Dying in Bad Weather
On Faith, Future, and Family
The very first thing my husband's grandmother ever said to me was, "I hope I don't die in the winter. I don't want anyone driving in bad weather to my funeral."
It was Thanksgiving, or maybe Christmas time. And the weather was nasty outside. I still had snow on the shoulder of the dress I'd worn, specifically to impress these people. My husband and I had been together for almost a year at that point, and it was my first time meeting a lot of this side of the family. I was nervous, a little anxious, and not exactly sure what to expect.
I certainly wasn't expecting a statement like that. I laughed, on instinct, and it turns out that was exactly the right move to make. She laughed with me, and we quickly grew fond of each other. I would sit next to her during the big family meals, and listen to her berate everyone into clearing their plate, and encouraging them to have more, to take leftovers. We always did, because the food was spectacular. Our fridge is never so full as it is after Thanksgiving at Nana's.
In the end, she got her wish. She passed away on October 15, 2017, a warm Sunday. I think she'd be happy about that.
As we were in the car, driving home from that first Thanksgiving, I told my husband what his grandmother had said. He nodded, and told me it was a pretty common sentiment with her. "She's been ready to die," he said, "Ever since her husband passed away." But that had been years ago, and she still stuck around.
Her real name was Millie, but everyone called her Nana. Her sons and daughters, her grandkids, her in-laws. Even I called her Nana so often that when she passed, I couldn't remember her real name at first. Maybe it was the shock, or maybe Nana was just a title that always suited her.
When I was a kid, I was terrified of death. I loved scary movies, had a Goosebumps collection miles long on my bookshelf, but death itself was a horrifying concept. I learned about it pretty early on, having pets and grandparents that passed away before I really got to know them. But I remember staying up all night and wondering what it was like. If death was everything they said in church, just another journey, a chance to sit by the Creator and revel in the glory of life. Or if it was just blackness. Nothingness. Empty.
I am not ready to die.
There have been times in my life, when depression has brought me to the razor's edge, quite literally, and I've been struck with those questions again. What is death? Why is it terrifying? What if, what if, what if. Those questions pulled me back every time.
But Nana was never afraid.
Maybe it was her faith that gave her such comfort. Maybe it was the knowledge that she had done what she set out to do in this world. She had raised a family, a big one. Holidays at Nana's were a crowded affair, full of laughter and little kids, food, drinks, and warmth, no matter how bad the weather was outside. Inside, there was always happiness.
Even in the bad times. As she got older and her mind started to go, it got to a point where she wouldn't quite recognize you when you came into the room. But she was still so happy to see you. I don't think she remembered my name, but she always kissed me on the cheek, and announced proudly to Aunt Mary, "This is my friend! My good friend!"
And she still wasn't afraid. At our wedding, she said to us all, "I'm so glad I was still here for that." But there was no desperation in her voice. No clinging to life. She was simply happy that she had made it this far, and if death came for her the next day, she would go out with a smile.
I like to think that she did. Joe and I live quite a ways away from the rest of the family, so details often come to us slowly. But I believe that no matter how she passed, what the official cause of death was, she was peaceful in the end.
Maybe the idea that there is nothing after death never occurred to her. She believed in God, had crosses hanging in her house, right next to photo after photo after photo of her family. There's a picture of Joe and his brother hanging in her dining room that we talked about every time we got together, because at seven years old, he looks like a presidential candidate. She laughed every time I said that, as if she was hearing it for the first time.
Maybe she had simply lived life to the fullest. She took pleasure in the simple things. In half hour visits and baking cookies, in daytime television, and in passing out envelopes with money inside and a shaky signature that still held life in the ink. She once wrote to Hillary Clinton, a woman she adored, and invited her to come eat a home-cooked meal. A simple request, and when it was politely declined, she saved the letter and told me about it every time I came over. That simple letter, a refusal, delighted her so much that she talked about it years. She knew how to be happy.
And she knew how to be ready. For anything. She would meet challenges head on with a stubborn insistence, a fact that was sometimes difficult to marry with the woman who also needed help going from room to room. But she never let that stop her from joining us at the dinner table, and sneaking a glass of champagne.
In short, she knew how to live. And maybe that's what makes a person ready to die. If you have lived a life that you are proud of, then death, whatever it holds, is not terrifying. It's simply what comes next. Maybe someday, I will be at that place. And if I ever am, I will say to my future daughter/son in law, that I all I have left to hope for, is that I do not die in bad weather.
Is that a revelation? Maybe not. But it is a truth that Nana knew intrinsically, a truth she never had to say among her black-humor jokes about her own death. She got to see her children have children, got to see many of those grandchildren get married, even got to meet some great-grandchildren along the way. I don't know if there's anything more she would've asked for.
Well... She would've loved to see Hillary Clinton in the white house. That's for sure.