My Grandmother, or Grammy, at 80 years old raked leaves and pulled ivy during the day and read 600-page novels every night, so discovering she had been hiding a flesh-eating cancer led me to a horrible realization. I knew the concept of dying, that when you died you were gone, but I didn’t realize that would ever happen to her because losing her meant losing my childhood.
My Momma and Dad had to work the majority of the time in order to provide for my brother and me, so my Grammy acted as a full-time babysitter. She was an aristocratic old lady of the south who was very petite and classy. She not only abided by her responsibilities of feeding us and making sure we did not kill each other, but she did so much more. She taught me how to read out of Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book, as well as educated me about history, music, and art. By the end of the day when I had pushed her to the point of exhaustion, we watched our favorite movie, Gone With the Wind by Victor Fleming.
“I want to grow up and be just like Scarlett!” I used to tell her.
“You already are,” she would say reassuringly.
I definitely was just like Scarlett O’Hara. I desired every bit of attention to be on me at all times, and I would never back down from any challenge. And like Scarlett, I had no idea what the real world was until I was slap dab in the middle of it.
Even at thirteen years old I was still a blonde-headed, blue doe-eyed picture of innocence that had never been faced with any true hardship. One day I realized that my Grammy’s health began to deteriorate slightly. I noticed that she had to walk with a walking stick, and she slept late more often than usual. This was a very strange experience for me because it tarnished the image of strength that I had of her since I was born, but she was still my unfaltering idol.
My Momma began to realize that my Grammy’s health was waning as well, so she started spending nights with her, which made my Momma’s schedule very hectic. Momma was a very responsible, kind woman; she always did the right thing in every situation. She left work at 6:00pm, went home and cooked dinner; made sure my brother and I were adequately prepared for the next day; and left for my Grammy’s around 11:00pm. My dad was the only one who had a problem with this situation. He was very satisfied with the routine that he had before my Grammy became sick. His routine, from my point of view was: go to work, come home, sit on the couch, be served dinner on the couch, watch TV on the couch, and go to bed.
I would always get dropped off from the bus at my Grammy’s house after school. One day after I was let off of the school bus, I noticed that my Momma was at my Grammy’s house. I found it very strange that she was not at work, so I automatically prepared myself for something to be wrong. I walked into the bathroom to find my mom dressing a wound on my Grammy’s breast. A wave of worry crashed down on me.
“What is going on?” I questioned.
They both told me to leave the room.
“Oh I don’t believe that is going to happen.” I proclaimed in a persnickety tone.
Tearfully I asked, “Grammy, what’s wrong with you?” I could always count on her to be truthful to me no matter how harsh the situation.
She began by calling me “Shug,” short for sugar, a pet name she had for me. "Shug, I think I have cancer.”
Putting on my façade of being strong and rational, I demanded to see how bad it was. My Momma looked to Grammy for approval. My Grammy’s grey eyes looked into mine and I saw her heart breaking. She was not upset because she was dying; she was upset because my perfect image of her was about to shatter. My Momma lifted the bandage, and I saw a giant necrotic hole that had eaten away the majority of the breast. The most putrid part of this experience was the carrion smell that radiated from the infected area. I nearly fainted, but I didn’t dare let them know that fact. The only thing I could say was “What can I do to help?” What I then realized was not that my Grammy was deathly ill but rather that she had gone months continuing to take care of me as if nothing was wrong while in this condition. She was a cornerstone; a beautiful, elegant, strong woman who put me before everything else in her world and held everything together, no matter how much stress was put upon her.
Since my Grammy hated leaving the house, finally convincing her to go to the doctor was an ordeal.
“I’ll be fine, Shug” she said in a positive tone.
“No you won’t Grammy. I can tell that this,” pointing at her chest, “is bad.”
I guess from watching too much television, I had the idea in my mind that if she went to see a doctor that she would, at the worse, stay in the hospital a few days and come home completely cured. “I can’t live without you Grammy” was the last thing that I knew to say to her to show her how much I needed her and how much I wanted to have her in my life for as long as possible. She did finally go, but her reasoning for not wanting to go for so long was most likely because she knew that going would guarantee that she would never return. The next few months were very difficult as she went through chemotherapy, surgery, and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, according to the doctors, the nursing home that she had been rehabilitating in had not been caring for her properly, so we received news that not only had her cancer spread to her lymph nodes and to her brain but that she had skin tears, MERSA (a deathly spreading skin infection), and a urinary tract infection. Her health was deteriorating rapidly, and I felt like it was my fault because I encouraged her to seek treatment.
My Momma and I both went home one day to make an early dinner before going to visit my grandmother at the hospital. When we got there, I noticed my Dad’s vehicle was not in the driveway. I found this extremely unusual since he was staunchly devoted to his routine. I went to his couch in the living room. He was not there, so I checked his room to find the majority of his clothes and his laptop were missing. I ran to show my Momma, and her face became veiled and unreadable. She called him on his cell phone. I did not need an explanation of the conversation, since the majority of it was spent with the two of them screaming at each other. My father had grown restless not having my mom there to serve him his dinner so he found some other woman to follow his routine.
That night we quietly walked into my Grandmother’s hospital room. Her mental state was never a guarantee. I walked up to her and said “Hey Grammy, do you know who I am?”
She replied “Of course I do Shug, hop up here on the bed with me.”
I didn’t hesitate; I leapt up on the bed like a Labrador and cuddled under her arm. It took her a little bit longer to recognize my Momma, but she remembered her after a bit of struggling with the jumbled memories. We sat just like that for hours, my mom resting in a chair next to the bed with veiled eyes and me snuggled up to my Grammy.
We were three generations of Scarletts all fighting our own civil wars. I was fighting with the idea of having to live my life without my idol, my mom was fighting with the idea of being alone and taking care of two children, and my Grammy was fighting for her life.