Did it all go so fast? Much faster than you imagined on the day you said “I do,” sporting the pressed periwinkle dress with the flowers pinned to your bonnet? Much faster than you thought as you gripped PawPaw’s hand and clutched the bouquet of ribbon-wrapped flowers in the other?
Was it faster than you ever imagined when you were growing one baby in your womb while you cradled another and tended to toddlers and preschoolers wrapped around your legs?
Much faster than how long the days seemed when the dishes piled high and the clothes needed washing and the floor needed mopping and you had to get dinner in the oven?
If you could talk now, you’d probably tell me that those years in the trenches were some of the sweetest of your life.
Nanny, they say your time is nearly here. That you won’t be with us much longer.
And as she watches my eyes well with tears, your little namesake Emma reminds me, “Mama, we should be happy for Nanny. She will be with Jesus soon. And we will all be with Jesus one day.”
You’ve lived nearly 90 years, Nanny. Ninety!
You and PawPaw have been married nearly 70. The two of you met as children, married after he got back from World War II and raised six babies together.
Today, you slipped into a coma-like state.
We have said over goodbyes. We were 12 hours away visiting family in Mississippi, and we drove straight to the nursing home to see you. Mama texted Will on Christmas Eve and said there wasn’t much time left.
He didn’t tell me, but I saw it on his phone.
Really? Could this be it?
During our visit, you opened your eyes for me. Blazing blue eyes–just like mine, just like little Emma’s.
I kissed your forehead, and I told you stories. I brought the girls in–my three little redheaded girls–and you lit up a little.
I wondered if they reminded you of your little redheaded sisters. You will see them soon, Nanny!
You opened your mouth and tried to tell me something, too. I’m not sure what, but I know you love me. And I love you so much, too. So, so much, Nanny.
I felt prompted to sing you “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling,” which is funny because I can’t sing well at all. It just came to me, and I was reminded of all those times singing from the Baptist hymnal beside you, before Paw Paw got up to preach.
I’m so thankful for that sweet, sweet time the other night.
I didn’t get to say goodbye when my childhood friend was killed in a car wreck. And that was the only other time that death has tasted so bitter.
She was taken from us in an instant. There were no preparations.
Your departure has been slow. Hard. Tiring.
But there has been a sweetness in the slowness, still.
This waiting. This watching you fade a little more each day. This pound of the heart every time the phone rings.
And yet, we keep on living. And just as I looked out the window the day that Courtney died and wondered how in the world this world could keep going with her not in it, we keep on breathing now.
We keep washing the dishes and bathing our babies and doing the laundry and writing…
All while you are lying in a nursing home bed breathing your last.
This waiting for someone to die, it’s the strangest thing, Nanny. We’re waiting for something to happen that we really don’t want to happen but knowing it will happen regardless.
It’s an odd phenomenon–this advent of death.
But aren’t we all just waiting anyway?
Your going, Nanny, it has reminded me that this life is but a vapor–even when it’s a life that’s full and long.
As a teenager, I had a quote taped to the dresser by my bed: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
That is your legacy, Nanny.
Even in the bitterness, there is beauty.
When I sat with you the other night, you looked tired and weak, but, yes, you also looked beautiful.
As you looked at me from that bed and held my hand tightly, I didn’t see a wrinkled face or sparse gray hair or sinking eyes.
I saw my Nanny–my beautiful, funny, strong, caring Nanny. And for the first time ever, perhaps, I also saw the young girl from Gauley Bridge and Kanawha Falls. The 9th of 15 children born to Harry Bruce and Celia Rae. The sister to eight girls and six boys. The teenager waiting for her beau who was off protecting our country during World War II. The young bride. The nervous first-time mother. The homemaker. The pastor’s wife. The mama in her 30s in a house full of babies. The older mother in a house full of teenagers. The first-time grandma. And then the grandma for the 14th time. And the great-grandmother to 20.
I saw one who had lived long, lived well. I saw one who had dreamed dreams–had seen some realized and some not. I saw one who loved God and her family fiercely.
I saw more than a grandmother, Nanny. I saw you.
And as to our relationship, I am forever grateful for having loved you these 34 years.
There is beauty in the knowing that you were the one to rock and hold and feed me while Mama worked part-time at the Sears Department Store. And maybe it’s those early bonding moments that made us so close.
Or maybe it’s because others told me I was like you. Extended family called me Little Emma.
I think they meant it as a tease, but I took it as a compliment.
And I told you that one day, if God ever gave me a daughter, I would name her after you. When I called to tell you I was expecting my first, you held me to it.
And Emma it was.
You fell and broke your hip the day she was born, Nanny. As I pushed her out in a great big hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, they carried you to a tiny hospital in Elkin, North Carolina.
When it was all over, and I cradled my swaddled newborn, Mom and Daddy Skyped us from your hospital room. I was confused at first as to why they were there. But despite your pain, you smiled anyway, and you said: “Finally, I have a namesake.”
We all laughed.
Your namesake will always know about you Nanny. Always.
My earliest memory is of you, Nanny. Yes, it is fuzzy because the best I can gather is that I must have been between 18 and 24 months old. But it was me, and it was you, and we were playing in the your side yard at Kempsville, and you were rolling me a little red ball.
When I was older–old enough for real, tangible memories–you taught me how to sew and how to fry chicken tenders.
I remember you buying me orange slice candies because you knew they were one of my favorites.
When I came to stay with you some weekends when I was a teenager and then when I was in college, you let me lie on the bed in your back bedroom and devour your journals.
I remember just looking for a hint of your love story. But most of what you wrote was just the facts: “We went to the store.” “I got my hair cut.” “The neighbors visited.”
But those journals: They hold the stuff of life. The everyday. The mundane.
And when all is said and done, those simple, non-grandiose moments are what make up this messy, beautiful life.
When I married, you made sure the very first piece of mail I received as MRS. Erin Odom was a card from you.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been sleeping under the wedding ring quilt you gave us on our wedding day. The fabric you sewed together when your fingers still surged with life has dried my tears as you enter into death.
And, Nanny, right now I’m curled up under that patchwork quilt you finished for me and my little sister, Shannon–the one that sat on the white wicker chair in our bedroom for years. Somehow, I inherited it.
I say finish because part of its novelty is that my paternal grandmother–my Granny, who left us back in 2002–purchased the unfinished blanket at a yard sale. She was ever the thrifter, but she did not know how to sew.
And so you, an avid quilter, picked up the pieces and finished it. You sewed mostly by hand, and each stitch is a reminder of your love for us, your little granddaughters.
My three girls now picnic on it, use it to build forts and cuddle on my lap underneath it.
Nanny, your little great-granddaughters will always know what a special heirloom this is.
Right now I’m looking at the square of royal blue and white-flowered fabric. It takes me back to when I was a little girl and we used that very same fabric to sew dresses for my Barbie dolls–you and me together, sewing by hand.
It’s been a long time since I’ve sewn, Nanny. After becoming a mother, I said I didn’t have time for it anymore. But little Emma, now 6 1/2, has been begging me to pick up my old machine. She even said she would learn and re-teach me since I told her I’m not good at it.
We gave her a little sewing kit for Christmas, and teaching her how to thread the needle, pull the thread in and out of the fabric and turn fabric swatches and buttons into little stuffed animal masterpieces takes me back to those days of doing it with you.
Perhaps teaching her to sew will be a sweet balm to my grief, as we say goodbye to you.
It’s hard for me to even write to you of my sorrow because I fear that your sensing of all of our mourning it why you still have not let go.
And I confess that I’ve been drafting this letter to you all week–not able to finish, not able to bring it all together.
The other night, Nanny, as I held your hand, you grasped it so tightly. It was as if you didn’t want to let go. And Nanny, I’ll be honest: I haven’t wanted to let go either.
I’ve wanted to keep on feeling the warmth of your hand. I remember holding that hand during church, as PawPaw was preaching, turning the rings on your fingers, rubbing the tips of your finger nails that held just a hint of polish.
I’ve wanted to keep on looking into those clear blue eyes. Those same eyes that my Mama has. That I have. That my little Emma has now too.
I’ve wanted to keep on stroking those permed, hair-sprayed curls. You always kept your hair so nice.
I’ve wanted to keep on listening to you holler at PawPaw: “Oh, Charlie!”
And for him to holler back: “Emma!!”
I’ve wanted to keep on laughing–like how we laughed that time you had tucked your silky green dress into your slip.
I’ve wanted to keep on hearing your stories–of life with your sisters when you were a little girl, of how you fell in love with PawPaw, of how my mama got into lots of messes as a child. I’m so glad you told me stories.
But you can go.
You can go now.
It’s OK. We’re all going to be just fine.
It’s OK to go on Home.
The family asked me to write your obituary. And for several days, I just couldn’t. I’ve been writing since I could barely read, but I just couldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and do it. It was the hardest writing assignment I’ve ever had.
But tonight I finally did it, Nanny. I did it! I wrote the obituary for you–a grandmother I have dearly loved.
It was my honor and a privilege and my joy to do so. I just hope I scratched the service of the woman you have been.
You’ve lived a good, long life, Nanny. And I bet if you could talk to me now, you’d say you were just going to be over yonder–not too, too far away. And with Jesus, no less.
I love you, Nanny. To have known you for these 34 years has been one of life’s greatest blessings.
You let the angels dance around the throne
And who can say when, but they’ll dance again
When I am free and finally headed home
I will be weak, unable to speak
Still I will call You by name
Creator, Maker, Life Sustainer, Comforter, Healer, my Redeemer
Lord and King, Beginning and the End
Yes, I Am
~Nicole Nordman, “I Am”