From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul


Perpetual pushing and assurance put a difficulty out of countenance, and make a seeming impossibility give way.

Jeremy Collier

Nan was my bonus grandmother. By the time I reached the age of twenty-five, all of my grandparents had passed away, and when I married Jay and acquired Nan as part of the package, I was elated to establish a relationship with her.

She was a bright, unquenchable little spark, a whirlwind of activity, a dynamo of energy, a formidable garage-sale shopper and an unending source of optimism and fierce determination. She didn’t believe in just sitting around and crocheting, although she did even that with finesse.

Nan’s apartment was a magical and enchanted place. My children and I would ride the elevator up to the ninth floor for afternoon tea and step out into the hallway to see her twinkling in the doorway of #914. She loved to wear long flowery skirts, shiny slippers, frilly blouses, sparkly belts, yards of chunky beads, dangling earrings, rhinestone brooches, lots of bracelets and numerous rings. Whether any of it matched was irrelevant. My sons, Barrett and Thomas, would enter reverently, eyes wide as saucers, with my warning “not to touch” ringing in their ears.

Every available inch of the apartment was adorned with antiques. The paintings she produced in astonishing numbers marched across the walls. Garage-sale treasures were crammed between expensive knickknacks. Clocks ticked and chimed and bonged and cuckooed. A canary sang in the corner. It was a dizzying, delightful celebration of who Nan was and what she loved.

Her energy seemed boundless. The apartment was not only immaculate, but entire rooms of furniture would be rearranged from week to week. I often wondered how she managed to negotiate midnight trips to the bathroom. Beds traveled from one bedroom to another. Dressers were hauled on strips of carpet from the pink room to the hall to the painting room to the blue room and then back to the pink room again. A huge cupboard of antique dolls vanished from the hall only to reappear in the back room. “Slow but steady, that’s the secret,” she would say sagely. “Pull, don’t push, and just keep at it.” Each visit was a bit of an adventure as well as an inspiration. I usually left with renewed resolve to dust and clean and smarten up my house.

I admired not only her outer, but her inner strength. I saw it surface often during her long, debilitating struggle with skin ulcers. It was a battle that lasted more than twelve years, yet as those horrible sores worsened and multiplied, her pluck and fortitude burned brightly. She was not inclined to complain or despair or quit. She kept on going even though the furniture didn’t move quite as often, the paintings took longer to finish and the lure of garage sales lessened.

Shortly after Nan had been admitted to the hospital for the last time, unaware that she would never leave, I ran into a friend there who had become a nurse. “Who are you visiting?” she asked. When I told her she exclaimed, “She is your grandmother? We just love her! She is so amazing.”

For a long time Nan talked about getting better and going home, but the skin grafts were unsuccessful. Her appetite, meager to begin with, waned; she lost weight. I noticed clumps of hair on the pillow. Heavily medicated to cope with the pain, she drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes, to reassure myself that she was still breathing, I watched the little pulse in her throat. Though her tiny frame seemed impossibly frail, that flicker of life beat strongly. “Slow but steady, that’s the secret,” I could almost hear her say.

Even then, on some of her worst days, when the agony of bedsores, infected graft sites and gangrenous ulcers crept through the morphine, her response to, “How are you?” was a whispered, “Oh, not so good and not so bad.”

As her body weakened her smile grew sweeter. The reserve she had always cloaked herself in slipped, and she seemed to glow with a new tenderness and appreciation for people. Traversing that vast desert of adversity, she discovered the riches of relying on others.

One Saturday afternoon I spent some time with Nan. She was heavily sedated and semicomatose; my efforts to wake her were unsuccessful, so I read to her. Remarkably, as I held her hand and told her not to be afraid, that it was okay for her to go, her eyes fluttered open a few times. When I told her I loved her, her hand began to shake.

The next morning at approximately 5:00 Nan stepped over the threshold of death’s door. I had longed to see her at peace, yet after that portal swung silently shut, the luster of this world seemed paler and its music off-key. I thought I was prepared. I thought her anguish had readied me. But there is no preparation. Ever.

From her life of quiet strength and impressive dignity in the midst of unrelenting pain and suffering, I carry these words and do my best to apply them when things become difficult: “Slow and steady, that’s the secret. Pull, don’t push, and just keep at it.”

Rachel Wallace-Oberle

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