Funny; last week I wrote about how heart disease seemed to have had more of an impact on my life than cancer, prior to my BC diagnosis. That’s not quite true. I actually started this month’s writing challenge knowing that I wanted to pay tribute at some point to two very important people in my life that I lost thanks to cancer. Today is the day.
I was lucky enough to know all four of my grandparents, as well as three great-grandparents. Since my sister and I were the only grandchildren of both sets of grands, we were definitely spoiled with time, attention and gifts. Some of my earliest memories are of spending the weekend with one or the other sets of grandparents, while my parents got some valuable ‘away’ time. Being so close to my grandparents throughout my childhood meant that it wasn’t easy losing both of my grandfathers to cancer while I was a teenager. My dad’s dad died of lung cancer when I was 14, almost 15, and my mom’s dad died of kidney cancer when I was 19.
Grandpa B was born and raised in Tennessee. While my other 3 grandparents were the offspring of first or second generation immigrants, Grandpa B’s American roots can be traced back to the American Revolution (yep, Daughters of the Revolution documentation and everything) and even into late 1600s colonial America (no Mayflower connections, however). One of his great-great-great grandmothers’ families was one of the early families that settled Boonesborough in the late 18th century and actually survived a Native American Indian attack in Kentucky that killed her parents and 3 other siblings.
My Grandpa B and a number of his brothers moved from Tennessee to Detroit, Michigan in the late 1920s, part of the Great Migration, where he remained for the most part until the 1970s when he retired and moved to Kentucky with my grandmother. We would go visit at least once a year, which was always an adventure.
My favorite memories of my grandfather are how he would arrange for my sister and I to go for a pony or horse ride when we went to visit in Kentucky and that he loved playing pinochle. Oh, and that he grew some of the biggest blackberries I have ever seen in my life!
I only remember a few vague details of my Grandpa B’s experience with cancer, mainly because we lived so far away and so we were very removed from the experience. I do know he had a lot of pain. I have more distinct memories of when he died. I remember being at a sleepover at my friend E’s dad’s house for the weekend. We had gone to a party and E’s dad called to have us come back to his house. E’s dad told me the news and I spent the night. It ended up being one of the loneliest nights of my youth after E fell asleep. I also remember that I didn’t cry until after Grandpa B’s funeral in Kentucky. We were driving behind the hearse to the cemetery along narrow Kentucky roads and cars were pulling over to let the funeral procession pass showing respect for the dead. I had never seen that before growing up in suburban Detroit where everyone is always in a hurry. That sign of tradition and respect finally opened up my tear ducts.
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My Grandpa C, on the other hand, was born and raised in 20s-30s Detroit, a happening place to be–except for the darkest days of the Great Depression when things got so tough that his family had to raise rabbits for food. His dad immigrated from England in 1914, 3 or 4 months before WWI erupted in Europe and actually returned to Europe to fight for the US in 1917, leaving a young wife, my great-grandmother at home. He was part of the occupying army in Germany after Armistice and returned to Detroit in the spring of 1919. Grandpa C’s mother was the daughter of English immigrants who worked throughout WWI (Rosie the Riveters were a big part of WWI as well as WWII).
Grandpa C was a natural swimmer, golfer and story teller. Unfortunately, he had to leave high school before graduation in order to work full time after his dad died and left his mom with 6 children under 18. A hard-worker, often working two jobs with the City of Detroit and a neighborhood gas station–and someone who didn’t “waste money on smoking or drinking”–he and my grandmother had not only bought a comfortable home in Detroit by age 40, but also a cottage on Lake Charlevoix, ‘Up North’ to those of us from the Great Lakes State, in northern Michigan.
The Cottage became the family’s go-to place during the summer and where I learned to swim. I actually spent a number of summers there with my parents, sister and grandparents when my dad was teaching and had the summers off of school. When my dad made a career change in the early 80s, my sister and I would spend the summers with my grandparents at the Cottage with my parents driving Up North most weekends. The Cottage was remodeled and winterized when my grandparents retired. However, they only spent one winter in Northern Michigan before they became snowbirds, dividing their year between the Cottage during the summer and Florida during the winter.
Grandpa C’s battle with cancer hit the family hard. He had gone to the doctor concerned about blood in his urine at some point in 1986, but the doctor told him he was fine. However, by February or March of 1987–during the winter/spring of my freshman year of college and my sister’s senior year of high school–he was diagnosed with kidney cancer while in Florida. He received radiation and made the trek back to Michigan and the Cottage in late-April, early May–just as I wrapped up my school year and headed to the Cottage for the summer to teach swimming lessons during the day and wait tables in the evening.
It was a heartbreaking summer, frankly. Grandpa arrived at the Cottage a weaker version of himself, yet still putting up a good front. However, he slowly declined over the next 4 months. The situation didn’t seem terminal until he was struggling with his energy at my sister’s graduation events in June. It wasn’t terminal until suddenly he no longer had any appetite for my grandmother’s meatloaf or my chocolate chip cookies. It wasn’t terminal until I got into a minor accident with my grandparents car and he couldn’t fix the situation. It wasn’t terminal until this gregarious man no longer wanted to see many people. It wasn’t terminal until my mom and her sister started staying for longer stretches of time to help out my grandmother. It wasn’t terminal until hospice came in and set up a hospital bed in my grandparent’s bedroom. It wasn’t terminal until the morphine, while killing the pain, took away my grandfather’s lucidity. It wasn’t terminal until my sister and I got the call in early September, after I had returned to college for my second year and my sister was starting her freshman year with me at NMU, that my grandfather had passed.
I wish I could go back and take away the pain that cancer causes and re-write both my grandfather’s final days. But that’s not the way this works.
I miss them both.