Helping Grandma through Cancer

Ron Estrada and I went to high school together. I haven’t seen him in years, but due to the magic of social media, I’ve discovered he’s a writer. It doesn’t surprise me; he always had a certain sensitivity about him, as you’ll see in this poignant piece about a particular moment in his grandmother’s battle with cancer ten Januaries ago:

January, 2004, I drove to the ranch townhome where my grandma, in her brown recliner, needlepointed table runners for a Thanksgiving that was eleven months away.  She waited for me, for the white bag that sat in the passenger seat of my Jeep, a white bag that may as well have held plutonium with how I considered the ideal temperature and stability and whether it was lit properly in my car in order for it to keep its proper composition and, more, its proper effectiveness.  These were silly thoughts. Nevertheless, when you think that any action you take can further compromise an already troubling situation, you adopt a role where you believe that everything you do holds the utmost causal importance to the immediate future.  So I left the heat off and cracked the windows and sat on my left hand to keep it warm and then switched to the right hand to get it warm and I listened to the Little River Band.

Just a bit earlier that day my aunt gave me the white bag that held a single white pill that was going to be the magic pill that took away my grandma’s cancer.  That’s what we called it, the magic pill.  Hearing it, hearing magic pulled me in different directions.  There was a magic pill in existence and it was sitting next to me in the car.  I thought of the few boundaries in magic.  Coins pulled out of kids’ ears, rouged women made into a cross section with lumberjack saws, warships disappearing in front of hundreds of unblinking eyes.  Magic makes believers.

But I had doubt while being hopeful, tried to establish belief and convince myself with ho-hum adages, the power of positive thinking, so forth.  They all swirled in my head like lottery balls.  Doubt and hope, partners–maybes holding hands with probably nots.

I pulled into my grandma’s driveway with the radio off.  The asphalt whitened by the winter cold, I thought of the seasons, how pavement seems to change color in a deep freeze–uglier somehow and harder looking. She met me at the door, and hugging her was like hugging a newspaper.  She’d lost form and I just tried to fit my arms around the spots that would give me a complete hold, a better covering.  It’s hard to hug someone when you’re not able to relocate all the emotion inside of you that you intend to give away.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Oh, just working on these tablecloths.”  She showed them to me.

“I like the grapes.  Do you fill them in or leave ‘em like that?”

“No.  You just follow the lines and leave it like a…”

“Border.”

“Yeah.”

“No.  It looks good.  You don’t want to have too much color on it all.  It looks classier with more white.  Your fingers’ll hurt more too.”  I looked at her hands just as she did, thin and veiny, covered in Mercurochrome, as if she’d been into the markers.

“Looks like you got sloppy with the markers.”

She laughed. “Yeah.  They’re cracking something terrible.”

“The winter.”

“And they hurt.”

“Keep putting that stuff on.”  We sat, she on the brown recliner, me on a chair that felt like I was sitting in the elbow of a tree branch. She exhaled and looked upwards and didn’t say anything.

“Here’s the thing from Aunt Nancy.”  I gave her the bag.  I couldn’t say the name.  We talked about it like the room might be bugged. For a moment it felt like we were using sign language. But we were preserving. Keeping the fragile skin of luck unpierced.

“So this is the magic pill.”

“That’s it.”

She opened the box and pushed the tablet through the foil barrier. “Just with water?”

“Umm…I guess.  Probably wouldn’t hurt to eat something.  Bread or something.”

She looked at it, so small in her hand.  Resembling a Bayer.  What you’d pop after a night of booze.  Just a regular pill. She looked at me and smiled, and I was immediately seven years old getting off the school bus.

“Well, if this doesn’t work, sayonara,” she said. She looked at her hand and left me for a moment.  She was a woman looking down at her hand. She was a woman alone facing the dark doorway of probably not.

And this image: Pinocchio, sitting outside on a stone step, feet turned in, he rests his head in his hands, his eyes open only because he’s awake; he isn’t looking at anything certain, his eyes might as well be his elbow as he’s dropped in heavy, masking thought, reflection, and thinking about all he’s done, how it affects the now and, then, naturally, the future.  Pinocchio sits on his donkey/mule/jackass tail, ear tops curled, sulky, his cricket friend sits nearby, mirroring his manner, both: “What have I done?  What now?  What do I have left?”

There’s a marked hopelessness on the faces in this picture, despair. I had the poster on my wall of this scene and there’d be times at night when I would stare at it ’til the periphery would blur and my focus would be so tight that the image would become a short narrative, though only consisting of Pinocchio deeply inhaling and then the quick out, an audible shrug.  Both seemed so lost that that this type of breathing (the kind where you might actually have to tell yourself to do it) seemed like the only thing that they could do.  They were stuck.

It’s kind of a funny poster for a kid’s room.  I did like the cartoon, the story, and I don’t remember if I asked for it at some point.  If not, I like the idea of my parents choosing it as a cautionary tale of sorts. Nevertheless, it was there and part of my small room and stood for something in my life whether or not it stood for something in my parents’.

I thought of that loneliness and also of friendship, the two sharing in the misery, making the situation an “us,” the pursuit for solution a team charge.  And there sat hope, in the collective, in the bond, jacketed in misery, but there because there were two.

I don’t think I could’ve owned that poster if it were just Pinocchio sitting there, alone in the street, transformed and unloved. It’s the two of them, together, not speaking, that makes it.

That January, my grandma got ready to swallow that single pill.  The moment seemed to extend like the blue in your eye after a camera flash.  I imagine that she considered the amount of fight that was left in her during that time. I know she’d been done in by successive hours in a chair with a Star magazine, a needle perforated into her breast plate through a tiny port that pressed against her like a small battery under a Kleenex.  I’d pick her up from the doctor’s office at times in the afternoon and she’d be situated along the perimeter of the room. There were empty seats–permanently vacated?  Had these people been saved, died, moved to a different hospital? What about now with the Thanksgiving runners around her legs like lists of not done yets. The clock ticking. Her wrong colored fingers. These thoughts packed the emptiness and fit around my grandma and me like the withheld name of the pill. Not asking, not saying was the magic and it filled in the spaces.  But there was so much space.

I watched her with that little pill in her hand, it, a compact nub of potential. I sat with her and whispered fierce statements in my head. We’re in this together. We are not done here yet. Think of these out loud—their hope and buoyancy rising around our necks like ill-fitting life jackets, like nooses.  Unspoken, they become the sibilants of belief.

I sat there with my elbows on my knees, my chin resting on my fists, just as unaware on the edge of a couch as in a lonely street, wondering what can be changed, what can be moved, and how much say we have anyhow.

All this, and I watched her sit on the edge of that chair, asking herself things I couldn’t hear and answering them just as quietly.

Helen Hatch Inglesby, "Helping Grandma Sew,"

Helen Hatch Inglesby, “Helping Grandma Sew,”

Ron Estrada lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Sal and Sonny. He is a writer of fiction and short nonfiction and can be read on his blog 8.187 (www.eightoneeightseven.com). He is also a regular contributor to Today’s Author (www.todaysauthor.wordpress.com) and is the co-owner of a literary greeting card company, Aporia | Chicago (www.aporiachicago.com). He loves garlic, Tom Waits, and Chicago Blackhawks hockey.

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4 thoughts on “Helping Grandma through Cancer

  1. I love to read your writings Ron! I can imagine you telling the stories to me in person. I’m so sorry to hear about your Grandma’s struggles with cancer. You were probably a greater comfort to her than you’ll ever know. You have that affect on people. 🙂

    • Thanks, Wendy. I love thinking of writing as, simply, a way of communicating and, with that in mind, writing becomes a sort of a conversation, even if it is one where you may not always benefit from a back-and-forth.

      And, God, thank you for your nice words. We get few, short moments to touch people, to help them well, and I hope, I hope that I was a great comfort to her. She was one of my best friends, for a long time. I think, too, that those moments, those short and few, compile and become collectively bigger and when that happens, pluralistically, in the world, we all become better citizens. Better humans. Those of good affect.

  2. Wow, just wow. I am so glad I read this first thing this morning, with a day of writing ahead, because I’m so inspired by your writing, Ron — humbled and inspired. Thank you for posting this, Jessica!

    • Thank you, Julia. I appreciate your comment about inspiration because it makes me feel like I’m passing the “good” forward to others. I write because I’m inspired by a thought and I hope to investigate it for my own clarity and, too, to propose it to others, for them to consider the subject for themselves, make it their own, and, hopefully, give them valuable insight on something they care deeply about, whether directly related to the thing, to the subject I’m exploring. I think my writing reflects some stage of thought and reflection and that makes it pretty personal. It makes me really appreciative when someone finds that interesting.

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