My grandmother, Nanny Murphy, was the first person close to me that died. I was sitting in my bedroom in my basement at home, listening to the Goodwill Hunting Soundtrack when the phone rang in the other room, and I heard my Mom starting to cry. She was on her death bed, we all knew it was coming, but it doesn’t ease the blow at all. It’s still the worst phone call ever. Your mother is dead.

Nanny had Parkinson’s Disease for almost 30 years. A bastard of an illness that takes its toll on your system in a methodical, painstaking process. Slowly but surely your faculties deteriorate, turning a robust, rotund woman into a skeletal, meek, mouse of a thing who eventually couldn’t talk, let alone walk. She used to live in our basement when I was quite young. There was one room that was finished and that was hers. Details surrounding her life there are vague, but I do recall her presence, and for some reason have vivid recollection of the furniture. What is it about our grandparents furniture? According to my mother, she did everyone the favour of checking herself into the nursing home. She got more and more nervous staying home alone, performing daily tasks on her own, and her body was quickly turning on her. Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder affecting your muscles with involuntary shaking fits affecting your movements and speech. Her jaw used to get so tight that she swore there were wires in her teeth. She wasn’t going crazy, but as if she was, she would take a hand mirror and peer in to the back of her mouth, just to be sure there seriously weren’t wires slowly tightening her mouth shut. Who would’ve put them in there was beyond her, but she was compelled to check to safeguard her sanity.

To save us all the heartache and guilt of deciding to take her out of our care and put her into someone else’s she did the noble, sensitive, and I would imagine incredibly difficult thing of making the nursing home arrangements herself. From here on in my memories of Nanny take place in two settings: her bed in the four share room at the Garden Home, and at either my house or my Aunt’s house for Christmas and Easter celebrations with the family. Every Sunday after church my mom and I and whatever combination of family members it happened to be, would go into town to visit. Sometimes she’d be in fine form, sitting upright, talking as loudly and as clearly as she could, and other times, most other times, the Parkinson’s would get the better of her and struggle as she may, her face would contort every which way while her hands would relentlessly shake non-stop.

I remember so many bizarre details from that room. The mints and occasional slowpoke in her nightstand, the poster above her roommates bed with that infamous verse from John 3:16 (for God so loved the world that he gave his only son…), her black and white TV with the dial you had to turn to change the channels. I remember the button on the cord on the wall used to call the nurse, the wheelchair next to the bed that either my brother or I would sit in and rock and roll about in while Mom sat in the comfy chair making most of the conversation, and I remember the quilt on her bed, the one I now own and cherish.  I also remember the woman down the hall who suffered a stroke and could subsequently only repeat one word – lovely. “Lovely, lovely…” It was a familiar distant voice during those visits.

It was really hard for me to get a sense of who my grandmother was. I’m not going to lie, it was awkward trying to relate to her. I was too young to know her when she was still able-bodied and as time wore on, attempting to foster a relationship with an increasingly shaky, old woman who was forever inaudible was nothing short of a challenge for a ten year old. I dreaded time alone with her, not for any other reason other than I was always embarrassed when I couldn’t for the life of me translate what she was so desperately trying to communicate. I kicked myself for years after one Christmas dinner where she repeated to me at least four or five times, “Could I pass her a serviette?” Well, at that age, I knew it as a napkin, nevermind that I just could not decipher her jumbled whispers. I eventually just pretended I’d got it and said, “Yes, mmm hmm,” clearly didn’t pass her the damn serviette, and it wasn’t until she, frustrated, turned to my mother’s well-trained ear and asked the same question did she get a hold of a friggin napkin.

When I was in grade 12 and totally wrapped up in my own life, she fell really ill. I can’t even recall what it was that happened to take her out of the nursing home and admitted into the hospital, but it was bad enough that they had to operate and the chances of an already weak 80 year old bouncing back from a setback that severe are slim to none. I didn’t go to see her in the hospital. I guess not having dealt with death up until this point, I thought it was the same as everything else I tend to procrastinate on. I’d get around to it, utterly oblivious to the universe’s timing vs. my own. I guess that’s one more reason that phone call announcing her passing was all the more shitty.  I could’ve, but didn’t, say goodbye. I was avoiding the awkward bedside conversation-making as always, and so I missed my chance.

Back in those days I was little miss public speaker and if there was something to be read aloud I was probably doing it. I was a natural choice for doing a reading during her funeral. Up until this point I was sad that she died, but I think the finality of it and the magnitude of who she was totally hadn’t hit me. So there I was, sad, but as nonchalant as I’d be prior to any other church reading I’d ever done, walking up to the podium to speak. I will never, ever forget the completely overwhelming emotion that washed over me as I walked past her casket. It was as if her strength of spirit hit me like a ton of bricks and I finally understood exactly the kind of woman that she was. Cue the tears.

I sobbed throughout my entire passage. I don’t remember the specifics of the selection, but I know it was very appropriate to who I was realizing in that very moment she was. Everyone told me afterwards that you could hear a pin drop throughout the church and as I would catch my breath between tears, the energy was palpable of the whole congregation collectively willing me to continue on.

Thirty years of suffering and she never once complained. These are the kind of sentiments that generally, unfortunately, aren’t reflected on until someone is gone, so it’s not something that had previously occurred to me about her character. My mother remarked as she revered that it was as if she just made up her mind early on in her affliction that no one was interested in hearing her winge and whine so she didn’t. Never. And I have yet to this day meet anyone in my circle of people who seemingly had or has more pain to complain about. She had some nasty moments. Like I said, awkward to watch. What do you do when someone is writhing in misery?

In addition to abstaining from harping on her ailments, all of those arduous Sunday afternoon bedside chats were always her inquiring about everyone else. “How is Clare doing?” “Did so and so tell you that Jimmy is doing better now?” that kind of thing. The woman could barely speak yet she forged on to conquer the battle of being understood to consistently express genuine concern for others.

That epic walk past the casket and emotional reading enlightened me and gave me the gift I was never able to get while she graced us with her presence. She was absolutely an incredible woman. I guess I was never meant to know or understand this until that very moment, but now I do. And when things get difficult for me and I hear myself complaining and going on about what generally pans out to be a minor challenge or inconvenience, she will sometimes pop into my consciousness, stand by my side and give me that strength of spirit I was ignorant to when she was still housed in that Parkinson’s stricken body. Complaining will get you nowhere, you deal with the cards you’re dealt and for god sakes think of others first. Simple lessons but it’s taken 10 years for them to even slightly sink in….

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