I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house growing up and my favorite place was always the basement. As a child I would spend hours down there, sifting through all the items she had painstakingly stored. I would always find something I couldn’t live without- a board game, a bent hula hoop, an old bike with deflated tires, or a jar of homemade grape jelly.
Nana’s accumulation of things never bothered me as a child. The basement seemed like a trove of treasures, not evidence of shattered dreams. For me, the endless racks of my mother’s clothes, her books and notes from college and medical school, and her sister Dianne’s dolls and toys offered an innocent glimpse into the lives of two individuals I didn’t get the chance to know. But for Nana, the memories housed in the basement kept her tightly tethered to the pain of the past.
To put it bluntly, Nana’s life ended in October of 1981 when my mother died. She never went back to her nursing career, she quit going to church, and even lost touch with her closest friends. During my visits with her, she would tell the same sad stories over and over again. Of the night she was giving little Dianne a bath and first noticed the hemorrhages on her back and how, as a nurse, she immediately knew that they meant leukemia. Of answering the phone the last day of 1979 to hear my mother tell her she had colon cancer and that it had metastasized to the liver.
In watching Nana, I began to understand that sorrow can leave your soul lifeless. Nana still had many qualities I wished to emulate- she was smart, quick-witted, and empathetic. But her predominant characteristic was sadness and even as a child I knew I wanted no share in her suffering.
Like any good grandmother, Nana was always coming to my rescue. I knew who to call when Dad said that $300 was too much for a prom dress or when I wanted to go on a Christmas break cruise.
I also knew exactly who to call on October 3, 2003, when I was catapulted into a world of suffering that I never knew existed.
October 3 was a Friday, and it was supposed to be the happiest day of my life. My first child, Virginia, was born, but due to gross medical negligence, had been almost entirely without oxygen for the last three hours before an emergency c-section was finally performed.
Every moment of my life from that point forward became soaked with tears of anger, grief, and frustration. Virginia’s neurologist described her as “the most irritable baby I’ve ever seen” and I would have to agree. She cried constantly and almost never slept. As the weeks turned to months, I watched as my baby endured the agony of hundreds of seizures. I slowly came to the realization that her life would look very different than the life I had dreamed for her. She would never conquer those first infant milestones of rolling over or sitting up, much less walking, talking or feeding herself. I felt myself slipping away to a place of complete darkness.
Nana became a source of great strength for me during this time. From that first phone call, I could hear the devastation in her voice, but also a deep love for me and for my new daughter. She wanted to do whatever she could to help, and arrived in ‘hot, humid, miserable’ (her words, not mine) Alabama the day we brought Virginia home from the hospital.
Nana knew all too well what it was like to watch your child suffer, and she knew, quite simply, that I needed to grieve. She didn’t try to tell me that things would necessarily get easier. She didn’t quote scripture about the difficulties of this life. She cried with me, she let me see how heartbroken she was, and, most of all, she loved me.
Nana stayed about two months on that first visit and was an invaluable addition to our family. She rocked Virginia at night so that my husband and I could get some sleep, and during the day she did the laundry, cooked most of our meals, and accompanied me to all Virginia’s medical appointments.
Over the course of those two months, I began to notice a light in Nana that had been absent for my entire life. She laughed more. I didn’t hear the old, sad stories as much, but instead found myself listening to her talk about how beautiful the baby was or about how much she looked like my mother.
It is difficult for any older person to leave their home and their routine, but for Nana, leaving her East Tennessee mountains to help me was even harder because she was leaving behind her memories. Her home had essentially become a place of mourning, where she tried to stop time and hold on to the daughters she had lost. And who can blame her? She was afraid that by abandoning her grief she would be dishonoring their memories.
But when I needed her most, Nana came, and she loved me by starting to live again.
I learned when Virginia was born that our human inclination when faced with great pain is to turn inward. I wanted life to stop and I wanted everyone to leave me alone. For those first three years of Virginia’s life, I did exactly what Nana had done for most of hers. I let my grief control me. It didn’t matter if I was taking a shower or fixing dinner, my mind was replaying the events of Virginia’s delivery and imaging a different outcome.
But in witnessing Nana as she began to embrace life again, I slowly realized that love makes it possible to overcome even the greatest sorrow.
We lost Nana in May of this year at 93 years of age. Since Virginia’s birth seven years ago, Nana spent a total of more than a year with my family. She held and rocked all three of my babies for longer than I did and her laughter and wisdom helped me endure many long days.
The task of cleaning out Nana’s basement was not one that I eagerly anticipated, but as I sat last summer in the midst of old quilts and yellowed newspaper clippings, I realized that the process was becoming cathartic for me. I didn’t have a basement full of physical reminders of my pain that I needed to give away, but suddenly, my anger and grief felt too burdensome to continue to carry all the time. Truly loving Virginia meant embracing every day as her mother with joy and expectation, and, like Nana, learning to leave my baggage in the basement.