Words for Times When There Are No Words

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My grandmother is 82 & has always been the healthiest, most with-it person I know. When other grandmas were baking cookies, mine was making zesty lemon sorbet with me, complete with little pieces of the peel in it. When other grandmas were curled up in front of fireplaces knitting, mine was walking miles a day, traveling all 50 states in the country & all across the world, to Japan & Greece & Israel & beyond. When other grandmas were being old & crotchety, my grandmother was busy living her life, not giving a damn about age or any other societally imposed restrictions upon her active life.

My grandma is a character in the very best way. She sends me Milk ads torn out of all her magazines. She once told me that Rooney reminds her of the Beatles. She writes me a check at every holiday, even Halloween. She does not cry, ever. She goes by her middle name, like me, but doesn't think it's a problem, like I do. She says crazy, hilarious things. She campaigned for John Kerry & Barack Obama & regularly sends letters of political disgust to her conservative Congressman. She is a Scrabble master. She emails my coworkers when she admires their work. She is on the board of the local library & synagogue, a small-town celebrity. She is a fantastic, talented, creative painter. She bought my non-Jewish boyfriend an argyle sweater for Christmas. She pre-toasts bagels & leaves them in a basket on the kitchen table for late risers like me.

It is the summer of 2011 when my grandma begins to experience severe shoulder & elbow pain that keep her awake at night, reducing her to tears I've never seen her cry & leaving her no choice but to take painkillers she otherwise avoids. At my cousin's wedding in Chicago in July, my grandma is all smiles as she reunites with her cousin, two old ladies remembering their pasts & marveling at their presents - but when no one but my mom & I is looking, she dissolves into an uncharacteristic mess of pain & sleeplessness. A doctor has told her that the pain likely stemms from a torn rotator cuff, bursitis, tennis elbow, & to come back in two months; in two months, I tell her, an 81-year-old woman could be dead. "Find another doctor," we insist.

She does. They run tests: blood tests, breath tests, tests I can’t pronounce. “Emphysema,” they tell her, “and COPD,” but neither of those explains excruciating shoulder pain - & nothing explains why a healthy woman with no history of smoking would end up with lung diseases like that. So they keep looking, kept testing, & we keep waiting.

“They found a spot on grandma’s lung,” my mother tells me on the phone one day, & I ask her to just keep talking - don't stop, don't give me time to cry. When we hang up - the connection lost, my fa├žade undone - I spend two hours in bed alone, sobbing. Over the course of the next few days, weeks, months, the details became clearer: a Pancoast tumor, "also called a pulmonary sulcus tumor or superior sulcus tumor, is a tumor of the pulmonary apex." In other words, lung cancer, the rare kind; Pancoast tumors comprise fewer than 5% of all lung cancers. Survival rate is approximately 15%.

"I'm going to fight it," my grandmother says, because that's how she is. Even at 81, there's no chance she'd go quietly into the night, so the woman who never cries commits to chemo & radiation in strong doses, both at the same time, to try to shrink the tumor before doctors can attempt to remove it. Her children make visitation rotation plans, hire my aunt's friend as a part-time caregiver for the times when they can't be in town. The week of her 82nd birthday, she begins treatment.

It has been four weeks since my grandmother began treatment, more than half a year since that wedding in Chicago that saw her unable to sleep for the pain. Four months since we learned that her sickness had a name my family knows all too well: cancer. She has not yet lost her hair, but a wig is on standby; she no longer wakes up early or stays up late, taken down by the illness that now consumes her body & her mind. Last week, she woke up & couldn't move, used her LifeLine to call for help. This week, she did not recognize my mother's voice across the phone lines.

"I can't believe she's going to die like this," I say to my mother, "& she is. Going to die from this." My mother confirms what I've feared all along. She asks me not to come home, not to see my grandmother this way, to remember her as she was when I last saw her, at Thanksgiving, before the cancer had taken hold. But all I can think about is that at Thanksgiving, I fought with my grandmother about God knows what, something unimportant; I fought with my grandmother as though she wasn't sick, as though there would be more days, more years, more Thanksgivings. When we said goodbye at the airport, I never dreamed it would be the last time I saw her. I knew she had cancer, but I never thought it might be the end of her.

My grandmother is the healthiest person I know.

My grandmother is dying.

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