When I lost my Gran at the age of 88 it left me with one grandparent (growing up I was lucky enough to have a complete set of wonderful grandparents) which in itself gives me cause to reflect on taking things for granted.
But having previously written about how I felt about the loss of Robin Williams, my gran was such a huge part of my upbringing, moral compass and contributed to many of my happier memories of my youth that I felt I had a lot to say. It has given me much to think about and I wanted to take the time to not only share those thoughts, but also to record something to celebrate the life of one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.
Nan O’Donnell (her name was Annie, but other than ‘Gran’ she was always known to everyone as Nan) was someone who inspired through example. She was humble and lived a modest life, not someone who looked for attention or limelight, but she is someone who left her mark on everyone she came into contact with.
In my youth, being told we were going to visit relatives was not something to be excited about (all my games and toys were at home, why would I want to go somewhere else?) but a trip to my grans was always a pleasure. Why? Because it was always a happy atmosphere. I don’t think I can remember a time when I visited and I wasn’t greeted with the warmest smile and energy. No matter how ill she was, how low on energy, the smile was always there and she just wouldn’t sit down until she felt everyone had been attended to.
Famously you could not leave her home without having had something to eat. Starting at the offer of a meal, to soup, to “a wee sandwich” through a plate of biscuits or a piece of fruit, one way or another she’d tempt you with something. And her macaroni and cheese was legendary. So much so that during my university days, popping up to see her (she lived within walking distance) probably had much to do with my being overweight by the end of my studies. Not that I’m complaining, the food was amazing. In our family, if we knew she was making macaroni and cousins, uncles or whatever were due up the same day, it was a race to get there first before all the portions were gone.
But if we go back a few years (to before my existence) apparently, I should never have met my gran. She was told around the age of 40 (if I’m remembering correctly) that she had only a few years to live, 5 at the most. So, having more than doubled her age from that point is something amazing in itself.
If you actually consider the details of her life, not only was she told she wouldn’t live anywhere near as long as she did, she suffered from arthritis, was handed, at one point, a 4 page document of things she was allergic to and couldn’t use in her daily life, had a pretty low immune system. To be honest I could go on. But you’d never know any of this if you didn’t get told from someone else, because she never focused on her own problems, just on the wellbeing of everyone else.
Anyone else would probably have lost themselves in self-pity. Not my gran! She had a dart board up in her spare room and became a shark at the game, she bought an exercise bike to keep the limbs moving, she was out to walk to the shops every day (from her top floor flat – stairs only, no lift) she became a mean bowls player. Growing up with these things it became a feat to beat my gran at darts or bowls and to be honest it almost never happened. So much for not living into her 50s and beyond!
She really would not be brought down!
The only negative thing I would ever hear her say was “never get old son” if she struggled out of her chair or couldn’t read the small print on something, but always with that same infectious smile.
Also, I think you’d be hard pushed to find a happier couple than her and my granddad. They looked after each other, cared for each other, teased each other but never a crossed word was had (unless it was my gran calling my granddad out for telling the same joke or war story for the 85th time that year).
They created an atmosphere where everyone would want to congregate and so a visit to see them was always a good chance to catch up with the rest of the family as we would often cross paths (usually around lunch time interestingly enough).
In my mind I can pretty much pinpoint the moment where things changed and the decline began. A number of years back, whilst out for a walk to the shops, she tripped and fell and ended up heavily bruised. I could see her confidence knocked a little and it took her a while to head back out again and never as far.
She was a woman who could do anything, nothing could hold her back and if she had the spirit of a teenager, but suddenly she was questioning that and seemed to believe more in her limitations. The smile had faded (though never disappeared) but I feel that was when her fight began to slip.
Regardless, each time she was told she couldn’t do something, she would surprise everyone and continue to over-achieve on what was possible.
Over her final year her short term memory started to drastically fade and conversations became somewhat repetitive. But still the smile remained and she would sometimes realize she was asking the same questions over and over and laugh at herself. (And the questions were always about your welfare never about her or how down she was feeling).
During the same period my child was born and so my time to do, well, anything really, was limited and I found it very difficult to find the time to go visit her. But I think there was a huge part of me just didn’t want to see her that way either. This wasn’t my gran any more. My gran was a ball of energy and you couldn’t get her to sit down if you tried. Now confined to a bed her true spirit seemed caged.
My parents would keep me informed of how she was doing and occasionally word would come that she was unlikely to make it through the next 48hrs. I swear she heard this and internally thought “I’ll show you…” because she always perked up and recovered.
In the end my feeling is that, no one had mentioned her passing on for a while and so she made her own mind up that now was the time and she was ready to go.
The last time I saw her I had my child with me and I was so glad he got to meet her and she seemed very happy to see him too. But the gran I want to and will forever remember is the sheer force of nature I grew up knowing.
She was an inspiration to what was right and wrong without being preachy about it, but most of all she is a shining example of what can be achieved with a positive mental attitude and a happy outlook on life no matter the situation.
In my Robin Williams ramblings I said that I believed that we all shared one goal from life, to be able to look back at the end of it and know that the world was improved by our being a part of it, even if only slightly. And that’s what really inspired me to write something here.
My gran wasn’t famous, she wasn’t rich, she wasn’t top of her field in some kind of inspiring field or endeavour, she was a wife, a mother, a grandmother (and recently a several times over great grandmother and even great great grandmother!) but despite living what might be considered a basic or simple life, she made her mark on the world to a level that most others would struggle to achieve. She is a lesson and an inspiration to all as to how to have a positive effect on the world around you.
She was also a pretty religious lady, this isn’t my field and it would be hypocritical of me to speak of an afterlife or being in a better place. My beliefs are not something I would really want to speak of usually because religion and religious beliefs are so personal to most that it just causes friction and argument (which is really where most of my problems with religion stem from) I am more a believer in science and fact and my conclusions don’t fall in line with any of the man-made religious groups. But with that, I believe in spirit, I believe we are all part of the same system, we are all made from energy and that energy unites us all. And if there is something my gran had in spades it was energy and spirit. My belief is that energy has been freed now from the limitations of her failing system (her body) but the energy must go somewhere and is now part of the world around us. And give the quality of that spirit, the world should be thankful because it has just been lifted to a higher level of positivity.
As to what you believe, each to their own, I just know I’m sad that my gran is no longer with us, but I got a good chunk of my life to spend with her and if the doctors she had seen all those years ago were to be believed, I would never have even met her. I’m glad she is no longer in pain or restricted to her bed and I know that the world is a much better place because she was a part of it.
Again, if everyone were to have even a modicum of her generosity or positive spirit, we would live in a much better world than we currently do.
Thank you gran for the joy, the laughter and the lessons in life.
It’s often true, only the good die young, but sometimes the great overcome the obstacles of life and surpass all expectation.
Protocol dictates I end with ‘Rest in Peace’ but if I know my gran, with a free spirit, the last thing she would be doing is resting. She will be ever active, energized and loving every minute of it.