Column | Too familiar with cancer
October is cancer awareness month, and I can’t help but reflect on the effects these deadly diseases have had on my family and me. I’ve lost two strong women, my grandmother and my aunt, to two separate kinds of cancer: ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
Every year, I think about the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. It had started just like any other summer. I threw a party at the end of the school year for a homework burning bonfire, I searched for a job, I wrote random short stories and I tried to finish a novel I had been writing for years.
However, there was one event that occurred that summer which changed my life forever.
My grandmother on my mom’s side had ovarian cancer.
She had it for a year or more by this point, but it was different this summer. This summer she was not going through chemotherapy again. She was letting herself go.
Mom and her two brothers eventually had to stay at my grandparents’ house, rotating shifts, to keep my busybody grandfather away from the prescriptions.
As the summer progressed, I saw how exhausted my mother was becoming. Her eyes grew redder each time she came home. The purple bags under her eyes couldn’t be hidden beneath her glasses despite her attempts.
I saw this, and took it upon myself to fill her role. I busied myself in cleaning the house and cooking dinner. I baked cookies in order to keep my mind off that house that was only a mile from my own. Often times, when my younger uncle was in the caretaker position, he walked down the hill for a beer and an escape. I watched his defeated shoulders and bedraggled face, and wanted to see the famous smile I knew and loved – the one that reminded me so much of grandma. With this thought in mind, I baked a fresh batch of snickerdoodles just for him and Mom.
To my dismay they didn’t eat much. I knew it wasn’t the taste, since I had gotten compliments from them before. Rather, it was the depression. It was their traumatized souls. Instead of feeling bitter I accepted what they were going through. The loss of a parent must be devastating.
A few weeks later my worry escalated. Mom planned to donate blood like she does every few months. Dad tried unsuccessfully to stop her. I followed her into her room, fists clenched, and at the young age of 15 berated her for the lack of concern for herself. I told her it was a ludicrous idea to give blood in the state she was in. She was depressed and weak. What good would it do for any of us if she were to collapse completely?
I remember seeing her face covered with shock. Here I was, her chipper, happy-go-lucky daughter chiding her like some toddler sneaking candy.
After that things got a smidgen better. Mom started to take better care of herself, or so it seemed. Dad and my brother helped me with the housework and cooking. Even with our hearts heavy, we took time out to have some fun. Mom and I played scrabble. Dad played his strategy computer games, and my brother went to visit friends.
A bigger distraction soon presented itself.
That summer we were invited to the Boise Music Festival. I was excited. The family was abuzz with nervous energy. We would see my older sister for the first time that year, since she had officially moved to “the big city.”
We set out on a cool July morning, hopes high. All of it was a facade. Our faces full of smiles hid the gravity of the situation at home.
My grandmother was dying.
I had gone with my mother to see her the day before we left, and despite attempting to be emotionally detached, I felt tears sliding down my face. Here was the grandma I had loved so much, lying with her wild, young spirit shattered. I gripped her hand in mine, eyes clouded over, trying not to think that this was the last time I would ever see her alive. Yet, she wasn’t really alive. She was nothing but a shell of the person I knew.
Standing, I leaned over her and whispered, “Go in peace, Grandma.”
I kissed her forehead, and fled the room that was rank with sickness.
Three days later we got the call.
Grandma had died.
In the middle of the parking lot, my mother wept. I sprinted toward her already certain what had happened. I did not allow tears to come to my eyes as I held her close, consoling her. My older sister, who had been absent for a long while, was shocked. She too tried to comfort my mother, but she ended up crying with her. It fell on me to run back to break the news to my older brother and father.
The four-hour drive home was somber, all our thoughts remaining our own.
Cancer has been a familiarity in my life. For several years, I wore the teal rubber bangle around my wrist for hope, for a cure to ovarian cancer, for a wish that my grandmother hadn’t passed that way, rotting from the inside out.