She wore red lipstick and her neck was often adorned with a colorful scarf. She was an artist who painted watercolors with scenes of vibrant bouquets and shorelines of calm waters. She loved martinis and silver jewelry from her travels to Mexico and Europe. She was known for her witty charm, bright smile and a cigarette constantly held between her fingers.
But by the time I knew my grandmother, the smoke that often lingered behind her was replaced by the smell of nicotine gum that she constantly chewed. And by the time I was a teenager, the gum was no more. In its place was a plastic tube and tank of oxygen. Emphysema had ravaged her lungs, and she described life without the tank as akin to breathing through a thin straw. By the time I reached 16, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Colorful scarves now appeared on top of her bald head, and the martini glasses were kept in the cupboard. She was too weak to indulge in those night caps.
She died on Valentine’s Day, and at her funeral we all spoke of how she had 78 years – a full life with loving family and friends. But as the years went by, I began to doubt those sentiments. I graduated from high school and looked up into the crowd still half-expecting her to appear with her cheerful wave and flashing that wide grin. During the next couple of years, I competed in singing competitions but my grandmother – my biggest fan – was not there.
And at night I dreamt of her. In one of these visions, she pulled me close to her and demanded to know why I had not been looking for her.
“When you sing, look for me in the back of the room. I’m there,” she said urgently.
She was gone, but her memory lived on with determination in the caverns of my mind. But it was in life that I wanted her.
As the years continued and more milestones were met, as my younger cousins grew older with only fuzzy memories of the vivid grandmother I had known, and as I grew into an adult and formed more mature relationships with my living grandparents, I felt robbed of the years I had lost with my grandmother. And this thing, this disease called cancer that claims so many lives each year, seemed a one-dimensional villain that was hell bent on breaking my heart.
But cancer is a thing without feelings and can be defeated. Just read Teri Williams’ story of survival to see how we are not helpless against the disease.
But for those of us who have lost a loved one to cancer, it will remain a near and ever present danger and a reminder that our days are limited, and that even 78 years on this planet can feel like not nearly enough time.