Cousin Nancy died on my birthday. You might think that feels bad, but it feels bittersweet. She is at peace now. No more pain, no more drugs, no more cancer. She’s with the angels, no doubt telling them how they can do their jobs better. She could always tell you a better way to do something. It could be annoying, but it was the basis for her working career, streamlining manufacturing processes and organizing warehouses.
She was born in 1947, the second of two daughters. After Nancy’s birth her mother, Chick, began to notice symptoms which were diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Chick raised the girls and ran the home from her wheelchair as long as she could, and then the girls had to take over. Nancy would come home from school and do whatever needed to be done to take care of her mother, and then make dinner for the family.
Some days Nancy would come home and find her mother had fallen out of her chair. She described rolling her mother onto a blanket and dragging her down the hall to the bedroom, cleaning her mother up, getting her into bed in a fresh nightie and jacket.
Chick died in April, 1964, when we were juniors in high school. Nancy’s older sister Charlotte married soon after, and Nancy lived with her dad until she turned 18, at which point he told her she was on her own. He refused to pay for any further education for either of the girls, or to support them.
Nancy got a job as a bank teller and found a place to live. She enjoyed the single life, and then she met Jerry. They moved in together and later married. They were happy the first few years, and in 1976 had a son, Jeff.
Unfortunately Jerry started to drink. When he lost his job in Oakland, he found another in Long Beach and they relocated.
Jerry’s alcoholism progressed, and one morning Nancy got up and dressed herself and Jeff in several layers of clothes. She said good-bye to Jerry as if she was going to work and taking Jeff to school, got in her car with Jeff, and drove up 101 as fast as she could, back to the Bay Area. Jerry spent the rest of his life harassing her and Jeff and not paying child support. Jerry died in 1994.
Nancy settled in Benicia, a lovely little town on the Carquinez Straits, to raise her son. She got a job and stayed with it for over 20 years, until the company downsized her. She also got a job cleaning up and closing a laundromat seven nights week. When Jeff spent weekends with his dad, she did housecleaning jobs. During those years, when I went to visit Nancy, she’d go to sleep mid-conversation.
She had a couple more manufacturing jobs. One moved the factory to China. One she was pushed out of by a guy who was later arrested for his double dealing in his work. After that she had a series of jobs that were unsatisfactory. As she reached her late 50s she discovered that it was pretty hard to find a job if you were an older, plus-sized woman.
In 2010, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had surgery followed by six months of chemo, and was pronounced cured. She went to her son’s wedding in Hawaii in November of 2011, which was the happiest day of her life if her expressions in the pictures are anything to go by.
The cancer came back in February, 2012. Nancy lived on chemo from then until this spring, gradually becoming more disabled. This winter she went blind in one eye. That was her last straw. She turned to her sister Charlotte one day and said, “I don’t want to suffer.” Pause. “I’m suffering.”
She went into hospice at the end of April. I drove to California to say good-bye. After I got back, I talked to her on the phone a couple of times. She was on heavy painkillers and I could hardly understand her slurred speech. She was barely here anymore.
Her friend Anne called me last Monday night to tell me that Nancy was gone.
Those are the bare and by no means complete facts of Nancy’s life. They don’t tell you how much fun she was, how upbeat in the face of the adversity, how generous, with how little complaint she lived through three years of chemotherapy, and indeed her whole hard knock life. She loved her family, her friends, gambling, and staring at the ocean, which she called, “Renewing my staring certificate.” That, she said, was her church.
Rest in peace, my sweet beautiful cousin.