My grandmother had cancer, and for a long time it didn’t seem real; she was sick, but she wasn’t dying, at least, not in any way you could see. And suddenly you could see it: in her eyes, in her skin, in the way she moved, sat, breathed.
Sitting by her bedside, I remembered her telling me a story, back when we thought it was just a lung infection, how when she was a girl she joined in the fight to have a girl’s basketball team. At the time I remembered being shocked, that it had been so recent as that. That story was her whole life, not always fighting for equality, but always fighting, fiercely, for the right to be herself.
She smoked for years, lifetimes, in the way I’ve counted mine so far. She owned a bar, raised livestock on a ranch. She lived most of my life in Wyoming and Colorado. And even in those last days, as her body failed her greater by the day, her mind remained sharp. I remember sitting with her at the kitchen table, a twinkle in her eye as she threw her brown pills into her purse, rather than take them (I only ever found out they were “poop pills” prescribed by the “poop nazis,” and never why she hated them). And she’d affectionately curse her “goddamn kids” for trying to make her take the Prednisone they couldn’t wean her off of.
I don’t want to sound like I’m romanticizing. It was that same stubbornness that caused her to keep smoking most her life. It was that same stubbornness that made her refuse help at every turn as long as she could, increasing her pain in her last few moments, and inadvertently hurting those of us who stood by, helpless.
And she taught us well. My father remained fiercely independent when it came to her care, reluctant to give up any of his responsibilities, even to sleep; and he remained stubbornly determined to keep smoking, even as that same habit killed his mother in another room. I don’t mean to condemn, or even disparage. We cling to her example with the utmost affection, and because, for her faults, it’s an example worth following.
She was a wonderful lady, who rode into the sunset of this world with her head held high, even if she could no longer hold it up on her own.