The story has been told of how, when I was a little person, I wanted desperately to be a dinosaur. Someone said that I could be absolutely anything I wanted, and that was it, that was what I wanted. What I didn’t tell you was there was a time before that…when I wanted to be a star. (Not a movie star, not a pop star, but a real live twinkle twinkle little star)
Most people never meet their great grandparents. I was beyond blessed to get to spend the majority of my young life with my great grandmother. Ninny. That wasn’t her given name, but it might as well have been. We called her that, people at church called her that, and almost everyone at the hospital where she worked called her that. I don’t really know HOW she got that name, it was probably given by my mother close to 50 years ago, what mattered is that it WAS her name. And she was mine.
Hands weathered by time, a mind full of stories and memories of “the farm”, and a grilled cheese sandwich that would blow. your. mind. She was the whole package. And she loved Jesus. Deeply. Some of my earliest memories are of her. Before I could even read I knew all the words to “Amazing Grace”, “Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus”, and “The Solid Rock”. She talked to me often of hearts that were sick and in desperate need of someone to make them better. She often told me that Jesus was the One who could and would do it.
We worked in her garden often. Looked at the birds. She taught me to crochet. We would eat coffee ice cream until we felt sick. And she would scratch my back at night until I fell asleep. When I woke, I would find her in the living room recliner, bible open in her lap, cup of coffee sitting on the side table next to her. Most days I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or not. I know now that these moments were times when she was settling her heart and begging Jesus to help her that day. I love her for this.
The years were full of camping every summer, Walton’s episodes before bed, Legos in her den, coffee ice cream by the quart, painting rocks we found in the garden, spearmint gum in the pews on Sunday mornings, fried chicken, and more scratched backs than I can count.
My freshman year in college Ninny had a heart attack. I remember getting the news at church. Collapsing in the hallway. Broken. She was the only tangible thing that held me together through my parents divorce. She was the one who, no matter what time of night, would answer my calls and pray over me. I found myself broken…because she was broken.
This wasn’t the end, but it was the beginning of it. We found out not long after that the cancer was wrapping its filthy tentacles around every one of her major organs. Sucking the life out of her. I have never hated anything so much in my life. Why? Out of everyone in the world…WHY HER?! She had done nothing but walk with Jesus faithfully, love his people well, and proclaim truth louder than the lies. Why…
I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I didn’t want to see her hooked up to all those machines. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I didn’t know how.
She was dozing in and out. I was instructed to talk to her like normal. Tell her I love her. Just talk. This was Ninny…I didn’t know how else to talk to her.
Holding back sobs, I just talked to her. I told her about my day, what I was studying, the latest breaking on my car, and about this cute boy I was hanging out with. I think the last one got a little smile. She talked about having to get the laundry off the line and milk the cows. She told us, or whoever else was in that room, that someone needed to help get the flies out. My heart broke into a million pieces that day. She wasn’t there anymore. The drugs they were pumping into her body had reduced her to a pile of her own memories. She wasn’t here. In her mind she wasn’t even a mother, much less a great grand one. I decided I would leave the pieces of my heart on the sterile floor of that room, but I had to go. It was just too much.
I approached her bed. Grabbed her hand and held it like it would be the last. I ran my fingers over the veins protruding through her skin. I traced the lines that could tell stories for years. And I squeezed. Hard. I wanted her to come back to me. I wanted her to feel alive. I wanted her to know that I was there and that I loved her. I wanted her to have that small connection to the present. So I squeezed. Then I leaned in.
I kissed her cheek. Hugged her tight and placed my mouth directly over her ear so that my words would have less chance of escape.
“Ninny. I love you more than you will ever know. I have to go now, but I will be back. Just wait ’til I get back, ok? And Ninny? Remember that I. Love. You”
As I started to pull back she wouldn’t let go of my hand. She pulled me back down to her. The smell of hospital fresh in my nostrils. She placed her mouth directly over my ear…so that her words had less chance of escape. She was back from her incoherent ramblings…she was lucid again. She was my Ninny and in true Ninny form, when she had something to say, you listened.
“Alison…” deep breath.
She knew me. Knew who I was. Knew who she was in relation to me.
“Alison…no matter what happens, ok? You hear me? No matter what happens…I want you to forever remember that you have always been the stars in my eyes and I love you.”
Disease stole her voice the next day.
A week later it stole my Ninny.
Suppose I was a star after all. Just not the way I had planned.