by Tara Eng
I remember my grandmother mostly for her battles against varying types of cancer. I can’t recall a time when she wasn’t sick; she was twice a survivor, but ultimately succumbed to the malignant cells diffusing within her. She never gave technology a chance to breathe life back into her translucent body, and at the time, when her signature gave power to a DNR, I didn’t understand the technicalities of such a medical order.
My transition into middle school was spent in Long Island, New York, packed into a dimly lit hospital room with my disconnected and estranged extended family. We spent odd hours of the week huddled around the bed of my frail and delicate grandmother, chilled by the radiator and memorizing the rhythmic beep of her heart rate monitor, tuning out the robotic breaths of her oxygen mask. My summer break was spent savoring those last moments of my grandmother’s life instead of the sunshine, studying her face, trying to memorize features of her that I can’t bring myself to picture six years later.
Or, at least, that’s how I wish it went.
It’s true that I spent my summer at North Shore hospital – but not overwhelmed by the sickly smell of antiseptic or the looming Grim Reaper. When I was entering the sixth grade, I wasn’t quite old enough to comprehend the permanence of death and the stages of grief that came with it, or the unrelenting viciousness of cancer. I wasn’t familiar with the emotional way it tears people apart.
I spent my summer right outside of North Shore, pressed up against the brick wall in the sticky-hot rays of the sun, drawing stick figures on the pavement in sidewalk chalk while my grandmother quietly passed away inside. Death still loomed over me, but not in the way that it should have.
I didn’t understand that my grandmother wasn’t invincible. I didn’t understand that doctors weren’t superhumans who walked on water and could heal her with a flick of the wrist. I didn’t think she was dying, until she was. And then I was scared.
I was scared to see my grandmother hooked up to all these different beeping machines, making loud, disruptive noises, and displaying graphics that didn’t make sense to me. I was afraid of the deep redness of blood, afraid of the trays of needles that the nurses carried with them in the morning. I couldn’t make sense of the big words the doctors were throwing at my parents, the secret conversations they were having, and why my mom cried when she thought I was asleep. I was afraid of the woman I recognized more as cyborg than my sick grandmother, unable to comprehend what had become of her, intimidated by the whirring of the machines monitoring her every breath and heartbeat. As more and more wires appeared, I spent less and less time in her room, but my family stayed longer. And it was for that reason that I stayed with her only five minutes the day before she lost her battle.
At what point do we look fear in the eye?
If I could relive that summer, I wouldn’t want it to be anything but quiet, gut-wrenching sadness. I would trade brick walls for bare hospital rooms, sidewalk chalk for my grandmother’s delicate hand, summer sun for clunky air conditioning. My ideal summer would have been to spend every last second in that room with my grandmother and my family, alienated from each other, but brought together by Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Three years later, doctors pointed to a tumor in the black and white images of my father’s abdomen. The thin sheets of film revealed a rare, beautiful monster, 5.6 centimeters in diameter, fastened to the end of his large intestine begrudgingly. My family gathered in a different dimly lit hospital room, closer to home.
Despite the beeps, tubes, and wires, I clung to his side every second of the way.