70: Nancy

70: Nancy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery


A hug is a great gift—one size fits all, and it’s easy to exchange.

~Author Unknown

When I was ten years old, my mother needed a babysitter for me. She was still at work for a few hours after I got home from school. The only person available in the neighborhood was an old lady named Nancy, and at the time I was terrified of her. She was grumpy and hated everyone. None of the neighborhood kids could get too close to her yard or she’d come out screaming. We couldn’t even play ball anywhere near her house because if the ball happened to land in her yard, we knew it was gone forever. I tried to avoid this woman at all costs.

When my mother broke the news to me that Nancy would be my new babysitter, I cried. I thought I had done something wrong.

When that first day with Nancy came, I didn’t want to leave school. The bus dropped me off at the end of the street and I walked as slowly as I could up to her door. Before I got to it, she was already standing in the doorway. She opened her screen door, let me in, and said, “Take off your shoes and leave them right there. Let me take your jacket, I’m going to hang it on the back of the sofa.” And that was it. She went and sat down at her kitchen table, put her oxygen mask on and lit a cigarette.

Whenever I passed by Nancy’s house, I always saw her sitting at that kitchen table with a cigarette in her hand and her oxygen tank next to her. The table was centered in front of her sliding glass doors so she could stare outside. Her living room TV was also positioned so that she could clearly see it from the kitchen. I figured this was her way of watching her afternoon soap operas while still being able to patrol her yard to make sure no sneaky little kids came around.

That first day at Nancy’s house was scary. She made me sit at the kitchen table with her and do my homework right away. She set down the rules for me and demanded that I abide by them. My homework came first every day, I couldn’t swear, couldn’t interrupt her while her soaps were on, and couldn’t complain about the smell of her cooking.

This same process went on every day. I came home from school to the smell of her dinner simmering on the stove, she took my coat while I took my shoes off, and I did my homework as soon as I sat down. I abided by every single rule and I was very polite when I spoke.

One day, I came home from school crying. This boy in my class was moving away and I was devastated because I thought I was madly in love with him. Nancy was at the door like usual, waiting to take my coat. When I came in, she took it and placed it on the couch. She asked me what was wrong and led me into the kitchen to our usual seats.

I was crying too much to talk so I didn’t tell her why I was sad. She just gave me a hug and held onto me. She rubbed my back and assured me that all things happen for a good reason and that when my pain passed, I’d be a stronger person.

After that, Nancy and I began to talk more and more every day after I finished my homework. I told her everything and she told me things the way they really were. She spoke her mind as honestly as possible and sometimes she cussed like a sailor while doing so. But I respected that. Nancy taught me the meaning of honesty. She also started to let me taste that food she was always making.

I began to stay at Nancy’s house even after my mother came home from work. I liked her. She was fun to talk to and her house always smelled good, so I stayed there instead of going home most days.

Then one day, I saw something on the kitchen table that was not normally there. There was her usual crossword book, a pen, and her ashtray, but there was also a small stack of papers. When I asked her what it was, she told me it was her “will.” She explained to me that a will was basically a bunch of papers that said where her stuff would go when she died.

I got worried and asked her if she was dying. She laughed and said, “No, not yet, but I can’t wait for the day. If it ever comes, don’t try to save me.” Then I decided to ask her about her oxygen tank. I knew what it was because it said “oxygen” right on it, but I didn’t know what it was for. Nancy told me she had a disease called emphysema, a lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe.

Hearing this, I was baffled and upset. I asked her why she smoked. Nancy said, “Honey, when I die, I want to die happy. Cigarettes and soap operas make me happy. I’d like to die right here with everything I love. My chair, my soaps, and a cigarette burning in my hand.”

That was one small conversation we had among many for months to come. Nancy became my best friend. She taught me to do what makes me happy and not take anyone’s crap. She told me she trusted me with her life. She always told my mother, “I can put a thousand dollars in front of her and walk away. She won’t touch a dime of it. I trust her with anything.” She was right. I wouldn’t have touched a dime of it, and I was finally glad someone appreciated that about me.

One day when I got out of school, I noticed one small change in Nancy’s house. She came and greeted me as usual, took my coat, and helped me get my homework out. But I didn’t smell anything. She had always eaten the strangest foods and it always excited me to wonder what I’d smell that day. But today, there was nothing cooking on the stove and no smell at all. I didn’t ask her about it; I just figured that maybe she was ordering out for once.

When all my homework was out, we both sat down. Nancy lit a cigarette and turned to watch her soaps while I started to look over my homework.

When a commercial came on, Nancy put her cigarette in the ashtray and put her head down on the table. Usually when she did this, she asked me for a quick shoulder massage, so I got ready and said, “Nance?” She didn’t say anything, and when I said her name again, she fell to the floor beside my feet. Her face was pale and her eyes open.

I began to cry and scream as I jumped up. I ran next door and pounded on the neighbor’s door. A girl I hung out with, Alysha, answered the door. I was in a panic and she couldn’t understand me when I asked for the phone. I tried to say “Nancy” and when I did, she understood. We called an ambulance and then our parents.

The entire neighborhood was outside to see what was happening. When everyone noticed my hysterical crying and the ambulance crew entering Nancy’s house, looks of horror struck their faces. My mother hadn’t known exactly why I called her because I was difficult to understand, but she knew when she found me outside in Alysha’s arms.

Nancy died that day. Sometimes I wish I had called the ambulance from her house, rather than Alysha’s, so they could have instructed me on how to resuscitate her. But then I remembered what she said about not wanting to be saved from death and wanting to die with everything she loved. She was watching her soap operas and smoking a cigarette while sitting in that favorite chair of hers. But I was there too. And now I realize that I was a part of that group, the group of things she loved. Nancy loved her chair, her soaps, her cigarettes, and she loved me.

~Shaylene McPhee

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