Twice it was defeated and twice it has returned, yet she has proven to be a worthy adversary each time. For over 5 years she has been resilient, strong. Despite being tired, she has never once considered backing down. She is an inspiration for all those around her as she forges ahead; pressing on, she has refused to allow her cancer to define or defeat her.
She has undergone numerous and varied forms of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, all working toward the erradication of the monster that intends to kill her. The doctors have tried every concoction of treatment that science can muster, but the impotency of modern medicine has become increasingly apparent as the tumors continue to grow in spite of the medication. Designed to kill the disease, treatment has, instead, robbed her of her sense of self, her identity.
When my grandmother looks in the mirror, she struggles to recognize herself. With only one breast, radiation burns, little hair, and after losing an inordinate amount of weight, she is a shell of her former self. At 82 years of age and with neuropathy numbing her hands, she struggles to apply makeup and don her wig, but it all seemed worthwhile 2 weeks ago: imaging showed that her tumors were shrinking. She was winning…
…and now she knows she will lose. Three days after developing a focal headache behind her left eye, the results are in: metastatic tumors in the brain.
She asked how many, but it wouldn’t matter.
I was driving down the highway twenty minutes from my destination, unsure what to do once I arrived there.
I had seen dying before, but never death itself.
It had been nearly twenty years since, as a boy, I made a choice that haunted me for the rest of my life; I was committed to not making the same mistake as an adult. I would be respectful, loving and understanding; at least I hoped to be.
But what would I say? Should I say good-bye? Thank you?
It was happening too soon. She was supposed to have made it past Christmas, let alone Thanksgiving. Earlier that morning, they expected her to be in the hospital for one week, followed by a discharge to home with some assistance. Now, 8 hours later, I was speeding down the highway, trying to get there in time.
In time? In time for who? Me, I suppose.
Wait, it wasn’t about me, it was about her. And my grandfather, who was about to lose his wife of 60 years. And my mother who was going to lose her best friend. But mostly it was about my grandmother, a beautiful and wonderful person…an angel (if you believe in such things, which she did).
Twenty-three minutes later I walked into her room, still not knowing what to say. Her lips were purple, her skin gray.
Without thinking, I walked to her bedside, held her hand in mine, kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear, ” I love you.”
AJ was crying, and I was at a loss for words. We had not told him that she was dying, we did not have to.
One year earlier, when he was only 3 years old, he had lost a grandfather to cancer and AJ remembered visiting him in the hospital before his passing. Now, I was to drive to the hospital to see his great-grandmother, under all too similar circumstances. I had told him that it was very important that I go see her in the hospital and that I would take him the following day if the doctors could help her “feel better”.
I had given him a hug good-bye, but he ran back to me as I reached for the door, grabbing my leg and begging me to bring him with me. With tears streaming down both cheeks, he looked up at me and told me how badly he wanted to see her and tell her that he loved her.
I made a deal with him: he could give me a kiss and I would give it to her for him. Begrudgingly, he agreed and gave me her kiss, which I later gave to her in turn:
“That first kiss was from me, this one is from AJ. He had insisted on coming, but I had said, ‘No’. He says he loves you.”
I tried my best to give her the same kiss, but I doubt that I did it justice. Still, her heart rate jumped again…just a little bit.
She did not want any heroic measures taken. She desired only to die comfortably. So, it must have been frustrating when the nursing staff couldn’t even find an oxygen mask that fit. A small woman, with a face to match, the mask kept sliding up her face and poking her in the eyes. While the staff scurried to find a pediatric mask, her family took turns holding the mask 1-2 cm from her face, allowing her to receive the oxygen she needed without being bothered by the mask itself.
We were all thankful for the pediatric mask when it arrived, but within minutes she was pulling at her mask once again. Twice, my mother took the mask from her hand and put it back on. My uncle did the same. “Mom, you have to leave it on,” he said in a tone that he must have heard from her years before.
As she started to pull her mask away again, I stepped toward her bed, and gently took the mask from hand and held it 1-2 cm over her face. “It was pinching the bridge of your nose wasn’t it?”, I asked. She brought her hand down peacefully.
She would nearly laugh as her eye brow raised and her heart rate monitor momentarily jumped by 30 beats per minute:
“Sorry, there is nothing we can do about that. Despite having the face of an eight-year old, you have the beak of a toucan.”
She was surrounded by her husband of 60 years, her 3 remaining children, a son-in-law, and three grandchildren. We circled her graying body as it still maintained a faint pulse. She was not alone, nor was she there.
For the last 30 minutes, her most basic of functions had persisted with no sign of consciousness. Her head had come to rest on the pillow on her reclined hospital bed. Her eyes, never blinking, were looking back over her right shoulder with her head turned in the same direction. Her mouth was agape, her lips dry. The woman that I had loved for 34 years was already dead, the medical staff just could not say so yet.
Instead, we stood beside her and waited anxiously for the rattling to stop.
Driving home that night, my mind initially focused on AJ and how I would not let him live with the guilt that had haunted me since my youth. The next morning, he would begin to live the rest of his life realizing that he never had an opportunity to say good-bye. He never got to say, ” I love you,” one last time.
Before I had left to visit her in the hospital, he had given me a kiss to give to her in his absence; he will always remember that I had delivered that kiss to her as promised. He will never know, however, how weak and frail she was that night, or how she was unable to talk or communicate.
Instead, he will remember that when I returned home that night, I immediately walked up to his room and woke him from his sleep and gave him an exaggeratedly large kiss on the cheek:
“Great-Grandma said thank you for her kiss. She says she loves you very much and asked me to give this to you for her.”
She will have given him something that he will have forever, a cherished memory.
It was a kiss to remember.