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Essay

Nana

This post was hosted on my freelance web site because I assumed it would last there. But, a hosting move and closing my freelance business left it orphaned, so I am re-posting it here. In the spirit of “Designed to Last,” you can expect to find this here for years to come.

March 1

My great-grandmother lived in the little Knollwood house for sixty years.

She turns 98 this year, and since long before I was alive, the Gardner family has traced their roots to that little house in Clawson. My grandmother, rich and full of years herself, grew up there from a little girl. I saw a video of my Nana walking through the house, sharing her memories and choking back the tears as they made the house ready to sell.

I only ever set foot in it a few different times, but I remember camping in the backyard in the summer when we did the family reunion, and I remember seeing the player piano in the basement, and I remember seeing the cupboards that Grandpa George built, and I remember his shop full of tools. I’ve listened to the stories, and I know how there used to be a little drug store on the corner where Great Nana’s children would run to buy candy. I hear my Nana tell about how Great Nana used to wash her children in the sink when they were babies.

They’re all there now: my Nana and Grandpa, and Great Nana, too. They’re working through the empty house, getting it ready to sell. On the good days, Great Nana can sit up and do a coloring page and read a letter she’s received. On the worse days, she just sleeps.

The little house will be gone soon, and so will Great Nana. She hasn’t lived there since Great Grandpa George died, and Nana and Grandpa are doing the hard work of updating a house from the 1940s, getting it ready to sell to a new family with new memories.

We just bought our own house, 800 miles away, in Missouri. The same day I got the key and signed the papers, I was already ripping out the old carpet, getting ready to make my own stamp on this place. As I stood there, the house looked foreign and alone with the carpet gone, and a maze of staples, nails, and dilapidated hardwood flooring scattered through the living room.

Just one day and someone’s old life is already being torn out of the house, replaced with cheap laminate floor from the Home Depot. And after seven whirlwind days of fixing up and last-minute packing, we moved in.  We overwrite the previous home, and we will make our own stamp here.

Who will move into Great Nana’s house? Will they treat it well? Will they raise a family there? When I heard the house was being sold, for a moment I had the crazy idea of buying it, just to keep those memories alive a little longer.

But reality rushed in, and the house will be sold to someone else: someone who’s just looking for a house. They won’t know that Grandpa George once heard bullets whistle above his head on a ship, strafed by a German plane, and then came home from the war and practically rebuilt that house with his bare hands. They won’t know that Nana raised five children in a house that’s smaller than our first rental.

They won’t know — just like we don’t know the stories of the people we’ve moved in over top of. And we are moved in, now, after seven whirlwind days of repairs, packing, and lying on the floor with a fever while my friend Jon lays the kitchen tiles. Now a week later, we’re here, and we wake up in a brand-new house that’s slowly beginning to feel normal.

I’ve moved a lot in my life, and this is still the first house I’ve ever owned. My parents never owned a house either: rentals, apartments, and family members’ basements have been our routine for my entire life. Alisha and I rented for the first four years of our marriage, and now here we are in a house that we own. If you’ll forget for a minute that the bank really owns the house, I catch myself wondering, “What will we do with our house?”

What kids will be raised here? What memories will be made here? What catastrophic repair will I still remember twenty years from now? How many game nights will take place under this roof? How many bible studies? Will we grieve here, and about what? Will we rejoice here, when our adoption finally goes through after so many months of waiting?

Our empty house is a benediction yet to be pronounced, a blessing yet to be lived. And now, in this strange house with the cockeye front door, we will make a home. We’ve been here three weeks, and it already feels so full.

How better to make a house feel normal than by living in it? We’ve had a group over for dinner once, game night was Saturday, and another couple is dropping by tonight. The kitchen is smaller than we’re used to, and the dining room table wobbles too much, but we eat around it anyways. These are the things we do to make the house our own – to claim it – and to put our specific stamp on 6203 Bellefontaine.

I can’t fathom living in a house for even five years – after all, I’ve never lived in the same building for longer than four years in my entire life. But as I look ahead, with this home we’ve marked as ours, I hope that we spend time here. I hope that my parents can see it, and my grandparents; that they can pass their torch down, as we start our own family and make our own lives, here in this little house.

We probably won’t make it sixty years – the house itself is already seventy years old, and creaks with the ache of past stories every time the wind blows. We’ll be lucky to make it ten before a growing family sends us elsewhere. But life stretches ahead of us with plenty of twists and turns yet to be seen, full of wrinkles like my great grandmother’s face, full of the weariness and joy that life brings.

What stories will we tell? I am ready and terrified, like an actor on opening night. Life stretches ahead of us, as my wife falls asleep in my arms, the strange neighborhood makes strange noises, and the streetlights shine into my eyes because I haven’t put the blinds up yet.

March 25, 9:12PM

Nana,

Is it too much for Great Nana if I were to call? I could skype you or Grandpa tomorrow, if that works. I’d just like to tell her some things.

March 26, 8:47AM

I know you are probably at work but the sooner you can call, the better. 

Sent from my iPhone

Great Nana is slipping away.

I called her on the phone today — that tender dance where you want to tell her everything she’s meant to you, but you don’t want to be morbid and tell her you know that she’s slipping away. I could hear it in her voice: strained, hoarse, and quiet, but I kept up a chipper tone and talked fast. Even Nana and Grandpa couldn’t quite understand what she was saying back, but she heard me. She said she could hear me loud and clear.

I told her I loved her, and that she is very special to me. She still is, and will be.

She has fought the good fight, she has finished the course, and there is laid up for her a crown of righteousness.

Ninety-eight years.

We didn’t expect Great Nana to live so long after Grandpa George — we didn’t think that sixty years of marriage could soldier on in one frail, withered, vital body for as long as it did. Grandpa George was the soldier but Nana was the fighter. She’s been ready to go home for years, anchored by her faith in her Lord, ready to see heaven and be made whole again.

When grandpa George died, Great Nana filled her life with halves of bananas. Every day for sixty years they’d split a banana, and she was halved by his absence, and left stubs of fruit throughout the kitchen. My aunt bought her a Nana-saver, but she was already saved.

What purpose does God have for ninety-eight years in one lifetime? None of us, given the chance, would even ask for it. To be kept away from paradise for that long, weighed down by the hurt and trouble of this world — which of us would ask for that? But there she was, still persisting.

My Great Nana is the only ninety-eight-year-old I know who uses Facebook. It won’t be long now, they say, as I sit in my office at night and wait for the minutes to slide away until I get the last email. But how long it’s already been.

How long it’s already been.

I wish I knew more of the story of their life. Grandpa George taught me about electrical circuits when I was nine, and I read his World War II stories over and over when I was a teenager. My own Nana had the foresight to sit down with her dad, to record him, and to save his stories for later.

But even then he was far-off, foreign, so much older than me that I felt a great distance between us. Great Nana, I’ve seen as an adult. I’ve sung hymns with her a dozen times. She’s colored pages for me, and she knows that Alisha and I are adopting. Just this Christmas, she insisted twice that a distant family member was our child, that she, “had Alisha’s eyes.” She’s closer, more familiar in a way that Grandpa George never was to a nine-year-old boy.

And I still don’t know anything more. As I’m sitting here, waiting, I wish I had asked her to tell me more stories — I wish I had listened more closely when she told me about the pictures on her computer.

Something is slipping away, and I didn’t do enough to preserve it. Great Nana is the last of my great-grandparents, my last link to a past I didn’t live.

Death always hits you like that, doesn’t it? We fill ourselves with guilt and shame because we think we’ve lost them forever — that this is the ending and not merely the introduction. We forget our catechism in the midst of our grief, and everything seems permanent and solemn. How easily we forget!

When I was a kid, my mom’s best friend got pregnant. It was a huge victory — she was four feet in her socks and her body couldn’t handle a pregnancy. Again and again, she had miscarried, and I pieced together the story from my mom’s face and Tia Cimara’s tears.

When she told us that she was pregnant with a baby — Elisa — and when she carried her to term, I felt like I was going to be an uncle, even though I was a snot-nosed kid who wasn’t related at all. At least I could be a cousin of some sort. I was so excited, I asked Tio Cesar about her constantly.

And then she came early. Way early. Too early to live outside of those incubators they have in hospitals. Cimara and Cesar didn’t sleep for five days, and I waited at home, patiently expecting a little baby girl to love on. My Mom cried bitterly, and my dad held her and tried to explain everything to me and my brothers. Elisa never made it out of the hospital, after all.

The funeral home smelled like too many flowers, and Cesar hugged me when I walked inside. He was wearing a very black suit, and he was as tall as his wife was short. I remember he knelt down beside me.

“Andre, eu sei que voce estava ansioso para uma prima.”

Andrew, I know you were excited for a cousin.”

“Por favor, faz algo pra mim.”

Please, do something for me.

I was one of the pallbearers at Elisa’s funeral. I never saw her little face, never got to hold her, but I carried the little white box that we put in the muddy ground. It was the first time life ever pulled the rug out from under me. My dad preached at the graveside, preached words that were full of life and power as he reminded those of us who were left behind that our turn is coming, too.

I almost forgot the truth that day, and I’ve almost forgotten it many times since. God has a plan for me. He had a plan for Elisa. He has a plan for Great Nana, for each day that she unexpectedly receives, more sleeping than living.

But she received so many more than five days. What did God have for her in so long a life? What was the meaning and the purpose behind the last ten years, so full of waiting and pain? I know she will stand before him and say, “I would have waited another ten. It was all worth it.”

Elisa waited only five days, and she was with You. Great Nana waited ninety-eight years, and filled her life with You. And she filled her children’s lives, and her children filled their children’s lives, and those children were my dad, my aunts and uncles. And they filled my life with a love for You, and a trust in your plan.

“We love because God first loved us,” my wife painted, on the wall of our new house. Help me to say beside Great Nana, “It was all worth it.” When life hurts again, and the adoption is delayed again, and the pain presses in again, remind me of the faith that sustained her for so long.

I always dreamed of Great Nana holding our baby when our adoption is finally, mercifully completed. I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore, but I still plead for her blessing on my baby’s life. May she life a life like yours, Great Nana, full of faith and love for her Savior.

Maybe God will only give my baby five days, like he did with little Elisa. Then I will see her when I see Nana again, and we’ll dance in His presence. Please don’t make me wait ninety-eight years, too.

March 27, 9:52 AM

Bryan 
0:47

“Great Nana Gardner went to be with the lord today, about 7:40 in the morning

She ran a long race — ninety-eight years — but she was faithful to the Lord. She was not perfect, but she faithfully finished her race.

May each of you also faithfully finish yours. May mom and I as well, may we follow her example of faithfulness to Jesus. I hope that God uses the passing of Great Nana in your life to speak to you and do good things in your life.”

This tensed holding-of-breath is over. Great Nana is with Jesus, just two months shy of her ninety-ninth birthday. I hadn’t seen the news on Facebook, but my wife texted me and I went and listened to my Dad’s recording, heard the tears in his voice, and then went to Facebook and read my Nana’s post, and thought of her tears as she wrote it.

We cry, but it’s hard to be sad for Nana when she’d lived every year of her life in faith, hoping and waiting for Jesus to take her away.

What do we say? It wasn’t unexpected, but we feel the gap now that it’s there. I browsed over her Facebook page, reading her comments and thinking of her stories. That a woman married just weeks after V-E Day used Facebook — and left her stories for posterity on a site we now associate more with political screaming than family memories — strains my belief. But right now, it’s the most tangible thing I have.

I thought that Great Nana’s death, long-expected, would place a bow on this ramble that’s grown over the last month. Somehow I thought that the period at the end of the sentence would provide some sort of resolution, some thread to tie all of this together. Now I know there’s nothing beyond what I’ve already known: God calls us to faith, and we walk in it, for as long as he calls us.

Five days, ninety-seven years, so be it.

God is good, and in the middle of heartache and failing to understand, that’s the truth I cling to.

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