In June 2011, parked outside a bakery, awaiting my fiancé Paul’s arrival for our wedding cake tasting appointment, my mother and I confided we’d both had the same dream — that my grandmother Nancy DeLee, who was in Presbyterian Hospital at the time with a severe infection, would pass away the week of my October wedding.
Nancy’s Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church directory portrait
Nancy survived breast cancer and diabetes, then battled Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and shingles. But vascular dementia — a seemingly unending series of non-fatal strokes — rendered her incapable of self-care, forcing her to move from assisted living at Presbyterian Village North into a small residential group nursing home. Initially, it dampened Nancy’s spirit to lose fellowship at Presbyterian Village North, but mercifully, her mind soon moved to her new space, remembering mostly her sedentary lifestyle, with occasional flashbacks to the independence and excitement her body once afforded her.
It was 180 degrees different from the grief we experienced when Nancy’s husband — my grandfather Scott DeLee — was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer. He retired in 1990, then quit smoking. In 1992 we learned his body was riddled with tumors (in his hips, shoulders and spine) so large that his bones were about to crack. Doctors gave him six months to live; he lasted 18. When he died in 1993, his youngest son was 35 and his widow 70. He seemed young, and they barely enjoyed retirement as a couple. My grandmother then lived alone for more than a dozen years. Isolation dulled her quick wits until at PVN, they sharpened again. We wish she could’ve moved there sooner, but even the best care couldn’t keep her from dwindling.
My mother Susan, like many firstborn daughters, was fatigued from decades of faithful caregiving. As my grandmother’s mind dimmed, Susan remained acutely aware of Nancy’s intense mood swings and dramatic losses. When Susan felt licked and wanted to lick her wounds, Nancy cheerfully asked about the wedding. We brought cake tasting samples from the bakery to Nancy’s hospital bed. After her release, she picked out a new blue suit to wear to our nuptials. Each time I visited, she asked “How long do I need to live to be there?”
A few weeks later, Nancy was readmitted (this time to Baylor). Her doctor wouldn’t clear her for needed surgery unless we contradicted her Do Not Resuscitate order and medical power of attorney to first put her on life support. He advised she’d probably die on the operating table — and even if she survived, she might never heal or regain consciousness.
But then, we experienced something that, although gut-wrenching, we knew was a gift. Nancy had a moment of clarity in the presence of her doctor and nurse.
“I don’t want any more surgery,” my grandmother stated plainly. “I’m not afraid to die. I want my children around me, and I want to go home.”
Whether home meant Hope (her birthplace in Arkansas) or heaven, we could only guess — but her eyes were clear and decision final. My mother turned to me, bereft, but relieved of one heartbreaking decision many must make on behalf of — but without clear direction or affirmation from — the loved one in their care.
It wasn’t pretty nor easy, but Nancy was full of faith, fearless, relieved, and even joyful.
She started singing “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” then many more hymns, joined by family. A hospital chaplain overheard the chorus and stopped in to pray and praise Nancy’s spirit.
She was released into hospice, where family and loving caregivers brought comfort to her final time on earth. Months passed. She outlived her doctor’s expectations, celebrating her 88th birthday on her deathbed. Wedding planning provided welcome distraction, and as our vigil continued, the reception grew more elaborate and extravagant than Paul or I ever dreamed — with more flower arrangements, better food, and taller cakes (proportionate to our grief).
After my portrait session I went to see my grandmother in my bridal gown, but she didn’t recognize me. Then she stopped eating and drinking a few days before the wedding, losing consciousness entirely. My faith was shaken, and I felt like the ground was shifting beneath me, but to consider postponing the wedding would’ve felt like a betrayal.
Nancy married my grandfather Scott on Dec. 27, 1946. She wore a blue suit — despite urging from her then nine-year-old sister, Sandra, affectionately known as “Bo,” who wrote:
I am very mad at you and you know why. I am mad because you won’t marry in white. I want to be in your wedding but if you marry in a suit I won’t get to be. I don’t think that you should marry but once. So why don’t you marry in white? Please
Their mother, Susie, probably put Bo up to it. They were daughters of the Great Depression, with war rationing still top-of-mind, and it wasn’t unusual for a woman to marry in clothes she’d wear again. But Nancy was also expressing her great sense of style. She and Scott shared an appreciation for fashionable garments made with a good hand and accessories — from jewelry, handbags, shoes, and watches to hats and gloves. Nancy never again fit in her blue wedding suit anyway. She got pregnant on her wedding night and nine months later, my mother Susan was born.
Nancy Robins wed Scott DeLee on Dec. 27, 1946
My earliest memories include riding with grandmama to the parking lot of Presbyterian Hospital after my sister Laura was born. We waited to glimpse and wave at my Mom, who was recovering from a bad epidural. I was recovering from my loss of identity as a firstborn grandchild, and the best medicine was a half gallon of Blue Bell ice cream, which we shared at every joyful or grievous occasion.
Grandmama and Granddaddy also cultivated my love of language and writing. While Laura and I were at Mo Ranch sleep away camp, Granddaddy wrote letters daily while Grandmama sent greeting cards with Snoopy, Woodstock, and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Another of my favorite memories was memorizing definitions on vocabulary flashcards at their house. When granddaddy once stumped me, grandmama gave me a clue, skipping around their living room with her hand extended and saying my SAT word, “cavort,” with each hop.
She loved gardening, trees, and — just like her great grandson Robert — flowers, volunteering for many years to make flower arrangements for her church, Preston Hollow Presbyterian. She saved a dying vine from her neighbor’s garbage, transforming a discarded clipping in a coffee can to a flourishing rose bush. She planted fresh mint next to her air conditioner and tomatoes in railroad tie beds. A mulberry bush shaded her backyard, and Laura and I stood beneath it — snacking on the sweet fruit and upsetting Grandmama if we tracked the blue-black juice of those crushed berries on her carpet. Fragrant jasmine and honeysuckle also grew along her fence, and she occasionally scolded Laura and me for plucking too many honeysuckle blossoms to taste a few drops of sweet nectar, discarding their white petals on her lawn.
She was a wonderful cook, but my favorite meals were simple — corn on the cob, salted sliced tomatoes and ham for dinner in the summertime; or bacon, eggs, and biscuits for breakfast after spending the night. On their concrete slab back porch, grandmama snapped green beans from the farmer’s market as Laura and I sat on our uncles’ old wooden skateboards, rolling back and forth sideways while we talked with her and Grandaddy, who was usually smoking a Merit cigarette and sipping a dirty Beefeater gin martini.
Nancy with granddaughters Laura and Catherine
I especially felt connected to her by our independence, love of career, and social skills. She was active, broad-minded, and always on the up and up. While living at Presbyterian Village North, she enjoyed dining with longtime friends like the Reverend John Anderson, and she made new friends by playing cards, watching sports, and taking field trips.
She set the bar really high and seemed to have it all — both a wonderful family and successful career. She won bets on horses at the racetrack and enjoyed more than 60 years of monthly cocktails and conversation with her girlfriends in “Booze and News” (of whom she was the last surviving member — and I’m sure they’d drink to that) AND lived out her deep lifelong faith through active church leadership and service.
In the end, tradition became more important, and Nancy was relieved I would marry wearing white. Although she couldn’t attend our nuptials, her wedding gift to us was the band my grandfather gave her when they married. It’s engraved with their 1947 anniversary and our October 2011 date. Hours after we returned from our honeymoon, she passed away in her sleep. My greatest regrets are that I never got to visit her between my wedding and her death, and that I can’t put more distance between the two events in my memory.
Paul Williams wed Catherine Cuellar on Oct. 15, 2011.
My grandparents’ love and faith made me who I am, which I remember daily. This January, I wore my grandmother’s brooch representing the Trinity for my ordination as a fourth generation Presbyterian elder, preceded by my mother, my grandparents Scott and Nancy, and Nancy’s father.
For the first Mother’s Day without her, her birthday this summer, and the anniversary of her death this month, I should’ve brought flowers to the cemetery — but I could never make them look as lovely as hers. And my family is not at Restland any more than Jesus was in the tomb. Just as apostles best honor their witness of the living Christ by sharing bread and wine, I faithfully remember my grandparents by eating Blue Bell ice cream; accessorizing with her handbags, jewelry, and rings; singing hymns; and writing our stories.