On December 30, 2018, my vibrant, caring, full-of-life aunt, Nancy Waddell, died from complications of a heart attack. Her passing was sudden and quick and far too soon. She spent the morning of December 29 teaching skiing lessons with the adaptive program in Waterville Valley, NH, before coming in for lunch and complaining that she wasn’t feeling well. It was mere hours later that we were facing the unthinkable, that the glue to our family and our greatest cheerleader might be leaving us.
There is something powerful that happens when someone you love dies. My heart is somehow broken and full at the same time. My brain is operating like it was greased with molasses. I feel like I am in some sort of cognitive twilight zone, where all of my emotions are dulled. The reality is so shocking it’s hard to absorb or believe it.
Our family has pulled together and reveled in memories of times long past. We have shared laughter as well as tears, sometimes simultaneously. Friends and neighbors have helped with hugs and meals and rides and entertaining the kids, reminding me once again that community and connection are so important and revealing how much I must have talked about my aunt!
Nancy was no Mary Poppins, but, to me, she was practically perfect in every way. I had intended to write at some point about how she inspires me. I specifically had in mind to profile her fearless leap into Corcoran Pond at Waterville Valley as part of the Cold Turkey Plunge in November. She was dressed in her Fancy Nancy costume, inspired by the Fancy Nancy children’s books written by Jane O’Connor. The purpose of her plunge – “freezin’ for a reason” – was to raise money for the Waterville Valley Adaptive Ski program to which she was so devoted. I even have a note to myself from that day that says, “When I am 71, I want to be like Fancy Nancy!”
Nancy was my other biggest fan. How lucky am I to have had not one – my mom – but two – my aunt – women who loved me and were guiding lights in my life? Nancy always had a comment or like on every text, facebook or blog post. You name it, she read it and commented on it. But more than that, she showed up. She was my partner in caring for my mom, her sister, making the hour drive each way at least once a week to spend time with her. She filled the void of the grandmother my kids lost when my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and took them under her expansive and caring wing. She taught them to ski, took them sailing, ferried them to events when we were in the process of moving, arrived at our doorstep with a smile and fresh-baked snickerdoodles or brownies or ricotta cookies in hand.
Nancy was the BEST of everything it is to be human and genuine and caring. She was honest about her imperfections, laughed when the children at the childcare center where she worked told her she wasn’t fancy, and never wanted a title or accolades, just to be told what needed to be done so she could get to it. She put her family first – always – and gave completely and selflessly of herself. She devoted herself to loving others and to her community and, in so doing, she created a life of deep meaning and purpose and impact.
I went to visit my mom today at her care home. She is blissfully unaware that her beloved sister is gone or what that means, though she joined us to celebrate Nancy’s life yesterday. My mom’s laughter and love are somehow capable of penetrating the depths of our grief and helping us all feel closer to Nancy’s spirit. Today one of my mom’s neighbors shared that my Mom is the queen of their floor and that she had never met someone with such a big heart. I guess it runs in the family.
Nancy was my role model and she will always be what and who I most aspire to be like. In this time of acute sorrow, I find comfort in the many memories, the endless laughter, and the good fortune to have had two compassionate and caring women lead the way for me. The connection with others that comes from sharing such a loss is powerful and intense, beautiful and horrible all in one fell swoop. We are at the very outset of a long, challenging road to readjust our lives without Nancy in them.
Nancy will always be in my heart and, if I am lucky, in how I live my daily life. I will look for her spirit in the crash of the ocean waves and listen for her voice in the mountain breezes. I will miss her presence with us more than I probably even realize at this moment. And I will continue to face into the pain, because much like with a strong wind, if I don’t face it head on the grief will blow me over.
I am so grateful to have had this woman’s light shine on me and to have known such love that it hurts this much to say goodbye. We had a good run and some great adventures. You taught me by your example what matters most in life. Rest in peace, Fancy Nancy. You were one of a kind.