This morning my Nana passed away at the age of ninety-nine.
When someone dies, and in particular when someone dies eight months shy of living an entire century, it isn’t simply that one person who dies. Over the course of ninty-nine years my Nana has been many things: child, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, mother-in-law, nurse, teacher, friend, widow, card player, etc. In her death, all these roles and identities have died with her.
That makes her death complex because over the course of many years people have known her in many different ways. Many of those are positive, and some less than so, if I want to be frank. And so as I reflect on my experience of my Nana I want to be clear that this is my own personal experience of her. This is not a biography. This is not an obituary. This is not meant to be exhaustive in any way. This is a reflection from her grandson, who at thirty-two is less than a third her age at her death.
Sarah and I have a number of cacti, houseplants, and succulents around our home. For various reasons, some of them have names. One of these cacti stands out as a favorite in the home. People often ask about it because it looks different than the others. It is covered with what looks like white hair.
The cactus is called a “Peruvian old woman.” At first you think that the cactus is soft due to all the white fluffy hair, but if get too close you’ll quickly learn that underneath that hair are countless barbed spikes.
So we named the cactus Nana.
Nana’s direct influence in my life is somewhat limited. When I was five years old we moved from Omaha, Nebraska to the Indianapolis, Indiana area. So in my earliest days of my life, the times before I have many memories, I spent much more time with her than I did over the course of my older childhood and adult years.
When I was young my family would visit for our family’s yearly Fourth of July parties. Sometimes we’d also visit for Christmas and other times of the year for special occasions. My memories during these times are of her telling stories, kissing my cheek, and giving me guff for wearing baseball caps indoors.
We always went out to eat with her at the local Village Inn or Sapp Bros. Truck stop. She would bring my Uncle Tom, her son with Downs Syndrome, to eat with us, often commentating on what he was up to and for whatever reason giving us updates on whether he was losing or gaining weight.
When Sarah and I moved to Omaha with our boys in 2014, we saw Nana more frequently, maybe every few months or so, often for a meal. When we found out about Micah’s diagnosis of Kabuki Syndrome, she always tried to keep up to date with how he was doing and developing. I think he had a special place in her heart.
She was proud of Sarah being a RN and was later fascinated with Sarah and my role at Boys Town. She loved to ask us questions about what life is like here. She visited a few times for holiday meals and our girls loved getting to know her a little bit and listening to her stories. I remember the first time she came to visit us, she had to lug her oxygen tank with her up two flights of stairs to get to our apartment. When she finally got to the living room, she plopped down on a sofa and told the girls in my home, “Girls, here’s some advice: Don’t Smoke!”
Not too many months ago Nana took some of our girls and us out to eat for brunch at Village Inn. She enjoyed treating them to a meal out and having some young kids to talk with. Our girls really enjoyed and appreciated that.
Over the years I learned some about her various roles throughout her life. She would talk about some of my aunts’ and uncles’ childhoods, as well as my dad’s. She talked about her time as a nurse. She enjoyed talking about her own childhood. Through all these stories she really showed me how great of a storyteller she really was, and I learned not only about her life but about how to tell stories about life well.
Over the last few years I’ve tried to pay more attention to her stories and appreciate them. I found out recently about my family’s origins here in the States as she explained how her grandparents immigrated from Ireland to Vermont, and later were convinced to move to North Dakota because if you bought some land and then stayed two years they would give you a tree claim as well as some more land. So her grandfather moved to North Dakota and ended up becoming quite wealthy in the process. He owned two farms and a bank. The money was passed onto her father and they lived quite well for a time. But when the depression hit, their lives changed dramatically. Her own father was not great with maintaining the wealth, and they ended up losing both the farms and like most others in their situation during that time, were quite poor. When Nana went to college her parents ended up having to move to a tiny apartment because they had lost their home in town.
The way Nana told the story of her mother and father during that time was vivid and heartfelt. And even at ninety-nine she had quite the recollection of some of the smallest details – especially of just how poor they were growing up in the depression. Her dad hitchhiked to other towns to get commodities. They had a coal furnace, but no money to buy coal. Etc.
She told me stories of her brothers teasing her about being their mom’s favorite, about babysitting for a nickel, and about going to the ice house with her dad to saw off ice for their ice box. She told me how her little town in North Dakota was a community of almost all Norwegians and Swedes,”You had to go 60 miles to see a black person, and we hadn’t even heard of Mexico yet.”
She was telling these sorts of stories in detail all the way to the end of her life, something that I hope to be able to do as well.
At big family gatherings or meals she would often repeat the story of how she and her late husband George met. When she was just seventeen she stuck out her thumb for a ride as a man on a motorcycle rode by. At these gatherings when she would retell the story about how that man eventually became her husband, she would look over the dozens of people in the room and remark about how they were all there as a result of her and that encounter.
And even though it sometimes would invoke eye-rolls and groans because we had all heard the story countless times, she in essence was correct. Nana was technically the matriarch of the family, sitting at the head of the table, in a room full of people all there because of her in some form or fashion.
In December of last year, right before her 99th birthday Nana’s health took a noise dive. For a few moments it looked like she wouldn’t make it to the new year. But she did.
After the new year hit and she was out of the hospital for a little while and back into more of her normal routines, I asked if I could go out to eat with her and then go to her home to take some portraits. She agreed, although she was upset that it would be happening before she had a hair appointment. In jest she fretted, “Oh, I wish I had my haircut. It makes me look like I’m almost 100!”
After listening to some of her stories from childhood we headed over to her home to take some photos. I had anticipated that these could very well be the last photos I would get to take of her. So I used it as a way to celebrate her turning ninety-nine years old.
I was unsure of how she would feel about getting her photo taken, but overall she seemed quite pleased about the attention. Once she felt more comfortable with me taking photos, she came up with an idea of her own.
She asked me to take a photo with her showing off her teeth. She told me, “Be sure to say ‘She has her own teeth!'” and then gave a feisty smile which to me really displays her personality and perhaps is one of the more meaning-filled photos I’ve ever taken.
I snapped a couple more photos while there. I knew I would thank myself for it later, as I am doing at this moment. And so I also would like to nudge you to take photos of those around you, because you may not get another chance.
The last few days of Nana’s life were spent in the hospital. I spent some time just sitting next to her, listening to her breath in some of the last of the more than 830 million breaths that she took in her life.
I thought about just how long ninety-nine years really is. My Nana was breathing air before women had the right to vote in this country. Eighteen different men served as President in her lifetime. Wow.
The last time I saw her in the hospital she was asleep. As I left her for the last time I held her hand for a while in silence, and then as I left I thanked her for sticking her thumb out for a ride that day all those years ago.