My dad rang on Monday afternoon to tell me that my gorgeous nana had deteriorated in the last 24 hours and it was predicted that she had only a couple of days to live. The divine timing of the day saw to it that my children had been taken out to go blueberry picking when I got the call. That meant that I could have my dinner, throw a few essentials in a bag and leave without any drama. I drove to Dublin and headed to Wexford on Tuesday morning.
When I arrived at her home, Nana was lying on the couch. I hadn’t seen her in about a year but I’ve talked to her lots of times on the phone. It was such a salve to my soul to set eyes on her again. I noted how familiar her body is to me. Her nose and her chin, her fingers and her elbows and her toes. I grew up looking at them.
I was incredibly lucky that Nana was lucid when I visited her. I spent two and a half magical hours actually conversing with her. Her breath was very laboured but she managed a couple of words each time, her strength of character showing in her gentle determination to keep engaging with me. The first thing I told her was how much I love her and the second thing I told her was that I have no cancer left in my body. It took a few different attempts to get this message through to her but when she understood me, she released a loud, joyful sigh and some tears. ‘You are so important,’ she said to me. I believe her.
My nana had that opinion of every single one of her descendants. She had 5 children, 17 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren. 45 people exist because of my nana and grandad. And every one of them are good people, doing good things. Family was everything to my nana. She just loved children. Her sparkle got turned on when children were around and she never tired of hearing stories from them and about them.
As a child myself, I learned so much from being around my nana. I learned to put 5 sugars in my grandad’s strong black tea (and later I learned not to put any sugar in anything!) I learned all about yarn and knitting by hanging out in her countryside wool shop, where she would sit and knit up orders for jumpers all day long, before fast fashion took over the world. We’ll all remember with amusement the hilarious Christmas jumpers Nana would earnestly create for all the men of the family. Snowy diamonds, gaudy christmas trees and reindeer, elves and santas featured on them way back in the 80s, long before Colin Firth made them embarrassingly famous.
And her voice, wow! The tembre of my nana’s singing voice resides so deeply in every cell of my being. She sang around the house, pottering away, preparing dinner for whoever happened to have called around. Her voice was rich and generous of tone, a pleasing vibrato escaping now and then. Her voice was natural and self-assured and it’s one of my favourite sounds. I’m so grateful to have it in me because it forms part of the bedrock of my own musical expression. I can never deny that I come from music – my siblings and I were born in to it from every angle.
I sang to nana on Tuesday. I wanted to share my voice with her like she had shared hers with me. I sang Skibereen and The Lark in the Clear Air. I asked her if there were any other songs she’d like to request. ‘The handsome boatman,’ she said. So I sang Carrickfergus, noting how apt the lyrics were for that moment. She had told me she would love to rest soon and I think she liked the metaphor of the handsome boatman ferrying her across to the next plane, where, she said, my grandad, who died exactly 20 years ago, had been waiting for her. She had explained that Grandad hadn’t opened the gate for her to pass through yet – she had to wait until her children arrived from abroad to see her off. A few hours after their arrival, Nana passed peacefully and happily over the water and through the gate.
A few years ago, Nana, having lived in various places, bought a house back in Wexford a mere 100 metres from where she was born and bred in. She wanted to return to her home and to be among her people, many of whom surrounded her for the last years of her life. She had come full circle, she was born and died in the same place.
I had rung Nana about a month ago to tell her how my husband and I had been out walking when we came across a yellow rose bush in glorious bloom. The fragrance of the flowers hit me and instantly transported me back to Nana and Grandad’s garden in Meath. He loved his roses and gladioli and during the summer, the air was filled with their sweetness. When I saw Nana on Tuesday, Ireland was putting on the most magnificent show of nature. The weather was perfect. The sky and the air were clear, the sun offered a glow to everything. The birds, the bees and the butterflies were happily playing in the summer warmth. It was the perfect day. The perfect last day for my nana. She just loved nature and colour. She loved beauty and she made a conscious effort throughout her life to surround herself with beautiful things. She was glamourous and lovely. She was beautiful inside and out. And her death was as beautiful as one could wish for. A most beautiful death.