Many years ago, on an evening in Washington, D.C., a young, blonde, Army Captain from Virginia spotted a beautiful, dark haired woman. They were both on their way to a dance — she in the back of a covered Army truck, sitting with her friends, he about to get into an accompanying car when he found himself captivated by this woman. He smiled at her and asked if she would like to ride with him rather in the back of the truck. She, being the slightly stubborn and not easily beguiled woman she was, politely refused, saying she was going to the dance with her friends and so she would be sitting with them on the way there. “Don’t be silly,” one of her friends whispered, “he’s cute!” She looked back at the man, with his crooked grin and twinkling eyes, thought for a moment, sighed, and got up to take his outstretched hand. She gracefully descended from the back of the truck — and landed squarely on his foot. But the smile never left his face because he was holding the hand of the person who would become the love of his life — as was she.
More than seventy years passed, the beautiful woman sat quietly with her hospice nurse, talking about things to come. Her nurse reached for her hand and said “Don’t be scared, when the time comes Bill will be waiting for you.” The woman smiled softly and said “Oh, no. When it’s time, he will come for me.” Because, after a lifetime of love and laughter and devotion, she knew her Southern gentleman would never let her make that final journey alone. He would, once again, be there with his hand outstretched.
The man and woman are my grandparents; Peg and Liam Harper; the first story is how their legacy of love began, the second story explains why it lives on.
Very early this past Sunday my Nana passed away, nearly a year and a half after my Da. They had always been the oak tree in my life — rooted, strong, their branches swaying constantly to protect those they loved. I went home in September to visit her, after she entered hospice, and she told me my Da had been coming to see her. Once she awoke from a nap and he was sitting next to her, smiling that gentle smile of his. Once she saw him as suddenly as she felt him, when he reached out to touch her arm. I guess some people could doubt if he was really there, or if this was just wishful thinking on her part, maybe her body preparing to move on. But anyone who knew them will tell you — if there were ever two souls who were meant to always find each other, theirs were.
Nana and Da gave the world many gifts. As part of the greatest generation, Da served in WWII — not only storming the beaches of Normandy but finding himself trapped behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge — and in Korea. Nana kept their life, one that would eventually include two daughters, thriving while he was gone, she built it to be strong and steadfast. And the gift they gave me was a lifetime of love.
Since Nana’s passing I’ve been wandering in a fog of grief, feeling a little like someone being held together by fraying tape. I know how profoundly lucky I am to have had her with me for so long, how blessed we all are that she lived to be 98. But grief is grief, and 98 doesn’t feel long enough. And I realize that’s selfish but I guess grief is like that.
I’ve also been struggling in my mind how best to write about Nana. I’ve written about Nana and Da before, tried to thank them for the love they’ve always given me. And I have a million memories I could share — annual vacations we took to Mackinac Island, quiet strolls through Woodlake Nature Center, dance recitals and performances they never missed, the gingerbread houses we made every Christmas, the love for animals they instilled in me, how they drove to Montana for my college graduation and again to meet Eric for the first time. How I stood with my Da in Washington D.C., watching my, then, two children go round and round on the carousel when he turned to me and said “I’m worried they won’t remember me” and I said “Da, that’s just not possible.” Because the love and devotion they showed towards their daughters, towards me, towards their other cherished granddaughter, Devon, their son-in law, Les, their grandson-in-law, Eric, only grew with each addition to our family and our children adore their great-grandparents. The memories we have are vast and precious.
But right now I’m thinking about the last time we spoke to Nana, a week before she passed. She saw the faces of her great-grandchildren and made the sign of the cross, I thought she was thanking God, my mom thought she was blessing the children. Either way, we’d never seen her do that before. And she got to see Eric, who she and Da couldn’t have loved more if he’d been their flesh and blood, and who returned that love tenfold. And I got to see her, one last time.
In the summer of 2014 we traveled to France to meet my grandparents and visit the beaches where Da had fought so many years ago. I wrote about this amazing journey, and what it meant to all of us. Since Nana’s passing, I’ve been thinking about one thing in particular that happened. After arriving in Normandy from Paris, famished, we decided to get lunch so we found a little deli. Eric went over to start ordering food and I began to help Nana and Da out of the car. I first helped Nana, then turned for Da and, before I could catch her, Nana stumbled on the cobblestone, falling onto her side. I began screaming for Eric and, not long after, we found ourselves in the waiting room of a hospital. Poor Da was worried sick about Nana, and exhausted from the trip. The hospital would only let one of us back and, since Eric speaks French, we decided it should be him. Eventually, hours after our arrival, he convinced the doctors to let me bring Da back to see Nana.
I wheeled him down the hospital corridor until we found Nana, resting in a bed, and I parked Da as close to her as I could get him. He lovingly took her hand and softly spoke “hello, dear” and she responded “hello, my darling” as her hand closed around his. And my eyes filled with tears because the looks on their faces may as well have been those of 24-year olds freshly in love. Suddenly, things felt right again, because things never were quite right when they were apart.
And so I find comfort in the knowledge that they are, once again, together. And I can see in my mind that dashing young Captain reach his hand out for that beautiful young woman — only this time both of them have the devotion of a lifetime spent in love in their eyes — when he softly speaks “hello, dear” and she responds “hello, my darling.”