So June. That’s where I am now.
I love my neighborhood. I live in Boystown in Chicago, which is one of the biggest LGBTQA communities in the country, and it’s been my home for 2 1/2 years. Summer is Boystown’s time to shine. There is, of course, Pride Fest, countless street fairs and events in the park, and Market Days. It’s just a wonderful time to be living in the city. So June was no exception. As a celebration of finishing my first full year of grad school, I dyed my hair neon pink, just like it was my senior year of high school.
Ah yes. Pride Fest. Early summer was definitely a high point for me.
Anyway, things were looking up for the summer. Grammy’s treatments were going quite well, and while she’d had some delays, she still had no real health problems from the radiation and chemo. Through June, she did chemo whenever she could (whenever her white blood count was high enough.) She was fiercely independent and refused to be driven there or be waited on. However, my mom and papa took turns going with her, just so she wouldn’t have to go alone. Around this time, Grammy’s appetite started to slip a little. She and Papa would grill out and cook delicious Americana meals, ripe with angus beef, sweet corn, and cabbage salad. Yet, she would eat very little of the meal.
She started experiencing chemo-related heartburn and acidic stomach issues. It was really the first side effect she had, and she was a champ at handling it. When my mom was just 9 years old, Grammy suffered a ruptured colon and became severely septic. She was given 24 hours to live. Thanks to some kickass doctors, she somehow made it through. As I mentioned in my previous blog, she has had dozens of surgeries and medical emergencies, so some heartburn wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. So we moved on.
The first big bump came in July. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but Grammy and Papa decided to update their wills and ensure everything was in place. It made sense. They also made arrangements in case they ever died while on vacation or overseas. Again, it made sense. But, they were sent two boxes for their ashes as part of their plan-it wasn’t necessarily what they were ever going to use, but it was poor timing. Grammy and I thought it was pretty funny. We decided her new remains box would be a perfect jewelry holder. My mom on the other hand was not amused at all.
I remember this day very clearly; Grammy and I were in the kitchen making dinner, laughing about how many necklaces we could fit in her new box. Grammy and I had been very frank up to this point about death. She was fully aware that this cancer might get her, and if it did, she told me she had no regrets in life. That was all I needed to hear, so we kept up a pretty morbid sense of humor.
On this particular day, I noticed my mom was not participating in our Monty Python-esque conversation. She excused herself and went outside and stared at the bricks. This was the first time I realized this could all be more serious than I’d thought.
Tensions started becoming pretty apparent between the four of us; Grammy and Papa would argue frequently about small things. For anyone who hasn’t been through or known someone who’s been through chemo, as the toxins are released from your body, you can become very…grouchy. We’ll call it grouchy. Understandable, of course, but equally frustrating for everyone. I don’t mean to brag, but in all the outbursts Grammy had, she never once became upset with me. I also wasn’t the one forcing her to eat and go to the doctor. So, my mom and grandfather received their share of anger. But, they also dished it out at one another. Family time became so fucking tense, it was hard to stomach sometimes.
It was also in July that I started seeing a new therapist. I’ve been seeing a professional of some sort on and off since I was 9 (for reasons I’ll talk about some other time), but this time it was to deal with my family. My new therapist, who I’ll call Sarah, was well versed at handling morbidity issues. Her office was a spare room in her house, which was decorated in Buddhist and Asian decor. I always felt pretty comfortable when I was talking to her. She had a kind face, like Dianne Wiest in The Birdcage. We talked about all things family, including how I should handle the situation if Grammy were to “leave us.”
Can I just say how much I hate euphemisms for death?
“She’s left us.”
“She’s passed on.”
“She’s moved on.”
“She’s no longer with us.”
“Her spirit will always be here.”
Yeah, that’s great. Except when you’re actually dealing with death. Just say what it is. Someone is dying. Someone is dead. It’s not magical, it’s not special, it’s nature.
I should also point out that I’m agnostic. I have no Christian beliefs whatsoever, regardless of the questions I have for the universe, so when someone tells me that God is handling things, sometimes my first reaction is anger. Then, my second reaction is gratitude, because I realize that this is what someone else believes, and they’re merely trying to comfort me. But, when there is death in my family (who is also not religious, especially not Christian), we handle it very differently. It’s death. That’s it. It’s sad and awful. We may make reference so someone who’s died as being a guardian angel or kicking ass in Heaven, but when it comes down to it, none of us really believe that is what will happen, in a Christian sense.
So, it’s hard when a therapist discusses the afterlife pretty heavily in her sessions. But I stuck with her for a few months, because I believed she had something to teach me.
In August, we all had to face some heavy truth. Grammy called it the toughest decision she ever had to make.
Grammy had to decide if she wanted full brain radiation. If she went through with the procedure, it could cause irreversible memory loss, amongst a number of other side effects. If she didn’t go through with it, and even one cell had spread to the brain (which, with small cell cancer is very common), she could be dead within a year.
So. Quality of life, or quantity?
Before I end this blog, I will say that all of us had an opinion, and they opposed one another, but Grammy’s decision was the final say. And she thought about it for a long time.
In the end, she decided to have the brain radiation.
(Part 3 to come.)