I’m not sure if there’s really a normal way to handle the knowledge that someone you love is dying. I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time—perhaps since April, when my grandmother was rushed to the hospital with stomach pains the doctors assumed indicated appendicitis. I was livid. “She probably has a kidney infection,” I said to my cousin. “Tell them if they cut her open without knowing for sure it’s appendicitis, we’ll sue their socks off.” Though they did hold off, the next morning, her pain localized, and they were confident enough that it was appendicitis that they went in. The surgery went well, my uncle said. Except that the surgeon saw “stuff growing” in her abdominal region that he thought looked like uterine cancer. Oh. God. And so it began.
In what I now remember as a total blur, I soon learned she also had a mass on her ovary. I insisted on being the “grandkid representative” to attend the oncologist appointment along with Grandma, my two uncles, and my mom. I brought a list of questions. I braced myself.
Totally treatable, the oncologist said. Taxol and carboplatin. Very well tolerated by patients with kidney problems. 80+ percent chance she’ll respond.
My uncles and mom, having watched my grandfather die of cancer 30 years ago, seemed skeptical, and I was too, a little, but I thought maybe she could fight. She’s tough, after all, and always has been. And she wanted to fight, she said. We’re fighters in this family, she said.
If she wants to fight, we have to help her fight, I said. Why does everyone seem so…well… unconvinced? What is wrong with all of you?
My other uncle texts me as she’s going in for her first treatment. “Here comes the battery acid…” he jokes, trying to lighten things. I smile wanly. Treatment #1 ends, and she seems ok.
Until the next morning, when I learn her assisted living facility has rushed her to the hospital. Heart attack. They’re using words like “ventilator.” And I’m thrown into a tailspin. What is going on? How could that doctor have been so wrong?
I go to visit her in the hospital, and she’s off. She’s saying things that don’t make sense. She’s telling me the doctors are after her. I pull out some photographs, and I hold her hand, and I show them to her. And she’s with me again. Smiling, asking questions, giggling. She’s with me.
No more chemo, they say. But it’s ok, because the tumors are growing slowly. It’s more likely that something else will kill her first. I don’t ask what this means. Maybe because I don’t want to know. Maybe because I already do. It takes a little while, but one day I call her on the phone and she’s back. I was so afraid I’d lost her—that her mind had been permanently shaken—but she’s back. She sounds like Grandma. And I’m so immensely grateful my heart feels like it might burst.
Time passes, and the crisis seems over. She’s lost her hair, and she wants more than anything to go home, but we talk on the phone all the time. I go visit her and she holds my hand and we go out to eat and things are ok. Her hair’s growing back.
Last week she had another onco appointment. I told her not to worry, and she practically snorted, confessing to me that she was, in her own words, a nervous wreck. I said “Hey. We will do the best we can with whatever they tell us. And that’s it.” “You’re right,” she said. And I felt strong.
The doctor said the tumors are getting bigger, and they are pushing on her intestines. They can drain them, to relieve the pressure, but eventually, the cancer will spread to her liver or her lungs… and.. well… we know what that means. How long, the doctor won’t venture a guess.
I sigh, as my uncle explains this to me over the phone. It’s not bad, it’s not good..it just…is, we decide. I say I’d like to have an idea how much time we’re talking about. I ask if, closer to “the end”, we can take her home—let her die at home. My uncle says we can cross that bridge when we get to it, but to realize that we’ll never be ready. I nod, taking this in. “I know,” I say. “I know.” But I don’t cry. Not this time.
Tonight, my mom calls me and says the doctor says we have maybe six months. And suddenly, I went from being really tough to feeling really scared, really devastated– all over again. “How long of that will she still be my mother?” my mom asks—not really to me—but to the universe. And for one fleeting, terrible, terrible second, I imagine my grandmother hooked up to IVs, semi-conscious, and I imagine myself holding her hand—the same hand I have always held—and I am paralyzed.
Though part of me is screaming and crying, thinking I won’t get through this, I know that I will, because I have to. I have to for me, for my mom, for my grandma. For all of us. But the cold hard truth is that I don’t want to think about a world without Grandma in it. Grandma, who makes me burst out laughing. Grandma, who I like to make laugh. Her voice is on my answering machine. Should I record it, so that I always have it? So that I never forget the sound of her voice? Will I have to delete her phone number from my cell phone? Silly things like that pain me more than words can describe. And the tears come.