I remember playing lawn darts with her in my grandparent’s side yard, the sharp steel tips twisting through the steamy summer air, then plunging into Tennessee soil. Afterward, we sat in webbed and woven green lawn chairs, cooling our bare feet in the dew-slicked clover as fireflies flickered beneath the oaks. And I remember Nancy and my mother laughing their throaty laughs deep into the nighttime, retelling family histories.
But that’s not my first memory of Nancy. My first memories involve a sky-high, jet-black beehive, bright crimson pantsuits, and white platform heels. Nancy was a beauty, like she’d stepped straight out of the pages of a Sears catalog — my backwoods version of glamour and fashion. The catalog, not Nancy. She was a beauty, whether backwoods or big city.
But her beauty was nothing compared to her brains. She worked her way up the twisted ladder of government contracting inside the top-secret national labs of East Tennessee.
She was a strong, brilliant woman, my Aunt Nancy, born in a time when women who were strong and brilliant didn’t necessarily advertise the fact. Nancy, though, never hid her light under a bushel.
Everyone who knew her, easily recognized her smarts and savvy. She was a spitfire, unafraid to take on Principal Engineers or multibillion-dollar contracts, all with little more than a high school diploma and heaping supply of gumption at her disposal.
That intelligence and tenacity makes her battle with Lewy Body Dementia that much crueler.
Lewy Body Dementia. Prior to Nancy’s diagnosis, I had never heard of it. Odds are you know little to nothing of it either.
Know this, though: it is brutal. It is the cruelest of the cruel diseases that ravage the brain. It takes the stolen language and lifetimes of Alzheimer’s and adds the bitter twist of Parkinson tremors and muscle cramps.
My Aunt Nancy passed away a week ago this past Sunday. She was my mother’s closest sister and my cousin Melanie’s last remaining parent.
Now I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there to witness the ravages of the disease at its end stage. But her daughter was. And her sister — my mother — was, too.
As the Lewy Body’s laid siege on her body, mom described Nancy’s week-long war against imminent death through a series of calls and texts. My aunt struggled valiantly, wanting just a few more days, a few more precious moments with those she loved best in the world. She fought longer and harder than most could have. And if her fight was brutal for me to read and hear about, I cannot imagine the agony of being there to witness it.
Cramps tore through her soft tissue, leaving arms, legs, neck rigid and wracked with pain. Melanie massaged her throat, coaxing her to swallow the morphine she syringed into Nancy’s cheek every fifteen minutes. It did little to nothing. Neither the massage nor the morphine. But Melanie persisted. And she held her in her arms and sang to her.
Daughter cradled mother — a poignant, painful role reversal.
I remember meeting my cousin Melanie as a baby the very first time. I was a lanky preteen and she was a pudgy one-year-old — looking all the world like the the Mattel Tender Love baby doll from my preschool days. Nancy had dressed her like a little doll, too. A strawberry blond baby doll in bloomers and bib.
Now, my aunt was the one in diaper and bib, as her sister and daughter and grandchildren sang her favorite songs — little lullabies from all eras of her life — hoping to bring peace, hoping to bring comfort.
They also recounted beloved histories together — perhaps some of the ones I remember vaguely from that summer long ago in East Tennessee.
They cried, they laughed, they sang, they bonded.
The transition was hard, and the transition was beautiful. It was a painful, beautiful, powerful transition from this realm into the next.
And mom tells me Nancy looked young and beautiful again — back to the time before the Lewy Body Dementia wreaked its havoc. Back to those days of platform shoes and bright patterns. Back to those days of fierce tenacity and bold brilliance.
Back to the Nancy we all knew and loved. Ready for her close up.
Her up close and personal with God.
I saw a cardinal at my window this afternoon, sneaking a peek at my family through the glass. For me, it’s a sure sign — Nancy is back in her red pantsuit once again. Only this time, she’s got wings.