My Nana, the Badass

Three weeks ago, my Nana passed away. She had been at varying levels of ill health for the past nine months. A fortnight ago she had what turned out to be her final admission to hospital. A week prior, I’d been sat on her sofa, eating posh biscuits that her hairdresser had bought her for Christmas. We discussed teeth – the fact that at 80 she still had all of her own and my Invisalign braces, straightening my own crooked teeth. The TV was blaring due to my grandparents deafness and their denial of it. Both my Nana and Poppa always refused to face up to their mortality. With every increment of failing health – osteoporosis, arthritis, cancer, unsteadiness, deafness – there was an incremental rise in their resolution to live. I find something to admire in this, their point blank refusal to give in to the notion of the frailty of life. Even with her speech failing her, pain riddling her body, my Nana still managed to ask a few days before her death, “When am I going home?”. We answered, “When you’re better”, in case you’re wondering. She accepted that answer, because she never gave up hope that she would get better. In no time, she’d be back at home making cups of tea and bickering with my Poppa over what the exact temperature was a week last Tuesday. FYI, they kept a diary detailing the precise weather conditions at several points in the day, in case such arguments arose.

I was on a weekend away in Edinburgh when I got the call. All of my friends (and myself) turn 30 this year. It was a surprise weekend away, which was thoroughly enjoyed. The Superbowl was on late on Sunday, so we stayed up to watch the first half. I was incredibly tired, which does usually make me pretty unhappy, but I just had a feeling in my gut making me thoroughly miserable. Normally in the company of my friends, the tiredness doesn’t bother me so much. I could’ve just placed my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder and dozed, but I didn’t. I crossed my arms, tried to fight my heavy eyes and just silently seethed. We ended up going to bed about 1am, the feeling in my gut like a lead weight. I woke up around 7:30am, glanced at my phone to see a missed call and a message from my Mum asking me to call her just fading from the screen. She broke the news, gently but unflinching. Sobs wracked my body. My Nana’s resolute belief in her immortality had been sinking into my unconscious to the point that I’d believed it too.

Seeing her in hospital was out and out distressing. Walking into the ward and seeing my proud, commanding Nana sat in a chair, her thin, bare legs on show, mouth gaping, eyes sunken and blank is an image etched into my brain. A nurse tried to help her take her medication, but she promptly vomited and attempts were abandoned. My mother and I changed her, putting her into a fresh nightie, unhooking her IVs as we went. It’s a moment I’ll always remember, as although painful, it was one of the most intimate moments I have with my Nana. To elaborate, neither of my grandparents have hugged me tightly, told me that they loved me or were proud of me. I couldn’t rely on them to take my side when I wanted something my parents were denying me. In a nutshell, they aren’t your typical, cuddly grandparents. Don’t take that as me painting them in a bad light, though. They weren’t overly emotional, but they do love us all and would do anything for us if we need it. However, that lack of emotion made it hard for me to connect with my Nana.

The whole family would visit their house every single Sunday, without fail, for a few hours. Nana would put on a buffet for tea – pizza, chicken nuggets, crisps…an array of beige food to satisfy our adolescent needs. Myself, my brother and our cousins were close in age, so we’d hole up in the dining room together. As small children, we’d fight over what videos watch (My Little Pony was my pick). As we grew, topics turned to music and films, but the buffet remained. We’d gather a plateful, return to the dining room and place it down on a plastic placemat, atop a plastic tablecloth, covering an actual tablecloth. Spillages were an inevitability, and Nana was not prepared to get stains out of anything. Eventually, we reached our late teens, my brother and I headed to universities hundreds of miles away. The Sunday tradition fell to the wayside. Intermittent visits home included a standard trip to see our grandparents.

Given the lack of connection with my Nana, we never discussed anything of real depth. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t short of conversation – she loved to talk. The conversations revolved around TV shows, neighbourhood gossip and quizzes in her magazines. But when I had something really affecting me – work, relationships, health – it wouldn’t be mentioned. I’m not sure she’d know what to say. My Mum is the polar opposite, I tell her everything. We tell each other we love each other multiple times a day. If I ever need a hug or a shoulder to cry on, she’s first in line. I absolutely idolise my parents. They’ve given me the most wonderful, loving environment to grow up in. I know that my Nana loved my Mum as she loved all of us, but growing up she didn’t get the same environment as me. My Nana and Poppa lived through the war and were made of tough stuff. My Nana was the first lady in South Wales to get a qualification in mechanical engineering. She was a badass. They lived life by practicality, not emotion. Even when I left to travel Australia and New Zealand, I got nothing more than her reserved tilted cheek for me to kiss. They had very generously given me some money for the trip, and that was her way of saying “I love you, take care of yourself”. 

Looking at some old photos, the last few days, I see tenderness in her that I hadn’t seen before. Her gentle touch on my newborn brothers head when she visited him in hospital. Her holding my Mum’s hands as a little girl wading through the shallows of the sea together. The smile on her face as she presented a birthday cake. I realised all too late the subtlety of her love. The nuances of her way that told us she cared. It hits me like a sucker punch to the gut now, and it’s pretty fucking hard to take. Every so often it catches me off guard, and I physically wince.

So, how did I feel, when I got that call? Shock. Then regret. Regret I hadn’t seen her more in the last year. I’d been caught up in the sheer misery of work, the routine of the gym and trying to stay healthy. In the back of my head, my Nana’s unwillingness to give in to to old age and my Mum’s reiterations of “They’ll probably outlive us through sheer stubbornness” told me that I had more time. I always had more time. That’s not the way life works though. I never got to ask her questions like what made her want to get her mechanical engineering qualification, or what she was like as a little girl. What was her favourite country she travelled to? I don’t know any of these things, and the time to find them out has passed by. This Friday, we lay her to rest.

If you have a mother, father, grandparent, sibling, aunty, uncle, whoever, that you love and want to know more about or connect with more – the time is now. Whether you’re close as can be or feel like you’re on the periphery of a relationship, make time for them. You may connect in a new way, find a new appreciation of the person they are.

Now, sleep tight Nana Pat. I’ll try to be as badass as you, I promise.

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