Grandparents. I am old enough to be one, like many of my friends, but got started late with a family. But I get to see that things do not change for what a grandparent means to a child, in the many photos that get shared. I really envy my friends because I know how I felt about my grandmother, and my friends get to experience that feeling now.
I do not have that opportunity any more. I have not actually had that opportunity now, for twenty-two years, today in fact. A day that I can never forget. And it is bothering me this morning.
Growing up with a divorced family, I spent the majority of the time with my mother, actually 99% of the time. She worked second shift, so, she slept during the day hours while I was at school, and gone to work by the time I got home from school. We lived with my grandmother and her sister. So, my grandmother took care of me while in the evenings, and because Sunday was “big dinner” day, attention was focused around her as well. Damn I miss those huge meals.
I often referred to my grandmother as my “moral compass,” because when it came to decisions, it is not the things that she said or recommended to me to do, just like a compass, her directions were quiet. I would make my decisions based on “what would my grandmother think?” or “would she approve?”
My grandmother would also become the first person I knew to survive cancer. In 1986, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. I know, because I was not there.
I had been in the process of moving two hours away, for a job opportunity, dropping out of college. In my family lineage, this was a big deal in either case, the job or college. I opted for the job. Like many young adults starting out, I was broke, and needed some seed money to get started in my new direction. And that is where my grandmother came in.
As with many events in my life, this was one that she was proud of me for undertaking, and wanted to help. She gave me the $250 I needed to secure my first apartment on my own. I was not even in that apartment one week, when a phone call came. It was my mother. “You know your grandmother had a mastectomy today?”
No. I didn’t.
We did not talk about such things in my family. I was devastated. My grandmother had breast cancer. She did not tell me. And I was so selfish going to her to help me get my apartment while she was dealing with cancer. I became mad at her for not telling me. She had more important things to worry about than helping me. I did not want her to die. People died from cancer.
I got into my car and made the long drive to the hospital back home. When I arrived in her room, my grandmother was sitting up, with an innocent grin, staring at me. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Um, oh I don’t know. Do you want to tell me what you are doing here?”
It was a frustrating conversation. All I wanted was for her to be okay. She could not even let the word “cancer” leave her lips in front of me. “I’m fine. It’s nothing. On the plus side, now I can wear your old shirts.” This was a reference to the fact that having a mastectomy, reduced her chest size that allowed her to be able to wear shirts that I had grown, in a sense, she could wear my hand-me-downs. I told her I was frustrated that she was too concerned about me when she should have been taking care of her own needs. But that is who she was.
The first cancer survivor I ever knew. She lived past her ten year mark. My grandmother was my role model for surviving my own cancer, in fact, I used her oncologist because I considered his track record, saving my grandmother, a vital statistic.
In 1998, my grandmother would once again be told she had cancer, this time, ovarian. My mother, my great aunt, my sister, my uncle, and I were in the room when the doctor had informed us, “the surgery had gotten all of the cancer.” This was great news. But it was what he said next that set off all kinds of bells and whistles. “I want her to go through a preventative regimen of twelve treatments of chemotherapy.
Having just gone through my cancer myself, I knew something was not right in the way that the doctor was explaining it. None of my other family members had even been in an oncology office, and of course, with no one in my family telling each other things, no one was aware of my fears. Something was wrong.
I pulled my mother into the hallway and told her, something was wrong. “Mom, preventative is one or two rounds of chemo. Twelve is a full course. Something is wrong. We are not being told the truth.” I had one other uncle that I told my mother she needed to reach out to her brother and express my concerns. But those concerns fell on deaf ears.
On Saturday, June 13th, 1998, I visited with my grandmother. She was to start her chemo on Monday. When I walked into her house, I was taken by surprise. She had gotten her hair cut, real short. I had never seen it this length. Clearly she was preparing herself for the new look she would be sporting once the side effects of the chemo would cause her to lose her hair.
It was not just her hair that caught my attention. It was her. She seemed withdrawn, her focus clearly somewhere else. As I walked through her house, I noticed that the informational booklets about her treatments were laying on the table, unopened. I thought this was odd, because I really expected her to have at least looked at the book, to prepare. She followed all kinds of instructions, even to things she did thousands of times, like cooking great Sunday dinners.
I asked her if she was okay. And of course, she lied to me and said she was fine. I told her that I had come that day, because I had a function to attend to on Sunday, but wanted to see her before she started her chemo on Monday. She was barely paying any attention to our conversation. I guess it was understandable. I remembered what it was like for me, when I started my chemotherapy.
I am annoyed today about my grandmother’s passing. I am usually just sad and in a state of reflection of my happier memories of my grandmother. But not today.
My grandmother’s obituary is wrong. And if it is not, then the calendar is wrong. I know, because I was not there.
I was in charge of a very large youth group at my church. And as I had told my grandmother that Saturday, I had a large event with the kids the next afternoon, not able to visit with her after church.
That Sunday morning, I had received a call from my sibling, that my grandmother was taken to the hospital. She had developed fluid in her lungs. I told my sibling I was on my way to the hospital, but instead she answered, “grandma said she knows you have things to do today. She will be fine. She understands. She will call you tonight.”
Following church, I grabbed some lunch, and came back to the church. We had approximately fifty kids participating, and had a great group of parents and fellow advisors chaperoning and helping. The church phone was ringing, and I asked one of my advisors to answer the phone. I looked over to her to see if she needed any assistance with the call. Something was wrong, I could see it. She was frozen in place. The phone slowly came down from her ear. I could see she was crying.
I rushed over to her and asked her what was wrong, if there was anything I could do for her.
“It’s your grand…”
I never heard the rest.
I walked into the church office, stunned. My advisor had followed me into the office and told me, “you go on ahead, I can take care of things from here.” And if from my grandmother’s own heart, I answered, “no, that’s okay. Can you just give me a few minutes to gather my thoughts and I will be right out.”
People do not understand who I am and what I do and how I respond to things. I get this from my grandmother. Calm, cool, collected, focused, get the task done and move on.
The event was done about an hour later. I sped on the country back roads to get to the hospital, though not sure what the rush was, because she was already deceased. I was too late though anyway. She had been moved to the morgue.
The date was Sunday, June 14th, Flag Day. I will never forget it. I will never forget where I was not, because I know where I was.
The newspaper has her date of death as June 15th, as it was printed in the obituary on June 16th. And today, twenty-two years later, I noticed this error and I am annoyed. I do not recognize Flag Day anymore, I used to. But to me, this day means so much more. I know, because I was not there. She passed away on June 14th, a Sunday. I know, because I was not there.
My grandmother died the day before she was to start her chemotherapy. That in itself is another post, she was about to undergo chemotherapy, but she was that bad that she died from the cancer? What the hell did the doctor say to her to convince her to go through chemo if she was going to die anyway? Suddenly I had the answers as to her appearance and the signs around the house. She was tortured with the prospects of going through chemo, something she avoided with her breast cancer surgery. But she must have had a conversation with her doctor that none of us were aware of.
She knew she was going to die. My aunt, who still lived with her, was not even aware that my grandmother had set aside clothing to be buried in. AND SHE LIVED WITH HER! My uncle was due to visit my grandmother in a couple of months, and I believe the doctor sold her a bill of goods that chemo might buy her the time she needed for him to visit her before she would die. None of us know for sure, because she never said anything. All I knew, was that I heard something wrong in the way the doctor had talked to us that day of her surgery.
I may not have the greatest memory, but there are events in my life that I remember vividly, and can never forget. And this is one of those events. I know, because I was not there.