Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Tribute

I know this blog is supposed to be about PH. But this post isn't. Well... in a way, it is.

This post is about my grandmother. Helen Marie O'Connor. Who is nearing her 93rd birthday, and who routinely scares the crap out of us, falling ill, making us think this might be "it", and then bouncing back, spunky as ever. She may have done this over a dozen times to date.

My grandmother has lived "with us", well near us anyway, for over 12 years. My grandfather passed away when I was 17, and my parents moved Grandma from her home in New York to be near us, around the time of my wedding, when I was just 21. So, really, much of my life she has just been here.

Here's a secret. I never told her about my illness. I barred my family from doing so as well. I was so afraid I would break her heart. She loves us grand-kids, loves her great grandsons (my son and nephew), fiercely. "So what's new?", she'll always ask. "You're my best pet", she often used to say. I just couldn't imagine responding to that with, "Grandma, I'm sick... and it isn't good." I couldn't stand the thought of giving her sadness when I could protect her. Now that so long has gone by and I am doing better, how would you start the conversation? I don't regret hiding it. Truly, I don't. But clearly, she is so strong. I suppose she could have withstood it.

I spent some time with her recently. In the nursing home where she had resided for nearly a decade. She has outlived not only 93 years of world events, but also my grandfather's cancer and emphysema and death, followed by her own breast cancer, and back surgery, and multiple strokes. Through it all, she somehow thrives.

Sometimes I can't help but think I get my sense of fight from her. I have her pale blue eyes, her stature (but never her tiny waist), her spunk, and her sharp tongue. Oh hell... we even had the same cup size at one point. Go ahead and giggle. I do. But that woman kicked breast cancer in the ass over a decade ago. Just like I intend to kick my own illness. So whatever she has, I'll take it.

This recent weekend visit was different. On this weekend I saw what my parents meant by "Grandma isn't doing so well." with my own eyes. On this weekend, instead of her greeting us up and in her chair, wig in place, eyebrows carefully dawn in, she was in bed, disoriented. I held her frail body upright. My relatively strong arms wrapped around her, holding her up so she could take a sip of much needed water. I changed her shirt... after that sip of water, or a leaky cup, or a faulty straw, or  her inability to drink, whatever it was, soaked her shirt to the skin, necessitating a clean one. She didn't have the strength to do it herself.

As I struggled to change her, to lift her meticulously kept clothes over a body bent and broken, as I caught sight of her body, marred by cancer and age, with the prosthetic boob shoved in her bra... the one she takes pride in placing, even as she is prone to joke about it and make my dad blush... I was just... struck.

Struck by the fragility of life. Struck by the fact that I, her granddaughter, could hold this old precious woman in my arms and offer her comfort... even as she cursed out the nurse who is "a dope" (a fact on which I concur), or her roommate who is "off her rack" (also true). While I giggled at her sharp tongue, and admonished her to be nice, I couldn't help but wish that her spark would always be with me as well.

I see so much of myself in her. Beyond our physical similarities, and beyond our shared middle name. I see her spunk, her will to live, her wish to maintain her dignity though some nice clothes and a little make-up, no matter how crappy she feels. I don't know what her final moments will look like. I hope I am there to hold her hand through it, or just before it...whatever it is I can do with the physical distance that separates us now that I live in a different state. And I wish the same for me. Dignity in the face of illness. Strength in the face of whatever comes. Surrounded by those I love. Enough spunk to put the people around me in their place when they are just plain "dopey".

Truly, she is something to aspire to.

Update: On May 4th, surrounded by family, my dad holding her hand, we said goodbye. Miss you everyday, Grandma. We love you.

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