Lessons from Nana

I have never lost a child. It is one of the hardest roads a mother can walk and I have never walked it. But someone I love very much, someone who has been one of the most influential people in my life, has walked that road not once, but twice.

Nana, my maternal grandmother, lost her oldest daughter to leukemia when she was just ten years old and she lost my mother* to colon cancer when she was thirty-three. Nana, who had gone above and beyond to create the loving, nurturing home for her girls that had been denied her as a child; Nana, who had spent months learning how to care for polio patients only to have both her children fall victim to cancer; Nana, who had worked two nursing jobs to send my mother to medical school, only to watch as she finished first in her class, but then died before she ever had the opportunity to practice. Nana, who has given so much of herself to caring for others, has suffered the most unspeakable loss.
I have to say that Nana has many qualities I have always wished to emulate. She is smart, she is stubborn as only a true mountain woman can be, she is an incredible cook, she is an amazing nurse (attention to detail like no one I have ever met), and she is one of the most compassionate souls I know. I have always longed to be like her in many ways, but I did not long for her share of suffering.
Nana was a neonatal nurse. She actually started the neonatal wing at her hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee. Most women love babies, but I have never seen anyone love a baby like Nana does. You can only begin to imagine how excited she was when I told her I was pregnant with Virginia. Not only was this baby going to be her great-grandchild, this baby would be my mother's legacy.
When I called her to tell her that Virginia had arrived and that the doctors didn't think she would make it, do you know what the first thing Nana said to me was? She told me not to let what had happened shake my faith. I can still hear her pleading with me over the phone, because she had walked this road before. She knew where my heart was likely to go in the months ahead. "Please, angel," she begged me. "Don't let this shake your faith."

Nana is ninety-three years old and, until fairly recently, healthy as a horse. She spends most all of her time reading her Bible and listening to Christian radio. In spite of all she has been through, Jesus is still her greatest comfort.

Through loving Nana, I have seen the toll that sorrow can take on a person's life. With the exception of loving me and my children, Nana's life ended in October of 1981. She has not lost her faith, but she is held captive by the past. Fifty-five years later, she still remembers every detail of her first daughter's death. Twenty-nine years later, she can still recount every single aspect of my mother's cancer. She relives the same scenes multiple times a day. And those are heavy memories. Crushingly heavy.

For the first three years after Virginia was born, I did the same thing. I relived the night she was born over and over and over again. In the quiet of the shower or my daily walk, I imagined it being played out differently. I imagined sending for the doctor at 11:40. I imagined a healthy delivery. I imagined what I would say to the nurse responsible, what I would do to her, if ever given the opportunity. I could recall every conversation that took place in the days and weeks after her birth, as the reality of her situation came to light and the glaring horror of the acts that had caused it were revealed.

Every time I relived those moments (which was all the time), I was thrown back into the pit of despair. I, too, was held hostage by the events of the past. It didn't help that Virginia cried all the time; her misery was most certainly an instigator for my sorrow and it still is. When Virginia struggles, I still have a hard time escaping those early, oppressing memories.

Minute by minute, day by day, those memories have started to loosen their grip on me. I think the main reason for that is that they have been replaced by new, happy memories that have risen from the destruction of our dreams. Since the beginning of this journey, praise the Lord I have had a reason to seek joy staring me in the face every morning and that reason is Virginia. Nana had no such reason. Like I said, I have never lost a child, but I can only imagine that if I did, my heart would reside in the same place of pain that Nana's has all these years.

Since Virginia's birth, I have seen new light in Nana because she knows I need her. She spent six weeks with us in the immediate aftermath of Sissy's birth and came back frequently. When Wills was born, she came for three months. She even spent four months with us when I was pregnant with Eliza. It takes a lot for an older person to leave their home, their routine. For Nana, it takes even more because she is leaving some of her memories as well. She has been willing to let go of her grief to serve me and to love my children.

I have tremendous guilt over the things I can do that I know Virginia will never be able to. I think Nana feels guilty that she is enjoying her daughter's grandchildren when her daughter cannot. I can only imagine the emptiness that she has inside of her, the way it must feel to be torn away from your children. But Nana is one stubborn lady and when she promised my mother she would take care of me, she meant it.

Whenever I am sad or depressed about my situation, I call my mom to complain. She always has the same answer. "Why don't you just go do something for someone else? That'll take the focus off your own hurt and you'll feel better." That is exactly what Nana has done these last six years. Not many children can say that they really know their great-grandmother, but mine can. Because Nana loved me so much that she was willing to let go of her sorrow and create new memories. If I live to be an old lady, I pray that I will be able to let go of the pain of my past, however predominant it might be, and serve those around me with the same faith and love that Nana has.

*I am sure those of you who don't know me are a little confused. My biological mother died of cancer when I was a baby, but Dad remarried Mom when I was not quite four. Mom is my mother in every way except she did not birth me. (although sometimes she forgets this and says things like, 'When I was pregnant with you...' and we have to remind her that she has only been pregnant twice even though she has three kids.) Mom has always encouraged me not to forget my biological mother and has looked after Nana like she was her own mother. She is amazing and Virginia is her namesake. Mom always says that if she is too hard on me or loves me too much, it is just because she is doing the job of two people. I truly am richly blessed!

Nana's bed buddy when she broke her hip.

I had to take Eliza to her, but it was a special meeting.