Friday, April 29, 2011

A Mini-Version of My Grandmother's Story

OOPS!  I am now following myself!  Is that OK?  Not arrogant, I swear :)

I posted this mini-tale for my beautiful friend, Wendy, who is battling cancer and taught me to BLOG.

I call this a mini-tale because it only skims the surface of my wonderful grandmother's story.

I want to share (a portion of) my grandmother’s story with you. At 69, she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was given 3-6 months to live if she was lucky. But my Grandmother was a fighter, survivor and a real hoot, if you knew her.
I was only 13 when she was diagnosed but I became a grown up that minute. I went to every chemo session with her. They were usually 6 hour infusions in a room with other patients. My grandmother was the house entertainer! She would chat-up and cheer-up every single person in the room, they were mostly older men and women but we also had two 12 year olds. They had a TV but on the days my grandmother and I were there? It was a Part-ay! She sang, I sang with her… I journaled furiously while she entertained. I was writing her story while she lived it. I have a closet full of journals. I have kept them since I was 9 years old (that’s also when I started writing poetry).

My grandmother was my mother, father, everything. She took care of my mother, my sister and me. I always felt like my mother was just my out-of-control older sister. She is a "smiling dragon of barbed innuendos." (--quoted from Katherine Mosby's "Twilight."). But that’s another story. Anything I know about being a good wife or mother or person came from my grandma.

When my grandmother lost her hair (she loved her hair and even when it was old and gray she kept it long and wore it in carefully arranged bun), I wept for her. She didn't cry or complain; she laughed and said, “Well that’s a relief! One less thing I have to fuss over and deal with! Let’s go find a classy wig!”

That was my grandma’s spirit. She handled the grit, and pain and every ugly, grueling aspect of cancer and chemo and sickness with grace and humor. I sobbed crying for the greatest role model, friend, mother, teacher, counselor, and priestess that my grandmother embodied. She looked at my sister, my mom and me and said, Mark my words: I will fight, love, laugh and LIVE through this for years to come. I will prove the doctors wrong; I’m going to live a heck of a lot longer than 3-6 months. They will NOT put a timeline on me, my life, or my vitality!

And she did just that. She (we) lived through a full hysterectomy, almost weekly grueling chemo sessions, treatments, appointments, and 2 more surgeries. I was 13 when she was diagnosed and given 3-6months to live. She eventually passed away a month before my 16th birthday.

When they said it was ‘her time,’ they moved her to a hospice suite (her hospital room with a room attached with a cot and a couch and a reclining chair for my mom, sister and me to sleep in). The doctors told us she would be passing that night or the next day. She hung on for two WEEKS. Every bit the proudest of the proud Fighting Irish/from Queens, NY hanging onto to each moment left on Earth. Those 14 days in the hospice suite were the hardest. All of the nurses, night security, cafeteria staff, orderlies, basically every hospital employee knew that the term “visiting hours” did not apply to my mom, sister or me. I was on summer vacation between my sophomore and junior year in high school so I was there almost 24/7 with her.

We were granted a small miracle from heaven one of those days in the hospice fortnight. One night, my grandmother woke up! She had been heavily sedated with morphine to keep her comfortable, was fed through IV, and the doctor’s said that, theoretically, it was impossible for her to be conscious or coherent enough to sit up and talk the way she was. It was truly a miracle. It lasted about an hour, but in that time she talked to my mom, sister and me each in turn and alone. This, of course, what after she sang, “Let Me Entertain You,” to the room.

I don’t know what she said to my mom or my sister, but I will never forget what she said to me. “Kathy, you are quirky and brilliant. You have a strength in you that is special that your mother and sister don‘t have. Take care of them, I worry about them but I know you will be fine, we are survivors. Always stay close to your sister and mother and be strong.”

With that, I told her I loved more than anything in the world and would be fine. That if she saw grandpa (her long-since-passed husband), hitch a ride to heaven with him. We’ll be OK, you can go now.

I, of course, was not OK and many, many mistakes in the years that followed. I don’t regret any of them because they have made me who I am today: a strong, quirky, brilliant, survivor. She passed away shortly thereafter. I stayed awake for the next few days straight to give her the only departing gift I had to offer, an eloquent eulogy worthy of what she meant to me.

The day of the funeral, in a big Catholic Church, I thought I would pass out as I walked to the lectern to read my eulogy. I was certain I would falter, and cry and just as I was about to turn away from the microphone and crumble, I felt HER holding me up at that podium. I was embraced by a warm strength that I know came from her… I read every word clearly and from heart. I wish I had not lost that eulogy, I wish I had made a copy and not left it on the lectern to be thrown out… but I do remember two quotes I began and ended it with:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
DIE NOT, poor Death; not yet canst thou kill me!”
-John Donne (intro poem to John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud”)

…and I finished it with a verse from Longfellow’s Psalm of Life:

“Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate -
Still achieving, still pursuing!
As we learn to labor and to wait.”


  1. It still gave me chills and tears... love you and your strength Kat xo

  2. Yep.. I'm crying :) That is wonerful! I had to laugh about your grandma's bun!! I remember that so clearly! But that story floods my mind with the past. It reminds me how wonderful your grandmother was! And how strong you are :)

  3. I am sorry, I posted this twice, I think... I forgot something VERY IMPORTANT in the original. The line where I say, "...a smiling dragon of barbed innuendos." That is not mine. That was a brilliant quote I have always remembered from Katherine Mosby's, "Twilight."

    Just making sure another wonderful writer gets her credit!

  4. My wonderful, Beautiful sister, Irene, wrote this and corrected a few things on perspective. I never gave her credit for everything she did. I am so sorry I left you out of too much of the story. After a very theraputic, tearful, 90 minute phone session, here is what she has to say:
    2 hours agoIrene Haight
    Grandma's Story Blog

  5. Well, as your sister, I will tell you that "Grandma's story" is well written, which I would expect from you, but I think it is more a well written representation of your side. We all remember in our own way and how we saw it, we think of things we did, wished we did, and regret we did. Here is part of my side. You did not become a grown up that minute and neither did I , you were 13 and I was 17, we were all scared and uncertain and you were going out and taking walks with friends and grandma was chasing you in her car to track you down (acually a funny story).
    You did not go to all her chemo sessions, but you did go. I did, I drove her there and took her home and made her dinner, you had school and I had a college schedule that was flexible, just like I had to drive you to school in the mornings (boy I was not a morning person!).

  6. continuing...

    Grandma did entertain them sometimes with a song and dance, usually an Irish jig and always had good conversation. I slept on the floor in her room on the nights that the chemo made her sick, helped her to the bathroom, and fixed her breakfast and us dinner and made her small portions and we ate on a tray table with her. Interesting quote about Mom, she was quick with her words, but right or wrong, she handled it the only way she knew how.
    Grandma did love her hair and we all cried and she comforted us, but then we all laughed when she was trying on wigs. She had a hysterectomy and I stayed home with her in the mornings before classes until the health aid came. She had a port for chemo put in, and she had monthly chemo and weekly blood work so it never seemed to end. In the end, she had 1 more surgery because she had a blockage in her colon and they found tumors all over her intestines, she then developed an irregular heartbeat and the blood thinner caused her to bleed and the inside stitches to break and caused a blood infection. You were not at the hospital everyday, you had a boyfriend and you were young, you were torn between being a kid and acting grown up.
    I was there almost everyday and when she started to get sicker I slept in an old stretcher next to her bed, mom had the cot, and you were with Aunt Mary Joan because we did not know how sick she was getting and you did not want to be there at night (can't blame you, it was creepy).
    We were there the day her intestines popped out and I ran out of the room and sat on the floor to keep from passing out and you sat with me. When she went to hospice, we were all there, there was a recliner and a pullout sofa for us. She did not pass in a day, but she only made it 6 days, she had been in the hospital for 2 months (I know because it was right after my 19th birthday) and she died in July. And your right, visiting hours did not apply to us, you were not there 24/7 at first, you were freaked out and hated being in the hospital, Mary Joan and your boyfriend would take you to the cafeteria or out for a bit, just like my friends did for me to give us a break. You were there almost 24/7 her last 6 days, except the last one.

  7. (...Still Irene's words)

    Your right, one night she did wake up and said the "Hail Mary" over and over and just repeated "Now and at the hour of our death, Amen" over and over. It really freaked us out. Then she was unconscious again until the morning.
    Then she had a morning of clarity, and spoke to each of us, telling us to love eachother and take care of eachother. When Mom got in the bed with her while Grandma was napping, and said "Mom, I'm coming with you", she quickly opened her eyes and said: "Oh no you're not!" She asked the doctor when she could go home and that was when he told her she was dying, she accepted it and then went to sleep and did not wake up. When it got closer to her dying, Mom had your boyfriend take you out for a break. Mom and I told her it was OK to go, that we would be fine and that we would take care of each other, and then she took her last breath and I sat in Mom's lap and cried and then we had you brought back to the hospital. You were only 15, had already had a panic attack and passed out in a hospital bathroom and Mom was trying to protect you - I know now that you wanted to be there. You did have a beautiful eulogy that I felt did Grandma justice and that it told just how much we loved her and would miss her. You're right, you should have saved it. I cannot remember the quotes you used, but it was beautiful.
    Grandma was a beautiful person, strong and at the same time feminine, but cancer is ugly. Grandma handled her cancer with grace and dignity even to the end and that is what I feel you are trying to portray in your writing, but do not forget that you are not the only one that lost her, that was sad, or that had a role to play in taking care of her or remembering her. Your story is only one side of a loving an all too painful memory for our family

  8. THANK YOU, Irene for your perspective, support and clarity. I love you to death, and am so sorry I never gave you enough credit for the HUGE role that you took on. You are brilliant, becoming a doctor and more than I ever could be!

    KUDOS to the greatest big sister ever!