Celebrating Life

I mentioned yesterday that today is a busy day – I am going to both a memorial day cookout thing for our department and a wedding! In a way, I am very glad for this, because I will be distracted from something very sad by multiple celebrations happiness, friendship, and love. Warning: personal, sad and sentimental post ahead.

Today would have been my maternal grandmother’s 64th birthday. Yes, you read that right – she didn’t even qualify for some senior citizen discounts yet when she passed away just a few months ago (January).

She was the first family member that I was very close to that passed away – I have been lucky to have very young parents who had very young parents, so everyone in my family is relatively young. I had prepared myself for the eventual passing of my grandfathers (they both have chronic, albeit largely manageable health problems) but both of my grandmother’s were young and relatively healthy, so I was completely unprepared when I found out that this grandmother had cancer.

Because of my family situation, I am very close to all of my grandparents. My parents were not just young, they were teen parents, and they ended up staying home to live with their parents until my mom finished her master’s degree when I was about 6-7. While custody, as I recall it, was split pretty evenly, so I became close to all my grandparents, I lived primarily with my mom at her parents’ house, so I definitely became very close to my maternal grandparents. Even after my parents moved in together and we had our own home, I would often spend nights at these grandparents’ house because my parents worked so late into the evening. In fact, I believe that there has never been a point in my life where I did not have my own bedroom at their house (although now that I am grown up and moved away, it has become a bit more of a generic guestroom).

After moving away, I became particularly close to this grandmother, in part because she was quite technologically advanced. My other grandparents can barely use their cell phones; my maternal grandmother helped me shop for my first laptop when I got it as a high school graduation present…and helped me shop for the laptop I am typing this on via Skype from her hospital bed only a few weeks before passing away. Because of her use of Skype, we were able to talk almost daily (I do call my other grandparents every few weeks, it’s just super easy to send a quick message over Skype which enables a lot of conversation).

She was also there for me a lot in person. She loved to travel more than anyone else in my family, so she came to visit me a lot after I moved away. She helped me hunt for apartments and move two times during graduate school (I’m honestly dreading moving without her, she was very good at cleaning). She also came all the way out here for my MA graduation (because I am working on my PhD, at the time, her coming out here seemed silly, but I’m really glad she did now) and always came for visits with my parents. She extended the same care and attention to others, as well – attending graduations of nieces and nephews and helping them move thousands of times during college in other states; thinking to stop and visit my husband when driving through his town even though I wasn’t there; remembering to send presents for my roommate in the care packages she sent me. She was very thoughtful and truly supportive of everyone that she cared about. These comments do not even touch the surface of all that she did for me – she is the one who taught me to sew, for example, which is something I have not touched on at all. The point is that she was a lovely person whose passing came far too early, and far too fast.

To make a broader, less personal point, I will end this post by talking about the disease that killed her: esophageal cancer. Basically, it was caused by being plagued by ulcers and acid reflux her whole life, meaning that it is not really that preventable. It kills very quickly, largely because there are no symptoms until it is too late. Once the disease is apparent enough to be noticed, it basically spreads more quickly than it can be treated.  For reference of how quickly this disease kills, she started to feel discomfort with swallowing around June/July and after speaking with her family doctor, simply changed her acid reflux treatment and began to feel a bit better. Below is a picture of her (she is the redhead in blue) at my wedding on August 11, 2012, before we knew anything was wrong. She did not find out there were any abnormal issues until August 28 (I remember the date because my husband was in the hospital too, long, off topic story), when she found out that she had an ulcer. It was not until early October, however, that they were able to determine that the ulcer was cancerous. They began treatment, with the plan of eventual surgery, but on January 3 (my husband’s birthday) she became very ill and entered the hospital. The scans showed that the cancer had spread despite treatment, and she passed away only weeks later. Less than 6 months passed between her diagnosis and her passing – in fact, 6 months before, she had been this healthy and happy:

Before she was diagnosed, I had never really heard of anyone getting esophageal cancer other than smokers/chewers. I also did not know that it was so deadly (I think the 5 year survival rate is something like 12%). There is not much one can do to prevent it, as it’s not like you can really prevent having acid reflux/past ulcers, but people who are plagued with these problems can get regular screenings, because those who do catch the cancer early are those that have hope.

Eff cancer, and remember to give attention to those other than the “big” ones like breast cancer (still important, yo, I have relatives who died from this, but it def gets more attention than things like this). And remember to celebrate and enjoy life 🙂

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