* Previously Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Touched by an Angel
Nanny’s body barely created a bump in the bed as she lay under the hospital sheets. I stood with my brothers and sisters alongside my mother as we gathered around her bed. The doctor held the do-not-resuscitate order in his hand. Mother was letting her go. Nanny’s body could take no more. For the second time, she was paralyzed by a catastrophic stroke that affected her entire right side. We were there to say goodbye. My mother intended this to be a beautiful moment before she slipped away. But as it turned out, Nanny wasn’t quite ready to go.
Nanny struggled to sit up and speak to my mother. A garbled sound came out. Nanny’s irritation showed as her good hand flew in the air, waving wildly for Mother to move closer. She did. Nanny tried again. But with the right side of her face motionless, nothing she uttered was decipherable. Frustration showed on the left side of her face. She fell back in defeat.
Horrified, I cringed. Only sixteen years old, little things like school and dogs and elevators produced fear and trepidation in me. Withering bodies clawing for life scared me for real. Someone dying was a nightmare I had not encountered. Gillian, our dog, had died. Hit by a car. But he hadn’t struggled. He hadn’t cried.
I glanced around and saw my distress reflected in my siblings’ faces. Death was in the room. I was frightened.
I watched as Nanny’s good hand reached out, like a claw, and grasped my mother’s arm. Mother leaned in as Nanny tried to speak again. A horrible rattle came out. She was drooling. Gone was my lovely, elegant grandmother who had played cards with us and taken us on fantastic cruises. In her place was someone I didn’t know.
I tried not to recoil. Mother grabbed a tissue and moved to wipe the drool off Nanny’s face. Suddenly, Nanny’s voice cleared. She sat up, unhindered. All signs of her stroke were gone, but she was still clearly annoyed. She flapped Mother’s tissue away and wiped her mouth herself.
She spoke. “Anita, I need you to listen. I’m trying to tell you where I hid Aunt Bess’s diamond ring.”
My jaw dropped. Now, Nanny was a great hider. She stashed dollars in jelly jars, rings in the sofa and her silver tea set under the bathroom sink. Everyone knew that. My mother was quite confident we would never find all the things she had hidden. Mother had spoken of “Nanny’s stash” many times in frustration. She had tried to get Nanny to tell her where things were, but Nanny had always shooed her away, saying she would tell her when she needed to know.
Now, here Nanny sat, lucid and functioning, talking about her hoard. So bizarre. I swear, if Elvis Presley had walked in and serenaded us, I wouldn’t have been more surprised.
My mother was shocked too, her eyebrows raised almost to her hairline. And she hadn’t moved an inch. I watched as the tissue in mother’s hand fluttered to the floor.
“Yes, Mother?” my mother said.
“I’ve placed Aunt Bess’s ring in Gone with the Wind. I hollowed out the book.” Nanny giggled, seeming pleased. “The book is on the third shelf in the library, left side.”
Stunned, Mother nodded.
Nanny’s giggle transformed to an expression of loving impatience as she turned and addressed an empty spot at the end of her bed. “Herman, I am not ready yet. Give me a minute.”
Herman was my grandfather, her husband and the love of her life. He’d died seven years ago, so I was surprised to hear her addressing him. Confused and still flustered, I looked to see if he was standing there. He wasn’t, at least not that I could see, but I couldn’t help but smile. I couldn’t recall a time when Grandpa wasn’t trying to hurry her up. He called Nanny “DD,” short for his “Delayed Darling.” She’d laugh and say she was never late for anything important. An inside joke. Everyone knew the only time she’d ever been on time was the day she married Grandpa. He told her he was not standing before the congregation and waiting for her. So she’d promenaded down the aisle before the flower girls and her bridesmaids, causing gales of laughter from all those who knew her well.
I always hoped to have a marriage like theirs.
Nanny turned back to my mother. “And you found my bracelet?”
Mother nodded again.
“Just a minute,” Nanny said to the end of the bed.
“And the silver coins?” Nanny asked. Her voice had passed bossy and was right on its way to vexed, exasperated and demanding.
Nanny shot my mother a look meant to burn. I’d seen that look before. Nanny believed that a quick switch on the butt made children more attentive.
I was glad I was not in the hot seat with my mother.
Nanny’s hoard of silver dollars flashed before my eyes. Great memories. Nanny used those coins as gambling money to teach us to count. We played 21, like in Las Vegas. By the time I was six, I could count better than anyone I knew. I loved those coins. I hoped mother had found those. I looked at her in time to see her nod.
Nanny looked relieved.
Nobody spoke. But everybody’s eyes flashed around the room trying to assess if anyone else was seeing this… this… bizarre something we were experiencing.
By the look on everyone’s face, everyone was.
“Good.” Nanny lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. A contented look settled on her face. For a minute, she said nothing. Then she spoke again. “Okay Herman, I’m ready.”
And she died. Right then, that very instant.
Silence. Then wild chatter filled the room as everyone started talking at once. A glint, something like an errant sunbeam, hit the window and caught my eye. It sparkled and then vanished. I wondered for a second, but dismissed the thought.
The doctor alone remained silent.
Finally, my mother turned to him and asked, “Did you see that?” She sounded rattled. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“Yes,” he said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “I see this more often than you’d think.”
I looked back at Nanny, knowing she wasn’t there. I’d watched her life pass to… to… I didn’t know where. But, wherever Nanny and Grandpa had gone, they were together and happy.
Later, as we drove home, I realized one more thing. I was not afraid of death anymore.