When I was 9, our teacher gave us a writing task. We were to write a page about what we wanted to be when we grew up and talk about a person who was currently doing this job. I didn’t have think to think hard about it. I knew exactly what I wanted I be. A “boat driver” like my Gran, who I reckoned probably had the coolest job in the world.
Of course, she wasn’t technically a boat driver but she had spent the last ten years sailing around Europe with my Grandpa. Every few months my mom would open up the mail they sent us (remember those days?) and fill us in on all the places my Grandparents were visiting and the adventures they were having. When I was five, I had spent a month on their yacht with my mom and brother flitting around the Greek isles. At that age I didn’t quite get the concept of retirement and was extremely impressed with my Grandparents lifestyle and their “jobs”.
Granny Sue was fearless. When I asked her why her and my Grandpa decided to spend their retirement sailing around Europe she explained that is was my Grandpa’s idea but that she thought it would be fun to go along. “Why not?” was her response to so many of my questions.
I couldn’t believe that the two of them would take on the physically demanding job of sailing a yacht around Europe. Wasn’t she scared? No, she trusted my Grandpa. She trusted herself. Sometimes the storms frightened her and she missed having a proper hot water shower. She missed her children too. But fear just wasn’t an issue.
When she was in her early twenties, her and her best friend travelled all over Europe on scooters. “Chasing men!” she’d cackle loudly and wink at me. “Oh yes, oh yes!” They were the first woman to cross the arctic circle on scooters. And again I’d ask her if she had been afraid and she’d look at me confused. Afraid of what?
My Grandparents spent a good fifteen years living like nomads between their boat and campervan which they would leave with friendly Greek taverna owners while they were on the water. When my Grandpa started to show signs of skin cancer from all the sun exposure, they decided it was time to settle down. But instead of returning to South Africa where their four children and grandchildren were, they decided to settle in Greece. And this is where they are now both buried.
After my Grandpa died and my Gran moved to Canada to be closer to two of her children, she would regularly inform us that she wanted to go back to Greece. Especially in the winter. My Aunts, who she was living with, took her back to Greece every year (some times even twice) so she could spend time in her home and swim in the Mediterranean.
When we booked our trip to Greece this year, I was excited that our vacation would overlap with my Aunts and Gran. I had no idea that my Gran would suffer a stroke and then pass away in our last two weeks in Greece.
When it comes to Grandparents, I think you are always bracing yourself to receive “the call.” But I always saw Granny Sue as this sort of invincible, everlasting force. In the year before she died she suffered a stroke and a heart attack and then underwent bypass surgery. But a few weeks (and several boxes of her favourite jubjubs) later and she was back walking the dogs on snowy afternoons and taking her daily soaks in the hot tub outside.
As she lay in her bed in the days before she finally passed, I brushed her hair and held her hand. She could no longer speak, but she’d watch me as I told her about the swim we’d had in the sea that morning or the tomatoes I’d bought from the vegetable lady down the road. The house was filled with sounds of her favourite classical music and the open doors let in the smells of the wildflowers and herbs growing in the surrounding hills.
“You are not alone,” I’d repeat, perhaps more to comfort myself than her. “Your family is around you. You are in Greece. You are in your home.”
In her final hours, I thanked her for simply being her. For being fearless and instilling in us a strong sense of adventure and independence. I thanked her for being the craziest, most unconventional role model any 9 year old girl could have. I thanked her for being a badass and I like to think her eyes sparkled slightly at this. I cannot express of how grateful I am that I was able to be there with her and say goodbye.
We buried Granny Sue next to my Grandfather in the tiny village of Ageranos at the bottom of her hill. I cried as the Papas wafted incense around the chapel and droned on in Greek. But I was crying for my own loss. I couldn’t imagine Canada without her. I wasn’t crying for her. I was amazed by how perfectly her final weeks had played out and grateful I was that she was here, in her favourite place in the world, about to be buried next to the man she loved.
Granny Sue, here’s to you and to your extraordinary life.