At 1:30a on Tue., April 18th, 2017, my grandmother, Helen Marie Derfler, took her last breath.
What a tragedy--because our original design is not to die, not to be separated in this way, and when a person is here in the flesh one day, and gone forever the next, it is always a shocking reality.
What a blessing--because my grandmother, I called her Nanny, was for years ready to leave this world. She would tell you as much! She missed her husband, John, who passed away more than 20 years prior as a result of a heart attack he had while they were dancing.
Anyway, let me tell you a bit about my Nanny in a way that both honors her life and also gives you a flavor of who she was:
First, I think it's telling that since I met Whitney, my wife, in 2010, she's heard pretty much every year since then that Nanny wasn't doing so hot and it might be her last year. I don't know how many ambulance rides Nanny took to Pottsville General Hospital, let's just say it was enough to become a little humorous in our family. Maybe also it was because the hospital was only a few blocks from her house, and also because for the most part, whenever we saw Nanny, she seemed pretty strong for her age. I don't think it would have surprised us if she lived to be 90 or even 100. Needless to say, it's kind of like when you think something might happen for awhile, and it doesn't, but then it does, it's almost even a little more surprising.
My memories of Nanny go back to my earliest memories, here are some of the highlights:
As a wee little guy
Crawling around her house as a kid as young as 4 or 5, I remember the turntable, wanting to touch the records and the needle, it was this big cabinet. I remember hiding under her big dining room table, it was my fort!
Getting back scratches! Nanny had long finger nails and she loved to just scratch my back, she'd do it for longer than anyone else too! Just that physical affection stuck out to me from the time I was a little guy to adulthood!
Nanny's love language had to be gifts, because she loved to give them too. I remember getting these little pencils from her that were printed: "You are loved by Helen M. Derfler."
The gilded age
There's a part of Nanny that was all feminine and beauty and glamour. She was a beautician for years after all! She liked jewelry and sitting around talking with the ladies! I always asked her how she was doing and she'd talk about her girlfriends.
One of my best memories of Nanny was shopping--she loved shopping. And as a kid, that's what we did best. We walked the mall like a pack of high rollers, and snapped up shoes, clothes, games, toys. And this was when Michael Jordan started putting out shoes, so I was an early adopter of the $120 basketball sneaker. After visiting Nanny, I went back to school walking on clouds.
A hobby when visiting Nanny was looking through the Speigel catalogue, and circling the things I wanted, and Nanny would proceed to order those things. A Sega Genesis with games, clothes, you name it. One time we went to the Pottsville Hadestys Electronics store and Nanny bought three of their newest TV's, one for each grandkid. While Nanny had money, she threw caution to the wind and she spent it, and I remember those days with her, and we sure had fun with it!
As an adult
But when the money thinned out and she was no longer buying shoes for me, she'd send me cards just to say, "I love you." It was never unclear to me, Nanny loved me. She said it so many times.
She'd also call me to leave messages like this one:
A Great Grandmother
When Whitney and I had Boden we lived in California, and there was a stretch where I wasn't sure Nanny would get to see her great grandson, the next line of Derflers. When she did though, it was such a special moment for me, and for her too. So much that she really couldn't say anything, she just had this big big smile.
My Nanny, in her 88 years of life, gazing upon her great grandson, just 1 year of new life, there's something so striking and rich and sobering about that.
Nanny loved being a great grandmother, in fact, when I spoke with her, we'd mostly talk about the kids. She loved to hear about what they were doing, and she would just make these happy sounds and say things like, "they're so precious," and "he's such a doll!"
She loved to hear about her great grandkids, it brought her such joy. So, one year for Christmas Whitney and I knew just what to get her, a photo book full of the latest pictures. She told me she looked at it all the time, and showed all of her friends when they visited.
Nanny also left me encouraging messages like this one:
And now, eternity
When someone dies, I think it's natural (or at least prudent) to wonder where they've gone. And we probably all look for some answer that is going to bring us peace, we cling to the good things, we memorialize them. But being a Christian, as I am, there's also this realization that none of us "measures up," none of us are worthy of the glory of eternity in the presence of God. And yet, we have this gift to be able to have that, if in our heart we just accept that, and when someone does, their life should look different, certainly to God, and probably to men too. So let me tell you what I know about my Nanny's faith in Jesus...
I know that we talked a lot about prayer, and she told me that she prayed often, many times in a day.
Nanny certainly had a lot of the trappings of a Catholic faith, the rosaries, the prayer cards, the candles, the Bible's, and things of that nature laying around.
I know that she had a good discernment about situations. When my sister was killed and in the years since, we would sometimes have really honest conversations about how people were doing, how they were handling that death, especially my parents, and it occurred to me that Nanny had wisdom and discernment about that.
While to many Nanny could appear to have a sort of simple, unaffected, even comical exterior, one that would act as if nothing bothered her and things were no big deal with a wave of the hand, there was another side to her, a much more serious and introspective side. In the last five or so years, I started to talk to Nanny about Jesus, prayer, and death, and I saw that side.
In closing, as I'm sitting here writing this after a solid day of thinking about Nanny and praying for her soul to be received mercifully by the Lord just now, I said to God...
"Dear God, I cannot understand your ways and I do not know how to encapsulate the life of my dear Nanny, I don't know what to say about the most important thing, her soul, her eternity. I don't know how to bring it to a conclusion. And this is the case for me with every person, for who knows a soul but you God alone?! You made her, and in your image, so Father, in this moment, God, tell me something, some whisper about these deep matters that we now ponder over facing her death."
..and just then the lyrics from a song playing in the background ring out at me, and I am warmed over listening to them, especially in light of what I've written here, and I thank God for my Nanny, for her life, and for her eternity. Listen to this song...
Below is a picture of Nanny with her sons (Left of Center, in yellow polo, Jack [my dad], and behind him in the blue polo, is Tom [my uncle]), and extended family.