How do you say goodbye forever?
During the Easter school holidays, I took the kids over to see my 93-year-old Nana, their great-grandmother and my daughter’s namesake. We talked about the usual things – the family, what she’d been up to (not a lot, unfortunately – it’s kind of hard to paint the town red when you’re close to blind and breathless all of the time), what she’d been reading and watching on TV, how close the move was, what I wanted to store in her garage.
For a while, it seemed like any other visit. And then, when the kids had disappeared off around the corner to giggle and make general mischief (she would later find my daughter had drawn her a picture and left it under her pillow) and I was making us a cup of tea, she turned on me. ‘I won’t be here when you come back,’ she said. I opened my mouth to do my usual line that went something like, ‘Oh, Nana, don’t be silly!’. She did this a lot. The whole, ‘I won’t be here for Christmas/Easter/ my next birthday/your birthday/to get enough use out of a new toaster’. But then I closed my mouth again, because, for some reason, today I knew she was saying something different. Maybe there was even a small part of me that had been expecting this something different. It’s just that, now it was here, I felt dread thud down into the bottom of my stomach. It ended up making itself comfortable right next to the two pieces over-mixed banana bread the kids had ‘helped’ me make this morning.
‘And when I die,’ she continued, ‘I don’t want you to come back.’
I wanted to stop her right there, but knew she wouldn’t be stopped. You don’t get to 93 and not know how to say something you really want to say. I sat down slowly across the kitchen table from her and, for once, I forced myself not to ‘Nana!’ her, or bustle about with the tea. For once, I tried to really listen to what she was telling me. ‘What’s there to come back for?’ she shrugged, clinking her spoon against her saucer matter-of-factly.
I probably opened and shut my mouth a dozen more times, but there were still no words. After I’d sat there for a bit and really thought about hers, however, I realised she was right. If she really did die while I was overseas, my first instinct would be to dash back. But once I got home, what and who would I be back for? She had arranged her funeral, so there was no planning to be done. Everyone who needed it would have support. Her remaining three children would deal with her belongings. As awfully sad as everyone would be to lose our quilt-making, bananas in pyjamas knitting, pigs in blankets cooking, ‘quick, take the pink, duck-shaped soup tureen before someone else gets it when I go’ wonder, at 93.5 years it wouldn’t be an entirely unexpected situation. I would be flying halfway around the world to sit in a musty funeral home that neither of us had ever visited before and listen to someone in a suit who didn’t even know her tell me things about her I already knew very well.
She didn’t push me for an answer that day, but I knew she was looking for some kind of reply, so I simply told her, ‘Okay. Okay, Nana.’ Because it meant a lot to her for me to agree to this, I could tell. My family didn’t often do serious and there, across the table from me, was a very serious 93-year-old (who still, she liked to tell me, didn’t truly feel grown up yet).
The next day, I was out at lunch with one of my friends whose 97-year-old grandmother had just died and I told her what Nana had said. ‘I’d have to come back,’ my friend shook her head. ‘It wouldn’t matter if she’d told me not to. I’d still have to.’
I thought about this over the next few days and came to the conclusion that I didn’t feel the same way. I had this picture stuck in my mind of me sitting in that funeral home away from my husband and kids who probably wouldn’t be able to make the journey back, staring at a casket, just like I had with all three of my other grandparents and thinking how very little it had to do with anything I knew or loved about them. And right then and there I knew that I’d do what my grandmother had told me to do if it came to it – I wouldn’t come back.
But I knew something else, too – I’d need a plan. I’d need a plan I could follow so I’d know exactly what to do if that time came. Because if I didn’t have one, I’d more than likely find myself on a plane, going against her wishes.
It took me a few days to come up with two plans – Plan A and Plan B. At first I came up with all kinds of rubbish about taking my kids to high tea at the Dorchester, the Savoy, or the Ritz etc. in celebration of her life. But that didn’t feel right. There was no connection there. Apart from the fact that my grandmother was the most English person I knew and these were extremely ‘English’ places. In the end, it was a very non-English, American place that would form the basis of Plan A.
I’d visited the UK with my grandmother once – when I was six years old. And the one thing I’d wanted to do when I was there? Go to McDonald’s, of course (oh, the shame of it, but it’s true). Of course, being on holidays and being on holidays with my grandparents and being on holidays with my grandparents and being the only grandchild around, I was indulged often. And that, sad as it is, is pretty much Plan A. I will take my daughter (roughly the same age as I was then) to McDonalds, which she loves, of course, as all kids her age seem to because their palates have not yet developed. And I will sit there amongst the awful food and zit-faced 16-year-olds and watch her have the time of her life. And I will remember my grandmother and how very lucky I was to have someone like her in my life.
And Plan B? Well, Plan B is the plan I’d most like to carry out. Plan B goes something like this – we return home and Nana is here waiting for us.
I like Plan B far, far more than Plan A.
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