Gary Nunn’s nan was his second mum and best friend. Picture: supplied
Gary Nunn’s nan was his second mum and best friend. Picture: supplied

When your last grandparent dies, the loss is profound

My nan was more than a nan to me. She was a second mum and a best friend. She died at the end of 2019.

On one level, it wasn't a shock; brutal as it sounds, old ladies die. She was 86.

But that doesn't diminish the gap that opens when someone who championed you your whole life suddenly disappears.

Or the shifting family dynamic when your final grandparent dies: suddenly, an Aunt becomes a matriarch, and suddenly, she's older.

Championing is something nans do with particular panache. They've softened since they were the strict parent who brought up yours.

Theirs is a type of unconditional love that cannot be disappointed; a type of overwhelming pride at the smallest achievements of their grandkids - employee of the month; a sports trophy; not electrocuting myself when changing my first light bulb. It was all news to report to her best mate Maureen in their weekly cafe get togethers; news that gave her infinite, vicarious joy.

RendezView columnist Gary Nunn with his nan. Picture: Supplied
RendezView columnist Gary Nunn with his nan. Picture: Supplied

On her most recent birthday - her last - I took her to her regular cafe. Every customer knew her name, every staff member knew her order by heart and the entire cafe sang happy birthday to her in unison as she beamed and blushed.

Her spotless home was a shrine to her adored four sons, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.

There was always a special bond between us; she never called me Gary, always MyGary. Her friends still call me it now. How're you doing, MyGary? I love it.

I'd take her on a special theatre trip every year, ever since I was 19. She'd buy a new outfit especially. We'd go all around London together. I'm 37 now so that's 18 musicals in 18 years - what me and Nan don't know about Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber ain't worth knowing!

Nan has been there for me at every key milestone moment for me my entire life.

She was there for me as a teenager when my single dad, working full time, needed help with the laundry. Nan had been a laundrette so my sheets and underwear came back crisply ironed! My clothes smelt like they'd been washed seventeen times; a freshness that'll never be replicated.

She was there for me when I came out as gay, taking time to understand it, gently dispelling the myths she'd absorbed in a very homophobic Britain, and evolving her understanding into her usual pride for her grandson.

She was there for me when I needed a chinwag, every cup of tea a sign of her warmest affection; every cheese toastie a loving kiss delivered through food.

She was there for me when my longest relationship ended, a gentle ear with which to share my sadness, but also a reassuring voice, whispering: you'll met someone else special. And I can't wait to meet him when you do.

We were there for each other when my dad, her son, died. He was her third son to die; just one was left at her funeral. To outlive one of your own children is unthinkably tragic. To bury three is beyond cruel. Her grief must've been unimaginable.

Never will I forget the sound that emanated from this tiny, sweet, softly-spoken woman as my dad lay in the hearse moving slowly to the cemetery, a sound I'd never before heard her make, a deep, loud, guttural, ugly wailing, as unnatural as the act of burying your own child, one only a mother could make at her son's death, something far deeper than my own emotional understanding. I held her so tight I swore her brittle bones would crumble, and she sobbed that sound into me until it was muffled and, I wished more than anything else, absorbent of at least some of her sadness, so she no longer had to bear it all herself, so that I could take some of it on for her.

Gary Nunn's nan on her last birthday. Picture: Supplied
Gary Nunn's nan on her last birthday. Picture: Supplied

And, something I haven't been able to get out of my head since she went: she was one of the last people on this earth who, sometimes, needed me. It's human need in itself, I think, to feel needed. Sure, lots of my friends and family like having me around, want me in their lives, love me. I feel that. But I don't feel needed any more. Not in that same way.

Everyone marvelled at how she'd go on after her third son died, but she'd say to me: what choice do I have? Well, she did have a choice. She could've given up, decided the world to be a cruel and cold place, stayed indoors, enveloped by her own grief.

Nan didn't do that. She continued to be there for her remaining adored son, and all her grandkids and great-grandkids. She was still a good friend and neighbour, selfless to a fault.

There's a line from the late great comedian Victoria Wood that in India, when a man dies, the widow throws herself onto the pyre with him. In Britain she says: 72 baps. Connie you butter. I'll slice.

This reminds me of Nan: loving but practical, ensuring everyone was fed and content before she even dreamt of sitting down herself.

She worked in a cafe three days a week till she was 77. After my Grandad died, we all thought she'd crumble then. But she didn't. She went to America 29 times, alone, to visit his family, who became hers.

Despite her tiny frame, being a wheelchair-user and in her mid-80s, in 2016 she boarded a plane from the UK to Australia - alone, with her wheelchair, and flew for 24 hours to come and stay with me for three weeks.

We cuddled koalas and took the world's steeped train into a canyon, saw vast mountain ranges and I learnt how to drive a speed boat so I could sail her under the Harbour Bridge. She became Facebook famous: people marvelled at her vivacity.

There's one picture of Nan I'll always cherish. I parked her up in her wheelchair at Bondi. She'd just been saying she couldn't believe she was in Australia, the fifth time she'd told me that day and it was only 11am. I nipped to the loo, and as I did I looked back and saw her looking out to the ocean. I wondered what this woman in her 80s was thinking then. Everything she'd seen and done in her life, all the world's changes, all her personal loves, losses, tragedies and surprises.

Gary Nunn's grandmother at Bondi. Picture: supplied
Gary Nunn's grandmother at Bondi. Picture: supplied

That's why her death also was a shock, I think - wheelchair bound, crippled with arthritis, grief stricken, she still was just so alive. Right up until the day of her death, just days after I'd returned to Sydney from a six month visit to spend more time with her in the UK.

When I was asked to write and deliver her eulogy, it was a privilege I'll rarely experience: in one speech, the most important I'll ever write, summing up someone's entire life. I only knew her for just under a third of hers.

But oh the impact she had on me in that, her final third.

She taught me to love who I want, follow my dreams and live with an urgency that always enriches you: ask that boy on that date; step down to that four day week; book that overseas trip, even if you have to haul a heavy old wheelchair with you.

If Nan can do it, you can.

RIP Joyce Nunn xxx

Gary Nunn is a freelance writer. Twitter: @garynunn1


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