Thank you Grandma. I love you.
Grandma and Me, 1958
I am eleven years old when Grandma dies of breast cancer. Life seems to fall into the deepest cold, and it seems that I will never be really loved again.
Grandma is more of a mother to me than my own mother, Shirley, who tried to kill me the first time when I was still in a crib. That lands Shirley, for the first time, in what was then known as an “insane asylum”.
When they tell me my mother is mentally ill, just after Grandma dies, all the things Shirley did to me don’t seem real anymore. Everything I’ve been feeling - the anger, the hatred, the violence – are all just dirty secrets now.
Grandma would have told me what it all meant. But now she’s gone. Grandma always told me the truth. She’s the one who told me she had breast cancer. All the other adults were too afraid to tell me.
I am five years old when she tells me. Everyone talks in hushed tones around me. I’m a pretty smart kid, but I can’t figure out what’s going on. Why are conversations suddenly ending when I come into the room? What’s the big secret?
It’s Grandma who sits me down and explains it. She has cancer. “That makes everyone scared,” she says. “I have to be strong for them.”
I say to myself, “If I ever have a serious illness, I won’t be taking care of anyone else. People will have to take care of me.” That is, until decades later, when I’m the one diagnosed with breast cancer.
As we wait for the results of the biopsy I can see in Tom’s eyes how saddened he already is by the possibility I have cancer. It’s then I understand what Grandma had meant. I have to be strong for Tom to be strong enough for cancer.
The phone rings. It’s Doctor Zoe. I am calm when she tells me that I have breast cancer. My overwhelming thought is how hard it must be for her to deliver such news.
Grasping what has just happened. I remember when Grandma told me that she had breast cancer. I experience the same simple acceptance I had as a child. The same kind of calm comes over me. I am immediately ready to continue living every moment of my precious life!
I am not afraid to die. What makes me cry is thinking about how sad Tom would be if I died. But cancer or no, I will die some day. Tom will die some day, too.
I go through chemo and surgery. Then I start radiotherapy. The word “radiate” means such good things but the word “radiation” can ignite such terror, so I call it by its more upbeat name. Radiotherapy. I’m happy when I’m told I can have my own soundtrack.
The radiation table is my newest stage. I open with Jack Johnson’s “Radiate.” Tom says this song makes him think of me. I think of him when it plays and I am filled with love. The lyrics inspire me, as I walk to my treatments. I do “believe every part of the dream.”
I greet the staff with jokes. I need to hear laughter. The nurses are taking such good care of me. “I’m gonna watch you radiate,” the lyrics say, and that’s what they’re doing, watching me radiate. They take it seriously so I don’t have to, at least not outwardly. Inwardly I have been a hot mess of emotions. Calming down has never been my strength.
Jack Johnson sings as a team of technicians work to get me into position. Then the lights come on. It’s Show Time! The machine hums and clicks, and then buzzes. I imagine ray guns taking aim at the enemy: pa-choo pa-choo!
I can’t let anyone know I’m anxious, least of all Tom. He’s only home with me on the weekends. During the week he’s another world away, in New York City working on some Big TV Show. I know I declared many years ago that if I ever had cancer, people would have to take care of me, but how is Tom going to take care of me now that I have breast cancer?
That first weekend after I’m given the news and we were getting him ready for his trek back to the City, I catch Tom sitting on the couch, sadder than I’ve ever seen him.
I muster up all the joy I can endure. When Tom catches me singing and dancing, I see him smile for the first time since we got the news. He tells his colleagues at work about this. He says he feels so lucky to have a wife who is practically ebullient as she faces cancer instead of all curled up in a corner, withdrawn in fear.
Now I get it. Now I know what grandma was doing when she was taking care of all the adults who didn’t have cancer.
I will be brave, for Tom.
I will smile and laugh, for Tom.
I will sing and dance, for Tom,
all the while knowing I truly am the beneficiary.
I can call it radiation now, no longer being afraid of the unknown. It’s no longer an unknown. It’s history!
“You did great,” says my radiation oncologist. He says I will be normal again soon. I laugh and tell him, “I’ve never been normal before. If I start being normal then you should start to worry.”
There’s lots of laughter when I talk to my nurses and doctors. They smile and say they are going to miss me, but I secretly hope to never see any of them ever again.
The odds I was given that I might recover from my childhood traumas were close to zero, but I did recover, after 40 years and a lot of effort. So give me 40 more years and I will get over this cancer too.
In the mean time, I am getting stronger every day. I made it. I made it through the chemo. I made it through the surgery. I made it through the radiation. For the first time since I am told I have cancer I know for certain what’s going to happen next: I’m going to live my life, one day at a time with joy and hope.
The real worry isn’t dying; it’s not living life. And as long as I am alive and living, I am not dying. Life starts at birth and ends at death. In between I am living life to the fullest.