Life Reimagined

Just Call Me Nana

The pleasures of a full house

Until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Doretha Burrell loved her life in Union Township, New Jersey. She had a job, a significant other, and plenty of friends. Then cancer upended her priorities. Suddenly she missed her daughter Andrea and granddaughter Jayla terribly, even though they visited from their home in Waldorf, Maryland, whenever they could. “I brought a picture of them with me every time I went to chemotherapy, to help me stay positive,” she says.

As Burrell recovered, she listened more carefully to her daughter fret about the stresses of being a single mom, including the hour drive each morning to her daughter’s private school. “It just hit me in my stomach one day,” recalls Burrell, who is now 57. “I live alone in New Jersey. I’ve survived cancer. And I was missing out on the chance to just be …. Nana.”

So in 2011, she took the leap. She left her job as an administrative assistant at a private school, packed her belongings into storage, and moved in with her daughter, who is now 34, and granddaughter, who is 9. “My goal was to help,” she says. “I wanted to get breakfast, pack their lunches, and make sure they came home to a hot cooked meal.”

At first, it was more of a struggle then she expected, and Burrell worried she had made a mistake. “My daughter and I were at each other’s throats, and there are many things we do differently. For example, there were times when I would let Jayla stay up later, while my daughter is very strict about bedtime. And sometimes, I wanted to take Jayla’s part in an argument. I had to learn to butt out.” It took a tense and serious sit-down to hash out expectations. “Since then, it’s been fine. It really is all about communication.”

Burrell also realized that her vision of being an at-home grandma was a little idealized. “I needed to feel like I was contributing,” she says, so she took a temp assignment, which quickly led to a regular gig as an administrative assistant for a retired judge.

She learned, too, that she needed an escape hatch. “Every other week, I commute to Philadelphia, where my significant other lives. It’s great knowing that when my daughter or I need some space, I can hop on a train and see him. I worried that I might have to give things up with this move, but I haven’t lost anyone—I’m still able to stay in touch and connected to my old friends.”

In addition to bringing her closer to family, her life leap has given Burrell the perspective to share her gratitude about cancer recovery. She’s started the Y-U Foundation, which she hopes will take breast cancer survivors on RV tours of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “A trip to that scenery made such a difference when I was at the lowest point of my treatment,” she says, “and I want to share it with others.”

“Moving in with my family has turned out to be one of the best moves I’ve ever made,” says Burrell. “I get to participate in their lives, go to events at Jayla’s school. Every night, I listen to her prayers and when she says, `Thank you for Mom and Nana,’ it’s just… amazing,” she trails off. “Material things? A home of my own? Really, they don’t matter.”

What Doretha Burrell Learned From Reimagining Her Life

The Most Important Thing I Did Right: “Sitting down to think long and hard about what matters most to me. When I realized how priceless moments with my granddaughter are, it was an easy decision.”

The One Thing I Wish I Could Do Differently: “Honestly, nothing. Every experience, good or bad, has been a stepping stone.”

The One Piece of Advice I'd Give Someone Else Who’s Changing Places: “I wish I could tell people to live life to the fullest, every single day. Surviving cancer taught me that I am here for a reason, but it’s true for everyone: Life is short, so enjoy it.”

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