When I was a little kid, my heart would drop and pound wildly whenever President Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office. Usually, by the time he appeared on the screen, I had absorbed droplets of news here and there about whatever frightening world events prompted his message, and back then, it was the news about Russia that scared me the most. We children knew about the nuclear arms race and I would listen intently, hoping for information about how far Russian missiles could fly. Could they reach my family? I would lie awake, sometimes praying, sometimes thinking, but always anxiously wondering. Were the people I loved going to get blown up as we slept? If I survived, how would I go on without them?
As I grew, my aptitude for anxiety expanded remarkably. In fact, it was the only gut-wrenching sport in which I excelled, especially at nighttime, having mastered panic attacks and bouts of insomnia.
Thankfully, however, I had easy access to Nan, my savvy, snarky, Irish-blooded grandmother, whose tongue was made of knives and heart was made of gold. During those times when I would be swept away in a cyclone of nervousness, she would tug on my kite strings and lower me to the ground, so that I could feel the earth touching my feet again. I could hear decades worth of hard-won wisdom and resilience in her wisecracks, as she laughed through life, embracing it as one big, knee-slapping riot.
During one nerve-wracking world event or another when I was a teenager, I was sitting at the tiny kitchen table with her, eating breakfast and watching the sunshine bounce off of the Tastycake box, when she said, “Listen, if a bomb comes over to us, just look up and give it a little smile and a wave because there is nothing you can do about it.” Her message was clear and simple, as was her approach to every challenge she faced in her life: sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but laugh.
Nan was very close with her equally sharp and witty brother, Bill, and in their old age, they checked on each other frequently. A few years ago, Bill was hospitalized for heart issues, and just before he was sent home, I took Nan to the store so we could stock his place with essentials.
Nan stood with the cart that held my young children and sent me off to get toothpaste for him. I went to the next aisle and selected the biggest tube I could find so that he wouldn’t feel the need to run out for more too soon; however, when I returned and put it in the cart, Nan shook her head to tell me something was wrong. “What?” I asked.
“Get the smaller one,” she answered.
She shrugged knowingly and said, “Well, he might… check out.” And with that, she howled with laughter at the stark nakedness of the comment, and a second later, as the shock wore off, I did, too. The thought of losing Grand-uncle Bill was dreadful, but the irony of estimating his remaining life through the length of a tube of toothpaste somehow took the edge off.
Thankfully, Bill ended up needing a lot more toothpaste than she had anticipated, and lived another few years after that; in fact, Nan only outlived him by a month. Shortly after his funeral, she came to stay with us for a while, and one morning she leaned over the railing and called for me, “Hey, Heathe, I think I should go to the hospital. I can’t breathe.”
As I jumped up and started to gather my keys, coat, and phone, she pointed back to the tank in my son’s room, which was next to the bed where she had been sleeping, and quipped, “I think it’s those damn goldfish.”
“Yeah,” I answered with a decompressing chuckle, “I’m sure it is.”
The nurses wheeled her into a room in the ER, and I took a seat beside her bed. We both knew how sick she was, and neither of us wanted to cry, as we were both trying to be strong for the other. At that very moment, a kindly, white-haired musician glided through the doorway and approached us, wearing a long, denim skirt, and carrying a small harp that she had wedged into her side, above her hip. I couldn’t even glance at Nan because I knew what she was thinking, and I didn’t want to hurt the thoughtful harpist’s feelings by laughing, so I cast my eyes downward solemnly and worked intently to relax my facial muscles. The woman played a sweet, gentle melody and left the room with a loving wave. Ever so slowly, I lifted my eyes and turned my head toward Nan. We held each other’s gaze as five quiet words broke the silence. She asked, “Are they coming for me?”
Indeed, it seems they were. She passed peacefully about a week later, and I always wondered if, perhaps, the harpist had been a little gift from heaven to help us that day, not by serenading us with lovely music, and it was lovely, but by shining light through something we could laugh about together in the midst of a very anxious and stressful moment.
I can only imagine how Nan would be handling COVID-19 right now. I am sure she would be concerned, particularly for the vulnerable, especially sick children and their families, but something tells me that if I looked at the brokenness of our present world through her humorous perspective and the eyes that witnessed the tragic loss of so many friends and close family members, I’d see something alluring shining through the cracks… to crack us up and help us feel the earth under our feet again.
We need to follow the rules and do everything we can to help, but remember, we only get a certain amount of toothpaste in this lifetime; we can’t afford to throw it down the drain with excessive worry.