Heather with her Nannie in the kitchen. (Photo courtesy Heather Graham)

Grief and Gratitude: Knowing Nannie Was Worth the Pain of Losing Her

Heather in the kitchen (of course!) with her Nannie. (Photo courtesy Heather Graham)

In early 2007, we sat around my Aunt Mary’s dining room table talking about ways we could celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. Nannie was turning 80, and though she referred to her contemporaries around town as “the old folks,” she in no way considered herself one of them. She’d still have been driving (like a bat outta hell) if her last hip surgery for a degenerative condition hadn’t significantly weakened her pedal-pushing leg.

Las Vegas came up. We sipped coffee—my aunt, my mom, my cousin Erica, Nannie and I—as we imagined a glitzy adventure littered with Elvis impersonators, convertible Caddies, big winnings, free booze and overflowing buffets. We envisioned ourselves road-tripping cross-country to party in Vegas. The things we’d do, the people we’d meet. It was even suggested that Wilhelmina might come out of retirement—Wilhelmina being my grandmother’s vagina.

Come November, just 45 days before anyone could assess the fire hazard of shoving 80 candles on a cake, my grandmother left this life. That night, I laid down in her bed and slept for close to 24 hours. When you love someone so deep and so wide, you aren’t prepared for the crater their absence leaves in your life.

Nannie was so many things to me: first best friend, staunch defender, protector—she once wielded a bat to chase away an intruder who tried to babynap me. She gifted me with a lead foot (with instructions on how to spot speed traps), a big heart beneath a tough exterior, a love of family and a sense of humor, and she helped me through a particularly tough time in my early 30s in a way that no one else could.

For a while after Nannie died, my grief was overwhelming. I spent hours in my apartment alone with wet, glassy eyes, climbing out of an abyss of tears only to fall in again. I was so distracted all the time that I’d forget if I locked my doors or where I put the sweater I was wearing. I’d see Nannie behind the wheel of random cars. My mom would call and ask, “What was Nannie driving today?” “A gold Mini Cooper with American flags flying off the sides.”

I’d see Nannie behind the wheel of random cars. My mom would call and ask, “What was Nannie driving today?” “A gold Mini Cooper with American flags flying off the sides.”

The way I coped was to bake. I hung a black-and-white portrait of Nannie as a young woman in my kitchen, took out her small wooden recipe box and went to work. Pumpkin bread, banana bread, peanut butter cookies—I made the things she made to feel close to her. My baking lessons began when I was three or four, standing on chair at the kitchen counter. She’d always start with, “What you wanna do is…” and show me what an ingredient was, how to add it or blend it and tell me a secret tip to make that treat better. She did the same thing in my Brooklyn kitchen as she taught me how to make buttermilk biscuits on Thanksgiving Day 2003. After I dropped a few on the floor as they came out of the oven, she scooped them up, brushed them off, served them and then raved about those biscuits for the entire meal.

As time has ticked forward, the shape and feel of my grief has changed­. It’s not omnipresent anymore. It’s not a meaty hand on the back of my neck constantly pushing my head under water. It’s an occasional gust of wind—sometimes a gale force, others a light breeze. I only see Nannie driving other people’s cars once or twice a year.

Mourning my grandmother has also become less solitary. Now my family gets together and tells stories about Nannie, transforming grief into celebration. We poke fun at her temper (she once hit my grandfather over the head with a frying pan), her driving (we’ve all been on trooper patrol while she hammered her gas pedal) and her occasional insanity. According to my cousins, Nannie refused to pull her red Pinto over after it started smoking from the outside in, insisting it was fine, and kept speeding through the twisty back roads of southeast New Hampshire. When she gunned it to get up the driveway, the flames finally broke free. Instead of calling 911, Nannie turned the garden hose on the fiery Pinto until the flames were out.

Not long before she died, Nannie was diagnosed with lung cancer. The day after her first chemo appointment, she ended up in the hospital with what seemed like food poisoning (to this day, we blame a tuna sandwich). When I visited her and held her hand, she squeezed it many times and said quietly, “I love you.” Sure, she’d be home in a day or two; I kissed her goodbye and headed back to New York.

Instead, Nannie went into cardiac arrest and I had to hightail it back to Pennsylvania. I saw my cousins as I approached the hospital doors. “It’s not good.”

There were pieces of gauze taped over Nannie’s eyes and some kind of tube stuck directly into her neck. It was horrible. Nannie told me many times that when the shit went down, she was checking out. She didn’t want to be on life support. She didn’t even want to be ill. She trusted me to make sure that happened, and I promised I would. So when that line flattened and the high-pitch beep stayed steady…I did exactly the opposite. I screamed and yelled for them to save her.

After a few minutes of half-heartedly try to conjure a heartbeat, the doctor advised me to call it off. So, I said stop. She waited for me, and I betrayed her. I ran to the bathroom and threw up in the sink.

I hope Nannie has forgiven me because I still haven’t forgiven myself. But I try not to dwell. I try to focus on good memories, like how she called underwear ”pants” and pants “slacks,” and that she said “Go shit in your hat and pull it over your ears” to more than a few people. And I always remember that when we’d laugh at something dark or naughty, she’d lean in with a sly smile and say, “You’re just like me.”

Really? Now wouldn’t that be something.

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