PROLOGUE: BIRTHDAY CHEERS
May 20, 1993 was memorable for many people across the United States because the final episode of the TV series Cheers would be airing that night. Local media coverage had reached the saturation point; the people of Boston were particularly ecstatic because the cast of the show would be gathering at the famed “Bull & Finch” pub on Beacon Street, the exterior location of the show’s bar.
The night was also memorable for me, but not because of the Cheers hoopla. I’d be watching the show later, but as I stepped out of my car onto Centre Street in Dorchester, I had something — or rather, someone — much more important on my mind.
I signed in at the front desk of Saint Joseph’s Rest Home and made my way to the solarium, a spacious room on the second floor filled with tables, plants, and comfortable chairs. I looked across the room and smiled as I spotted an elderly woman with snow-white hair and rounded silver glasses — my best friend.
“Hi, Nana!” I said, giving her a big hug.
“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” she exclaimed, returning my hug with a strong one of her own. For a moment, I didn’t think she was going to let go of me.
“Happy birthday!” I added.
“It’s my birthday?” she asked.
“Yeah!” I replied. “Did you get the flowers I sent today?”
Now she remembered. “They were beautiful, Bobby. They put them long side my bed. Sit down! Sit down!”
“In a moment. Would you like some coffee or tea?” I asked. This was the evening ritual.
“I’d love it. Tea.” Then she added, “No sugar!”
I walked over to the microwave and began making tea for Nana and poured a Styrofoam cup of ginger ale for myself. As the water boiled, I looked back at that remarkable woman and thought, “Ninety-one years old today. Incredible.”
This visit was made extra special because Nana had nearly died the year before, when red tape and medical politics prevented us from taking her to the hospital when she was in desperate need of medical attention. Tonight, she was chipper, mentally alert, and was chatting with Teresa Ibach, another Saint Joseph’s resident.
Yes, Nana had failed as she got older, and she couldn’t walk anymore. No, her memory certainly wasn’t what it was years before. But she was alive and healthy, well cared for, and seemed genuinely interested in the world around her.
As I added milk to the tea, I overheard a conversation that brought a huge smile to my face:
“That’s Bobby,” Nana was telling Teresa. “I told you about Bobby. He comes to see me every day. You’ll have to speak up, dear. I’m hard of hearing. That’s Bobby. You’ll have to speak up, dear.”
It was sweet and almost comical — a conversation between Nana, a woman who was exceptionally hard of hearing, and another woman who could only whisper. I put some chocolate-chip cookies on a plate and walked back to Nana and Teresa. Nana took her tea and said, “Bobby, tell her I can’t hear.”
“Nana,” I explained, “Teresa can only whisper. She can’t talk loud at all.”
“Oh,” Nana replied. Then she turned to Teresa and said, “You’ll have to speak up, dear. I’m hard of hearing.”
That last birthday I spent with Nana meant the world to me. That night, I realized just how much good Saint Joseph’s had done for her. When I thought of the wonderful year with her that I almost lost, I was more grateful than ever that God gave Nana this additional time with us. I don’t think I ever felt so close to Nana, and so grateful for her, as that night.
Although life was full of hard work, there was still some time for leisure and fun. There were sleigh rides every Christmas. When radio became popular, the family would gather and listen to the programs of the day. And of course, there were the dances – the heart and soul of every Cape Bretoner.
Many, many of Nana’s later stories spoke of the joy and happiness she’d felt at the Glendale dances. She told us that Pa was one of the best step-dancers and fiddlers in Cape Breton, and her brother Neil was also an accomplished step-dancer. Nana’s cousin Charlie MacMaster was also quite a fiddle-player. When Nana spoke of these times – you could hear it in her voice – it was obvious they were some of the best of her life.
Family and friends were always descending on the Gillis homestead, but Nana was particularly close to Momma’s siblings. Her godmother, Sarah, was described as being thrifty with money or as Nana put it, “…as tight as the devil.” Her aunt Kate MacEachern, who lived in North Sydney, was Nana’s favorite aunt.
Momma also had one brother, Alexander, whom everyone called Sandy. Everyone loved Uncle Sandy; Nana said of him, “…that was the wonderful man. He was a saint from Heaven.” A picture of Uncle Sandy shows him wearing a derby and suspenders, and holding a long gun. He was quite a character, according to Nana. He had a remarkable sense of humor and a way of bringing out the best in people.
Nana was also very close to her little brother John Angus, described as a handsome, gentle young man whom everyone called “a saint on Earth.” He was reportedly very good-natured and kind, and everyone loved him.
The Gillis family’s closest friends were the MacVarishes, who lived on the bordering farm. George and Catherine MacEachen MacVarish had eight children, three who would enter religious service as nuns. Nana was very close friends with Margaret Belle MacVarish, who would enter the Daughters of Charity in December 1923 and be given the name Sister Andrea. “Maggie Belle” and Nana were inseparable as children and made their first communion together.
Sister Andrea and Nana remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
NANA SAVES TWO LIVES
Nana stopped working at rest homes and became a private duty visiting nurse, a career that would also be short lived. Around July 1965, a nurse in Wellesley who took care of two elderly women was going on vacation, and the nursing agency called Nana and asked her to cover for the nurse.
In the two weeks Nana stayed with these patients, she uncovered a terrible pattern of abuse. The nurse charged with taking care of these two sisters was a terrible alcoholic, and never even allowed these poor women to sit up in a chair, or taken the time to brush their hair. The two women loved Nana because she was so kind, and one of them commented that she hadn’t sat up to look out the window in nearly three years.
One morning, Nana woke up and heard screaming. The vacationing nurse had returned a day early, drunk, and was screaming and attacking the older of the two patients — a 92 year old woman. Nana heroically threw herself over the victim, and the nurse attacked Nana. By protecting the woman, Nana left herself vulnerable to a savage beating.
Fortunately, a neighbor heard the fracas and called the police. As the nurse was arrested, the police officer told Nana that this had happened before, and assured her that the nurse would never practice again.
When a doctor arrived to examine the two ladies, he told Nana she didn’t look well. Characteristically stubborn, Nana shrugged off his warnings, even when the doctor insisted that Nana looked like she was having a heart attack
One aspect of going out with Nana always worried us: Her huge black pocketbook. Nana stuffed the thing with money, bills, cosmetics, receipts, and everything else, and she took it everywhere. Having grown up in a much safer era, Nana never realized the danger she was in, especially as she got older and the neighborhood became more dangerous.
It took a decade to persuade her to carry just a small purse when she went out, but in the house, the pocketbook was always by her side. When she went to the kitchen, the pocketbook came with her. If I was making dinner and the pocketbook was in the front room, she’d ask me to bring it into the kitchen.
One day at the First National Bank, Nana was making a withdrawal. Standing behind us was a seven-foot tall, ax-murderer “I just got out of prison” type. In a booming voice, Nana said, “YES, I’D LIKE THAT IN HUNDREDS, PLEASE” and proceeded to count out nine hundred dollars.
“Nana,” I said, trying to be discreet, “let me take that.”
“BOBBY, CAN YOU COUNT THIS?” she asked, waving the bills in front of everyone. I’d already looked over her shoulder to count the money, so I grabbed the bills, stuffed them in my pocket, and the two of us left the bank, with me looking over my shoulder all the way home.
God, I loved Nana’s house. I remember many Octobers at Nana’s when her yard exploded with spectacular foliage, as the leaves turned yellow, orange, and bright red. The large tree in Nana’s front yard was always so pretty. I loved that tree.
With the crisp blue sky and a pretty blanket of gold and red covering the grass, Nana’s yard was truly a showplace. Theresa and I raked huge piles of leaves to jump into, collected the prettiest leaves, and even built a scarecrow in the front yard. We called him “Hogan.” (You can see that Theresa and I watched a lot of TV growing up!)
As Halloween would approach, I always decorated Nana’s windows and house with pumpkins, cats and ghost decorations. There weren’t many trick-or-treaters on Trull Street so Theresa and I got to enjoy the bounty of apples and peanut butter cups Nana had picked up for them.
Generally, Nana enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at our house, but I recall that 1977 was one of the rare holidays we spent at Nana’s house, and I learned a lesson that day. As she often did for Easter dinner, Nana spread the white linen tablecloth and made a wonderful dinner, complete with olives and her beloved mince pie. Nana’s turkey was delicious, despite the fact she referred to it as “the bird.”
“Bird” was also Nana’s term for a tenant that bothered or annoyed her, and speaking of those birds, Nana always sent dinner to the tenants who had no family. This generosity wasn’t confined to Thanksgiving; Nana sent me on many trips upstairs with plates of food when I was little. She also made sure to send a dinner home to Dad if he was too sick to make the visit.
That Thanksgiving was memorable because we’d sent Nana’s TV out for repair the previous day, and I was sad Theresa and I wouldn’t be able to watch all the Thanksgiving specials after dinner. Dad picked up on my whining, and said, “Bobby, someday Nana will be gone, and you’ll be missing these holiday times. Cherish them now and don’t worry about the TV.”
Dad was right. Thankfully, I got the message right away, soon enough to cherish all those years I had with Nana, and recognize how special they were. Other people can look back on events and say how wonderful they were. I knew they were wonderful and precious while I lived them.
On Christmas Eve, I passed a few very pleasant hours with Nana looking through her old pictures that she kept stashed away in the piano seat. Later, I’d collect the pictures and put them in an album for her.
“That’s you, there,” I said, pointing to one picture.
“That’s me,” Nana agreed, “about ten years old. How did you know that was me?”
“Your eyes, Nana. I can always spot you by the eyes.”
“Well,” Nana said, showing her hands to me, “You wouldn’t know it today, but they always considered my hands to be very beautiful. A model’s hands, they called them…”
Nana talked a lot about the old days that afternoon. It was always interesting talking to Nana about her past, as there was a great deal of her history I didn’t know. I would prompt Nana for more information, but sometimes she’d think for a moment and then say, “You know, I honestly can’t remember.”
I enjoyed this winter afternoon very much, and I always meant to look through and catalog the rest of the pictures with Nana, but we never got the chance.
Nana and I repeated this conversation a few times, and then she grew quiet and said something she had never said before. “Bobby, I’m getting old and I don’t want to die.” Nana went on to explain that she was very afraid. She was starting to forget things and not recognize familiar places. I felt so bad and tried to imagine how she must feel, to have lived all those decades and suddenly be so confused about simple things.
I listened for a long time, just holding her hand and reassuring her that everything was fine. Finally, I said, “Nana, I’ve always done my best to take care of you and I promise you that as long as I’m around, you’re going to be fine. I will stay right here with you and I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise you that I’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. I’ve always been there for you. I promise that I’ll watch over you and take care of you.”
Suitably reassured, Nana closed her eyes and fell asleep. I tiptoed quietly out of the room, but Nana woke up a little later so we talked some more. Eventually, she fell asleep for the night.
I went to bed, but I was restless. I’d long since accepted my responsibility toward Nana, but that night put things in a new light. For the first time, I acknowledged that Nana really was getting old, and it occurred to me how often Nana thought about her mortality, and how much she feared being alone. I promised myself that as long as I was alive, Nana would never be alone.
THE FIRST REST HOME (1989)
The day after Christmas, Mom called to tell me that doctors at Carney felt that Nana could no longer take care of herself. They’d decided to send Nana to a rest home.
From the start, I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea. No one knew Nana like I did, and I believed that entering a rest home would cause her to lose her will to live. I discussed these issues with Mom, and we agreed that Nana would only stay at the rest home until she could take care of herself, and then come home to Trull Street.
The next day, Nana was discharged from Carney to South Coast Rest Home (not its real name). From the start, I didn’t like the place. We had to lie to Nana and call it a ‘rehabilitation center’ instead of a rest home. The place had a very sterile, cold, medicinal and non-homelike environment. The metal beds and tables looked very old, and the entire place looked like a 1950s hospital.
That evening, Mom and I went to see Nana. Nana was very puzzled about the reason she was there, and I was, too. I felt she didn’t belong there. She seemed clear-headed and well.
“This is wrong,” I thought to myself.
As we left, I asked Mom if I could buy her dinner, and we had a long talk. Mom didn’t want me to get the impression that she was trying to ship Nana off to a rest home. We agreed that anything concerning Nana would be a mutual decision. We’d take things one day at a time. As it turned out, we only needed one day to make the decision.
At five o’clock the next morning, Nana woke up in South Coast and didn’t know where she was. Nana was not violent or unruly, just confused. The nurse on duty told Nana to shut up and tied her to a chair.
THAT did not go over too well with Anne Gillis’ favorite grandson.
I called Mom and told her I was furious and was getting Nana out of there. Nana belonged at home and could take care of herself. “Someday,” I argued, “Nana will probably have to go to a rest home. But not yet.” Mom made many phone calls and Doctor Marquis, Nana’s doctor, agreed to go South Coast to see Nana and send her home if she was fit.
I was overjoyed! I was soaring! I was whistling, singing and saying thank you prayers as I stopped at the supermarket to buy food for Nana’s house, and then I drove to South Coast.
I found Nana in a sea of wheel chairs surrounding a large TV. I walked over to her, bent close to her ear and whispered, “I’m taking you home tonight,” and Nana broke into a huge smile.
I took her back to her room and had a long talk with her. To go home, I explained, Nana must be able to take care of herself. Nana promised that she would.
Because of a large developing snowstorm, we waited three hours for Doctor Marquis to arrive. I spoke with Ann, one of Nana’s nurses, who told me that as Nana’s guardian, I had the legal right to sign Nana out of the home. I decided that I’d still wait for the doctor; I didn’t want to sign Nana out against medical orders unless it became necessary.
Ann also let me read Nana’s chart; all the nurses (except the one who restrained Nana) liked her very much. They praised Nana as a kind, lovely woman, a pleasant person and cooperative patient. The nurse who tied Nana to the chair wrote, “How can anyone say this is a nice woman, she is out of control and crazy.” Ann told me that the home had difficulties with that particular nurse in the past, and she would be spoken to. I doubted it would do any good.
Nana was served dinner, and proudly told the nurse, “I’m going home today, dear.”
The nurse smiled; she’d obviously heard this one from many of the residents at South Coast. “I’m sure you are.”
“She really is,” I confirmed happily. “I’m taking her home tonight.”
Nana and I watched TV and passed the time chatting. Every few minutes, an old woman entered the room, nodded at us and looked in the closet. Finally, Nana looked at me and said, “I hope she finds what she’s looking for, she’s crazy.”
Finally, Doctor Marquis arrived and examined Nana. He watched how she walked and asked Nana if she thought she could take care of herself. Finding her fit, he signed her out. It was snowing heavily as I took Nana to my Aires in a wheel chair.
“It’s a bad storm,” one of the nurses said. “She could stay here tonight and you can take her home tomorrow.”
I thanked her, but told her we’d be fine. What I didn’t add was that there was no way I’d allow Nana to remain one more minute at South Coast.
We got home through the snow, and I walked Nana slowly up the snow-covered steps into her home. I gave her a hug and a beer and welcomed her home. I spent some time with her to get her settled, then headed back to Quincy.
Later that night, I went out dancing with my friends Sean, Jennifer and Erin. I was so happy, I was on top of the world.