidays and birthdays came and went, and each year she would warn us, with her ever present grin, that it was probably her last Christmas so we should make it extra good. Although she couldn’t come to the ceremony, she was the first to arrive at my house after I graduated high school. She hugged me and she told me “Justine, I’m proud to you,” a turn of phrase that will always belong solely to my grandmother but that I now find myself inserting into conversations because I feel a distinct sense of responsibility to keep this legacy alive. My mother and I carry the phrase between us as a cherished inside joke, passing it between the two of us whenever the occasion is appropriate.
Nana whispered that she never thought she would see her granddaughter graduate high school and turn eighteen. At that moment, my heart started the slow crumbling process that carried through her last few years. I had to deal with the realization that my Nana would not be around for the rest of my life. And selfishly, this thought completely overwhelmed me.
When people ask if I was close to my grandmother, I struggle to find the words that would explain our relationship. My parents often say that they don’t know how they could have managed had she not been there throughout my childhood. My mother, a nurse, was working the night shift and my dad was taking night classes at the local community college as well as holding down a full time job. Many of my earliest, and best, memories are contained within that small brown house that always seemed to be brimming with energy and excitement, even when it was only the two of us. We were “roomies” then- whenever I had to stay over, I was allowed the privilege (and that is certainly what it felt like) of staying in her very bedroom, which later in my childhood was painted an unfortunate Pepto-Bismol pink. She later confided in me that she absolutely hated the color but since she had watched my dad and uncle slave over painting the room for days, she would never voice her distaste to anyone else.
I would eagerly wrap myself in my lifesaver sheets that were on the extra bed and wait for her to come upstairs and read to me at night. My parents are avid readers, but I credit my love affair with books to my grandmother. She read to me, book after book, making the characters leap off of their pages by using unique voices for every single one. It always amazed me that no member of the Bernstein Bear family sounded quite alike, and that I would never find any of their voices showing up in any other book. She would leave me with several books within reach, so that if I woke up before her in the morning I could read to myself quietly. Nana was not a morning person and this too is something that I have inherited from her, along with my love of the ocean and being barefoot as often as possible. From as early as I can remember, I knew that Nana was no good before her first cup of coffee and even then, it was best to let her have a couple cups before producing any kind of crisis that she would undoubtedly solve.
Although I was too young to fully understand all she did for me then, I always felt a distinct sense of belonging when I was with her. She was my home away from home, and a refuge that lasted for not only my childhood, but in my journey into young adulthood as well. She constantly praised all of my efforts, sat front and center at every school concert and play, and was the first person I wanted to call whenever I had any good news to share. She laughed with and at me often, teased me that the fact that I am 5”2 was a disgrace to the long legged O’Halloran women and must have something to do with the French-Canadian in me, and entered into heated debates with me about who was better, more talented, and cuter- John Mayer or Josh Groban. I would often open up my email while at school and find some piece of supporting evidence for her side of the debate- Josh Groban was on Oprah; Josh Groban has a new cd… I would simply write back that she really needed to get used to the fact that John Mayer and I were going to get married and that she really shouldn’t belittle her future grandson-in-law. This past Christmas, I found myself doing the unthinkable. I handed her a carefully wrapped package, and told her that I couldn’t believe I was giving this to her. A smile spread across her face as she tore at the paper- she knew exactly what it was she told me, and she was right. In about ten seconds flat, she held in her hands the brand new Josh Groban CD, which I had not only bought for her, but traveled to several different stores to find. She was now one up on our debate, and as it turns out, had the final word. And her pride wouldn’t have had it any other way.
My grandmother’s fierce pride is a quality that I aspire to every single day. She showed me through her struggles that losing your hair did not mean losing your dignity and that everything in life was laced with humor. When she was hospitalized during my senior year of high school, she encountered a very rare side effect from the blood thinners that she had been given to dislodge a clot in her lungs. Her blood was so thin that she developed bleeding into her brain. It slurred her speech, disoriented her and led several medical experts to conclude that the cancer had spread to the protective lining of her brain. She complained only of a mild headache, and when questioned as to why she never asked for pain medication, she simply said she did not want to be a bother. To relieve the bleeding, two holes were drilled into the side of her head. It wasn’t too long after this surgery, with practically no hair left on her head, that she encouraged my dad to take a picture of her at a family function, in the style of a police mug shot. So we took it, frontal and side profile, with a handcrafted sign stating her prison number. By the end of her photo shoot, our stomachs all hurt from laughing too hard. When it came time to make the photo board for her funeral, we toyed with the idea of including these particular pictures. We decided that they wouldn’t be particularly appropriate, but clung to them as a family as a reminder, that this too would pass and that it was ok to laugh at each other and at ourselves.
There was another picture that we did add to the photo board which is how I find myself remembering her most often. It was taken this Christmas, and she is sitting in our oversized rose colored love seat with my one year old cousin Luke lounging on her lap. Her eyes are shining, and her cheeks are as rosy as her bright red Christmas sweater, featuring Scottish Terriers wearing Santa hats. My grandfather pointed to this picture defiantly whenever some well-meaning person would try and say that it must be a relief that her suffering was over. “This picture was taken less than 2 months ago- look how happy and healthy she looks!” The tell tale grin is there too and I know it is not solely attributed to the blue eyed blonde haired grandchild in her arms. No matter how happy and healthy she looked, my grandfather had recently had to learn to administer morphine to the woman who rarely took Tylenol. I knew that she was in pain that day- the last few months of her life were especially painful. But she had, as I found out later, promised my grandfather one more holiday season. She was smiling, surrounded by her family, and basking in her success.
She passed away while she was sleeping on February 16th of this year. Two days earlier, Valentine’s Day, marked the 50th anniversary of my grandparents’ engagement. I was shocked when my parents called me early that morning to tell me- I knew she was sick, but she had been sick so many times before. I was left feeling angry, an entirely self-centered response. Who was going to send me teasing emails now, or cards in the mail at every possible holiday with words of encouragement and $20 tucked into the middle (which she always told me she wished “could be a little more”). Who would force me to get dessert whenever we went out to eat and where would I go when I was feeling a little overwhelmed about things? She could talk me down from any ledge and defend me whenever my parents got angry at me. And all the time that she was defending me, she was also allowing me to see their side. Who could make me feel, just by talking to me for fifteen minutes, like everything I was doing in my life was so wonderful? I understand now, that she went, as was so appropriate, on her own terms with little bother to anybody else. But that does not stop me from waking up every morning feeling slightly disjointed, with a small and gnawing hole taking residence in my heart.
Recently, I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. It had a “cardio theater,” by far exercises greatest advancement to date. The six o’clock news was on, and in between my heaving breaths (I had been neglecting the gym for far too long) I heard a well meaning news reporter conveying new advancements in lung cancer screening for women. I quickly reached up to switch the channel; to an entertainment news show- what I thought was a safe choice. What I didn’t know, was that that day marked the one year anniversary of the death of Dana Reeves. As her courageous battle with lung cancer was chronicled, my own tears began to mingle with the sweat already rolling down my face. My body began to tremble, but my feet wouldn’t stop moving. There I was, crying in the middle of the UNH gym. My fellow exercisers, with earphones in their ears and eyes focused forward, showed no signs of noticing. That only served to make me feel more alone.
On the walk home from the gym, I reached into my pocket for my phone and I dialed home. I recounted my unexpected tearful workout, emotional as it was physical. My mom began to cry. She takes a class once a week, towards getting her bachelors in nursing. That night, she and her fellow classmates, had been debating end of life care for terminally ill patients. In the middle of the discussion, my mother began to sob and bolted from the room. We spent about an hour on the phone that night, with tears that eventually evaporated into laughter, reassuring one another in way that we had never before. She told me she was so grateful to have a daughter. I stopped myself just in time from saying that I was so grateful to have a mother. I instead told her that I too, was grateful to be her daughter.
When I visited my grandmother’s grave for the first time, it was a scene snipped straight from a movie reel. It was drizzling and grey and the cemetery was perfectly abandoned. I had imagined that it would be sunny and inviting the first time I visited, but, as is often the case with things that you spend time going over and over in your head, that was not how it ended up. I got up early on that Sunday morning, dressed in nice clothes, making sure that I looked presentable. The idea seems a bit ridiculous to me now, but at the time I felt like this was a monumental event- something that you couldn’t sleep in for and something for which my favorite ripped Red Sox sweatshirt was not appropriate attire. I should have known that none of that mattered, not even a little. I wandered around for a while before I found Nana’s grave. I was shocked to see that the earth where she had been buried was still fresh, with no grass growing around it. It looked as if she could have been buried yesterday, not two months ago. The date that she died had not yet been inscribed onto the stone, so it was almost as if she hadn’t left at all. I had expected the physical condition of her grave to match how the rest of us were all trying to feel- glossing over the emotions and letting reality harden our feelings. The fresh dirt, in which my puma sneakers left a perfect indent, served as a reminder to me of just how real and raw it all was. Despite the rain, I sat down right by her gravestone, muddying the nice pants that I had even ironed for the occasion. As I glanced at the graves around hers, strewn with fresh flowers and other offerings, I desperately wished I had brought something for her. But I knew there was no actual embodiment of the loss I was feeling and that she would have chastised me for spending any money I had on her (in fact, she would have been fuming if I had spent money on something frivolous like flowers when she knew I had overdue fees at the public library, the only thing in my life that she was ashamed of). I stood up after a while and for a moment, faced her gravestone head on. I got into my car and began to drive away. I wasn’t even out of the cemetery yet when a Josh Groban song began to play on the local radio station. My own laughter eradicated the tears that were just starting to well up at the corner of my eyes. She always did have the last word.
That was yet another excerpt from the writing class I took in college. The full story I wrote about my grandmother took up almost 10 pages and was probably the single most therapeutic thing I have ever written. I can send the full story on request, but it was simply too much to all post here. Today marks the 3rd anniversary of Nana's death, a fact I find remarkable, as her absence feels as raw and real as if it were only yesterday.
There has yet to be a time in these last three years where I have felt her absence more intensely while simultaneously feelings her spirit surround me as in these past days, weeks, and months since my daughter was born. I have found myself mourning the fact that Grace will never know Nana & realizing I have to celebrate her spirit in a way that makes Grace understand how enormously this woman affected the person I became.
Grace received a stuffed moose for Christmas this year. She hasn't shown all that much interest in it, but today Andrew handed it to her, by chance, and she fell in love. She squealed and snuggled and chewed on that moose. We named the moose "Pat", which was my grandmothers name ( My grandfather frequently called Nana "Moose" as a nickname). It may have been entirely coincidental, but for Grace to pick today to become enamored with that moose was a comfort to me, a connection that seemed more than chance.
And as I watch my own mother with Gracie, I feel comforted to see the same closeness forming between them. My mother will be the same ever-present Mimi for Grace, supporting her, loving her & fostering her values. I am blessed that Grace will know that too.