Viola Ann Frels was a tough woman.
My grandma (or Nanny, as she’s known in my family) has always been that way. As she lay on her death bed diagnosed with COVID-19, she shooed a nurse out of her room, feisty as ever.
At 103, she lived a million lifetimes. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview her for hours. She told me about her life growing up — about her parents and her siblings and her children and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.
Nanny told me how she met my grandpa, Clarence (or Popo, as we all called him), at a grocery store in Nada. She asked him where the sugar was and he, ever the smooth talker, responded, “It’s over here, sugar!” Her voice was light and so full of love.
I asked her what she remembered about the world and its history. Her world was in Garwood, Texas — a gas station, a bar, a post office and the former grocery store she and my grandpa owned.
Clarence worked while she raised four children and life was hard, sometimes, like it is. But it was filled with love. There was also St. Mary’s Catholic Church. We celebrated her 101st birthday in the parish hall. We buried my grandpa in the cemetery next door.
I’ve only seen her cry a handful of times in my life. The first was a week after my 12th birthday, when I received a bracelet. It has a little lock box on its silver band. Beside my Popo’s hospital bed, I took his frail hand, my bracelet jingling as he whispered, “My darling, Natalie.”
They were his last words.
I remember his funeral — how Silent Night sounded in the walls of that church. I opened the locket box, thinking I could take a piece of my Popo with me. I vowed never to open it. Nearly 17 years later, I wore it at my wedding. After I walked down the aisle and my now husband took my hand, I noticed to my surprise that the box was opened. I think they were both there with me somehow.
‘I visited her, hoping she might live for another 20 years, praying that life will go on, and if that fails, that it might be buried with flowers. That it might rain.’
But mostly, when my Popo died, I remember my Nanny — how she stared at her hands cupped in her lap, saying, “I’m ready to go.” I remember the visits in the years after — how she prayed her rosary. After 103 years, what do you pray for?
When Clarence died, she stayed, praying her rosary so that it might rain down on her flowers and her garden that she tended to her entire life. And even though she was ready to go, she stayed, praying for her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She prayed for me. I visited her, hoping she might live for another 20 years, praying that life will go on, and if that fails, that it might be buried with flowers.
That it might rain.
The second time I saw her cry was her retelling of a horrific moment in her life — the loss of her infant son, Johnny. I saw his graveside growing up, but in my family (like many others I assume), we don’t talk about those kinds of things.
Nanny told me she was having pains, so my grandpa and her father took her to the hospital. She had Johnny in the backseat of the car and they took him away. Viola never saw him or held him after. There were no joyous cries from the infant. Only silence.
Johnny is buried next to family in St. Mary’s Cemetery. She said she thought about him every day until the day she died on Monday, August 3, 2020. We knew it would not be long after she was diagnosed with COVID-19 last Wednesday.
I woke up at 3 a.m. Thursday morning with a rush of rage.
‘But my grandmother deserves so much more than a political tirade … Nanny deserves a loving elegy, as I think about the gentle way she would reach for your hand and ask you to please stay. Just a few more minutes.’
I thought about the 102 flu seasons Viola had lived through. I thought about the people who claim it is their right not to wear a mask. I thought about pundits that spout lies. I thought about the people who believe COVID-19 is a hoax.
I thought about my family’s pain at the idea of how my grandma would die alone. I thought how she would never have a funeral in her beloved church. How she’d never hear Silent Night or pray her rosary again.
My breath was a game of catch and release. My heartbeat pounded like a war drum. It wasn’t fair. And I would finally tell everybody how I felt. I would unleash my anger on them all.
They deserve to know, don’t they?
But my grandmother deserves so much more than a political tirade shouted into the void.
Nanny deserves a loving elegy, as I think about the gentle way she would reach for your hand and ask you to please stay. Just a few more minutes. In those last moments, was someone there to take her hand?
How does a body withstand this grief?
I’ve written enough words for three lifetimes, but words are empty until someone breathes life into them — breathes love and tenderness and all the things my grandmother exuded in her 103 years. My grandmother was the epitome of tenacity and she loved her family — each one of us equally and as fiercely. Now, her family is left with this silence.
‘I like to think there are flowers. That it never rains.’
I know now that I am afraid of the silence. I am afraid of the nothing.
I also know I’ll miss the little things — the sweetness of her honey bread, how $5 always fell out of a birthday card, how we laughed when she put ice in her milk and white wine, how the Astros were always noticeably present in the background, how every Friday she left the beauty shop with a head full of beautiful curls.
Honestly, I don’t know if I believe there is a heaven. But if there is, Viola is there now, holding her beloved Clarence’s hand with Johnny in her arms.
I like to think there are flowers. That it never rains.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?