Last night, we celebrated my cousin Lindsey’s marriage to a truly wonderful guy, Mark. Just looking at them, you know that the kind of love they have goes beyond starry eyes (though they have those, too). You know they are the couple that will grow old together and still be madly in love.
I’d never seen so much food at a reception, and I’ve been to literally hundreds (having played and sung for hire over the course of many years in the past). And my favorite part of the ceremony was that, at every turn – the giving away, joining hands, holding the rings, placing the rings – Lindsey would grin wider, bobbing up and down on her toes like a little girl getting closer in line to meet Santa.
But for all of the joy and wonder of the day, the most moving moment for me involved my grandmother, whom we call Nana.
Nana is just shy of 87 years old. Last year, my Grampa passed away – her husband of nearly 70 years. Seven oh. On the day he died, twenty or so of our family were gathered around his bedside in the hospital room. He was not conscious and had suffered with years of Alzheimer’s prior. Still, Nana sat by his side all day, holding his hand, sometimes quiet and sometimes talking to him as if he were wide awake and they were on a picnic. She would not leave to take a break. To eat. Not even to use the restroom. She stayed.
Toward evening, Grampa’s vital signs shifted drastically. He was comfortably asleep and simply fading away. His breathing and pulse finally became so faint that a nurse with stethoscope was required in order to know whether he was breathing at all.
Until this point, Nana had been a rock unwavering, strong for him. But in the silence surround those last moments, she cracked. I’d never seen anyone cry the way she did. Calling out loudly for him by his first name. Recalling her words tightens my throat and brings tears as fresh as the day it happened: “No, Al! No! It’s supposed to be me and you. It’s always been me and you, for my whole life. I was 17. I can’t do this without you. I don’t know how. Take me with you, I don’t want to stay here without you.”
This last year has been indescribably hard for Nana. Even during Grampa’s years in the nursing facility, she was there daily by his side, watching him slip away from her. She still lives independently in their house on Pine Acres Road. She still drives. She cleans. She makes her bed with crisp, square corners. But the love of her life is gone.
I remember when she began to laugh again, because she hadn’t in so long.
Now, here she was at the wedding of a granddaughter – another beginning for two lovers, not unlike her own beginning with her teen beau so many decades earlier.
She was asked to give a blessing. Honestly, I wondered how she would manage it. But she spoke clearly and strongly, blessing the excited new couple right down through their years to their own grandchildren, in words that seemed more poetry than prayer. When she finished, the room was silent. All present knew that we had witnessed something profound.
Nana dismissed it, claiming that she couldn’t remember for the life of her what she’d said.
After a decadent dinner, the dance floor was opened. My grandmother grew up and remains in a religious tradition that frowns heavily on dancing of any kind. And while she has not boycotted events or decried other family who do dance, she herself has never participated.
Strike that. For her 50th wedding anniversary, she did dance, with Grampa! The whole affair had been a surprise and a shock to them both, and somewhere in the confusion, they were escorted to the floor in front of all their guests, music started – and they danced. It was a slow song. They were clearly awkward. But they had danced.
That was all – one dance, eighteen years ago. And they never spoke of it again.
At Lindsey and Mark’s wedding last night, I “bullied” one of my aunts, 65 years old, into getting on the dance floor. When she adamantly refused, I wordlessly turned her chair sideways, crouched, swiftly lifted her into my arms in “bride-over-the-threshold” manner, and carried her to the dance floor against her will, screaming and beating me all the way. And we danced. In a manner of speaking. It was hard to tell where the screaming ended and the laughter began as I swayed around the floor with her in my arms, rocking her like a baby. Her biggest concern was that her underwear was showing.
Then, it happened.
I looked over and saw Nana out on the floor. And it was not a slow song. In fact, it was a funk song. Surrounded by her daughters and a multitude of grandchildren, Nana danced. The photographers and videographers were over in a flash. She didn’t care.
She pumped her fists in the air.
She played air guitar after some brief instruction.
She shoulder shimmied.
She tried some kind of Irish step.
At 87 years old, my Nana did something new. We couldn’t get her off the floor (though none wanted to try). I can’t describe the effect this had on us all, to know all too well her last year of grief and to now see her, closing her eyes, feeling the music, and getting down to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.”
She also set her dignity aside. By far the oldest person at the wedding, and with her entire family looking on, she acted like a fool for the sake of the celebration.
But that’s not all. In doing something new, my Nana had changed her mind. For 87 years, she had held the line that dancing was wrong. She believed this. She was convinced. She never wavered on it. Yet there she was, tearing up the floor.
My mother asked her during one of her brief breaks, “So, ma … are you having fun?”
“Oh, yes!” Nana said adamantly. “I can’t remember when I had this much fun!”
“And do you think that you are going to hell for it?”
“No,” Nana said simply, “but my ankles sure are!”
Something in her had changed. And when it did, she didn’t hold to her pride. She didn’t wonder what people would say. She just went right ahead and changed her mind. And then she acted on it accordingly, for all to see.
How often do those of us “young folk” remain stuck in our ways. Our ruts. Our pride. Our ideology. Yet at 87 years old, my Nana was still taking risks. Trying something new. Deciding not to take herself too seriously. She was willing to change her mind, to admit that she might have been wrong about something.
And above all, despite her loss and grief, she chose joy.
You go, girl!