“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”
14 years is a long time. It’s 5,113 days. Yet in that time period from December 29, 2009, to December 29, 2023, I never took the time to actually tell this story. It was one of those ‘everybody kind of already knows’ types of things. For me though, as a way to remember, I think now is a good time to share, better late than never.
I had never dealt with death really in my life up until my Nana died. Sure, there were family members who had passed, some of them pretty close. However, there hadn’t been a member of my inner circle that had left. That’s what made my Nana’s death a true watershed moment in my life, and likely why all of this is still so clear 14 years later.
|High School Graduation 1996
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight my Nana was declining pretty rapidly during the later summer into the fall of 2009. I visited her usually once a week and had noticed the changes. Her mind was still pretty sharp, but there would be moments of quiet and confusion. Nothing like what I dealt with when my Grampa started declining ten years later but still it would perk up my antennae.
I noticed Nana walking less and shuffling more. She sat in her favorite chair more and was up and about less. There were even times that I’d come to visit and she preferred to stay down the hallway watching television in another room. It was hiding in plain sight but things were turbulent in my own life at the time, so I think I registered what I saw but didn’t talk about it.
Visiting my Nana for my 32nd birthday was the last real moment we had together. At least the way I remember things. It was early November and we sat in the living room at Boxberry Lane, the house I had spent as much time in as any other place on earth.
I can’t remember exactly what we spoke of, likely how much I hated cooking and wanted to be a writer. I am sure we talked about family, old times, and funny stories, those were the things that distracted me from my own life. Even at 32, I felt like I was behind where I should have been in life, but that’s for another day.
I vividly remember leaving in the early afternoon, before sunset. Nana was basically in her pajamas still sitting in her chair. I bent down and gave her a kiss and a gentle hug, told her I loved her, and left. I don’t remember if I saw her again before things hit the tipping point but at my age now I prefer to remember that time as the true end.
|One of the last photos of Nana, she hated having her picture taken.
A few weeks later came word that she had fallen at home. Nobody had been there, well except for her cat Mittens. Nana lay on the floor for several hours before my father showed up and she was taken to the hospital. She was still with it enough to make the joke that Mittens had walked around her and stuck her butt in Nana’s face, but once she realized she wasn’t going to be fed Mittens left to go sleep in another room.
It was only a few days before Thanksgiving. I was living at home and the stress was overwhelming. In my mind, Nana would recover and be home as good as new relatively soon. There was no need to go and visit when I could just see her at her house when she got back.
On Thanksgiving, my Uncle Eric led a prayer for my Nana that she would have a swift and full recovery. It was the first holiday that she wasn’t at that I had any memory of. It was different, but once the food and stories started it felt like any other holiday on that side of the family.
I remember as the evening was dying down my Uncle Eric and Aunt Emma asked to talk to me. They had noticed what was going on with me and the stress of my home life. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they offered me their spare bedroom to move into for a while which I gladly accepted.
I didn’t leave home with anger or malice toward my family. I just knew that I needed some sort of change in my own life and had to do something about it. Little did I know moving would be the smallest change coming.
December came and my Nana didn’t return home. She seemed to be improving so it felt like it was just delaying things. Her going home would be the ultimate Christmas present for us all. A friend of the family worked at the rehab center that she was sent to so we all got routine updates on how she was doing. Then something seemingly innocuous happened that ended up being the turning point in this whole story.
They lost her teeth. Yes, it sounds like a bit from a comedy show and I wish it was, but it ended up being far too symbolic. I don’t know if my Nana took it as a sign, or if things were just headed in that direction regardless of outside circumstances. From the moment that her teeth were lost her decline sped up.
In my mind still, it was just delaying her coming home. Things would go back to normal, they always did. Despite being 32 like I said I had never dealt truly with death so I didn’t know the signs. If I had known then, in mid-December 2009, that my Nana wasn’t ever coming home I would have gone to visit her while she was still Nana.
When it became apparent to my Uncle Eric and Aunt Emma that Nana was getting close to the end they brought me and my cousin Patrick to the rehab center to see her. We had not gone and they knew this was likely the only time we’d go.
What I saw when entering her room was something that still haunts me to this day. My Nana was not my Nana anymore. She looked withered and wasted away, almost sunken into the pillows behind her head. Her eyes were closed and when we spoke to her all that we got were whispers barely audible above the room ambiance.
In that moment reality broke through my rose-tinted glasses. In that moment I finally saw that things were not going to go back to normal. When looking at my Nana’s barely recognizable face I felt the child in me wanting to scream and beg for someone to wake me from this nightmare. However, we were all a part of this and we would all have to deal with it.
Patrick and I held on to each other in stunned and horrified silence. Aunt Emma asked us to kiss Nana goodbye so we did. At that moment, as I slowly exited my Nana’s room, never to see her again, memories flooded my head. I didn’t know when the end would be, only that the end was coming. When we all got back into the truck to leave Aunt Emma said we didn’t have to go back again if we didn’t want to. She had seen our faces and knew at the very least we had said our goodbyes.
Christmas Eve 2009 was the first year of a tradition I have kept to this day. My Nana’s favorite place to be was Englewood Beach in West Yarmouth, MA. If ever I went to her house and she wasn’t there I had a pretty good feeling she was at Englewood doing her crossword puzzles and enjoying the scenery.
I knew how much she loved it there so I went to Englewood on Christmas Eve for a little while because I knew she couldn’t. I took a photo of the sunset with the naive thought that maybe I could show it to Nana someday. On Christmas Eve 2023, I went to Englewood for a little while for the 14th straight year. I consider it my sunset date with my Nana so that even after all this time we can still spend time together on Christmas Eve.
|Christmas Eve sunset at Englewood in 2019
Christmas passed and I can remember there wasn’t a conversation about Nana’s impending death. I don’t think we really talked about it, but I know it was in our thoughts. We hoped that she would at least make it through Christmas. I also hoped that she would make it past December 30th as that was my Uncle Bob’s birthday and that would have been a terrible trauma to have to cope with every year.
Then the day came. December 29, 2009. I was sitting in a rocking chair, my Dell laptop in my lap as I was posting something irrelevant to Facebook about why I felt I could never find ‘the one.’ My Aunt Emma came in and broke the news that Nana had died. We exchanged a hug but I felt numb and hollow.
I sat back down by myself. I stared out the window trying to feel for anything to hold on to in that moment. On the sloped roof of the house next door, I watched as crows began to gather. One turned to two, three, then four. They all perched in a spot where they would be visible to me. Depending on what you believe crows have very deep spiritual meaning when it comes to death and change in general. I felt their presence, but I also felt my Nana’s.
I was sad, but not for the reasons you might think. I was sad selfishly because I knew part of my life was over. Although I had thousands of memories with my Nana I had always thought there would be one more. I was also sad because I should have been there more when she was nearing the end. It is one of the biggest regrets I’ve ever had in my life. In fact, when my Grampa was rapidly declining with Alzheimer’s in 2019 I made it a point to be there every excruciating step of the way because I hadn’t done it for my Nana. Grampa’s final weeks are a trauma that I still haven’t fully recovered from.
|Nana's cat Mittens sitting in her chair the day after she had passed away.
The changes only continued. With Nana gone next to go was the house on Boxberry Lane where we had all gathered for countless holidays, cookouts, and random days of just living. The house was sold before winter turned to spring in 2010. We had one last get-together there. I still remember ordering Giardino’s pizza because she always enjoyed it, and always had coupons. We shared stories, laughed, and cried. It was truly an all-encompassing celebration of life.
I felt then, and still do now, that I didn’t allow myself to fully grieve for Nana. Partially due to wanting to be a rock for the others in the family, and partially due to fear and not wanting to accept life had changed forever. Over the ensuing months, the grief would manifest. I would have numerous vivid dreams with my Nana in them, her face, her voice, the way I remembered.
The fact that I was staying at the time with my Uncle Eric and Aunt Emma was no accident. Emma’s mother Neta who lived there too became a surrogate Nana to me. I was laid off from work for the winter which luckily(or unluckily) gave me ample time to think about what was happening. I can remember many times that I sat and had lunch with Neta and just talked. I didn’t confide feelings of grief, or look for profound answers on the meaning of life. No, I just enjoyed her company. In the years that have passed, I look at Neta as a Godsend. I know I thanked her, but hope I thanked her enough for just being who she was at such an important time in my life.
My final time inside the walls of my Nana’s house was in early February 2010 when I had to get anything of mine that had been stored in her attic. For the most part, I was by myself in the quiet of the house. My father who had lived there into his 50s had used Nana’s death as a catalyst to move to Florida. He also took her cat Mittens with him. He would return mere weeks later, Mittens though, would die at some point during the trip.
|The house on Boxberry Lane years after it was sold.
The house was silent as I grabbed boxes to take to my car. I amerced myself in the quiet, hoping that there might be some sort of sign from Nana. It wasn’t to be on that day. However not too long after I had a vivid dream of me entering her house and calling out to her. Clear as day she spoke from the end of the hallway as she often did when she was alive. She said, “I’m okay, I’m alright.” I can hear it still 14 years later.
They say a person dies twice, once when their life ends, and again when their name is spoken for the last time. I have made it a point to keep my Nana alive with things like this, and remembering her on her birthday. I do the same for the numerous others that I have lost since my Nana.
I remember my Grampa, my Nina, my friend from age 7 Matt Medeiros, my friend from high school Pete Machon, our family friend I considered my aunt Brenda, and most recently my Uncle Eric. Their memories are still alive in me.
Today marks 14 years since my Aunt Emma told me my Nana had died. She, my Uncle Eric, cousin Patrick, and Neta all kept me afloat during those times, and I hope that I did the same for them in some small way.
In the years since the family on that side has splintered. With no home base on Boxberry Lane, it became harder to get together. When Uncle Eric and Aunt Emma moved back to Las Vegas the gatherings on the Setterlund side stopped altogether. If I am lucky I bump into my Uncle Bob every once in a while which is always a welcomed interaction. Sadly, the last big family get-together was in the spring of 2023 as we had a celebration of life for my Uncle Eric after he passed in January 2023.
It’s interesting, as I write this I feel like a narrator of a film. These words have my voice, but my mind is filled with scenes of joy and laughter with so many people both here and gone. That is the power of a life. Even after someone is gone they can leave you with smiles, and tears, for endless years. After 14 years that is the power of my Nana’s life.