We found out about the cancer when the red leaves of October lit the trees, so they pierce my heart each year like fireballs. The cool, smooth wind slides past my cheek on my run home just like the day my sister called me at the gym, and I stood against the rough bricks while the words “pancreatic cancer” ripped at my flesh. Running under this same canopy of trees, the leaves once again display Nana’s favorite palette: yellow, orange, and crimson. Vibrant, they glow without any indication that a strong rain or a hand could crush them at any time.
I think of how she would get up every morning, despite the cold and the dark, to walk at dawn, persisting, against the ghost in the air this time of year that sometimes begins to fight you. Just before her diagnosis, the neighbors caught my grandmother in her designer jogging suit taking a hacksaw to a pile of branches on the sidewalk of her condominium before sunrise—each stick twice as thick as her delicate bones.
As the autumn sky turns rainy and darker, I tend to sink into my hole of despair. Over the years, I’ve learned that a first-thing, morning exercise routine like Nana’s shakes the haze off my brain. But I’m afraid I’ve lost touch with my hearty farm roots more than Nana ever did; her Southern rural blood ran truer and deeper than my nine years on my Dad’s experimental acres with ever-changing crops and my three-month 4-H sheep project that I shipped off to be butchered and never saw again. But I stay strong by running, boot camp, and other classes at the gym. And I take our girls camping and skiing, so they learn what it feels like to carry firewood and walk through snow.
The embarking of the winter holidays reminds me how Nana always sent colorful cards for every special event, growing more frequent beginning at Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, then Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter, never missing a birthday in between. All year long for children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, sisters, brothers, she was the family glue. Often the bright orange pumpkin card would contain a photograph, “snapped by Nana,” with captions noting the time, dates, names, place, and details; many of those photos now line my bulletin board.
My favorite picture of the two of us stares at me while I type. Usually I just smile when I glance at it, and I don’t think about when the photo was taken. But the current squeeze around my heart reminds me it was that last October, and I can feel the same chill that haunts me now. In the picture, we’re sitting on her sundeck in Las Vegas going through photo albums. I’m looking down with a wide smile at a photo, and she’s looking over at me, smiling so big her eyes have begun to squint; she’s almost laughing, pushing her hair behind one ear with the tiny bones of her hand.
Those photo albums she kept hoarded in her home flash like a slideshow before my eyes; she kept the long family history, black and white and sepia photographs generations back, as well as a log of all the places she visited. During the fall, her most frequent travel time, she’d travelled across the United States and even to Norway to visit my parents. That last fall she took one final trip to visit her three previously unseen great-grandchildren (all under five years old) in Chicago where my sister lives before she couldn’t travel anymore.
Because I’ve never met anyone like her, her loss is difficult to capture. People speak of gravitas, but they typically use the word when they speak of men. People speak of matriarchs, but the word conjures a large woman in a chair. Instead, imagine an eighty-three year-old, ninety-five pound woman with her hacksaw in designer sweatpants after that fallen branch was left on her condominium sidewalk for three days. Then, envision her remembering the name and family tree of everyone she ever met, and continuing written correspondence by “snail” or email with half of them. Finally, know that this Southern Lady carried herself with such grace that she retained the position of matriarch without ever having to display the full extent of her gravitas. Like a smolder under a strong foundation, ready to ignite at a moment’s notice. How can that kind of fire vanish without leaving me cold?
In my closet hangs the jacket we brought her that last Thanksgiving just after my husband, Kyle’s first Ironman race. Dappled like a glowing mountain at the peak of fall foliage, she had smiled and put it on even though it probably didn’t keep her warm enough that day. Nana pulled out her internet research about triathlons and asked informed questions about the race.
“Was it very windy?” she asked with a hint of a smile.
“Not too bad,” Kyle said. “It was a great day, but we missed you.” He was tearing up and had to look away.
From within that bright jacket, hanging just a bit too loose, a part of Nana was wishing she could have been there, but her eyes shone bright.
I don’t hold a belief in any kind of afterlife humans can envision; maybe there is, and maybe there isn’t. But the power of a strong life can leave a mark as bright as an autumn tree flaming overhead. Everyday and especially in the fall, Nana reminds me to persevere, to nurture my relationships with my family, to treasure my important memories, and to keep making new ones.
Photo credit: “Autumn Leaves” by Yoshikazu Takada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.