Most times I don't believe the things that I tell you over the
phone. Asking you to stay strong and telling you that you're doing
your best isn't helpful to a person under the dark weight of the
situation you've found yourself in. These are weak little statements
that don't encourage a positive mentality but instead distract you
from the very real problems you're facing daily. I cannot imagine the
hardships you face with a mother in chemo and a grandmother passing
away before your eyes. I'm going to write my thoughts down so that
I can read them again before shuffling them back at you when you need
someone to talk to.
Both of my parents are alive. Further, neither of them has had or
currently has a cancer of any type. This isn't to say that they
haven't had their respective shares of health issues - injuries and
illnesses that introduced me, as their child, to the idea that they
will die someday. I've seen my father at his darkest, after losing
his mother, his job and his mobility while rehabilitating from a knee
surgery. I've seen my mother's freshly bruised face after a car
accident and I've seen her weep as memories of her parents, triggered
by Christmas carols, flood back into view.
I have seen both of my parents lose their own parents. Past the
age of eighteen I had no grandparents of my own, just headstones and
stories that make them seem otherworldly. I feel now that I only really knew
my mother's mother, Donna Woodward, a loving, intelligent and deeply
curious woman who shared my interest in science fiction. I watched as Donna faded day by day in a hospital bed,
fearfully dependent on a breathing tube attached to her trachea. I
was a senior in high school with a stupid band and a girlfriend who
would leave me for someone else in only a few months. I didn't
understand why it happened then, why she couldn't or wouldn't hang on
for me or my younger brother Andy. I've heard people wish for a
moment of joy or pleasure to be frozen in time, but back then I wanted to
freeze what time I had left with my grandmother.
This is the context that I have to pull from for thinking about
losing people and keeping them from being lost.
On losing people:
A schism exists between sets of her grandchildren on my mother's
side – those who walked in their high school graduation with Donna
in attendance and those who did not. Donna didn't make it to see me
graduate from Carmel High School in 2008, instead passing away the
winter before and leaving a mark on the holiday season that only a
family can feel. She wasn't there when my brother graduated from
Carmel High School in 2012 either. Each of us sat impatiently on our hands
for hours and when our alphabetical turn came we looked quickly
towards the burst of cheering in the audience to find many familiar
faces, none of them Donna.
We graduated anyway - I in 2008 and Andy in 2012. We collected our
handshakes and our degrees followed in the mail a few weeks later.
Since then I've been published in a book, received a Bachelor of Arts
in journalism from Ball State University, toured around the United
States playing music and moved across the country with no job, house
or realistic plan. I've lost my virginity, tried drugs and fell in
love more than a few times. I've put my heart into things that fell
apart, been scared for my life and eaten things that no one should
eat and Donna missed it all.
This isn't to say that you'll be fine without June, your
grandmother. Donna's followed me and my family in the unconditional
love of the two cats she left behind, Frankie and Johnnie. Of those
cats only Frankie remains in my parents' home as a connection to her
world. I think of my grandmother when I watch any Star Trek series
because odds are that I watched any given episode with her. She's in my
thoughts when I eat spaghetti because even though I haven't eaten
meat in ten years I can taste her recipe. Thinking about her now I
see the cottonwood tree in her backyard and remember the space we had
as grandchildren to run and laugh and play when we were at her home.
This is what memories become with time. I remember the good things
and the comfortable things, but try to forget the bad bits. I try not
to think about the look in her eyes when she became scared to drive
her own car because it steals from the image I want to remember her
in. I want to remember her falling asleep with me and Andy at the
movies or singing in her church choir, not for the time she spent in
It's okay to remember her that way. This is important, that I can
control my own ideas about what I've lost and what I still have. This
is how I learned to move on while holding onto the parts of someone still special to me.
On keeping people:
I don't have much experience for keeping others alive and well.
I don't take care of myself and so it seems strange to
push a state of disrepair onto someone else. It takes a lot of
external motivation for me to see a doctor and even more support for
me to act on their professional advice. I am the boy who cut his
poison-ivy covered arm with sandpaper and poured hydrogen peroxide
over the wound to kill the rash. I am the boy who waited for his
roommates to notice that his foot had turned black and drive him to a
hospital to find that he'd torn the tendons in his ankle two weeks after trying to jump over a wall.
Taking care of your mother Sandy is foreign to me because the most
that I do for my mother is place a regular phone call and sign
greeting cards for greeting card-justified events. I care for others
in the ways that I care for myself, like cooking food or cleaning the
bathroom. The hard part for me is to put the caring into real,
selfless actions, and now that I've moved from Indianapolis to
Oakland it feels as though there is no tangible way for me to help you
besides sitting patiently on the other end of a phone call. I've seen
cancer in friends and family from a circle much farther out than the circle you're in now and I have seen its mass flatten those
surrounded by it.
I know that every single day can seem impossible. I know that just
the idea of a doctors appointment can be stressful. This will not be
easy. You've fallen into a position that you did not ask for and that
you cannot reject. I know that you feel that you can't escape and
that your time isn't your own. Plans are put on hold while your
social life crumbles. I know you feel selfish and tired. The bad news
is that it doesn't get easier. The good news is that even though
these smaller pieces of the mess seem impossible you need to remember
that cancer is not. Cancer is beatable. Sandy can beat cancer. You
have to push yourself and your mother and your father to work to get
through this, but you have to remember that it is not impossible.
For all of this I am deeply and undeniably sorry. The only thing
that I or anyone who isn't medically or financially qualified can do
for you or your mother is to sit and listen and try to make you laugh
and forget about the horrible mess that you're going through, even
for just one minute. I'm more than two-thousand miles away and if you
call and ask me I will tell you that you're doing your best and make
a joke. Or I'll stay quiet on the other end and you can say to me
whatever you need to.
Always your friend,