Six months ago today I received a call that I’d been expecting for a long time but also thought was still some way off. My grandmother had finally left us, after a long and horrible battle with lung cancer.
Only it wasn’t really that horrible.
Me and Nanny had never really had much of a relationship. She was stern and prickly a lot of the time, and I had nothing in common with her. I was a horrible teenager, and not at all interested in my family. Visiting my grandparents wasn’t a priority.
In February 2012 I was walking around the supermarket trying to figure out what to have for tea, when my mum called. My mum never really called unless she was worried or something was up so I knew it’d be important. Half expecting to hear that my little brother had an asthma attack again I answered, and was stunned into silence when she told me that Nanny had cancer in her lungs.
The doctors didn’t seem to think Nanny had very long, so I vowed I’d put things right. I began spending every Saturday with Nanny, which meant I spent a large chunk of every weekend on public transport but I didn’t mind. It just didn’t matter how stressful it was to get there, I had to.
We still struggled with finding something to talk about, something we had in common. We had entirely opposite views on lots of things, so discussions could easily turn to bickering. We needed something else. So one weekend, armed with a ball of cheap yarn and some horrible metal needles I taught myself to knit using YouTube videos. It took me the whole day to do just a couple of rows and I launched the whole lot across the room in frustration more than once. But I eventually succeeded, and from then on when we were together, me and Nanny knitted. Sometimes we went shopping for knitting supplies, or searched out patterns for each other, but mainly we knitted. In the garden if it was warm enough. Then Nan’s health dipped thanks to radiotherapy, and Nan didn’t get up. We knitted in her room. She stayed in bed. I sat at the end of her bed surrounded by yarn and needles and patterns, and Grampy brought tea and biscuits up to us.
We spent a summer tracing Grampy’s family tree, which meant days out looking for graves. It sounds morbid, but those were happy days. We had lunches in country pubs, on benches, alongside rivers. I bought a bike and started cycling home from their house in Bath along the Railway Path. We went to a local garden centre or the cafe in the park, for jacket potatoes or soup. In the winter we ate sandwiches in the park cafe while watching people ice skate. Sometimes my mum came too. We were making family memories. We had a wonderful summer.
When Nan deteriorated we knitted at home again, enjoying the sun through the window and the cuddly company of her two small dogs, eating Grampy’s favourite crunch cream biscuits and drinking endless cups of tea.
Nanny was a terrible hoarder. She never chucked anything away and she was always shopping. She gave me a knitting machine she’d never used. Then she gave me a brand new sewing machine too. We found old knitting patterns and magazines dating back to the 70s. Mostly there were bears. She loved bears. Wherever you were in her home you were surrounded by them. Some cheap keepsakes with sentimental value, some very expensive Steiff bears. They were in every room, on every surface.
When I first met Trev our long distance relationship meant I alternated my weekends between Nanny in Bath and him in Wales. Up until this point I’d barely missed a Saturday with Nanny for 18 months and I felt terrible to be missing them now. But she understood, and as much as she enjoyed winding Trev up she liked him and was glad I was happy. When I fell pregnant I was terrified of telling her, but she took it well and was excited to have a fourth great-grandchild. As my pregnancy progressed, Nanny told her doctors and her friends that she wasn’t going anywhere until she’s met my baby daughter. I was watching her health deteriorate and I cried every time she said it. I clung to the knowledge that there was a small chance she might make it. Her doctor had said so. “Just keep breathing” she said.
I last saw Nanny on my birthday this year. Me and Trev and my large bump spent a wonderful morning with her. She was cheerful and chatty, happy and excited. She was the happiest and chirpiest I’d seen her in many many months and I came away from there smiling. She was going to make it, I was sure.
Only she didn’t. She died just a few weeks later and I hadn’t been to visit. I’d been in hospital with a kidney infection and couldn’t visit her. Nanny had a woodland burial in a wicker casket. When they lowered her down into the ground my beautiful little niece said ‘bye bye Nanny’ and we all cried and cried. We didn’t really have a service. My mum talked about her and my uncle did too. Everybody in the room was family. It felt wrong to have a stranger talk about her. She was often hard work and we didn’t want a stranger telling everybody that she was always wonderfully happy and kind. It would have been dishonest. Nanny’s flowers were perfect. The beautiful white iris caught my eye, and our daughter was named.
Often when me and my tiny girl are alone I tell her how Nanny wanted to meet her so badly, and how it breaks my heart over and over. I tell her that Nanny probably would have knitted her a whole wardrobe, and that we would have treasured those knitted garments forever and ever.
I hate cancer. It’s evil. I hate the way it took Nanny so very slowly and so painfully. But I’m grateful too. Without that long long battle we wouldn’t have had anything, me and Nanny. Instead we have almost two years worth of wonderful, sunny, happy, painful, beautiful memories and I couldn’t be more thankful for that. I didn’t love her until she got ill. I hate that I didn’t love her. By the time she left I couldn’t have loved her more. She meant the whole world to me and I will never ever forget.