A year ago tonight, I sat at a table at a wedding reception for a friend from college and his new wife. The song playing might’ve been a couple-y song (you know, the ones where you need a dance partner to dance with) or not. I can’t remember why I wasn’t out on the dance floor with my friends–because I can say that is something I’ve gotten much better at these days. Going on the dance floor with friends at weddings.
Anyway, as I was sitting at the table, I was talking to the videographer, another old friend, and I got a text from my mom. Ninny is in Heaven, it read. I remember flipping my phone over after I read it, not really knowing what to do. Did I leave the reception? Did I tell my friend I was talking to about the text I’d just received? Did I cry? Wouldn’t it be awkward to sit at a reception crying…because someone I loved had just died?
Let me back up. Almost two weeks prior, I’d called my mom, feeling a little homesick. The fall semester had started off fairly, well, weird, to put it mildly. I was incredibly busy with work, hosting a small group, teaching children’s Sunday school, and other life commitments. I’d also had a minor dermatological issue going on, so I was a little out of whack and wanted to be with my people. But before I could get any of this out to my mom, I could tell she was busy. I asked her what was going on—it was a Tuesday after 9pm—and she said that her mom was on the way to the hospital.
We didn’t really know what was going on at that time. Ninny, my mom’s 95-year-old mom (known as Grandma to every other cousin), lived in an assisted living home just outside of Augusta, where my dad’s mom lived (and still does) as well. She’d been there for over three years, which had been a shock to most of us. After she lost her husband of 65+ years in 2008, none of us expected her to live 8-and-a-half more years. She constantly spoke of going to Heaven, going to be with Woody (my grandpa), etc. She hadn’t been herself for a good 3-4 years, but it was really after Woody died that she stopped being as fun-loving as she’d been when I grew up. So needless to say it wasn’t a total shock to the system when Mom called me the next day and said it didn’t look good.
But it was a shock to me. I still remember sitting at my desk at work just boohooing like a baby. I tried hard to get it together, to make sure no one saw, but one of or teacher assistants did, and she hugged me hard because that’s what I needed.
No one knew anything. I had so many plans that week–two concerts, a dinner, and something else, but I cancelled them all. It was also the end of the first quarter, so it was a busy time for me at work. But, I wanted to be with my family more than anything, so when Mom told me everyone was coming up on Saturday, I knew I needed to go home.
We alternated between spending time at the hospital and getting the house ready for guests. Mom’s sister, my sweet Aunt Lisa, flew up on Saturday. Her son and his family drove over from near Columbia, and another cousin and her family drove up from Tampa. We all got to spend time with Ninny, not that I think she really knew, but maybe she did. After a while, everyone gathered back at our house, and Mom and Aunt Lisa and Sofia, my cousin’s wife, and Sara, my cousin, and I went to look at the nursing home Ninny would be in—literally called The Place—until she died.
And after that, we shopped. And we laughed. If there is anything my grandmother loved to do, it was those two things. Mom and I took everyone to one of our favorite local shops, and we shopped and shopped. We came back to the house where my dad had chili and homemade pizza and salad all ready. We ate and told stories and laughed some more. We took pictures, which having an 8-year-old try to take a group picture of the adults is clearly something to cause more laughter, so we did that some more too. All too soon, we had to say goodbye and separate, go back to our lives while Mom and Aunt Lisa held down the fort and made decisions for the next week.
I don’t paint that picture of a family night lightly. We aren’t a family that gathers all the time—we’re fairly spread out geographically, so it’s hard to do. We don’t vacation together each year, or even see each other every year, for that fact. There’s a lot of us, a lot of time and distance in between us, and a lot of lives to live. I say all that to say, that night we shopped and laughed was a sweet gift of grace from our Father. It made this whole confusing process less bitter and more sweet.
A full week passed, and my grandma was pretty much the same. She slowly deteriorated more and more each day, but no one knew when she would pass away. I didn’t know if I should come home for the wedding or not. When would the funeral be? We would be traveling for that, so I didn’t know if I should save my days at work or not. I ended up coming home, and I got to see her one more time before she passed away. Dad and I went to Costco and on our way to dinner, we stopped by The Place to see Mom, Aunt Lisa, and Ninny. While there, her doctor came to check on her. Another bit of grace? The doctor she had is the uncle of a dear, dear friend of mine. He’s a believer, and he really made the whole process easier for our family.
The next day, I headed to Anthony and Kristen’s wedding with Patrick and Kaila. I put the whole thing out of my mind, because, honestly, it could’ve been days before she passed. I laughed with my friends—Kaila and I laughed so hard at one point that we almost embarrassed ourselves—and I celebrated a new union. It was really a sweet day.
Kaila ended up coming back to our table to get something to drink just a few minutes after my mom texted me. Somehow she knew, in that way that best friends do, that something was wrong. I quickly told her, and before I could even ask, she offered for us to leave. She and Patrick drove me home quickly, listened to me as I needed to talk things out, and prayed for me for the upcoming days. Another bit of grace.
Mom and Aunt Lisa came home that night while Dad and I waited patiently. We weren’t sure what to do or what they would be like when they came home, so we just waited. And we should’ve expected it—they came home ready to tell us funny stories that had happened throughout the day, from my uncle’s cell phone ringing during a prayer to my aunt sitting on the bed next to Ninny and it moving when it shouldn’t. They weren’t being rude or disrespectful to their mother’s memory, either, by their laughing and telling funny stories. If anything, they respected her most in that moment, because had she still been alive, she would’ve been doing the exact same thing. Laughing and laughing and laughing some more.
Ninny was a woman who loved passionately, who was always up for a game or a craft, who taught us to laugh, who showed me what it was like to live a faithful life to the Lord, and who is missed each day. She would’ve loved the family gatherings we had over the time she was in the hospital and while planning her funeral. She’d would’ve laughed right with us. And while I do miss her, while I wish she was still with us, I am so grateful to know without a shadow of a doubt that she is in the presence of our Savior right now. And that same Savior gave us the grace to walk through three hard weeks by supplying all that we needed and more.