By Laurie Marbas
When my grandmother, Grams, came to live with us in 1997 she was depressed and a shell of person that I had known in my childhood. She came to us because she was leaving a violent marriage of 20 years. The Grams of my youth was vibrant and energetic, spending many summers with my younger sister and I shopping or playing miniature golf. But that cold day in April of 1997 I saw a sad hunched over figure in a wheelchair being wheeled off the airplane. I almost did not recognize her.
Grams settled into our home, spending many hours with my young daughter, Emily, looking at the stars and discussing what to wish for. Over the course of the next 7 months her divorce was finalized and we moved from Ohio to Texas closer to my mother. By this point I was beginning to see shimmers of happiness and energy from Grams, but on occasion she would fall back into the depths of depression. She struggled with being dependent on us for everything and pushed away opportunities of socializing with others outside the family.
By 2001 I had begun my third year of medical school and my grandmother watched the youngest of my 3 children, Gabriel. In October she called to tell me that her mammogram had showed an irregularity and she was told by her doctor that it would need further evaluation. My heart sank as I had a gut feeling that it was going to be bad news. I spoke to many physicians asking which surgeon they would take their mother to and Dr. Ronaghan’s name came up more than once. We had her referred and Dr. Ronaghan gave us the grave news. She indeed had what looked like breast cancer and biopsy would be the only positive answer. Grams took the news as if you told her that she had a simple cold. My assumption was either she was in denial, had completely lost her mind, or extremely stoic. I, on the other hand, was falling to pieces 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 was going to be leaning more on my grandmother during this process than she on me. A few days later she had a lumpectomy which revealed lobular carcinoma and would need further surgery. Grams remained enthusiastic and positive about her outcome, she almost seemed happier than I had seen her in 4 years. I didn’t know what to make of it, but then again things flew by so fast that I didn’t have time to process it.
She went on to have 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. Chemo would begin in December, 2-3 times per week for several weeks. By the tenth day her hair began to fall out in clumps and we began looking for wigs. One night she asked me to shave her head so she would not have to deal with her hair falling out anymore. I had cut hair many times, even Grams’, but this request made me anxious and hesitant, almost to the verge of tears. It made me feel as though the cancer was winning, she was losing herself to the enemy. It was taking her beautiful thick white mane that made her my Grams. Well, we went to the kitchen and I plugged in the electric razor. I stared at her for a long time until she prodded me saying, “Laurie, it will be alright, don’t worry. Anyway, I am hoping that it will come back curly!” At that moment I began to realize that the cancer was not going to win, because my Grams was strong and positive in heart and mind. I was looking at the Grams of many years ago, vivacious and alive! Yes, alive…she hadn’t died yet. Wake up Laurie and join the fight! I went on to shave her head of course after we entertained the idea of a mohawk.
She continued with the chemotherapy and had good and bad days of vomiting and fatigue but her optimistic attitude never wavered. The children had adjusted to having a Grams without hair, the boys, Jonathan and Gabriel, loved to run around in her wigs. In preschool Jonathan was asked to draw a picture of his family. He drew his mom, dad, brother, sister, and Grams. We all had hair except one figure had no hair and was holding something in her hand. When asked who this was and what were they were holding, Jonathan promptly replied, “That is Grams holding her wig.” As the story was relayed to her, Grams eyes twinkled as she replied, “Well, it’s too hot to wear a wig all the time.” Grams went on to have six weeks of radiation therapy that resulted in severe burns across her 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 went, always worrying that I wasn’t eating right, getting enough sleep, or working too many hours. All the meanwhile she was in the middle of a life and death battle with an ever imposing enemy. She prayed and read her Bible daily, always reassuring the rest of us that she would make it.
Indeed, 5 years later my Grams is still here without any signs of reoccurrence of the cancer. 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 that is my Grams. And yes, her hair came back curly.
Laurie Marbas, MD is a Family Medicine physician currently serving in the United States Air Force. www.justaskdoc.com
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