Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
She Waited for Me

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Nana died at the end of the year. My aunt. Gone way too early.

We just saw her the second week in December—spent the night at her house and talked the morning away. She complained. I complained. She smiled. We laughed. She didn't have any coffee in the house, so we drank tea. 

Death seemed so far away, then. Sure, the cancer was progressing slowly after another round of chemo, but her doctors had given her two years, and she was ready to live them. In the spring, she'd gone to Ireland with her son. Last month, Rowan had played in her living room, disconnected her Internet, and showed her his toys. She ordered a hamburger and mashed potatoes, and ate them while we chatted. She was doing better. We had time.

Photo by Kate Ristau

Photo by Kate Ristau

We never really know, do we?

I'm sorry. I'm starting this all wrong. I've started it wrong seven times now. I'm trying to tell you a big thing—a hard thing—but I can't find the words into it. I can't find the right story, because Nana and Rowan's stories are all mixed together.

You see, Nana was there right after Rowan was born. She heard the news that Rowan had come two months early, and she immediately bought a ticket to Portland. She didn't ask me what I needed, or how I was feeling. She just let me be—stood quietly beside me as I worked through it all. I don't like to talk about my feelings. Give me a month, and I'll explain them to you in an email or a Facebook message. But when I'm down in them, they seem too big, too hard. I'd rather be where I'm needed, doing what I'm supposed to do. Rowan should have still been in my belly. Instead, I was holding him in my arms. Doing the everyday work of love. Nana understood that.

She was standing next to me as the doctor explained his heart defect. She made a joke about the doctor's hair. She brought me a hot chocolate. Back at the house, she saw the crib frame, without a bed, and she bought Rowan a mattress. She bought him preemie clothes and a blanket. She filled up Target bags full of breast pads and bottles, binkies and toys, and tossed them on the counter.

I freaked out because of the mess. We're never as good as we want to be. I felt like I was spinning out of control. Rowan's heart was full of holes, and I couldn't find my way forward. Our lives were a mess, spread out all over the counter.

She cleaned up the kitchen, and helped me put away the bags. We got the mattress out of its plastic and into the bed frame. She looked at me with such softness, waited for me while I worked out my feelings, as I processed the words that I never said. Regret. Anger. Pain. The hope that everything would turn out alright. She held him while I ate my lunch, sanitized her hands for the 700th time, and stood outside the waiting room as Bob and I spoke quietly to the neonatologist. That's the thing about Nana. She waited. She gave me time when I needed it—together or apart. Softness when the world was hard, and brittle truth when I was being dumb.


These last few months, we thought we had a chance. While Rowan's heart has been enlarging, tissue has also been gathering around the hole, increasing the possibility that it might close. We took a breath—pushed back surgery. We stood on the edge of hope.

And then this last appointment. His Z-Score—the measurement of his heart size relative to his body—was climbing upward. 0-2 is normal. Above 2 is enlarged. At our appointment this summer, he was at a 3. Now, a 3.5. By spring, it will be a 4.

Graphs, charts, numbers—laid beside pictures from the echocardiogram, ruffled by superhero figurines stamping across the hospital bed. I wanted to scream, but nothing came out. My chest just wrenched and filled in tight. It stayed that way.

Numbers pulled muscles taut and tense. His heart took up all the space in the room. We talked around Rowan, our bodies rigid, unsure what it meant to bend toward each other.

Then, that night, away from the world and that hospital room, we gave in. Arms wrapped around each other, huddled in our bed, we named our fears. Our plans began to form in the darkness.

We knew the truth: we'd had a moment's rest, but waiting was no longer an option. His heart was stretching inside his tiny chest. The hole wouldn't close on its own.

We scheduled his surgery for the end of February.

My chest pulled hard again as I pushed back against the numbers and the hole, the anger and the weight of it. I called my mom. Awkward, vague words. I never spill the whole truth to her all at once. I don't know if I'm protecting her, or protecting myself. I ended the conversation by asking her not to talk to everybody about it until we have things figured out. Until we know the way forward.

I hung up the phone. Stared down at the floor. It's always about me, isn't it? How I'm feeling. What I'm thinking. I don't need to talk to anyone else, just Bob. But what about her? How will she handle it? What if she needs to talk?

I picked up the phone. Sent her two texts:

  1. Meant to say—you can always talk to Nana. Don't want you to feel like you can't discuss your feelings:) I just don't want to have to talk to people about my feelings(!)
  2. And Nana will spare me.

The next evening, Mom called to tell me: Nana had died.


She wasn't all flower buds and daisies. Not even. When I was a kid, I used to be scared of her. Her expectations. Her firm words—she didn't waste them. She knew what she wanted, and heaven help her—and hell too—if she didn't get it.

She'd move the earth to help my mom, to help me, to help her family. She'd fly across the country, buy a bed, buy a car, buy you time to get your head all sorted out. She waited, and she gave. She gave too much.

When she got sick, she didn't want us to care for her, no matter how hard we tried. Luckily, her sisters didn't take her shit. They brought her through the first round of chemo, and her daughter-in-law cared for her in the next round. Then, her whole family. They knew. They understood. She'd given so much love—we wanted to give back.

We saw her in between treatments, traveling across the country, building a different relationship with her. A new one. Every conversation tinted by Rowan's surgery or the cancer raging though her body. Her long black curls cut short. His face, pale.

Last summer, Rowan and Nana fed the ducks outside her house. That's the story I want to tell you.

Chubby hand clutching taut fingers. Feet racing down the steps, dragging tired legs forward. Cool water, stale cereal, webbed feet, quack and squeal and laugh.

The splash of the fountain. The moss on the rocks. Her hand out toward him, trembling, filled with broken Cheerios. Her knees bent, leaning in. Soft smile. Hand outstretched.


Kate Ristau is the author of the middle grade series, Clockbreakers, and the young adult series, Shadow Girl. In her ideal world, magic and myth combine to create memorable stories with unforgettable characters. Until she finds that world, she’ll live in Oregon with her husband, her son, and her dog.

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