When I was in the second grade, I came to the understanding that my mother’s mother died when my mom was four years old. It was a fact that I had heard but only at that time did I really understand what that meant. My mind translated it to “mom’s can die”, and I didn’t like that. After this realization, I began to have frequent anxiety attacks at school that my mom was dead. It felt like I was spinning out of control. My mom and my teacher worked together to create a star chart and award system to help me learn to control my episodes. Over time I was able to get through my days without disruption. I would not say that the thoughts subsided but I learned how to work through them. I maintained a vivid awareness of the precariousness of life and that any moment could be the last time I saw someone. Even as an adult now I have been told, “You are the only person I know who gets sad about losing people to death when they are young and perfectly healthy.”
My Grandma Katie passed away of breast cancer at the age of 42 in the year 1951. My mother was the youngest of four children. My mother was four years old at the time, and her three siblings were in their teens. She had her older sisters and aunts to help raise her, but nothing could replace the loss of her mother. This has been a major storyline for my mother her whole life. My mother had two stepmothers growing up whom she had skettchy relationships with but, she was very close to her father and oldest sister.
I spent many days looking at the one collection of photos that we have of Grandma Katie in my parent’s house. It was four photos of her, like senior photos of the early twentieth century. I believe she was 18 at the time. I have seen not many other photos of her. I don’t know much about her, but the general idea I have heard was that she was a loving mother and wife, and she had a great sense of humor.
I remember the era while growing up as a pre-teen/early teenager when my mother approached the age that her mother was when she passed. There was nothing particularily notable, but there was a feeling I remember, an awareness. It was a check-in of what life was like for Katie as a forty-something mother and trying to imagine leaving ones children and a loving husband behind.
When I was coming up on my forties, I also remember having this awareness being a mother and finding my loving wife – that must have been so hard for grandma Katie to keep up the mothering, being a wife, and having cancer. I know for my experience, I pull all my energy together when my kids are around. I have let them see my vulnerability and the real stuff, but they also need mom. I need to be their mom for my sake also. I do not remember their first visit to the hospital becuase I was post-surgery and very doped up for pain management. My mother and Jenn informed me that they had picked up the hospital room, took the shower chair out of the bathroom, took the pee hat out of the toilet to try to de-medicalize the hospital room. I apparently perked up for the exact amount of time the kids were in the room visiting, and as soon as they left I crashed out asleep again. There is a programming in me and many other parents to buck up and shield the kids from the big stuff. I did it during my divorce also, not always well but I tried my best.
Last week I was driving down Geddes Road to take my daughter to school and out of nowhere like a line drive to my brain, my Grandma Katie popped into my head. In that moment, it came back to me that Katie passed away at about my age. I am 43 now, but I was 42 when I went into the hospital. My mind began to wander down a rabbit hole of thoughts. When I shared these thoughts with Jenn later that night, she commented that it is interesting that my mother has her mother’s cancer story and my cancer story as ancestral bookends. A couple of days later, I mentioned this bookend thought to my mom and she just said, “I never thought of it that way before, huh.” She went on to chat with me about having to leave your kids at such young ages and other thoughts.
Another memory I do not have was when I was told that I had advanced stage three colon cancer. My mother and Jenn found out as soon as I was out of surgery as the surgeon came to tell them. All of us, the surgeon included thought I had a begign mass since all my tests came out normal for cancer. Well, I am full of surprises. My surgery was on Saturday, July 7th. Jenn asked when I got out of surgery if I wanted ot know what they found, and my reply was “I will just wait for the pathology report on Wednesday.” So my mom and Jenn had to sit on the cancer news for four days. Jenn called everyone who knew to tell them that if they talk to me that I did not know I had cancer. WOW! Those four days must have been crazy for them, I cannot imagine. When the pathology report did come in and Dr. Eggenberger told me I had cancer, I am told the first thing I did was look at my mom and ask “Are you ok, mom?” And she was since she had the last four days to process it, or at least begin to process it. As a mother I cannot and do not want to imagine my kids going through cancer. Bless all the parents out there who have had to be in those shoes.
I am very thankful that I live in the twenty-first century where there is technology and proceedures that saved my life. If my situation occurred in the 1940’s or 1950’s, I may have had a different storyline. I am thankful my tumor grew to be an obstruction that took me to the hospital or else it could have gone unnoticed until it was too late.
I have the story of my Grandma Katie on one side of my family and I have another story of my grandmother on my father’s side. My Grandma Dee celebrated her 100th birthday this past April 9th, 2018 and she is a breast cancer survivor that she experienced in her 70’s or 80’s. I come from an amazing line of women with so many stories of success, heartbreak, toughness, perseverance, resourcefulness, and I thank them all for the life I have and all their cellular memories that run through my DNA.