In Loving Memory
of Nancie Patterson
Not long after our Mrs. Patterson was admitted to the hospital in early June, I told my daughter Emma Grace that her Nan Nan was really struggling. Emma Grace said to me, “Mommy, is Nan Nan’s spacesuit getting too small?”
I hugged her and said, “Yes, it is.” Later, it occurred to me that Nancie’s spacesuit was always too small: she had too big a soul ever to be comfortably zipped and belted and snapped into the suit she needed to live out her adventure here, but she did not let ill-fitting equipment get in her way. To use the words of William Butler Yeats, she was a “pilgrim soul,” determined to wrest every ounce of significance from the mystery that is life. She was an explorer, fueled by curiosity and wonder. I am convinced that the words that came most often out of her mouth were “That’s really interesting.” We all know of her passions–for music and dance, for the theatre–for tennis. We all know she would read anything she could get her hands on. But how many people at age 86 decide to renew a lapsed subscription to The Smithsonian? How many people in their eighties so hunger for the larger world that they are willing to tussle with email, wrestle with web browsers? How many people publish a book of poetry at any age? And how many of them wear a toe ring?
The words that kept coming to me as I watched Nancie in her final months were “valiant soul”—even at the most auspicious of times, being human is not for the faint of heart, but again and again when sucker-punched by misfortune, by pain or by loss, Nancie rallied, with grit and humour. She lived for moments of “glad grace” (that’s Yeats again), for serendipitous encounters with joy, those moments when she recognized and touched the pilgrim soul in someone else–perhaps someone she encountered on a bus, or in a store. And who could resist her? Who would want to?
Even as her spacesuit began to fall apart, she lived her life with passion and humor, and she asserted her independence right until the end–she left of her own accord, when she was ready, and her departure was full of music, full of the light of a life deeply lived. It was magical.
The literary scholar Northrop Frye, also an ordained minister, revealed his wisdom on many occasions though never more than when he urged, “Accept mystery; it is not darkness but shadow.” But I think we can take that idea one step further if we remember the words of Ruth Renkei: “Never fear shadows. They simply mean that there’s a light somewhere nearby.” Nancie was such a light: she was incandescent. I know she will always be with us to help us see past shadow–and help us remember the many moments of glad grace we experienced because she explored this world with us.