In November of last year my stepmother passed away suddenly. A massive heart attack at the age of 63.
Gather up all the the preconceived notions you have of how I must feel about that. A stepmother?
Well, here’s the truth. I loved her. Granted, my 15-year-old self did not share the same opinion, but as an adult, I had formed a bond with her that was so desperately important to me. She loved and cared for my father for 20 years before he passed away. He was a wonderful man who had many struggles. I will tell that story when I can find the words.
Pat and I held onto my dad through each other. We could talk about him, laugh and cry about him and just straight up love him. Together.
But it wasn’t just my dad that drew me to her, she was a life force beyond what I can reasonably explain. So when I got the call from my stepsister Cindy that Pat had died, here was my reaction: “Not for real.” Of course for real. Why would Cindy ever call me to give me news like that if it wasn’t for real? So it was real, but impossible to understand. How could someone so alive be gone?
Meet Pat, or rather Nanny Pat as she was known to most.
An avid community theatre buff, a devoted mother and grandmother to her beautiful family. A wonder to my little girl. She could fill a room with laughter, love and a firm dose of silly. She touched lives everywhere she went. People were drawn to her giant personality and her witty charm.
To give you an idea of just how bright a star she was, when we went to choose the arrangement for the Pat’s urn we asked for lots of orange (her favourite colour), butterflies (she thought my dad visited as one), and sparkles. The florist just stared back. “Sparkles?” Yes, she was the kind of person who needed sparkles at her funeral.
Lila processed Nanny Pat’s passing as little girls do. I explained that Nanny Pat went to Heaven. Lila said, “Oh. Who’s heaven?” And after a little more explanation she carried on with her day.
Several times since then Nanny Pat has come up in conversation. One very early morning Lila crawled into our bed and said, “Mommy? I was thinking about Nanny Pat and I’m sad that she died. Are you sad about that?” I assured her that of course I was sad. She said, “Me too. I really miss her. It’s not fair that she died.”
When you’re grieving, it’s easy to let a statement like that slide around undeveloped because there isn’t a good way to talk about it.
Well, Christmas passed. It was Pat’s favourite time of year. She spent many months each year pouring love into her gifts to stretch a small budget into small wonders. We missed her terribly over the holidays, but I can only imagine her lovely immediate family felt a big empty space where she should have been.
Lila didn’t ask after Nanny Pat during the Christmas season, but out of the blue after swimming lessons the other night Lila asked me when Nanny Pat wouldn’t be dead anymore. I felt a little crack in my heart. I explained that she would always be dead.
Lila wanted to know how she could talk to Nanny Pat because she missed her. Having been out to my father’s gravesite recently Lila said this:
“I will write Nanny Pat a letter and leave it on the stones for her to find.”
Ouch. Two more cracks. I explained that if she wanted to talk to Nanny Pat, all she had to do was talk. Nanny Pat would hear her.
Lila: You mean just talk out loud?
Me: Yes, Nanny Pat is in Heaven and she’s always listening.
Lila: Right now?
Me: Yes. Always.
Lila: What would you say to Nanny Pat?
Me: I would say that I miss her and I love her and I hope she’s with my dad.
At this point I look up from getting Lila’s socks on and Lila has her tongue hanging out.
Me: Are you trying to lick me?
Lila: No. I’m trying to get your words in my mouth so I can say them to Nanny Pat for you.
Really? REALLY? I think my heart split into a million pieces. This is the moment we truly broke down every ugly connotation that the word “stepmother” drudges up. She was family, so important that she is on Lila’s mind nearly three months after she passed away. It goes to show you how far Nanny Pat’s reach was. A wee toddler who flits from dress up to colouring to singing, to dancing within minutes can’t get her off the brain.
At Pat’s funeral, her granddaughters bravely delivered a eulogy. I still think of them as children, but I shouldn’t. They are strong, confident ladies. I hope Pat’s love had something to do with that. As Charlotte said that heart-breaking day, “Nanny Pat made sure to hug us and tell us she loved us at least once an hour.”
Which explains why I can’t stop thinking about her. A woman who I would have called my arch nemesis as a bitchy pre-teen carved a piece of me away when she left this world. I think when someone loves you so loudly and then suddenly isn’t there your soul needs some repair work.
My dad passed away five years ago. Lila never met him. I am so deeply happy that she got to know Nanny Pat, that she was lucky enough to be loved by Nanny Pat. She’s not quite four, but I know she will remember Nanny Pat forever. That kind of love leaves a mark.
I think most of us who knew her feel lucky just to have been a part of her bright and shiny world. Our world won’t be nearly as bright or shiny without her, but she’s definitely tuning in to what we’re doing with a glass of white wine, well, after Young and the Restless, of course.
Lila asked me what I was writing just now. When I told her she said “I have a letter too. I love you, Nanny Pat and I would love to see you, but you’re in Heaven. Write that.”
That sums it up perfectly.