Over the past few weeks, three people that I knew have died from cancer. Although I didn't know any of them very closely, I spent time with them or their family in some capacity and the grief is hitting me as though they were my own family. I suppose in a way, they were. The grief from a death by cancer is personal because my Nonna died a few years ago from that same silent killer. So, the people who have passed recently, they are not only family because I worked with them, or call their children friends, but they are my Nonna. I am reminded of her final days and how every moment I spent with Nonna I was trying to soak in everything. I hung on every word that she said trying to remember her accent, trying to record the words so I wouldn't forget them. Trying to take in the details of her hands that had cooked us so many our of our favorite meals and trying to imprint on my memory the special way she would say my name.
My nonna always told me I was her angel and that I saved her life. During her first round of cancer, she had a surgery to remove the masses that were on her ovaries and diaphragm. I stayed the night with her in the hospital and I woke up to the sound of her not being able to breathe and quickly called the nurses in who were able to help. My nonna was always convinced that if it wasn't for me, she would've died in that hospital room. Maybe that's true, who really knows, but the bond we shared throughout my life was strengthened that night I spent with her and I wished that when the cancer returned I could've done more to help her.
I recently came across something I wrote just after my Nonna died and I had never shared it because everytime I read it the grief was unbearable, but today I read it and with a tear in my eye I smiled remembering these precious moments
Today, my husband, my brother, his girlfriend [now wife] and I went to Nonno and Nonna’s house to make her dinner. Nonna was laying in bed when we got there and we slowly helped her out so she could sit in the recliner. I brought my computer so I could show her some home videos of when my brother and I were no more than 5 and 6 years old. I saw her light up again. Color came back in her face and she was laughing and reminiscing about how bossy I was and my brother's shyness.
As my brother helped her out of the chair and into the kitchen, she lost all the color in her face and had to lay back down. She curled up on the couch, breathing slow and deep. Everyone gathered in the kitchen to eat and I sat by the couch. She grabbed my hand, pulled it to her face and just lay there with her eyes closed. She looked at me and said, “I’m sorry you have to see me like this.” Trying to hold back tears I said, “No, Nonna. I love you so much.” And she just pulled me closer to her chest and as I could feel her tears come, I couldn’t hold mine back anymore. She put my face in her hands and looked into my eyes and with tears in hers, she said, “you just remember that in the end, it’s just you two. No matter how many kids you have, in the end, it will just be you and Jon. You love your kids. You do your best to teach them right, but you always take care of Jon. God first. Then Jon. You don’t always have to be right. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes he’s right, but you always have to love. And you remember to not worry about tomorrow. And yesterday is already gone. Today is the most important day you have.” It was as if this avalanche of thoughts and advice were flowing out of her, knowing she didn't have much time to share.
I looked at her and said, “Nonna, I just hope I’ve made you proud.” She said, “You have always made me proud. In everything you have done. Even when I didn’t like it because I knew you would work everything out and you would be ok.” Then, she said, “You are my namesake and I will always be looking for you and after you. I will always be with you, no matter where I am. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to tell you that there has always been a special corner of my heart that was only for you.”
As much as I wish we didn’t have to have moments like these that are so terrifying and emotional, I feel so blessed that we had the chance to sit next to Nonna and let her tell us everything. And let us tell her everything. So, in the end, there are no regrets. She said she was GLAD God gave her cancer because it has allowed her the opportunity for moments like those. She said she wasn't mad at God. “People get mad at God and that’s stupid. He always knew what would happen. And He has allowed me the chance to do everything I ever wanted in my life. And I have been so blessed.”
We laughed together as Nonno tried to explain to everyone in the other room that he and Dominic are actually smarter than the people in the room that went to college because they let everyone else go to college FOR them. She reminisced about a time I tried to run away from home. She only lived a few doors down and I showed up at her door and didn’t say anything, but she knew. (Because she always did.) She said, “You were so stubborn. So strong-willed. And you would never take any shit from anyone because you are strong. Always be strong.” She beckoned Jon to sit next to me because it was his turn to receive her wisdom. She spoke of love, and fortresses, and said, "Jon, I love you because she loves you. And because you love her. In the end, because of your love for each other and your love for God, you will be ok. Just remember that.”
Dominic and I helped her up to go eat in the kitchen. She sat in her chair and leaned on my brother as he fed her dinner. Something about that scene was powerful to me. Both beautiful and heartbreaking. Nonna, who was such a rock and centerpiece to the family, who had once fed us as we sat on her lap, was now receiving the love and sacrifice she had shared for so many years. When she felt too weak to continue at the table, we brought her back to the couch where she grabbed my hand and made me hold it on her chest as she breathed deeply and slowly ate her dinner.
I don't ever want to forget that moment. I never want to forget what she said to me because I know that she intended for me not to. I write and I remember that this is exactly why writers write. For the real moments to be shared and remembered no matter how painful they are. Because people want to know they aren’t alone.
At the end of the evening, Nonno decided it was time for Nonna to go to bed. He came over to her, leaned over and said, “I wish I could help you up. Well, I never could and I never will.” So Nonna laughed and told me, “I was always too heavy for him. He couldn’t even carry me across the threshold!” I said, “well it’s the thought that counts”. Nonno started dancing and said, “58 years of paradise. Well, you know what they say I guess. All things come to an end.” I said, “They come to an end here Nonno, but you get to keep dancing in heaven. And there, Nonna will be weightless and you’ll be Arnold Schwarzenegger”.
Not long after that, Nonna would go home to Jesus. My dad, my brother, and I were there, holding her hand and though in that moment we were filled with grief, I was praising God that she wasn't in pain and that she was home. A friend posted this quote upon the recent passing of a friend, wife, and mother of 4. It's from The Last Battle in the Chronicles of Narnia:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...Come further up, come further in!”
How beautiful a picture it is. The dichotomy of the grief we feel when we lose someone we love. We mourn the loss of their physical presence, and yet rejoice that they have come home at last. I miss my Nonna. There are days with Brighton where I think of her and know she would've loved her. And like a gentle breeze, the grief comes and goes, and is replaced with peace.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 For everything that happens in life—there is a season, a right time for everything under heaven: A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to collect the harvest; A time to kill, a time to heal; a time to tear down, a time to build up; A time to cry, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, a time to dance; A time to scatter stones, a time to pile them up; a time for a warm embrace, a time for keeping your distance; A time to search, a time to give up as lost; a time to keep, a time to throw out; A time to tear apart, a time to bind together; a time to be quiet, a time to speak up; A time to love, a time to hate; a time to go to war, a time to make peace.