I can’t force myself to say the word. The word that has been ringing through my head all day. It stings and bites even thinking about it. Saying it makes it a real, concrete truth. It burns my tongue when the word begins to swell inside of me. I can’t speak, but I manage to produce briny tears making my face shine and burn red.
Fighting for life isn’t a novel concept to my grandparents. In fact, my grandfather has been in the ring six times with this deadly opponent. The first time was with an infamous adversary, stage 4 lung cancer. Even though I was 6 years old, I knew he would survive. I knew he would fight. I’ve never met a person as hardheaded as Vernon Biggs. He argues about price-matching chicken breast at the local Macon county supermarket. Why wouldn’t he fight for his life too? I didn’t think for one second he would be knocked out of the ring, but my grandmother, Nana, is different. She’s soft and tender. She melts at the sight of her grandchildren and loves the concept of love. How will she fare in the ring? Sue versus liver cancer. Unimaginable.
She is invincible. Of course, she has a few health problems but nothing this serious.
I see the mischievous twinkle in her eye as the nurse, Melinda, administers pain medication intravenously. It makes me queasy thinking about it much less watching the process from her bedside. She still has her defiance and wit. That’s for sure.
The hospital gown is a foreign object on her body. It doesn’t fit; it’s coming off where the neck ties. Sue belongs in a classy, silk nightgown, one that makes her soft when you hug her. Normally, she smells faintly of baby lotion and lavender, but the hospital replaces that smell with a sterile, impersonal stench. A scent that makes her like every other patient in this miserable hospital.
Sitting at the hospital, I look at her. Not her appearance or her surroundings, I look at her, Sue Biggs. The sweet countenance that has impacted the 40-plus members of our family. She’s a little kid lying in a hospital bed with a 75-year-old body. She’s my protector and confidant, but she’s also my friend and partner-in-crime. She’s the matriarchal legacy of our family.
Recently, my grandmother was diagnosed with a rare type of liver cancer. Cholangiocarcinoma intrahepatic bile duct cancer of the liver. In North America, only 2,000 people have it. Without treatment, the radiologist gave her six months to live. Six months. Roughly 180 days of life. With treatment, her life will be prolonged a few years. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to have cancer. Neither one of my grandparents deserve it.
She asked me what we were going to do when her hair started to fall out. I joke about tattooing her head, but I already know the real answer. I will shave my head and give her my hair. She deserves to feel beautiful. Anyway, my hair is long enough, and I can grow mine back. After all, it’s just hair. I’ve always wanted to shave my head.
I can remember when I was around 10 years old; I had a conversation with her about my hair color. Her eyes moved slowly across my long hair. She was taking in the way it reflected light and shone as I tilted my head to and fro. Not long after, she dyed her silver wisps to a golden brown hue similar to mine. I wonder if she remembers that conversation now.
I want her to see me in my white dress. I want to see that twinkle in her eye caused by the cataracts slowly forming. I want her to be my flower girl. A unique twist to the typical wedding ceremony. I can’t help but feeling selfish for thinking about my wedding at a time like this.
I know this happens to millions of people each year. I know I shouldn’t focus on the bad. I should focus on the 21 years of memories I have with her, but I’m selfish. I want more. I want a guarantee she will see me graduate from college and get married. I want a guarantee she will stay with me forever, providing that constant aura of protection and security she brings everywhere she goes.
Sleep and concentration evade me. Over the course of the month, my mind has raced but remained empty at the same time. These continuous thoughts have led to a small epiphany.
I have no control over this nightmare, but I have the opportunity to change the experience. No, I can’t change the outcome of this disease, but I can enjoy my grandparents as much as possible. I can call them, write them and visit them whenever I want. Showing them how much I love them is free and seemingly effortless. I’m reminded of a rule, a quote rather, from one of my favorite movies “Zombieland.” Rule No. 32: Enjoy the little things.
I can memorize the way their house smells when I walk into the sunroom. I will take in the taste of a Saturday morning brunch after a lazy start. I will enjoy the late night movies sitting in their bed with a Coca-Cola and extra butter popcorn.
Coping with the situation isn’t easy; writing is my mean of processing the shock. This journey won’t be easy for anyone. In fact, I’m expecting it to be a heavyweight-boxing match, but I’m glad I have the opportunity to continue enjoying both of my grandparents. I plan to soak up their company, whether that is six months or 60 years.