I was seven years old when my grandmother died and I don’t remember much about her. But what I do remember has saved my life more than once and gave me courage and hope in my darkest times.
The last day I saw her, she had just come in from work, and she looked a little sad to me. I always followed her into her room when she got home so she could tell me what adventures she’d had at work.
It was raining, and I was standing, nose pressed against the window pane in her large bedroom waiting for her to get out of her white uniform.
Gram was a nurse and a midwife, worked in a rough area in Harlem, drove around in a blue Packard, and carried a gun in her black doctor’s bag. Mom, Dad, my younger sister Barbara and I lived with her ever since she had divorced my grandfather years before.
I was trying not to blink at the huge drops crashing on the foggy pane in front of my eyes when Gram broke through my concentration by saying, “Carol, I have to go away.” She was sitting on her bed, thick orange cotton stockings rolled halfway down.
“Why?” I asked. I could see she wasn’t angry.
Because I’m sick,” she answered softly.
I walked toward her. “I could get you an aspirin,” I offered.
She shook her head. “I have a lump,” she said, as she took my small hand and ran it across her breast over her pink satin slip. I felt something hard as stone. I gave her a puzzled look. “I have to be operated on,” she added more gently, “and I won’t be able to come back.”
I started to cry. “Gram, don’t go away,” I said, hugging her. “I’ll be good and if you’re sick, I’ll take care of you.”
She kissed me then and held me tight, but when I looked at her again I knew that nothing I could say or do would make it any different. She stood me in front of her and looked straight at me.
“Now,” she said firmly, holding my shoulders, tears glistening in her blue eyes, “Remember that I love you and I’ll miss you as much as you miss me.” I nodded and sniffed until she held her handkerchief to my nose and ordered, “Blow.” Then she added, “Don’t forget: Never go out of your way to hurt anyone, but trust yourself and try to do what makes you happy.” After one more tight squeeze, she winked and said, “Go play.”
My father called her a “pioneer woman” and my mother always told me I was like her. She hollered when she was mad, and laughed a lot. She was smart and funny but even more than that, I could always trust her to tell me the truth, no matter how bad that truth was. I looked for her for years after that day in her bedroom, and mourned her for more years than I can say. But in that short time we spent together, she gave me everything I needed to live a life that would be hard, but good.
So this month, it’s my grandmother who I’d like to honor as a Featured Nurse, because it was she who first imprinted herself and her white uniform on my psyche, and allowed me to know how big and exciting life could be. And how important stories and truth can be to bring up little kids and give them a map of the journey to their future.