It's that time of year again. School is almost out. Kids are taking final exams. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. The NBA finals are in full-swing. The World Cup starts today! My boys start their little league playoffs on Sunday (after their final regular season games tonight and tomorrow).
And Grandma's headed back to the ring for her third bout with cancer.
It never really completely went away. She's 81. She beat back liver cancer (!!!!!) in '08, a cancer in a similar region last year, and now this. It's in the lining of the abdomen, as well as two other places. Surgery is not an option. The risks outweigh the benefits at this stage of the game in her life. But she'll be starting up chemo again as soon as next week.
And she's mad.
For the first time since her initial diagnosis in fall 2007, she seems angry. "You know," she told me, "I feel like every time I'm done with the chemo, then I'm done with the cancer. But that's not true." It's frustrating, for everyone. But in the face of it all, Grandma is so brave. So graceful. So classy. Even so vain. I remember how annoyed she was when she lost some hair the last time around. I honestly couldn't tell. But she could. And she was not happy about it. "Well I notice it, and I don't like it," she said. I don't blame her. And, given that she's a social butterfly with a full dance card (she just returned from her 60th college reunion), I don't blame her for wanting to look--and feel like she looks--her best.
At least I know where I get it from when I won't leave the house to walk the dogs without even a hint of lip gloss.
Recently on Facebook, my much-younger (read: 17 year old) sister lamented that exams are "stupid". What's the point of them? she wondered.
I guess academic exams are one way to test what lessons we've retained. But tests are also a way to measure our confidence, our stamina, or even our efforts at taking our best guesses and hoping for the best.
Maybe they really just measure our attitudes.
My attitude is softening. I initially freaked out after hanging up with my mother the other night, when she called to tell me the news of Grandma's returned cancer. I allowed myself to get really upset, rather than my usual MO of immediately soldiering on. This might not be a big deal to someone else, but considering I historically have not always allowed myself to feel *anything* remotely unpleasant (and then slip into weeks of acute anxiety and panic as a result of swallowing those emotions raw and whole), it was a very big deal that I let myself have a good cry before moving on with the information. I was way more equipped to accept the lack of control I have over the situation once I allowed myself to feel the icky things first: anger, sadness, fear. Ian hugged me for a long time, and I said, "I'm afraid of life without her. I need her." Just giving voice to that fear validated it--and let it go.
But I am accepting that Grandma has another battle to fight, and we don't know how it will end. It's not something most of us ever want to think about. In our youth-obsessed culture, there is no room for aging, illness, or death. There isn't room for wrinkles. Or pimples. Or even short eyelashes. (Honest to God--Latisse? Are you kidding me?) We're not comfortable with our human-ness. Grandma came from a different era, though, as evidenced by her account of her doctor's appointment and prognosis.
We chatted at great-grandma's old kitchen table from 388 High Street, which Grandma had refinished years ago. I had stopped by to see her on my way to work yesterday morning. I brought her delphinium from my garden, in thanks for the abundance of primrose she dropped at my house earlier in the week for transplanting into the empty edges of my yard. "Well, he was certainly serious about my prognosis," she said. "But he said I'm still robust."
Robust. My 81-year-old grandma is robust.
"It wasn't like he was a crepe hanger or anything." She paused and looked at me. "You probably don't even know what the expression means."
"Nope," I said. "Enlighten me."
"Before undertakers really got into the business, wakes were usually held in people's homes. When someone had died, their family would hang crepe paper and flowers on the front door, as a way to let people know there was a death in the home. I don't remember seeing them too often, but every once in a while we'd pass by a house as we walked to school when I was younger, and we'd see the crepe paper hanging. And then, you just knew."
The conversation moved on to other topics. She mentioned she hoped to make it to another one of the boys' little league games this weekend. And, as it was getting on in the morning, I reluctantly pushed back my chair from the table and said I should be going. I hugged Grandma and kissed her goodbye. And as I left, we took note of her garden bursting with primrose, tiger lilies, and hydrangea. "Everything is a couple of weeks early this year," she said. "Please come by and take more primrose from my yard. I mean it. I've got too much." She noted how it had spread into a wonderful bed around the perimeter of the cheerful, yellow clapboard-sided garage.
"It's so hardy, and it will do well anywhere. No matter what."
Like you, Grandma.