Our MatriarchMy grandma, the matriarch of our family is dying of cancer and other ailments. There, I admitted it finally. The woman who I lived next door to for 19 years, who nursed my wounds, stayed with me when I was sick, provided a safe harbor from my alcoholic and co-dependent parents, nurtured strength and independence in me, insisted that I strive for excellence and only stop if perfection is achieved… she’s fading.
And I have absolutely no idea how to cope with it.
She has been in hospice for “end of life” care for about three weeks while she rides this final wave out. The strongest woman -- no scratch that – the strongest person I have ever known is trying her hardest to maintain her dignity while she battles with dementia, onset alzheimer's, blood clots, and of course that terrible cancer. Her other ailments have come on so suddenly, which lead to the discovery of rectal cancer, that she hasn’t even had enough strength to have the procedure that will class the stage it is in. Even if they could class it, the mass is too large for surgery and she is too weak for chemo. Everytime we think something is going right, something terrible promptly happens to remind us all that no, this is the end of the road for this old gal.
My entire extended family including my aunts, uncles, cousin, is a modest eleven people strong and that is counting my sister in law, my cousin’s wife, and my husband. We are a very small very close family, and this terrible reality has smacked us all in the face and left such a sting … but no amount of wincing will help when the final blows come.
Everyone has broken down at various points, overcome with premature mourning and grief. I understand this, because I feel it too. But, they all break down to me. I am the youngest of our family at 27. I am not a child by any means, but I still find it odd that I am the rock for the family right now. When I say everyone has broken down, I mean everyone. My husband and I have been together since we were in junior high when she would take him to little league and so he has his own relationship with her totally separate from me. My older brother has cried to me, his wife, my husband, my mom, my aunts… everyone. They come to me with their sadness because they hope I will pull them out of it with some short phrase or analogy that encourages them to enjoy her while she is here and not to let your grief eclipse the good days she has left. Every conversation that I have, every email, every text, I dig deeper and deeper to find that nugget of insight that will help them. And in all truth, I am doing this so that I can find the reasoning that I can cling to myself that will allow me to wrap my head around all of this. I wish I could buy in to the bull.**** I’m selling as easily as my family members do, because then I could feel some comfort. Instead, I am offering up all of the comfort I can muster, all the while feeling ashamed at the first touch of the tear that may escape my eyes in a hot streak down my cheek. I am the one who relays the latest information about her condition among the ranks because the adults can’t choke it out. Of course they can’t, it’s their mother for crying out loud! But it’s my grandma too! Every bit of good that she had in her, and even the bad, has transferred to me. I am a model of all of her best traits, passed down to me. I come from a long line of independent gals who never settled, and never took any crap from anyone. My great-great-great grandmother Della, a Cherokee Native American, slighted her tribe and married the man she loved. She worked all her life and had five amazing girls who inherited her strength and passed it down along the generations to their daughters. We are a family of women. Proud, strong women… and every time I want to confess my anguish to my relatives I am met with pleading eyes and, “you are the strongest of us all, Selina,” before their tears ensue and I am patting their shoulder, hugging them, and explaining that “she would throw a fit if she saw us fussing over her like this; remember the time that she…” in a bid to lift their spirits, which it does for the time. That feels nice.
My husband declares to me that he has never known a person to be so strong and resolute in the face of such sorrowing times, we are all so lucky to be able to lean on you right now, babe.
So this weekend, as like the ones before, I will be staying all night in the hospice with the greatest person I have ever known to watch over her and keep her from pulling out her colostomy bag or catheter, and try to explain to her that she can’t get up out of bed because “you just had surgery.” Then, after she wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic and I run to her and hold her hand trying to reassure her as she tells me to “get the hell away from me, where am i!” I will calmly tell her who I am so that she can feel some ease while she drifts back in to her medicated sleep. When she wakes up at 4am demanding breakfast, I will call the on-staff aid to “please watch her for a few minutes” while I rush to the hospice kitchen to produce an omelet and hope that in the time I was gone that the aide stayed the whole time.
Then on Sunday night, around 12am when I am finally home, I will report back to my family about what’s going on with her and any new developments. They will thank me, and I will feel good about my ability to keep it together and convince them all that I am in fact here for them all.
They would never judge me for it, but I feel like I can’t even acknowledge any of this. I feel like my body is betraying me whenever the warm liquid pools in my eyes.
Two weeks ago I cried in my car for about ten minutes after work on the side of a back country road. I think the last time I cried ever was over six years ago. And after what was supposed to be cleansing tears dried up and my breathing was under control, I drove with my windows down so the air could hit my face since I was on my way to meet my husband and friends for our dinner plans. They never knew, and I never told.
Rocks don’t cry.
I guess that makes me a sponge.