This post is unrelated to photography, but it partially explains my recent neglect of this blog. Feel free to read, or not read, as you see fit.
I’ve been writing this post for a while now (in my head, at least) since I knew it was coming sooner or later.
Last June, while on vacation in California for my sister’s college graduation, my family found out that my grandma, my dad’s mom, had stage four Neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. Unbeknownst to me, my grandma had been in pain but had put off going to the doctor. When she finally went, the doctors found tumors: her spine, her head (wrapping around the optic nerve and destroying her vision in one eye), all over her body. Without treatment, the doctors estimated that she had weeks to live. With treatment, maybe 9 months.
As a family, we discussed the options. Treatment for her aggressive, rare cancer would be costly, difficult (both physically and perhaps logistically) and only possibly prolong her life by a few months. The route of “no treatment” would mean more pain and a faster passing. Some argued for aggressive, innovative treatments, hoping that a miracle would happen. Others accepted the overwhelmingly-likely outcome and proposed standard treatment, close to home. (Don’t take this to think we don’t believe in miracles and the power of prayer and God, because we totally do. That said, we know that we all meet our end at some point.) Ultimately, the choice was up to her and my grandpa. They decided to pursue radiation for the tumor in her brain, followed by chemotherapy for the rest of the cancer, with local doctors.
With treatment, the tumor in her brain shrank, and, after adjusting to the blows of chemotherapy, she resumed walking, talking, cracking jokes (some of which were an unintentional result of the chemo meds). Throughout the summer, far-away family came in to visit, spending as much time as they could. She was still in pain, yes… but she had carried pain with her for most of her life (from a childhood injury that never healed well). She knew how to bear pain, how to live with it. Life bore a mask similar to normal. But it was only a mask.
When I went to visit at Christmas, things had changed. She easily and often lost track of her thoughts and actions, struggling to finish a sentence, follow a conversation, or feed herself a meal. She fixated on the most unusual things (things that, in the past, never would have interested her). Her strength and energy were shot, a mere fraction of what they had been. Her appearance had changed, too, but that was mainly from the medications. We were concerned about this sudden shift, but when she stabilized at this new level we all adjusted to it.
In March, my grandma suddenly exhibited some pretty severe symptoms, resulting in a hospital visit. The visit and its examination revealed a brain hemorrhage. She was admitted, and–as I had not started my new job yet–I traveled down to Texas for a few days. When her condition stabilized and the hemorrhage didn’t worsen, it was determined that it was likely old (possibly accounting for her decline in December). At this point, the question became how we should proceed. My grandpa was doing everything he could to take care of her, but it wasn’t enough and it was affecting his health at this point, even with part-time in-home help. My grandma refused to consider live-in healthcare assistance. The cancer medicine had, for the most part, kept new tumors from growing… but hadn’t reduced the size of existing tumors. Her pain and discomfort were at an all-time high, as was the level of care she would need. The family consensus was to shift to hospice, to focus on making her life as comfortable as possible, for however long she had left.
When she was told of the plan, she was mad and hurt, I suppose. She never said so, not in words. Instead, she complained about the nurses or avoided conversation with those she felt were responsible. With visitors, she was a little bit better, a little kinder. With me, she was still her normal self. With my grandpa, she vacillated between irritation that he wouldn’t give in and loving dependency. At one point, I watched as she nearly begged to be taken back to her house, unaware that her condition didn’t make that feasible. All she wanted to do was go home.
Instead, she was taken from the hospital to a facility about two miles from her house, where she received a double room for just her. My grandpa went home at night but still spent almost all of his waking time up there with her, trying to cheer her up or get her to eat. Three weeks ago, I went to visit again. During the nearly 6 hours that I spent with her, she didn’t open her eyes, speak a word, or eat more than five bites of food. She did respond to some of my grandpa’s questions, but only by nodding or shaking her head. Mostly, she was just there. Because she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk to us, we didn’t know what she was thinking or feeling, if she was in pain or was comfortable, if she knew where she was and who was with her or if she was somewhere else altogether.
My grandma died last night. On Mother’s Day.
I am not sad that she will never again feel pain or heartache. Nor am I sad that she finally got to go home, to meet her Maker and her loved ones that have gone before her. Lastly, I am not sad that my grandpa no longer has to sit through the daily heartache of watching her slowly die. My only sadness comes from knowing that I will never make new memories with her.
But I have 26 years of memories to cherish. I remember her working in the nursery at our church, giving toddler-me graham crackers as a treat. I remember being at their home when I was young and walking in to the kitchen to hear my grandma and grandpa singing hymns. I remember when she would bring home scrap paper (long stacks of it with faint two-tone green stripes, perforated into sheets with hole-punched strips down the side that tore off) from work for me to color on. I remember getting in trouble for playing with a small quartz rock from the yard on their glass-topped coffee table. I remember how much she loved for me to comb her hair. I remember her giving me stacks of Nancy Drew books, old worn copies, which I read in the tiny backseat of their car as we drove from California to Texas. I remember her love of books. I remember the stories she told us of her family, as we went through her parents’ heirlooms after her mother died. I remember her complaining about how dark her house was but never opening up the blinds on the window. I remember her bickering with my grandpa, because he didn’t hear what she said and then do what she asked… but then being sweet with him, too. I remember her bringing me gluten-free food that she found at Costco (she loved Costco… and I mean loved) when I came home from college for the weekend. I remember her calling me “sunshine” well into… well, this year, unaware of how much it made some others cringe. I remember her goofiness last Christmas, and the way she savored the molasses cookie I had made using her mother’s recipe. I remember how childlike and innocent she appeared in the hospital in March. I remember how much she enjoyed the apple fritter my mom and I brought her, and how gleefully she “broke the rules” by eating non-hospital food. I remember that, in her semi-conscious haze, she would pull on her hair until I went over, lowered her hands, gently brushed her hair off her face and stroked her hair for a while.
I am incredibly blessed to have lived this long without losing a close relative or friend. This is my first loss of this kind, and it is deeply felt. I won’t say she was perfect, won’t gloss over her flaws. However, she loved her family, loved her husband, and loved her Lord. I am blessed to have had her as a grandmother and blessed to have told her I love her and say goodbye.