I was drawing in my bedroom when my parents came in. Dad sat across from me and Mom stood inside the doorway.
“Johnny, while you’re home from college this summer, we need your help taking Nana to the hospital for her treatments,” my father said.
“Sure, Dad.” I was happy to help.
Nana was my paternal grandmother, and she was fighting cancer. She lived not far from us, in a rented room of a family home. She still drove, but the treatments left her too weak to get behind the wheel.
I didn’t ask how serious Nana’s cancer was. I guess I didn’t want to find out.
She wasn’t about to quit
It was awkward the first day I picked her up. She used to share an apartment with my other grandmother, Banner. When Banner passed away, Nana had to find more affordable accommodations.
The family she rented a room from was nice enough, but it was weird walking through their house to Nana’s bedroom. It felt foreign and out of place.
I knocked on her bedroom door.
“Hey, Nana, it’s Johnny. I’m here to take you to your appointment.”
She opened the door and smiled. The aroma of cigarettes hit me. Nana had smoked her whole life. She wasn’t about to quit, not even with cancer.
We drove to the hospital and Nana talked about the family she lived with. How she didn’t like it there. How the food was bad, and the kids were noisy at night.
She didn’t ask how college was going for me. But then, when you’re in your early twenties, it’s easy to think everything should revolve around you.
I walked Nana up the stairs to the hospital entrance. There were several chickadees flitting about, chirping in an adjacent tree. I pointed them out and Nana smiled.
Nana didn’t smile often, and it felt good to see her uplifted. As we walked into the hospital, I started to get an idea.
I want to take you somewhere
I sat in the waiting room. The cool tile floors, clipboards, beige walls, reflective elevator doors, and buzzing fluorescent lights all felt sterile to me.
I could only imagine what it was like for Nana. Having to endure weekly treatments, and then go back to that lonely bedroom. I wanted to take her away from it all, if only for a few hours.
After the appointment, I escorted Nana back to the car, which was my Dad’s Buick Riviera.
“Hey Nana, do you have to get back right away?”
“Why, no Johnny. Do you have some shopping to do?” she asked.
“No, I want to take you somewhere. It’s a surprise, but only if you’re feeling up to it.”
“That would be fine, Johnny,” she answered.
A short train ride
We drove for a bit and soon were back in Los Gatos, where I turned into the parking lot of Oak Meadow Park. I looked over at Nana.
“I remember taking you here when you were little,” she said, gazing out the window at the lawns and playground.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to the swing sets or slides,” I said.
I helped her out of the car and she took my arm as we strolled down a long pathway.
“Where are we going, Johnny?” she asked.
“You’ll see, Nana. You’ll see.”
It was a beautiful afternoon. The scrub jays were darting above us in the tree canopy. Children were laughing on the playground. A warm breeze kissed our faces.
We rounded the corner, and I watched Nana’s eyes light up.
“What’s this, Johnny?”
“They have a railroad and carousel here, Nana. It’s called the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad and W.E. “Bill” Mason Carousel. I thought, if you were feeling up to it, we’d go for a short train ride.” I smiled at Nana.
She gazed at the small trains, filled with children and families. Then she looked back at me and smiled.
The train carried us through the woods into a glorious clearing of rolling lawns. We journeyed further, circling Vasona lake, with its many ducks quacking and bobbing in the water.
Nana smiled and giggled when I pointed out a line of baby ducks, trying to follow their mother along the shore.
Of course, all good things come to an end. We returned to the train station, and the conductor let out one last whistle before we stopped and disembarked.
Nana was tired, but still smiling. I drove her back home and walked her through the house to the bedroom.
“I hope you had a good time, Nana.”
“Thank you, Johnny, that was a lot of fun,” she said. I hugged her and told her to get some rest.
We waited to tell you
There were other trips to the hospital, and before I knew it my summer vacation was over and I was back at school. It was my senior year. There were late night study sessions, finals, and parties.
My parents came up for the graduation ceremony. Afterward, they said they had something to show me. We walked behind my dorm building to the parking lot, and there sat a white Toyota Tercel, with a red bow attached to the roof.
“No way, you guys got me a car!” I screamed, happily.
My parents laughed and said they were proud of me. We hugged and then went to check out the car. I was giddy with excitement. It was an amazing day. I had done well in school and graduated with distinction. I had a new car and plans that evening to attend a party at a winery with my friends.
Before my parents left, we returned to my dorm room.
“Johny, we waited to tell you this until after your finals were over. We didn’t want you to be distracted or troubled at all,” Dad said.
I looked at him and my mother.
Before Dad could continue I said, “Nana passed away.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. She ended up in the hospital and slipped into a coma.”
I sat down on the end of the bed. Mom sat down beside me and we talked a bit about her. We reminisced about Nana and Banner. I wished they could have lived to enjoy my graduation.
Eventually, it was time for my parents to drive home. We hugged, and I thanked them for the unbelievable graduation gift, and for all their support.
This much I know is true
I had some time to kill before the graduation party and enjoyed a few beers with friends in the dorms. The afternoon sunlight began to fade and dusk was settling around the college campus.
I strolled out to one of my favorite places, the campus duck pond. It had one of those curved bridges, much like the one Monet painted at Giverny.
I walked halfway across the bridge and leaned on the railing. I thought of Nana and that day in the park. I remembered her smiles, the train whistles, the ducks and the joy we both felt together.
I don’t understand everything about life and loss, but this much I know is true:
The greatest gift you can give loved ones is your time.
Unhurried time, and your complete attention. They are gifts you give them, but also yourself.
That night on the duck pond bridge, I shed a few tears. Tears of mourning and loss. But others were tears of gratitude for the memories of that day on the railroad with Nana. That special time we shared together.
There is a moral to this short story:
Make time for the ones you love.
You’ll bring them joy and create memories that will sustain you the rest of your life.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about life. Thanks for reading.
This article first appeared on Medium.