When my grandmother, grandmother, came to live with us in 1997, she was depressed and a shell of a person I had known in my childhood. She came to us because she was coming out of a violent marriage of 20 years. The grandmother of my youth was vibrant and energetic, she spent many summers with my younger sister and I shopping or playing miniature golf. But on that cold April day in 1997, I saw a sad, hunched figure in a wheelchair getting off the plane. I almost didn’t recognize her.
Grandma moved into our house, spending many hours with my youngest daughter, Emily, looking at the stars and discussing what to wish for. Over the course of the next 7 months, she finalized her divorce and we moved from Ohio to Texas, closer to my mother. At this point, I was beginning to see flashes of happiness and energy in Grandma, but at times she slipped back into the depths of depression. She struggled with depending on us for everything and refused opportunities to socialize with others outside of the family.
By 2001 I had started my third year of medical school and my grandmother was taking care of the youngest of my 3 children, Gabriel. In October she called me to say that his mammogram had shown an irregularity and her doctor told him that she would need further evaluation. My heart sank because I had a feeling it was going to be bad news. I spoke to many doctors to ask which surgeon they would take your mother to and Dr. Ronaghan’s name came up more than once. We referred her and Dr. Ronaghan gave us the serious news. In fact, he had what looked like breast cancer and the biopsy would be the only positive answer. Grandma took the news as if you were telling her that she just had a cold. My guess was that she was either in denial, she had completely lost her mind, or she was extremely stoic. I, on the other hand, was falling apart inside. The thought of losing my grandmother made me nauseous, but I knew she was counting on me to be there for her. Little did I know that I would lean more on my grandmother during this process than she would on me.
A few days later he underwent a lumpectomy which revealed a lobular carcinoma and would require further surgery. Grandma remained enthusiastic and positive about her outcome, she almost seemed happier than she had seen her in 4 years. She didn’t know what to make of it, but then again, things happened so fast I didn’t have time to process it.
She then underwent a bilateral mastectomy with positive lymph nodes on the right side. So we weren’t out of the woods yet, she would require chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy would start in December, 2 or 3 times a week for several weeks. On the tenth day her hair began to fall out in clumps and we started looking for wigs. One night she asked me to shave her head so she wouldn’t have to deal with her hair loss anymore. She had cut her hair for me many times, even Grandma’s, but this request made me anxious and hesitant, almost on the verge of tears. She made me feel like cancer was winning, she was losing to the enemy. She was taking from her the beautiful and thick white mane of hers that turned her into my grandmother. Well, we went into the kitchen and I plugged in the electric shaver. I looked at her for a long time until she pushed me saying, “Laurie, it’ll be fine, don’t worry. Anyway, I hope it comes back curly!” At that time I began to realize that cancer was not going to win me over, because my grandmother was strong and positive in heart and mind. She was looking at the Grams of many years ago, lively and alive! Yes, she was alive… she hadn’t died yet. Wake up Laurie and join the fight! I then shaved his head, of course, after considering the idea of a mohawk.
She continued with chemotherapy and had good and bad days of vomiting and exhaustion but her upbeat attitude never wavered. The children had gotten used to having a hairless grandmother, the children, Jonathan and Gabriel, loved to run around in their wigs. In preschool, Jonathan was asked to draw a picture of his family. He drew his mom, dad, brother, sister and grandmother. We all had hair, except for one figure who had no hair and was holding something in his hand. When asked who she was and what they were holding, Jonathan was quick to reply, “That’s Grandma holding her wig.” When told the story, Grandma’s eyes sparkled as she replied, “Well, she’s too hot to wear a wig all the time.”
Grams went on to have six weeks of radiation therapy which resulted in severe burns to his chest. She was in pain most of the time and we did what we could to make her comfortable. She never cried or felt sorry for herself. She always asked me how my day was going, always worried that she wasn’t eating right, getting enough sleep, or working too many hours. Meanwhile, she was in the midst of a life-and-death battle with an increasingly imposing foe. She prayed and read her Bible every day, always assuring the rest of us that she would make it.
In fact, 5 years later, my grandmother is still here with no signs of cancer recurrence. She taught me the power of positive thinking, humility, love of family, and faith in God. I can only hope and pray to be a fraction of the woman my grandmother is. And yes, her hair came back curly.