I've often thought of my maternal grandmother as a sort of mirage of a woman. She was tall pretty smart and daring. She was a nurse and had the opportunity to travel some while she was young. In a lot of ways she was very blessed. She met my grandfather... when I'm not so certain; but they were married in a Catholic church and their life together began.
I'm not sure how their daily lives played out. I like to think that they were madly in love, during a time when the Korean war was a reality, the American dream was romantic, in a "Leave it to Beaver" kind of way; and time hadn't quite yet introduced the revolution of "Love, Peace, and Happiness"
My grandparents, Mary Lou and Bruce McLellan produced four happy, healthy kids and my grandma dedicated her livelihood to being a full time mother. Again I am left to wonder the daily routines of her life. The smiles and scoldings. What time bed time was. The kitchen maybe smelling of Cheeseburger Pie, the same that I make from the recipe written in my grandmothers cursive.
She wrote. Documenting in her kids baby books exactly what she saw. Making sure that they would always know that she was paying attention. She was watching them grow, loving them, admiring the beauty of her babies.
When my mother was two, and my grandma thirty-four... she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy treatment and what else I'm not so sure... it went into remission. It was gone for five years. And then it came back, full force, and killed her. My mother was seven then. My grandma only thirty-nine.
My grandpa was devastated and still is to this day. It's one of the reasons I don't ask him for details about what they all went through as a family. I can see the lingering sadness in his eyes when he looks at her picture or offers up a memory. My mom hasn't too many memories of her own, but the ones that are still ingrained; are sweet. My grandma never yelled. If my mom was causing trouble she would laugh with her, and never lost her temper. Recently found dress up jewelry, was like diamonds and pearls for my mom. She remembered the brooches and clip-on earrings her mother had touched. They were like little pieces of her that were so magically tangible.
I always wondered what my grandma went through when she got sick. Mentally, emotionally, physically. Was she angry? Disappointed? Sad? Did she blame God? Feel like it was her own fault? Was she so heartbroken that to be near her you could palpably feel the pain? Maybe she accepted it as her fate. Maybe even from the beginning... and that's why she wrote for her children so scrupulously. As a mother myself now, I realize the weight of guilt she must have consumed. Knowing that the guidance she was planning on giving to her children, would evaporate with her last breath.
Hopefully she had relief when she died... if only from the body that was so sick and determined to fail her.
I know she never left though. Her spirit has always been a part of us. I'm positive that she has been a part of the miracles I've needed in the darkest hours of my life, and I'm certain that she is all of our biggest cheerleader. She hears all of our prayers.
I've worked on Oncology floors. Been to state of the art Cancer Centers. I must tell you not much has changed since 1970 the year my grandma died. The majority of those diagnosed, get extremely sick, from the cancer and the treatments alike. They become pin cushions for necessary labs, bloated skeletons of their former selves and inevitably a statistic.
Compassion is often abundant from health care providers, if your insurance can get you into a decent facility. But even compassion can be taxing on staff... we take home the hurt too. The Grim Reaper standing in the corner is much more conspicuous than the pink elephant, and the drop in temperature while he's in the room, seems to silence any complaints that death is looming so close.
Some people die quickly, usually the poor or uninsured. For certain the ones who never went to the doctor when their bodies began to complain. A fair amount of people though, go through the poisonous treatments meant to eradicate their particular cancer. Becoming someone else... forever altered. They are usually able to buy some time. The lucky ones spend it with family or friends. Seeing the world through different eyes; whether they are tinted with gratefulness or bitterness is contingent upon the person.
Then usually the cancer comes back, most aggressively, and they die. In a hospital bed, a hospice bed, at home if they are lucky, maybe even with chemo still running through their veins.
Very few people have I met, are long time survivors. Not to say that they don't exist. I've just been exposed to the people who haven't survived.
I haven't asked where my grandmother died. My mom was so young and my grandpa might cry. I'll ask one day, my aunt or uncles must have memories too.
I ask myself now, if I can live up to her example. I've been asking for courage, trying to carry myself with grace, and been praying for strength. I found a lump in my left breast the other day and I'm having it looked at in a few weeks.
I'm thoroughly terrified. Although I'm only twenty-nine and I'm sure that I have much more to contribute and accomplish; while on this earth, in this lifetime... for MY daughter. Still I can't help but question if my life is about to take an unexpected detour.
I know that my grandma will be there with me. No matter what the outcome, and I'm glad I won't be alone.
Her tombstone reads:
She was like a flower
That blooms in the Spring
Always bringing enlightenment to others
Like the joy a new flower can bring
Her sweetness was overflowing
Her kindness and comforting way
Was such that others learned from her
And followed her deeds of the day
She loved her family and all little children
And brought joy into other homes too
Now Oh God you have opened your arms
For now she belongs to you
Mary Lou McLellan 1931-1970