I’m sitting in my grandmother’s backyard, lying in the sun on a lounge chair. Tears fill my eyes, and soon I’m sobbing. At times I justify my crying at everything, saying that sensitive people are the best kind of people, but at other times, like now, I do not justify it. I know that I am behaving like a fool.
Nan comes outside and tells me to stop the crying. But then she listens, patiently, holding in any judgement as I mope about stupid things that only silly girls are supposed to care about but somehow I do too. I don’t know where I will have my wedding, I whine.
My Mom isn’t nearby to tell me what to do and I need both her and Nan’s opinions for everything. I cannot make my own decisions. I am an obsessive over-analyzer – preparing, debating, weighing the pros and cons of things on a never-ending list. Some call it neurotic, but I call it being prepared for the worst, and when you prepare that much, everything has a better chance of working out.
Thoughts of things that won’t work out hang over me as I think about the task of planning. More tears come. I have been engaged for only three days.
Nan hugs me, ignoring the fact that I am being ridiculous, which I am, because I’m whining to an immigrant who came to America alone from Ireland when she was fourteen. Her own mother wasn’t there to plan her wedding, her mother died. But she doesn’t bring this up right now. She sits down next to me, knowing me well enough to understand that my hunched shoulders and swollen eyes indicate that I’m thinking about more than just a wedding venue.
She tells me that I can have the wedding at St. Barnabus, the same church we go to every Sunday when I meet her for mass, but something about this church doesn’t feel right.
The chair squeaks beneath us as I sit up, twisting to face Nan. I offer excuses as to why the church won’t work, saying that I don’t know where the bridesmaids will get ready (her house, Nan answers) or where I will have the reception (any of the many surrounding places, Nan responds) but these don’t seem right to me either, only because I’ve started down this path of self-pity and need to continue it in order to get this out of my system and feel better.
Nan is quiet. She looks over my shoulder, avoiding my eye contact, her eyes fixated on the bird feeder that swings in the tree behind me. I can tell she is holding back from saying something – I know I’ve made it seem like these things, her things, aren’t good enough, and she is hurt by my excuses. I remain silent as well. I will apologize later.
Picking a church has created this monster of emotions in me, because this is not about a church. I love my fiancé, but the prospect of decision-making reminds me of how lost and unprepared I still feel. Marriage was supposed to cure me. Someone loved me for all my neuroses, my anxiety, and my overanalyzing. I was supposed to feel confident and assured, but I’ve realized that my flaws and insecurities haven’t gone away with a ring on my finger. I still feel anxious, unsure and incapable, and I’m afraid that I’ve missed the window that everyone says is necessary before marriage – to find yourself before you find someone else – and I worry about everything: my job, my dreams, my family, if I’m doing enough. I think about how, inside, I am so far from found or figured out, and instead of enjoying the time, I ruin the moment.
Nan looks back at me with the same earnest, hazel eyes that I’ve inherited from her. She is hurt, but she is kind. Instead of shaming me, or asking me why her house, her church, or her neighborhood aren’t good enough, she lets it go, telling me that I need to take a deep breath, count my blessings, and stay calm. I study Nan, her light blonde hair perfectly coiffed in the curls she sets every night, her outfit a version of her daily uniform – pale-pink cotton short-sleeved polo, khaki capris, wedge flip-flops with a tasteful amount of bedazzling to show off her painted toes – she is perfect, the most glamorous woman I know, and everything about her is more than good enough. She is who I want to someday be.
I hate the fact that I’ve hurt her feelings. I want to apologize; I want to tell her that it is only my confusion and insecurities coming through. But she interrupts my thoughts, grabbing my hand and telling me that it will be a beautiful wedding.
More importantly, though, she says, it all works out.
“Come on, stop the crying now, alright? You have a great guy who loves you. You’re healthy. Look for the good,” she says, poking me in the side in an attempt to snap me out of my funk. I listen, taking a deep breath and hugging Nan as she smiles at me, ignoring the fact that she has witnessed a near breakdown. I know that I am lucky, for many reasons, but also because I have Nan to help keep me together.
I call Nan every morning at 6:40 a.m., right before I head out the door to work. Half the time I wake her up – I can hear it in her voice – but she always picks up. She tells me that she loves me, wishes me luck, and tells me that she’ll talk to me after work. Every time I talk to her, I feel better.
When Nan doesn’t answer my calls for two days in a row, something is unusual. She always picks up. I’m supposed to go meet her for dinner tomorrow, as I do every Wednesday, but my sister and I go that Tuesday to check on her. Nan is quiet, distant and lost in thought. My sister’s phone rings, and she goes outside to take the call. Nan and I sit in silence.
“You ignoring me this week?” I ask, gently, trying to joke to break the silence. She stares at me blankly. “You didn’t answer any of my calls,” I follow up, grabbing her hand across the orange kitchen table between us. I watch her face for signs, hoping she will break into a smile and tell me that her phone was only lost, she hasn’t forgotten. But Nan doesn’t smile.
“I needed a break,” she says, releasing my grip. “I just didn’t feel like answering.” I am shocked, but my cheeks burn and tears come because I’m so hurt.
When I get back to my apartment that night, I call my Mom and tell her that I think something is wrong.
One month later and we are sitting at Columbia University Medical Center, wondering how none of us saw this sooner – how none of us saw the way she became silent, how none of us saw the way she didn’t smile at us anymore. Nan is diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. All that I can process are the Google searches that indicate that this is a disease that surgery doesn’t help.
My entire family – mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, forty people coming in and out at all times – sits inside of Nan’s house everyday now, trying to be there for every last minute of her life, but also trying to make up for the minutes they missed throughout it. Nan had been there for everyone, at all times, and with her cancer, the only things everyone can think of are all the times they were not there for her – making excuses to miss dinners, being distracted with their phones when they visited, the nights they forgot to call.
Everyone talks about the wedding, of all things, and how fun it will be. We talk about it because it’s the only thing that we can look forward to nine months from now, but really we are all terrified of months from now, living with fake smiles plastered on our faces, still not sure if the donuts that sit on the table to keep us occupied are real or if the happy endings in the Hallmark movies that we watch are ever real either.
The months tick away, and though Nan leaves my wedding invitation unopened on top of her fridge, I pretend I don’t see it. I pick out moments that we’re alone to try to talk to her, to try to thank her for a list of things – too many things – for pushing away my fears and insecurities whenever I was with her, to apologize for being so upset that day about things so stupid, but I can’t say any of this without crying, and each time we’re alone I know that it isn’t the same, because she’s not the same.
Everyone understands that Nan is dying, including Nan. She is angry. In one of the times we’re finally alone, I beg her to consider chemotherapy, something she has repeatedly refused after watching my grandfather die even after undergoing it. I try to remain optimistic, telling her that it will help, but then I lose my composure and sob. I tell her that she can’t give up because I need her, I tell her that I can’t go through life without her, I read her a college essay that I wrote about her life, describing why she is my hero. None of it gets a response.
She shakes her head, telling me that it will make no difference. Instead of responding to my pleas, she just repeats “I’m just so disgusted,” over and over. She has taken her vitamins, she has swallowed daily antioxidant-filled, unpleasant tasting wheatgrass juices, she has focused on keeping busy and staying active by chasing around her grandchildren. She has devoted her life to caring for other people, she has avoided complaining, she has attended church every Sunday. She has watched the love of her life die from cancer fourteen years earlier. There is nothing I can respond to her as we sit in silence. I would be disgusted too.
Nan is devastated, but other than her one expression of disgust, she does not crack in front of us. Everyone else cracks, but we hide it from her, hiding our fear at what is to come, hiding our sadness on the days where Nan’s cancer makes her act angry, hiding our happiness on the days she wakes up and seems like herself. Throughout all of this effort to act normal, there are endless tears. The basement of Nan’s home floods, as if telling us that there are too many people in the home crying in corners, hiding their tears from everyone else. No house can take that much sadness, and now, instead of family members filtering to their separate corners of the home to breathe and pray, we now understand that the basement is off limits, filled with wires and generators meant to suck out the water as well as drowned memories that filled the same space.
I find Nan downstairs one night, thinking the room is the same as it was. She is confused, in the habit of turning off the basement lights before bed. The room is dark, the floor still damp, wires cross in front of my footsteps.
“Nan, stop!” I yell as I watch Nan try to unplug one of the generators.
“I have to do this before I go to bed,” she says as she glares at me, her eyes narrowing, her feet not moving an inch, the medicine and the cancer confusing her.
I tell her no, softly, and then quickly I grab her hands, afraid of the effects of water and wires and electricity.
“Shannon, stop it,” she grips the plug tightly, fighting back against me and raising her voice. “You’re so stupid,” she says, the cancer making her angry, making her forget, and we continue to wrestle back and forth. I start to cry again. This time she doesn’t comfort me. She only storms upstairs, leaving me crying in the dark. I repeat to myself that she doesn’t mean it, it is just the cancer.
There are two months until the wedding, and the only decision that I think about now is what to do about the wedding. It is not something I can ask Nan about.
My mom pulls me outside and we stand on the front steps, away from everyone inside that might hear us.
“Do not cancel it, Nan will never forgive you,” she whispers, her eyes filling with tears. “She will think we have given up.”
So, we go on.
We buy Nan a dress, because the day is approaching faster and faster. It is a beautiful silver dress, and I tell her that she will upstage me, the bride, and she laughs, holding it in her hands and considering it, thinking that maybe she might get to wear it. My mom texts me while I’m at work that Nan tried the dress on and smiled, and I wipe my tears away at my desk, this time the tears only of happiness.
It is two weeks before the wedding. The dress needs to be sent back, the medicine has bloated Nan, and my mom and I secretly exchange it for a new size so Nan doesn’t realize the medicine’s effects.
Nan doesn’t try the dress on again. She falls asleep that week, still alive, just sleeping. She doesn’t wake up from this state. In all of the waiting I cannot even remember the last time she told me that she loves me, but I don’t think about that then. All I wonder about is if she knows how much I love her.
The wedding comes, we slip away from Nan’s side for a few hours, anxious every minute. I sit with my father in a limo waiting to make my entrance, my stomach in knots, not speaking of the fear that has filled and tensed every limb of my body. Please do not leave us right now, Nan.
“You look so beautiful, Shan. It’s all going to be perfect,” my mom says to me from outside the window of the limo, feigning excitement with everything she can muster. Her phone is clasped tightly in her hand as nurses from the hospital taking care of Nan for the day are texting constant updates. I want to tell my mom that it’s fine if we all go back to Nan’s house - I know that I am keeping my mom away from her own mother, and I hate it. I want to tell my mom that Joey and I have talked about it, cried about it, the guilt of what could happen overshadowing anything else. We can get married later.
My mother reads my expression. “She would be the first one on that dance floor, okay? She would be so furious if you didn’t have the best day today. So smile. She’s going to be okay.”
My uncle pokes his head through the window of the limo after my mother backs away. He snaps a photo of me and my father with his camera.
“Absolutely gorgeous!” he shouts, and I laugh. I can see that everyone has adopted the same overly cheerly disposition to make it through today. He turns the camera toward us so that we can see the picture.
“Oh my God,” I grumble, and he laughs and darts into the church. It is a terrible photo. My dad and I smile, but we look manic, holding our breath behind huge smiles and even bigger panicked eyes.
“I’m so proud of you, Shannon,” my dad says, his eyes almost tearing, but I cut him off.
“Please don’t say anything, Dad,” I say. “I love you, but I’ll only get upset.”
As we sit there holding back tears, I think I am going to lose it then. I panic, taking deep breaths to avoid breaking down, but suddenly, the door to the limo flies open vertically. I’ve never seen a vehicle operate like this, and I’m shocked to have been so distracted with my own thoughts that I did not notice this feature when we got in. We exit the limo as if climbing out of a hole, and I laugh, suddenly, it is so unexpected and absurd. My dad and I exit, ungraceful and awkward but laughing, and I know then that I will be able to make it through today without cracking.
It is not the happiest time of my life, like all the greeting cards and the people that see my engagement ring smile at me and indicate it will be. But it is still a beautiful day and walking toward my soon-to-be husband I know that though nothing else was okay, this is Nan’s way of showing me that if I take a deep breath and count my blessings, the mind finds a way to stay calm. I see Joey smiling, holding in tears (I’ve threatened him, do not cry – if I start, there will be no wedding) and as I watch him, I know that Nan is already somewhere else, smiling at me, still pulling away any anxious thoughts of what could go wrong from there too. I know then that this is her way of showing me that she knows how much I love her.
Nan takes her last breath a week later. The entire family is there with her, surrounding her bed, screaming that we love her, hoping she can hear us, some crying, some emotionless, everyone in shock.
Her wake and funeral are held at St. Barnabus, the church that Nan proposed for the wedding, the one that didn’t feel right. I am glad to have made that decision. She wears the silver dress that I told her she would outshine me in, and even after cancer has taken her away from us, she looks beautiful. The dress, too, was a good choice.
At Nan’s wake, as I hold her hand one last time, I try to hold in my tears and just breathe. I remember her advice, the advice that I wanted to tell her that she was right about – about breathing, about counting my blessings, about staying calm.
But this time, as the tears fill my eyes again, I think about her words telling me that it all works out, and, standing there without her, I think that she was wrong about that.