“When someone is in your heart, they’re never truly gone. They can come back to you, even at unlikely times.” – Mitch Albom
Losing a loved one is never easy. No matter how old you are, how much or little time you got to spend with them, death doesn’t discriminate. It’s an absolutely soul crushing experience that leaves a void in your heart and tears in your eyes. It hurts; it’s a horrible thing to go through. The only thing worse is being on another continent while its all happening.
My grandmother was the definition of a fighter. She could kick Mohammad Ali’s ASS in the ring. She survived breast cancer not once, but TWICE and had a double mastectomy. She kept swinging after open-heart surgery and pushed through the recovery with a box of wine always close by. I hear people say a lot, “it’s not fair that bad things happen to good people” – people get kicked while they’re down all the time but its their resiliency and determination of characters that gets them climbing back up again (cue I get Knocked Down by Chumbawamba).
In August 2012 (August 7th to be exact – the day before my parents 25th wedding anniversary), my family friends were down visiting from Chicago, it was also their 25th. It was a scorcher of a day and we were all sitting outside on the back deck with brews in hand. Our friends weren’t sure if they were going to be able to make it from the States as the father, Dan’s, mother just passed from breast cancer. I headed inside for some shelter from the heat when the phone rang; it was my grandparents. The conversation went a little something like this:
“Hi, Nannie! How are you?”
“Hi Liv, I’m fine, is your mother there?”
“Yup, she’s just talking with Dan and Bridget [our friends from the States].”
“Okay. Tell her my mammogram results came back negative…”
“Have they told you?”
“Never mind, I’ve said too much already. I love you, go have fun with the kids.”
“Okay. Love you too, bye.”
Then I pulled my dad aside upstairs to investigate. The phone call didn’t make sense to me, she had already had a double mastectomy years before, how could she have a mammogram if she had already had her breasts removed? I confront my Dad and uncomfortable silence fills the room. I could slice the air with a knife it was so thick and ear piercingly quiet.
“Yeah, she has cancer … again. This time it’s in her bones. None of the other grandchildren know yet. Go get dressed, we’re heading out sightseeing with the Urquharts,” my Dad said.
You know that moment on a carnival ride when your chair shoots up to the top and you can see the rest of the rides from your vantage point? They keep you up there just long enough for the tension to build in your stomach and you start to think maybe they won’t make the drop? At that moment, I was suspended mid-air with zero gravity. My heart stopped, my breathing stopped, my body froze.
Three times? How much can one person take??? What had she done to deserve this death sentence? I had just been run over, and reversed on by the cancer truck, for the third time.
A week and a half later, I moved to the other side of Canada for a four-month internship for university. On the way to the airport, I go and visit her in the palliative care section of the hospital; she just began radiation. As I’m leaving, my grandmother hands me a card and instructs me not to read it until I get on the plane. I couldn’t bring myself to read that letter for weeks.
Four months go by and I’m soon back home and wrapped in the salty air of the East Coast of Canada. She’s still holding on.
Fast-forward three years; she’s the longest living patient in the palliative care ward at the hospital. If you don’t know what palliative care is, it’s where patients go during their final stages of life; typically it’s a short stay. She’s made it this far, she’s invincible, and nothing can touch her – that was all of our mentality.
I wanted to go travelling; after eighteen years of school I wanted to start my life and do things the way I wanted. I was presented with two options: 1) sit around and wait for something bad to happen or, 2) assume she’s hung on for this long, she’ll continue to for years more to come. After weeks of deliberation, I chose option two.
Was I running away from the stress and heartache of watching her deteriorate? Absolutely. Did it make it any easier being aware of that? No.
On July 24, 2014 I left home for a month and a half of backpacking followed by my big move to London on the Youth Mobility visa. I was finally happy with my life, I finally felt that I was in control of my own path. In the span of those first, short ten months, I had visited sixteen countries, each one leaving a piece of my heart but also each place giving me subtle reminders of home and the reality I had abandoned. I always had a nagging feeling inside that made me feel guilty for not being at home while my family was spending 7 days a week at the hospital taking turns spending the night with my grandmother. Why wasn’t I there with her?
April 8th, 2015 I was in a knock off Hard Rock Café bar in Moscow, it was our final night in Russia. My parents were in visiting my grandmother at the hospital and I decided to FaceTime them. My Dad said prior to my call my grandmother was lifeless and just lying there. As soon as I phoned, she perked right up and began talking to me. We didn’t talk about much but hearing her voice meant a lot to me.
April 12th, 2015. When I went to bed that night, I had this strange feeling take over me, I said my goodbyes, cried my eyes out, and then felt at peace. It was 1:30am London time , my phone was on silent but I knew it was ringing. Before I even answered I just knew. It was the call we were all dreading.
It was one of the only times I saw my Dad cry and it was soul shattering. I wanted to be there so bad to hug him and catch his tears but instead, I was 4,621 km’s away in my room, alone. I booked my flight home that night and left the following morning for the lonely 6.5 hour flight. Those 6.5 hours were spent in silence. No music. No movies. No talking. Just sitting and remembering. I brought the letter my grandmother gave me before I went off on my internship and read it about 12 times. I now keep that letter, along with an angel pin of hers, in my backpack and take it everywhere I go.
Was it an easier decision to be away and removed while it was all happening? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In the end it all crashes down on you with even more force, because now you start to blame yourself. How could I not have been there? What would I have done if I were home? Would it have made a difference?
It’s hard to come to terms with things and to accept that there really isn’t much else I could have done. The cancer was eating away at her, the drugs were consuming her, and slowly she was becoming someone else. All anyone could do was to just be there and hold out hope.
My short week home was a fast, glazed over haze filled with family visits, funeral planning, and hugs. It was good to see everyone and be together, obviously under different circumstances would have been better. It also helped me to realize that I made the right decision in making the leap to London.
Dealing with death is hard, it’s probably the worst thing in the world but at the end of the day, you’re not alone. Everyone will pass one day but it’s the time spent and the love and laughs shared that will live on, forever.
“You are immortal; you’ve existed for billions of years in different manifestations, because you are life, and life cannot die. You are in the trees, the butterflies, the fish, the air, the moon, the sun. Wherever you go, you are there, waiting for yourself.” – Don Miguel Ruiz