“Take the pieces and build them skywards” – Simon Neil
“Tall guy, why is The Mommy so sad?”
“Her mommy passed away tonight.”
“What does that mean?”
“So wait…so…I’ll never get to see Grandma again?”
“I’m afraid not buddy.”
“But…I didn’t tell her all the things I needed to tell her yet.”
“I know. None of us did.”
“I’m going to go lay down beside the mommy for a while.”
“I think she’d like that.”
§ § §
Jane’s mother had called us a couple of years ago with the bad news. She’d gone to the doctor because she’d had a persistent sore throat and always felt run down. After starting with the basic roster of tests, things kept getting more and more complicated, and more and more scary.
After a couple of months, we got the news. Multiple myeloma. It’s a form of bone cancer that affects the plasma cells in the bone marrow. It’s not known what causes the disease, which leaves everyone dangling emotionally. It’s just a bit of wonky genetic programming that kills you.
For me, being able to chalk it up to bad luck made it a little easier to get through. After all, there’s not much you can do about bad luck. It’s not like she could have quit a bad behaviour like smoking and prevented this. The cancer was going to happen no matter how she’d lived her life.
For Jane, it was obviously a much more bitter pill to swallow. Her father had died of cancer when she was 15, so she and her mother had developed a very tight bond. They were parent and child, but they were also sisters in a way. They were definitely best friends.
With the diagnosis, it was inevitable that she was going to lose her mother prematurely. Jane was, understandably, struggling with “it’s not fair” feelings. Jane’s an only child, so despite all the love and support her friends and family tried to give her, she still felt like she was going to be alone in some ways.
Once Grandma was gone, there would be nobody to discuss childhood memories with. Nobody to recall the Christmas spent in Hawaii the year her father had died. Nobody with whom she had shared every significant event in her life. That was all going away, and there was nothing she could do about it. Her feelings of loneliness and powerlessness were so personal and internalized that nothing the kids or I said seemed to make much difference. I know she appreciated us trying, but I also know she felt that nobody understood the depth of her grief or her fear.
§ § §
I was standing at the train station, starting my daily commute in the usual fashion; feeling surly. My phone rang, which immediately put me in a worse mood than I was already in. When my phone rings at 7 AM, it’s never a harbinger of good. It’s most often a client whining about their email not working, or some equally dreary non-event. I answered the phone, doing my level best to keep my tone of voice neutral.
The voice on the other end said, “Where are you?”
It was Grandma. My mood turned to joy as quickly as it had soured only seconds earlier.
“I’m at the train station.”
“The usual one?”
“I’ll be there in five minutes. Meet me at the passenger drop-off and I’ll give you a ride to work.”
Despite her illness, or perhaps because of it, Grandma volunteered for Meals On Wheels whenever she wasn’t in the middle of chemo or radiation treatments. Having cancer meant that she couldn’t continue to work full time at her job as an elementary school teacher. She’d been forced to take long-term disability. Money wasn’t a problem as the teacher’s union had negotiated a pretty good deal for people who ended up in her situation. She said she didn’t want to just sit around waiting to die, so she kept herself busy as much as her energy level would permit. Today, she’d been dropping meals for a couple of seniors who lived close to the train station.
Five minutes after the phone call, as promised, she screeched into the passenger drop-off area. She’d always been aggressive behind the wheel. Neither age nor sickness had done anything to temper that. When I opened the passenger door, smoke billowed out. Do you remember that scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in which Spicoli and his crew fall out of the VW bus in a cloud of marijuana smoke? It was like that, but with a middle aged elementary school teacher in a late model Toyota Camry.
“I can’t get in there with you! I have to go to work, and my boss isn’t going to appreciate me smelling like weed. Besides, Cheech, I haven’t hot-boxed since high school.”
“Don’t worry about it”, she said as she hit me square in the chest with a blast of Febreeze. “Get in”. She hit the gas before I even had my door closed.
Grandma had been smoking marijuana since the late 60’s, but having cancer meant she could be finally open about it. It was legitimate medicine. It stopped the nausea when she was in the middle of chemo, it helped with her pain, and it made her hungry. That’s pretty close to being a miracle drug, in my opinion.
“I have to tell you something. I can’t tell Jane or the kids yet.”
“It’s getting worse much quicker than expected. The bone marrow transplant didn’t have the effect that Dr Westbury hoped for. I’ve got less than six months.”
The bone marrow transplant had been an attempt at getting her immune system back to a state where it could help fight what the Multiple Myeloma was doing. It was a last-ditch effort to add a couple of extra years to her life. We all knew that if it didn’t work, the end would come soon.
“I’m not going to bore you with the details because I’m not sure I understand them myself, but Dr Westbury told me yesterday that my numbers were bad. Red cells, white cells, platelets…everything is low.”
“I…we can…maybe if…SHIT!”
Up until that point, I’d been blindly optimistic about the situation. I’d refused to believe that the cancer was going to kill her. I was certain that she’d beat it. Absolutely certain. I wouldn’t even acknowledge that she was any sicker than she would have been had she had the flu. However, the reality was now undeniable.
As my conscious brain was trying to think of something intelligent to say, my unconscious brain went ahead and told my mouth to say “SLOW DOWN! Both of us don’t have to die!”.
“Relax. Toyota’s airbags are terrific.”
Grandma got me to work ten minutes faster than the train would have, which is astounding considering the train doesn’t have to negotiate rush hour traffic or stop at red lights. I asked her if she wanted me to tell Jane, and she said no, she’d do it. She needed to say it to me first, just to hear it coming out of her own mouth. Now that she’d done that she could talk to Jane.
As we pulled into the parking lot in front of my office, Grandma grabbed my arm and was suddenly very serious.
“I want to say that I’m going to miss you, but I’ll be dead so I don’t think I will. You’ll miss me though.”
“You’re a decent son-in-law. I love you. You’re a reasonably good father, but you’ve got some work to do as a husband. Nothing major. It’ll come to you. Please promise me that you’ll be a rock for Jane and the kids when the end comes.”
“I can’t promise that…”
“You can, and you will, and you’ll deliver. You always do. Now get out of my car. I have shit to do.”
And with that, she hit the gas and left me standing in a cloud of dust and my own self-doubts.
She was right; I was really going to miss her.
§ § §
When the prognosis became certain, Jane took a leave of absence from her job and essentially become a stay-at-home-mother to Grandma. Their relationship reverted to what it was when Jane was a girl, but their roles reversed and Jane became the caregiver. They spent almost every minute together until Grandma passed away in her own home about 6 months later, right on schedule. It’s amazing how accurate the doctors can be with their predictions.
We were all there with her, including the dogs, whom she loved just as much as she loved us. The memory that sticks with me is how small she looked in her bed. Like a child. We’d said our last goodbyes in the morning. She was in a lot of pain, and quietly slipped into a morphine coma around lunch time. And that was that.
The people from the funeral home came and got her and rolled her out to the van. Neighbours gathered on the lawn when they’d seen the van pull up. There were a lot of tears and a few audible sobs. Grandma had been a popular lady.
At her funeral the next week (which she hadn’t asked for, but also hadn’t forbidden because “…do whatever you want. I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter to me”) we were surprised to see nearly 400 people arrive to pay their respects. Former students and their parents, co-workers, friends she’d kept in touch with since her own days in elementary school, the ladies from her rock climbing club, even the staff of her local coffee shop were there. They closed the store for the morning so they could all attend. We truly never knew how many people she’d touched. The funeral home had to seat people in an adjoining room and quickly set up a projector so they could see the slide-show the kids had put together.
I think she’d have been a little embarrassed at the fuss being made over her. If she wasn’t dead, that is.
§ § §
One of the most confounding things about a disease like cancer is that even though it invades every minute of every hour of every day, the normal things that we did before still need to be done. Clothes need to be washed. Meals need to be prepared. Children need to be parented. The difference is that what used to be routine takes on a weight. I guess that’s what constitutes the “makes you stronger” part of “What doesn’t kill you…”
Fortunately, one part of that routine is that dogs need to be walked. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this fact was vital in getting me through what was happening. It got me out of the house and away from the heaviness that had become part of our lives. Walking the dogs was good physical exercise and a provided a much-needed mental break.
§ § §
“Hey! Get a move on!”, said Spotty Dog. I’d promised we would go for a walk after dinner, which to her meant after she’d finished inhaling her food. It had nothing to do with whether the rest of the family had finished eating. She sat at the door complaining about our lackadaisical dining habits. How dare we chew when she wanted to go out.
“You said after dinner. Well…I finished eating, but it feels like I’m still inside the house. You know why? BECAUSE I’M STILL INSIDE THE HOUSE!”
“Spotty, The rest of us are still eating. We’ll be done in a minute. Settle down.”
“After dinner, we’ll go for a walk. That’s what you said. You didn’t say after YOU GUYS finished eating. That’s like saying “when the sun comes up, we’ll eat breakfast.” The sun only comes up once. You can’t say “I meant after I see the sun come up”. You stated an absolute time, and now I’m suffering because of it.”
She was relentless, pedantic, and ironically, somewhat dogmatic. If she’d been human, she’d have been a divorce lawyer.
It had been a month to the day since Grandma died. The three of us walked for a long time. Mostly, we were quiet. Simply taking comfort in being together on a beautiful evening. Once in a while, Zeke or I would utter a half-baked thought just to hear it spoken aloud, only half caring what the response would be, only half-expecting one.
We stopped for a rest beside the river, and spent a few minutes staring into the distance, quietly sharing our thoughts about Grandma. Zeke said, “I feel like someone took a part of me away.”
“You feel that way – we all feel that way – because that’s what happened. Grandma was part of us.”
“Will I feel better one day? Like all of me is here?”
“Eventually, you’ll feel better. But you’ll never completely fill the space that Grandma left behind. Think of it this way; if someone eats a piece of pizza, the pizza isn’t whole anymore, but that doesn’t mean what’s left of the pizza isn’t delicious. You wish you had the whole pizza, but you don’t and there’s nothing you can do about it. So you just continue on with the other seven slices of pizza and try to be happy with that.”
Zeke asked, “Where’s Grandma now?”
“On the mantle in that new silver box.”
“No…I mean where is Grandma? The thing on the mantle isn’t her.”
“It is, but she was cremated so she fits in the box now.”
“I dunno what cremated is, but I’m not talking about the meat machine that Grandma rode around in. I’m talking about GRANDMA.”
“Oh. I see what you’re saying. I’m not sure. Some people will tell you they for sure know the answer to that. Some people will tell you they think they have the answer to that. Other people, like me, will tell you the truth, and the truth is that nobody knows what happens after you die. Maybe you go to another place. Maybe you just stop being, and that’s it.”
Zeke let that sink in for a minute, then he asked, “do you think I’ll ever see Grandma again?”
“I honestly don’t know, pal. I sure hope so.”
We sat in silence again for about 10 minutes, watching the sun set.
As the sun was just about to dip below the horizon, Zeke asked, “Tall guy…are me and you going to die?”