I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this post. I’ve been struggling for weeks to write something because my life has been such a hectic whirlpool of change since my last post that I don’t think I’ll even be able to recount all of it here. Emotions have run the gamut of celebration to grief to confusion and anger and emptiness to numb acceptance.
I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. Let’s see if I can manage to touch on everything that’s happened since I built my chicken coop.
I had fully meant to document the process behind the chicken coop’s construction, but days after I started work on it, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.
This is a very personal story and I don’t know if it’s one my family would appreciate me sharing, but it’s one I need to tell. I’ve been holding this all in for over a month now and I’m afraid that in not speaking of it, I’m going to be just as torn as when my other grandmother died of cancer in 2004.
At the end of April, my grandmother, who I’ve lived next door to since 2001, was rushed to the hospital because of severe swelling in her legs. The doctors there did a series of tests and scans and whatnot and discovered a tumor in her colon. It was concerning but from everyone’s understanding, it didn’t seem like it was that dangerous as of yet. Surgery was scheduled for a few days later so the doctors could get a better look and see what they could do to remove or at least minimize its danger.
On the morning of the surgery, my brother, mother, aunt, and a few other family members were at the hospital to show support for my grandmother and to be there in case of anything. We’re a family of worriers, so it was normal for as many of us to be there as there was. It was around 9:30am when my grandmother was wheeled in to the operating room. She was smiling as she always did, making her cute, snappy little comments and jokes.
About an hour later, the two surgeons emerged from the operating room. I was immediately concerned; surgeries aren’t usually that short, and the doctors were pale and grave. It took them a few seconds to make their way over to us, where they asked, “You’re Marie’s family?” The tone of their voices was troubled and shaky. Prior to the surgery, my mother had informed me that each of these surgeons were considered to be some of the best in the state, so I feared the worst. But the worst wasn’t, in fact, the worst.
The surgeons informed us that my grandmother was being sent to recovery and that they had given her a colostomy because the tumor was blocking her tract. They also said some words that will forever be engraved upon my mind and my heart: “The cancer isn’t just in the colon. It’s spread everywhere. Her colon, her stomach, her stomach lining, in her hernia, spotting on the liver…” and as he continued to explain just how far the cancer had spread, the world swirled around me and I felt something like a punch to my gut. The doctors informed us that there was nothing they could do to get rid of the cancer. Treatment would at best make my grandmother too ill, and at worst kill her. Surgery wasn’t possible to remove the cancer. And on top of all that, the surgeons were both worried that she wouldn’t even recover from the relatively simple surgery they had done already. “She may not even last through the weekend,” they said, in the softest and most caring and obviously pained tone. The tortured grimace of both of these professional doctors will haunt me forever; they were very clearly empathizing with how me and my family felt, and they have my undying respect and gratitude for that. It meant a lot to me.
No one would ever say I’m a positive person. I call myself a realistic pessimist. I always assume and prepare for the worst with the understanding that the worst very often doesn’t come to pass. But even with my realistic pessimism, I wasn’t prepared for what the surgeons were telling us. I had assumed they wouldn’t be able to remove the tumor, but I expected them to at least contain it and minimize its impact enough to give my grandmother a few more good years of life. But I knew that what the doctor had just explained was effectively a death sentence. I left the waiting room and ran outside and very literally screamed before collapsing against the railing and crying. What else can someone do when presented with news like that?
At the time, I worked at the same grocery store I’d been at since 2013. Knowing the next few days would be rough, I knew there was no way I’d be able to work, especially if in the next few days my grandmother could pass away. I called work with a shaky voice and asked to speak to the manager-on-duty, which turned out to be one of my best friends Samantha. (She trained me and mentored me and gave me the heads-up for my promotion to bookkeeper after only four months of working there and she’s one of the people who I’ll always have a very deep respect for. I can’t imagine having had a better boss.) Through sobs I explained the situation to her and she said to take the time off that I needed to be with my family and let her know if anything happened. Removing the work obligation for the next few days would prove to help me to cope with things a bit better over the next few days.
For the next few days, I effectively lived at the hospital with my grandmother. She’s always been like a second mother to me, and with having the fortune of living next door to her, I spent a huge amount of time with her. I trusted her implicitly and was very close to her. I slept overnight at the hospital a couple of times. When she lived on through the weekend, my fears started to subside a bit, though I did have a panic attack in the middle of the week, forcing me to rush to the hospital at 10pm with a sense of looming dread. Prior to leaving the house to get to the hospital, I told my dad how I felt and he told me to do what I felt was right. So I raced to the hospital and literally ran through the halls to her room just to check on her and ended up staying the night once more.
Two student nurses had my grandmother as one of their few patients, and they took exceptionally good care of her. I’m forever grateful to them for how much they looked after her and to their instructor for her constant guidance and kindness. One of the student nurses, Laryssa, went into the operating room with my grandmother on the day of her surgery. During one of my daily stays at the hospital, Laryssa had some downtime and we ended up talking about the surgery. It really hit me hard when she explained how she visually observed the cancer in my grandmother. “It was everywhere,” she told me, before crying herself.
Against the odds, my grandmother managed to recover enough to be transferred to a nursing home for rehab and preparation to go home. A few days before the transfer, we asked the doctors what her prognosis is. “I can’t tell you, no one can. Who’s to say how long any of us have left on this earth? She’s in God’s hands.” His words gave us hope that, perhaps, she’d have a few years left afterall. Her cancer was very bad, of course, but through conversations with him, he told us that it was a long-developing cancer that she had for at least five years, but more likely 10. He also dropped the bomb that if it had been caught when it first started forming, she would have been very easily cured. (Note: if you haven’t had a colonoscopy, go get checked. It’s painless and can potentially save your life. And make sure your (grand)parents get checked too, especially if there’s family history of colon cancer.)
The nursing home my grandmother went to was one she was previously at a few years past and one in which the nurses and staff were familiar with and loved her. That’s the thing about my grandmother: she loved everyone – her mailman, her laundry man, her landscaper, friends of mine she never even met but knew only through stories, people’s pets and animals, everyone. This caused her to be universally loved, in turn, such as how her two student nurses loved her while they took care of her. She was very easy-going but sure of herself; she very rarely complained except in the most dire of moments, and very often suffered instead of feeling like she was putting anyone out. (“Can I please put up your curtains for you?” “No no, they can wait!” – a typical exchange of me offering to do something for her, and her not letting me because she thought she’d be putting me out. I’d eventually learn to just do things for her without asking first.) If you’re in the medical field, she was essentially the perfect patient.
A return to normalcy
With my grandmother’s strength returning and her success in physical therapy and getting used to the colostomy bag, life started to return to normal. I finished building the chicken coop and bought the chickens. During my grandmother’s hospital stay, I had her think up names for the two hens. She finally settled on Penelope and Serafina.
Daisy investigating the coop and run just before I finished it
During this time, I was also job-hunting. As much as I loved my bookkeeper position, full-time positions were very rarely offered by my company and at the age of 25, I couldn’t really justify waiting much longer to get a full-time job and start making decent pay. I applied to something like 75 different jobs and eventually got a call back from one of them and began the interview process as a merchandiser for a soda company. I swear I could be a professional interviewee because interviews have always been a breeze for me and I was offered the job a few days later, prompting me to put my notice in at the grocery store.
My grandmother knew how much I loved my co-workers and kept saying, “aww but why do you want to leave your job? Stick around!” and as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t deal with the pay and limited hours in comparison to the responsibilities and stress I dealt with. After my interview, I went to the store to give my notice and saw Sam. “I have bad news,” I said to her, and she immediately froze and said “oh no,” thinking it was something to do with my grandmother. Always the awkward conversationalist, I quickly explained that my grandmother was fine, much to Sam’s relief, and hesitantly explained that I was offered another job and was going to take it. I felt like I was letting Sam and the store down – in many ways, I was Sam’s right-hand and did my best to assist her with her managerial duties and with helping the store maintain a 100% mystery shop rating. Thankfully, Sam was more than understanding and was genuinely happy for me finding a new job. In my last two weeks there, I tried my best to ensure a smooth transition and ended up writing a 14-page guidebook for my replacement and new bookkeeping trainees and heard they’ve all been using it(!). I jokingly refer to it as my legacy.
A new chapter
My brother and I framed this for a Mother’s Day gift to my grandmother
With a full-time job and corresponding pay, I began my search for an apartment, mostly in an attempt to figure out what fell in my budget range. That led me to finding an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, something that was clean and safe and secure and definitely within my budget (well, stretching it some, but…). After a lot of thought, I eventually signed a lease for my first apartment with a move-in date of September 1.
“But why do you want to move out of your parent’s? You should wait until you’re married!” said my grandmother, with a bit of a frown but proud of me nonetheless. She was always a very traditional woman – my uncle didn’t move out until he was married, so naturally, I should live with my parents until I was married too. But it’s hard to even have a girlfriend when you’re 25 and living at home.
She talked about how she was going to buy me a crockpot when she felt better. She spoke with great pride about how I was the third of her six grandchildren to be moving out and how we were all grown up. But she was not without infrequent despair; there were a few times where she said “I’m never going to get out of this place” and even more rare were the times she asked, “Why am I even bothering?” “Because you have a lot left to live for. You have to see the rest of us get married and see my apartment and you have a great-granddaughter who you need to see grow up!” Thankfully, these negative comments were few and far between; she didn’t really know nor comprehend the full extent of the cancer, but her mind never faltered and her faith was never, ever in question.
Around Mother’s Day, my grandmother went down to the nursing home’s salon for a haircut. I stopped by to see her after work and was shocked at how beautiful she looked with her new haircut. It was different than how she usually wore her hair and her color was starting to return to her face along with strength to her body, so I took a picture, much to her consternation. (She disliked having pictures taken and would be highly upset if she knew I put this online.) This immediately became my favorite picture of her because it captures her essence perfectly. She has her trademark amused smile that hints at her waiting snarkiness and wit.
I started my new job on June 13 and had a rough go of things at first. The drive was long, my days longer, and the work tough and physically demanding. As I started as summer help, I heard stories of how quickly new trainees quit after seeing what the job entailed. I’m not a quitter. My boss was supportive of me even as I doubted myself and helped me to overcome the initial hurdles I experienced, and my trainer was equally helpful. I kept at it, determined to make it through training and prove myself, and eventually did, moving on to covering people’s routes on their days off. I learned to take in and merchandise deliveries, then moved on to doing inventory and making orders.
My grandmother didn’t think she’d live to celebrate her 83rd birthday, but June 16th came and went and my grandmother was able to celebrate it, eventually coming home sometime in mid-July. She never thought she’d be able to see her home again either, but she did. And she was able to see the chickens from her window and to eat a fresh egg. My mother took a leave of absence from work to look after my grandmother because she wasn’t quite ready yet for hospice and thus a full-time caretaker, even though she needed one.
In early August my grandmother started having such severe nausea that she couldn’t hold anything down. Before she was first rushed to the hospital in May, she hadn’t had any real food in a couple of years, which we eventually discovered was because of the tumor she had blocking her. All she ate was bread and water and bland, simple foods like that. But for a few months after the surgery, she could eat real food again, so it was very frustrating to me to see her dealing with stomach issues that prevented her from enjoying food yet again. I hoped it was just a reaction from her medicines but after four days of nausea and vomiting and not being able to keep anything down, my mother made the decision to call 911 and have her brought to the hospital again.
There were some problems with the hospital and/or my grandmother’s insurance in that they didn’t want to keep her hospitalized. She wasn’t “sick enough”. My aunt managed to convince them that, yes, my grandmother was in fact sick, and they ended up keeping her overnight before sending her to the nursing home again the next day.
This is where this post gets truly difficult to write, because my grandmother aged what seems like twenty years in the matter of a handful of days. The only thing she could hold down was a “chip” – what she called the ice chips we could give her.
I visited her every day. And every day I knew her last day was fast-approaching. It was a hard pill for me to swallow. It always felt like my grandmother would live forever. She never acted her age, never looked her age, and was always so full of energy and life and love and joy.
One day the surgeon came in to see my grandmother and my aunt forced him to give her a prognosis. “Three or four weeks at the most,” he finally admitted. “But it’s up to God.” He cared deeply for my grandmother and I could tell it was paining him to see her nearing the end of her life. I couldn’t have asked for her to be under better care.
With that news, I went to my boss. “Just before I got hired, my grandmother got diagnosed with terminal cancer. Things are starting to go downhill and the doctor said she has maybe three or four weeks left, so I just wanted to let you know in case anything happened.” Keep in mind that I was brand new at this company, still essentially unproven, fresh out of training. But I’ve been blessed with a compassionate and caring boss once again, it seems. “I’m sorry and thank you for letting me know, of course family comes first,” she said, tearing up. I was honestly surprised at my boss’s reaction: like I said, I was brand new to the company and saying I’d be needing a few days off in the near future for what was to come, and this person who barely knew me and had no ties to me empathized with me and showed compassion enough to need to hold back sobs. It meant a lot to me and is one of the reasons I hope I’ll be able to stick with this company and develop a career there.
“If anything happens, even if I’m working, call me right away please,” I told my mom shortly after learning of my grandmother’s prognosis.
August 13th was a rough day. It was the first day my grandmother had pain. She kept heaving and trying to throw up, holding onto her little vomit bowl the nursing home gave her, but nothing came up. There was nothing to come up. She kept begging for chips and saying how bad her chest hurt. Pain meds were administered and news of a “pain patch” being delivered aggravated me because it took hours to get there. The decision to give her morphine was still up in the air because she wanted to keep her clarity-of-mind, but eventually it was decided to give her morphine to ease her suffering, knowing that the end was very much near.
Even the morphine had very little effect.
My cousin stayed at the nursing home with my grandmother that night, and my mom arrived there around 7am on August 14th.
That morning, I was in East Providence servicing a store on a support route. At 8:03 my phone rang. The entry for my grandmother’s nursing home caller ID popped up. I had a pallet of 12-pack sodas in the middle of a backroom and a mess of pallets in the front of the store because I had been doing a display turn-over for the new sales week. I let go of the pallet jack’s handle and answered. It was my mom. “Danny, Ninni passed away a few minutes ago.”
“Okay.” It was all I could say. I started trembling all over. “Are you sure?” “Danny, she’s gone…” my mom said, trying to be strong but choking up. I told her I was heading over and went to go see the store’s grocery manager to tell him.
Shaking and sobbing, I explained the situation and he said, “Go, go,” yet another person showing compassion for my situation. In shock, I quickly cleaned up my mess and texted my managers to let them know what happened and that they needed to cover the route. “Family comes first,” they each texted back, offering their condolences and saying not to worry about it and that the my next day would be covered as well.
I hopped on I-95 for the 20 minute trip back to Johnston and got stuck in traffic because of a wreck in the high-speed lane. I started freaking out and seriously considered calling 911 for either an escort or because I was having an awful panic attack. Somehow I maintained my composure and got to Johnston, speeding to the nursing home, one of the first to arrive. Walking into the nursing home was difficult, and with tears streaming down my face, everyone I passed knew why I was there. Half the nurses and staff I saw were distraught as well; my grandmother had that effect on them.
My grandmother was cold, but she looked at peace. There was no more pain in her expression, and though it hurt to know I’d never be able to talk to her again or hear her voice or one of her many trademark expressions, she was finally with my grandfather who she had loved so much and lost far too early.
My cousin and mother had been with her when she passed, each holding a hand, and each saying how easily peace came upon her the moment she passed. We’re a faithful family – though I don’t necessarily ascribe to the same dogma as the rest of my family, I still believe in the basics of the Catholicism in which I was raised. And I know that my grandmother, the closest thing to a living saint that I’ll ever meet, saw God in her last moments on Earth and was brought up to her rightful place in heaven, free of pain and suffering and surrounded by all those she loved and lost in her life, most importantly her husband, who died two years before I was born.
The massive amount of people that showed up to pay my grandmother their respects at her wake is a testament to how many lives she touched and how full of love her life was. I am thankful to each of them, and to all of my grandmother’s doctors, nurses, caretakers, EMTs, and anyone I forgot that took care of her in her final months. I know she loved you all and appreciated all you did for her. I am especially grateful to her surgeons, her student nurses, and the staff at her nursing home for the impeccable treatment of my grandmother.
My grandmother’s funeral was especially difficult for me. During her first hospital stay, I ended up writing some thoughts down in order to keep my mind occupied; it ended up reading very similar to some sort of eulogy, and I put it aside because I hoped to not have to read it for a very long time. Before her wake, I ended up editing it into an actual eulogy, but was informed the Catholic Church of RI doesn’t allow eulogies at masses (a perfect example of something I disagree with with organized religion). However, the presiding priest spoke to me at the wake and informed me that it was his church, and he’d allow what he pleased, and I was more than welcome to share my “words of remembrance” with the congregation rather than deliver them at grave-side. I accepted, and the next day was called to the altar to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life: eulogize my grandmother.
I debated posting the eulogy here, but it’s not something I think I’ll ever share again. I just hope that I delivered it well and accurately reflected on my grandmother’s life and all that she meant to those of us who loved her so much. I sobbed and cried and choked up during the delivery, but felt her presence as I stood on the altar, and found confidence by the second paragraph thanks to her.
It’s been a tough month since. It wasn’t until mid-way through this post that I realized it’s only two days away from a month since my grandmother passed. I don’t think I’ve accepted it yet, and that frightens me because I think I’ll have a break-down when the reality sinks in. Just the other day I tried to visit her, stopping in front of her house before realizing she’s not there anymore. I used to visit her every week or so at least, and I feel overdue. It was an in-joke among our family that she kept a list of people’s visits to track how long time passed in-between; so far I don’t think anyone’s found such a list, but she was known to make disapproving comments such as, “it’s been two weeks since he came by!” I always aimed to never be on “the list.”
About two weeks ago, I took my SUV (which I purchased used in January after my accident) to the mechanic because of a power-steering leak. He informed me he could fix it, but it wasn’t worth it because I’d just be back in another couple of weeks, if he even managed to put everything back together because the rust was so bad. (Never buy a used car without letting a mechanic see it first. I’ve now neglected this advice twice.) This was a month after I spent $600 on repairs to the engine. “So what you’re saying is I should light this on fire?” “Honestly, that’s probably your best option.” The wheel was also ready to explode off – “You’re lucky you haven’t died or killed anyone yet” – and with the amount of driving I do in a given week for work, it was probably something that would happen sooner than later. I said I’d go home and try to figure out what to do.
I looked into leasing something new. I’ve never had a new car and never made enough money for a lease. I still owed $4200 on the SUV (I was working part-time at the time I purchased it, remember) and it turns out the SUV wasn’t worth nearly that. No, it was worth a nice $1800 at best, which I managed to talk up to $2800. But after some tough negotiation and budgeting, I managed to lease a 2015 Kia Forte that I’ve been enjoying quite a lot. It has bluetooth! Couple that with Spotify Premium and I’m a happy camper.
I had planned on buying a new car eventually – you know, after moving into my new apartment, getting furniture, getting settled in…not in the midst of moving. But life has a way of kicking me when I’m down, so I’ve come to just accept that fact and roll with the blows.
I moved on September 1st. In the process of grabbing some boxes from home, I found a random $5 bill, something I attribute to my grandmother. Even though I never asked her for money, she would always offer it to me, even going so far as to demanding I take it or else she’d get mad. She very often would give me $5 here, $20 there, telling me to get a coffee or buy some gas. So in finding that $5 bill, I immediately had the feeling it was somehow from her. I planned on getting a coffee that morning anyway; I love me some coffee. And if you know me, you’d know I use credit for everything. I like that 1% cash back and hate having cash on me anyway. But I used the $5 bill that day and gave the rest to the Dunkin girl as a tip. My grandmother would’ve liked that, and I’ve learned to be generous with my money like my grandmother.
Now I’m living on my own, which comes with a whole slew of new experiences. I’ve never cooked before, I’ve never grocery shopped before, and I’ve never had multiple bills totaling over $1000 together. It’s been rough. My fridge has been borderline-empty, not because I can’t afford basic food, but because I have no idea what I’m doing when I go shopping. How do you know what you’re going to make for dinner for the week, and buy accordingly? How do you know what goes with what? I don’t know, but I’m slowly figuring things out.
And I’ll be using the crockpot my parents bought for me on behalf of my grandmother.
I think this post is long enough, so I’ll end here. It’s taken me a good three hours to write this because I broke down a few times in writing and thinking of my grandmother. It’s been tough, but I have a solid group of close friends who have done a lot for me in supporting me and helping me to stay fairly composed, and to them I’m forever grateful. I have a hard time making and keeping friends, but these are the truest and closest friends I’ve ever had and though I tell them often, I don’t think they know exactly what that means to me. So I just have to prove it by striving to return that level of friendship to them.
I’m going to finish this post with a poem by Mary Stevenson. My grandmother had a painting of it hung up in her hallway for the longest time, and it was the quote on the remembrance card the funeral home had available for everyone to take. And at this point in my life, there’s definitely only one set of footprints in the sand.
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one
set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?”
The Lord replied,
“The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you.”