What My Grandmother's Cancer Taught Me
When I was 12 years old, my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer. At first, the family was so very sad. We thought we were going to lose her fast. But my grandmother was a fighter, and for the next eight years, she fought that cancer and got what she could out of the rest of her life. She was a very special person to me. Probably the only person at that time that I felt loved me unconditionally and in whose eyes I could do no wrong. We had a very close relationship.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross
Because I was old enough to have serious conversations with her about her condition, her cancer profoundly affected my life. As I hit my teen years, I became more and more curious about what it was like to have cancer. I wanted to understand what she was going through, emotionally as well as physically. I took books out of the library about it. I read other people's experiences, and journals some cancer patients had written. I started reading the writings of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross.
Dr. Kubler Ross had done a lot of research about cancer patients and how they wanted to die with dignity. Dr. Kubler Ross was the inspiration for the Hospice movement, which helps terminally ill people die in the comfort of their own homes, instead of at a hospital if that be what they desire for the end of their lives. I read about Hospice and was determined to be a Hospice volunteer one day.
The older I got, the braver I got and would ask her questions about what it was like, was she in pain, and how did she feel about death? I once asked her if she thought she was going to Heaven and she said yes. So in the way only a child can, I asked her if she would mind if I gave her a "party" when she died as I read the Irish do, and if I told everyone, we should be happy and celebrate because she was in Heaven and no longer in pain. I told her we could all wear bright colors and try to be happy. She agreed that this would be a good idea.
Five Things I Learned
The following list is what I learned from her experience with cancer. I write this as a tribute to her.
1) Have no regrets: Treasure each day as if it was your last, because it very well may be. In the case of a sudden death, no one knows the exact day and time they will die. We could walk out in the street and get hit by a car tomorrow. Because of that, it's best to live life with no regrets. When you are with someone and having a wonderful time...say that. If you love someone but are afraid that saying it too often may lessen the meaning, say it anyway, and tell them you mean it from the bottom of your heart. I tell my teenage children I love them...all the time. Sometimes I even text it to them. And 2 out of the 3 do the same to me.
The summer before my grandmother died, when I was home on a summer break from college, I worked a crazy job at a mushroom plant. I worked four days on, then had two days off. Each week, I would choose one of my days off and drive an hour to see her and spend the day with her. I would bring her her favorite ice cream in a cooler (Haagen Daz vanilla) We spent afternoons together, sometimes with her dozing on the bed next to me and I would watch TV. I treasured that time we had together and still do. I wanted to make sure she knew how much I loved her. I want to make sure the people in my life know that in case something does happen to me. I don't want to have any regrets or leave them wondering how I really felt.
2) Step up to the Plate: When an opportunity comes your way, and you have a chance to do something to make a difference, or you realize something needs to be done, but no one else is going to do it, step up to the plate and be the one to do it.
My grandmother died when I was 20. She had lived out in the country for most of her adult life, in the farmhouse where she had lived with her husband and raised her family. She did not get out all that much. She believed in God but didn't go to church. When speaking to my mother about the memorial service, I asked who was going to speak. She told me just the minister. This minister was young, and except for a couple of visits when she was sick in bed, didn't even know her. I asked my mom to say something about her. After all, how could you have a memorial service for a woman when no one who actually knew her was going to speak in her memory? But my mom didn't want to talk. She didn't think she could get through it. She suggested I do it. I was not comfortable speaking in front of people, but deep down in my heart, I knew someone had to speak on her behalf...to speak of the wonderful, strong person that she was. And I knew it would have to be me.
I did get up to speak and told a bit about her life, and how much I had loved her. And I read the words to a song called, 'Because He Lives" which I found comfort in because I truly believed she was at peace and in Heaven at that point. Yes, I did cry through part of it, and it was VERY hard for me to get up there in front of all those people. But I have never regretted for one minute being the one to bring "Grammy" into her memorial service. Oh, and although I couldn't get in touch with everyone to tell them to dress in bright colors, in honor of my grandmother's "party" I refused to wear a dark color and did wear a teal blue dress to celebrate...with a bit of sadness mixed in.
3) Do the Right Thing: People have called me intense because I sort of go above and beyond in getting my point across, or doing what I feel is the absolute best for my children, friends, family, and for the children that I have worked with over the years as a social worker.
When my kids were in elementary school, I had a reputation as being a mom that teachers didn't want to mess around with because I might stir up some trouble (teachers have told me this!) I just wanted what was best for my children. So when my son disliked kindergarten intensely due to all the seat work that was being assigned at such an early age, I looked into sending him to a new charter school that was opening up for first grade. My picture got into the paper as a parent who had attended the information session, and all the teachers in his school thought I was pulling him out of public school. I had only attended to see what other options were out there for him since his first experience with public school had not gone well, and I wanted him to enjoy learning.
What ended up happening instead was that I requested a teacher for him the first grade that was not the most popular, but emphasized reading rather than writing and seat work. She even had a rocking chair on a braided rug in her classroom where she would sit with the students surrounding her and read to them. That sounded to me like a better experience for my son than the other teacher who also did a lot of seat writing work and copying from the board. Most parents did not request teachers, and if they did, they got a reputation for being hard to please. And the parents that did request a first-grade teacher usually requested the OTHER teacher because her students seemed so much smarter to parents because they churned out a lot of school papers. It turned out great for my son though because he learned to read well, and started to really enjoy elementary school after first grade. (Turns out in middle school he was diagnosed with a learning disability which made it difficult for him to sit still and write).
When I worked with a social service agency that terminated parental rights and placed children in foster homes while waiting for adoption, I had a baby on my caseload that was born heroin addicted. The mother left the hospital a few hours after giving birth, against medical advice. The baby had to stay in the hospital for two weeks to wean him off heroin. He would then go into foster care until we could find a family that wanted to take on a child born an addict. My heart went out to this baby. A packet arrived from the hospital photographer's office asking about purchasing baby photographs. Most babies in the situation would never have a hospital picture of themselves. I wrote up a request for a small pack of baby pictures to be purchased and given to his future adoptive parents. My co-workers thought I was crazy. They didn't think a request like this would ever be granted. But 1 week later, it was, and when he was adopted at 18 months, I was able to give a framed hospital picture of him as a gift to his adoptive parents. He had been through so much at the start of his life, I thought he at least deserved the hospital pictures that most other children's' parents purchase.
A lot of people just go with the flow and don't question other alternatives. I think that the choice for the majority is not always the best choice, and since we only have one life on this Earth, it should be the BEST one possible, so I look for other options that fit the person, especially when it comes to my children.
4) Enjoy life NOW: A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer in January of 2005, at the age of 54. She was told it was a fast-moving type of cancer so she didn't have a lot of time. She began taking daily walks with her grown children helping her, and photographing beautiful things she would find on her walks. She would use her email account to forward her friends and family pictures of beautiful flowers, scenes from the water, pictures of her cute dog. She died in early July that year. Out of no disrespect to her, I don't want to wait until I am dying to appreciate all of the Earth's beauty. God gave us nature and the beautiful creatures around us to appreciate daily, and I found it so sad to see these pictures from her only when she knew her time to enjoy them was limited. I try to enjoy and appreciate it all every day. I notice the moon out at night when I take the dog for a walk. I notice a beautiful flower. I notice how the wind whispers through the trees in the woods. I pull family members outside at night to see these things with me. I take pictures when possible to remember the beauty I see around me. I comment on and point out to my children the beautiful colors of a sky at dusk. I don't want to miss anything while I am here to enjoy it.
5) Keep people I love with me after they are gone: After my grandmother died, I was heartbroken for a long time. For the next 10 years, I would still cry when I read her old letters to me when I was in college. It hurt to think of her because I missed her so much. But after a certain amount of time went by, I realized that NOT talking about her made missing her harder. I found that when I did tell stories about her to my friends, and children, it kept her alive in my heart and I had a warm feeling so it was though she was still part of my life.
Every year, I make her famous cut out sugar cookies at Christmas (and for some other holidays as well). I always remember them as 'Gram's cookies". It's been a tradition in our home even when I was growing up to make these cookies so each year I do them in honor of her. And I would tell my children stories about her as we baked and decorated. I don't know if she was superstitious, but she used to play this little game with me whenever we went around an object such as a pole or wall two different ways. She would tell me we each had to say "bread and butter" or we would get in a fight. I do this all the time now with my children and my husband, not because I believe in the superstition (because I don't) but because it's a way to keep Grammy close to me. My kids roll their eyes but say it anyway because they know it's important to me.
My grandmother was a fast driver. Once when I was little and in the back seat of her car, she was driving rather fast, and I called her a "hot dogger" instead of a "hot rodder." She and my mom laughed at that for years. I share that story, and many other funny stories and sayings she had, with my friends and children. In this way, she becomes part of our family, and she will always be with me.
My grandmother's cancer taught me to cherish life daily. To love the people in my life with all my heart, and let them often know how much I love them often. It taught me to have no regrets and to treasure the beauty around me. It has taught me to stand up for what I know is the right thing to do. And to keep the ones who have gone on before me close at heart, for they have helped make me who I am today.
Has Cancer Touched Your Life?
- I don't Want to Wait Till I'm Dying to Appreciate the World Around Me
Nature is all around us but do we really stop to appreciate it? This is dediiated to my friend who helped me to appreciate nature when she was diagnosed with cancer.
© 2012 Karen Hellier