I guess the fact that Nana was 105 years old should have been my constant reminder that any moment, experience or words exchanged likely could have been the last. But Nana’s age only seemed apparent during her fleeting moments of weakness or physical fragility that of course came with her years. But most of the time, her spirit, her intellect and her humor would overshadow all of that to lull us into a place of forgetting that remarkable number.
It was only five days before Nana died that we spent the day in the kitchen making a variety of cookies from her old recipes. We laughed, we ate and we reminisced. We didn’t know what was coming.
Throughout that beautiful day, I was taking physical and mental pictures of her hands in the dough, of the love shining in her beautiful Polish blue eyes and of her laughing with her mouth wide open, as she would do when something really made her laugh. I wanted to hold on to every moment of that day—but not because I consciously thought it would be our last. Rather, because I needed to capture all of it so I could replay it over and over when I needed to feel her presence. You know –someday, down the road. I loved our moments. Nana believed that if we sat quiet in our moments—our purpose in life would be revealed.
It has taken me a year to accept a couple of facts. Nana lived a long, healthy and amazing life. We were gifted with her presence for longer than we may have deserved and that has been our blessing. Nana died a peaceful death, at home, surrounded by her family. Her death was neither tragic nor unexpected but living without her has been incredibly painful.
Personally and professionally, I have never fully embraced the idea of stages or phases of this journey. I recognize that initially there is the cognitive numbing that is part of emotional denial. It is essential for the mind to slowly begin to incorporate the loss. Of course, there are periods of anger that is clearly prevalent, particularly with the death of children, death from violence or tragic loss. But in the end, grief is a painful and personal journey.
Grief is an exhausting process. Anybody who has ever lost someone knows the waves of physical pain and fatigue that accompanies the tears and deep emotional longing that is the experience of grief.
It isn’t linear. It doesn’t go through phases or stages. Instead, it appears to be like waves that roll in and out. Sometimes, it comes in softly with gentle thoughts and reflections and other times with great force filled with longing and pain.
Time. Well, time seems to help us get to a place of adjusting our lives to a new normal, a new reality. And maybe time helps us adjust to living daily without their physical presence and learning to find comfort in our memories. But time doesn’t heal all pain. Loss is loss. And where there was love there will be scars—they are the signs that love was there.
Over the years, I have had the painful privilege of working with many people who have lost children in tragic ways, spouses in the prime of their lives and friends and family through violence. So, for the past year I have struggled with my own guilt of accepting my grief over a 105- year old woman who lived a beautiful life. It seemed self-indulgent and perhaps disrespecting of those who have lost people in tragic and unexpected ways. Today, I realize that this irrational guilt has led me to put some of my grief aside—packing it away and busying myself with the tasks of life. But for all of us there comes the time to unpack that grief and begin the process. There is no way around grief only through it. The notion that grief is a personal journey and is the very price for loving somebody, couldn’t be more true.
Before Nana took her last breath, I begged her to send me a sign. A sign that would let me know that she is ok. She promised that if there was a way to come back to comfort me, she would. I have spent the last year waiting for that sign. Many of my family members have reported dreams of her that were vivid, images of her smiling and sensing her presence. I continue to wait for my sign.
In the quiet of the last few days, I have been reflecting on the past year. I now realize that the truth is I didn’t want to see the signs because it meant she was really gone. I wasn’t ready to accept daily life without her.
There were signs I didn’t want to see.
As Nana was actively dying, she was telling us that there was a little boy in the room and he wanted her to go with him. We didn’t understand in that moment but after Nana passed we were at the funeral home making arrangements when a young family approached us. The father was holding a three-year old sleeping boy on his shoulder. The young mother, wearing her black dress and pearls with eyes that were puffy and filled with tears, offered her condolences on our loss. She shared that one of her twin boys was being buried today. It was physically hard to breath as I tried to take in the image of the little three-year old in the casket, the sleeping twin brother and the grief stricken young couple. First, I felt ashamed that she was offering sympathy on the death of a 105- year old while she was burying her baby. Ours was an appropriate and expected death. Hers was tragic and unfair. I gathered my thoughts and hesitated as I decided whether or not to share with her what Nana was seeing at the time of her death. When I told the young grieving couple about Nana telling us that the little boy was there with his hand out asking her to go with him, the father started to cry and said, “I knew my boy would be an angel.”
Several months later, a TV interview that I did to introduce Nana’s Tribe Foundation, aired on a local station. The segment ended and within 10 minutes my phone rang and the woman on the other end of the phone said, “You don’t know me but I felt compelled to call you. I just saw the interview on TV and I had to call.” She went on to say that she was with the Baseball Heritage Museum and she felt Nana and her love for baseball and her commitment to generational living belong there. We agreed to meet and discuss ideas. I hung up the phone and went back to planting in Nana’s garden but the word compelled kept playing in my head. Within the hour, another call came from a woman from Dallas, Texas that I had met once at a business event. She said, “I read about Nana’s Tribe and I love everything about it and I felt compelled to call you. I am not even sure what this call will lead to but I felt the need to reach out.” There was that word again. Like rainbows over Progressive Field, were these signs or simply mere coincidences?
Whether signs from those we have lost are simply things we imagine or create to comfort ourselves or part of a spiritual connection, is a personal reality. For me, perhaps the signs that I have been waiting for are not signs at all, maybe what I have been waiting for is the quiet acceptance of her being physically not here but never really gone.
Nana reminded me on a regular basis to fully experience and be aware of our moments in life because we never know when we will need them. Times when we will need to pull those moments out and savor them. It is time for me to unpack those moments and fully absorb them. The moments that occurred five days before her death, baking brown sugar cookies from an old recipe and then her rocking in her chair and me sitting in her wheelchair enjoying the cookies and each other. Moments filled with her laughter, her tears, her humor, her pain, her death, her life and her purpose. I don’t pretend to know what she believed her purpose on this earth was, but I know that for me her purpose was to guide me to mine. Her voice continues to push me forward with passion to be grateful for all the moments that were painful but brought me incredible gifts.
My painful moment was saying goodbye to her. The incredible gift—a lifetime of her love and spirit that is now woven into the very fabric and essence of my being. And for that I will be eternally grateful.