Tag Archives: cancer


4 Nov

Today is the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Thirteen years ago today, my Grampy died.

I didn’t find out that he was dying until just a few days before it happened; he himself had only known for a few weeks. He’d gone in to the hospital to have his gallbladder removed, but when they opened him up they discovered that he was full of cancer. Riddled with the stuff, was how my father put it. I pictured the surgeons gasping as they peeled back his skin, and instinctively looking away, as if the sight might blind them. I pictured them gingerly sewing him back up, as if they were putting a ticking time bomb back together. There was too much in there, he was already too far gone; there was nothing else they could do.

I’d seen my grandfather that spring, when he and my grandmother had come from Nova Scotia to visit us. When my father told us about the cancer, I wondered if Grampy had already been sick in the spring, without anyone even knowing it. I thought of the secret things your body could do without you ever being aware until it was too late; I thought about how my body, in its darkest recesses, might at that very moment be doing something to betray me, and how there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I think that my mother and sisters called my grandfather shortly after they found out he was sick; I know that if they did, I didn’t talk to him. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to him, it was just that I didn’t know what to say. I needed time to think about it, time to work up the courage. In the meantime, I decided that I should send him an email – that would buy me at least a week, I figured.

I didn’t get a week. He never even saw the email.

I flew to Nova Scotia for his funeral. My grandmother’s house was crowded with relatives, and she and I had to share a bed. At least, we would have shared a bed if she’d been able to sleep, but instead she stayed up all night, cleaning and baking. My main memory of the funeral is how crowded it was; the church was standing room only, with people spilling out onto the street. My grandmother had put three roses at the front of the church, to represent my sisters and I. When she told me this, I started to sob uncontrollably; when my grandmother saw me crying, she leaned across me and hissed to my father, for God’s sake, Frank, put your arm around your daughter.

Every evening that I was there, family and friends would crowd my grandparents’ living room, telling drinking and telling stories about my grandfather. I was underage, but a drink always seemed to find its way into my hand; I felt lucky to have it, because I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. For the first time, I realized how little I knew about my grandfather.

The main memories I had of him were filtered through the lens of a little kid watching her grandfather, but the problem was that I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I was seventeen, and more than old enough to start getting to know my family as individual people, rather than just the peripheral roles that the played in my life. Like most teenagers, though, I was totally self-absorbed, and had a hard time caring about things other than myself. I figured that my family was sort of obliged to love me; it didn’t cross my mind that I was getting to the point where I would have to work for that love, or reciprocate the kindness they showed me. The worst part is that on some level, I knew that I was pretty awful, but I figured that given enough time, I would come out the other side of that awfulness as a shiny, mature, newly-minted adult. What I didn’t realize was that not everyone in my life had enough time left to wait me out.

I started trying to figure out my grandfather after that, started trying to piece his life together like a puzzle. I knew that it was too late, but it seemed important. I asked my father to tell me about my Grampy; I started to write things down, tried to keep a record. When I moved to Halifax a few years after my grandfather’s death, I began to look for the places that I’d heard about in family stories – St. Mary’s Boy’s School (which now houses archdiocesan offices), and South Park Street, where I knew he’d lived for a few years while growing up. I bought a copy of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum because I knew he’d loved it. I looked for his brother’s picture in the Dalhousie law building. At my aunt’s house I stared at old photographs of him, wondering what he would think of me.

My grandfather was a genius, with a photographic memory (traits that I sadly didn’t inherit). He was funny, too – witty, even, in the way that only really brilliant people can be. He was an atheist, but he loved talking about religion. He had a beautiful voice, and had even sung in the opera in Halifax. According to my father, Grampy had rules about drinking, rules which I still try to follow – don’t drink beer until you’re drunk, just until you feel buzzed; if you want to get smashed, drink hard liquor; wine should be consumed with food; always drink beer out of a glass.

I remember that he loved to teach me things, but at the same time loved to spin a good yarn. My grandparents house had giant glass jars of marbles in the dining room, and he told me that my grandmother had won them all off him. I remember that he expected more from me than most of the other adults in my life, but he was also more willing to respect my opinion and listen to what I had to say.

I wish I could say that his death taught me to cherish the people around me, and make more of an effort to show them daily how much I love them, but that’s probably not true. It did push me to make more of an effort to get to know my grandmother, which is something that I’m profoundly grateful for because she is just the best. But even though I would say that I’m pretty close to my grandmother, I’m the first to admit that I still don’t make as much of an effort to stay in touch with her as I should. I mean to email her more regularly; I know she loves to hear from me, especially when I include pictures of Theo. It’s just that I get busy, or else I procrastinate, or else it doesn’t occur to me to email her until it’s the middle of the night, and I’m comfortably in my bed. Let’s be honest – in a lot of ways, I probably haven’t changed much since I was seventeen.

I dreamed last night that I was in my grandparents’ old house in Mahone Bay. It was a beautiful old place, full of dark polished wood and immaculate turn-of-the-century furniture. My grandparents were antique dealers, and every inch of available space in their house was crowded with a wealth of fascinating curiosities. One of my favourite parts of their house was a “secret” staircase that led from the kitchen to a small upstairs room that adjoined the master bedroom. At one time, that would have been the maid’s room, and the staircase existed so that she could get to the kitchen early in the morning without waking anyone else up; as a child, I would spend hours climbing up and down the staircase, or hiding behind the door at the bottom, spying on whoever was in the kitchen.

I think it was my memory of that staircase that inspired my dream. In it, I was trying to find a secret attic room that I was sure existed. I’d played in that attic room as a child, and knew that it was full of wonderful things. I ran through the house, searching for some way, any way to get to this room, but I couldn’t find it. I just wanted to see the room one more time, but it was impossible. The way there had disappeared, and I knew that it was gone for good.

In a way, my grandfather is a lot like that room. I know that he existed, and I know that he was wonderful. I wish that I could find him again, wish that I had some way of telling him how much I love him, but I don’t. Like the secret room, my grandfather is lost to me forever.

I miss you, Grampy ❤

Grampy explaining something to me

For Artem

24 Sep

The last time that I heard your voice was a Friday afternoon, as we were riding the subway home. We were talking about languages; you were telling me that Russian was more difficult than English, but also more forgiving. I asked you to teach me, and you laughed.

We were standing in the doorway, facing each other, and I kept falling against you with every lurch and jerk of the train. I remember worrying that you would think that I was flirting with you, although we were both married. I was self-conscious, and didn’t want you to think that I was falling on purpose. I remember that you were wearing a black wool overcoat.

You’d been complaining of a sore throat for months. At our company Christmas dinner you had tea instead of wine, saying that you weren’t feeling well. I remember you gagging on your food at another company event; I remember being disgusted by the sound, wishing that I wasn’t sitting next to you.

You’d been to the doctor, you’d even had an ultrasound done on your throat, but they’d found nothing. It was allergies, they said, or else the dry, recycled office air.

The day after we rode the subway together, you asked your wife to watch your infant daughter while you went to the emergency room. You were having trouble breathing, you told her, but were sure you would be home soon.

The doctors found a tumour the size of an orange in your throat. They put a tracheotomy in, and told you it was lucky you’d come when you did – if you hadn’t, you would likely have suffocated in your sleep within the week.

The biopsy results came back a few days later – cancer. There were three of us who worked on the same team as you, and they pulled us into a conference room to tell us. I ducked my head, looking down at the tabletop, watching our tears drip and smudge on the dark, glossy wood.

The good news was that it hadn’t spread, and was very treatable.

I remember thinking how unfair it was that you, with your wife and daughter and your fierce appetite for life, should be so sick. Meanwhile, here was me, who only managed to feel tepid about living at the best of times, and I was perfectly healthy. I felt strangely guilty. I thought, it should have been me.

We went to see you in the hospital. I remember stepping off the elevator into the sick, mucus-smelling funk of a hospital ward. I was frightened, anxious – what would you look like? I expected someone ill, someone sad. I didn’t know what I would say.

You were smiling when we went in, so happy to see us. We quickly realized that you were still you, and that made everything easier. You couldn’t talk, so instead you wrote,  passing notes to us like we were in grade school. We joked about the licentious swimsuit magazine a friend had given you; your wife laughingly pretended to scold you. Then your sister came, to drop off your daughter. It was like a party.

They were going to do radiation, you told us, to try to shrink the tumour in preparation for surgery. The surgery would mean that you would never talk again, but it was your best chance. Your mother didn’t want you to go under the knife; she had told you, skyping from her house in Russia, that she wanted you to try herbal remedies and certain prayers instead. She sent you a bracelet with a religious icon on it and insisted that you needed to wear it at all times.

What she really wanted was for you to come home.

Your wife didn’t know what to think. She couldn’t imagine never hearing your voice again, but more than anything she wanted you to live. She asked us to pray that the radiation would shrink the tumour into non-existence so that no further treatment was necessary.

The doctors were shocked by how quickly your tumour shrank; the radiation was working better than expected. It wasn’t enough, though, so you decided to go ahead with the surgery.

We talked about you coming back to work. I teased you, saying that you’d finally found the perfect excuse to avoid answering the office phone. During your radiation treatments, you’d signed all of your emails to me Radioactive Artem. I told you we’d have to come up with a new nickname. We felt so hopeful; we were so sure the worst was behind us.

They did a CAT scan as part of the prep for surgery.

They found tumours in your lungs, and in your chest cavity, near your heart.

They were inoperable, the doctors said.

You’d had the full dose of radiation and couldn’t have any more, they said.

Your new best option was chemotherapy.

Your mother flew here from Russia and moved in to your two bedroom apartment in North York. She didn’t speak any English and your wife, who was from Brazil, didn’t speak any Russian. They communicated by hand gestures, and through you, with your ever-present pad of paper.

You were brave, but diminished. Because of the trach, you couldn’t eat or drink. You told us how much you missed the taste of food. You gave away all of your alcohol, because you couldn’t stand looking at it anymore.

You began to prepare for your daughter’s first birthday, wondering if you’d live to see her second.

All through that spring and summer we visited you, trying to find that tricky balance between being there as often as we could and giving you the space you needed, especially when the treatments made you sick.

In June I found out I was pregnant, although I waited until early August to tell anyone. You were so excited, and so full of advice. Start looking for a daycare now, you told me. Make friends with other couples who have kids so you can trade off on babysitting. You were thrilled that your daughter would have another little playmate.

In September, I called your wife to arrange for a few of us to come visit, but before I had the chance to say anything, she started crying.

I guess you’ve heard, she said.

I hadn’t heard, so she told me: the chemotherapy had done nothing, and the cancer had continued to spread. You had tumours in your brain, now. You had only a few months to live.

A few days later, I spoke to her again. The doctors were now saying that your only chance was to become part of a drug trial. There was one that you qualified for, but it could take weeks, even months to get you in.

I helped your wife write letters to the doctors, advocating on your behalf, begging them to let you start the trial right away. I found those letters the other day, saved on my computer’s hard drive. Letter to Dr. Hogg, one of them is called, and Letter to Dr. O’Sullivan. Letter to MPP. I remember that they let me write them at the office, during work hours, without docking my pay. My boss was so good about things like that; everyone there missed you so much.

The letters apparently worked, and they agreed to enrol you in the trial immediately. When your wife heard the news, she called me, laughing ecstatically. For a little while, we allowed ourselves to hope that you might get some wonder drug that would magically shrink your tumours and cure you.

Things didn’t go as smoothly as we’d hoped, though. There was so much paperwork that needed to be shuttled from hospital to hospital, and multiple doctors had to sign off on each form. Then they told you that they’d lost your original biopsy, and they would need to find it before you were able to begin treatment.

Meanwhile, your cancer continued to spread, and you grew weaker.

The last time I saw you was on a Sunday in mid-December. I was the only one who was able to make it up to North York that day, and we spent most of the visit in silence. It was raining, a miserable, cold winter rain, the kind that makes you want to take to your bed with a book and a cup of tea. We watched the rain trail down the windows, each of us trapped in our own experiences.

I was seven months pregnant, exhausted and uncomfortable in my expanding body. You were in pain, and couldn’t focus on the conversation. You were short with your wife, and although I knew it was because you were sick and tired, I felt awkward. I was glad when it was time to leave, and then I felt badly about my gladness. I promised myself that the next visit would be better.

Two weeks later, on December 27th, you died.

We were in Kingston when I found out, visiting family for Christmas. I remember sitting in my mother’s bedroom, unable to stop crying. My friend is dead, I howled into Matt’s chest. My friend is dead, I’ll never see him again.

It wasn’t fair. You were only 27. It was so fucking unfair.

We borrowed my mother’s car a few days later and drove back to Toronto for the funeral. The traditional Eastern Orthodox service was in Russian, and the air in the chapel was smoky and thick with incense. I remember that we had to stand for the entire service, and Theo was kicking like crazy. At the end, we all filed past your coffin. I looked at your face, at the beard you’d begun growing.

My friend is dead, I thought.

It seemed like I would never stop crying.

Three weeks to the day after your death, my son was born. Things got a little hectic after that, and I didn’t think of you as much. A few weeks after Theo’s birth, though, your wife called me. We began by talking about babies, breastfeeding and childbirth, but of course the conversation soon turned to you.

You’d written a letter to your daughter, she told me. A beautiful, funny, self-deprecating letter.

Your second wedding anniversary would have been December 31st, and somehow, she said, you had snuck out of your apartment and bought your wife a necklace. Not just any necklace, but the necklace that matched the earrings you’d bought her for your first anniversary.

She had something for me, she said. A gift that you’d bought for me online.

This is who you were: you were the type of person who thought about everyone around them. The type of person who, while dying, thinks only of those they are leaving behind. The type that writes their daughter a letter, buys their wife a beautiful necklace, picks out a thoughtful gift for a friend.

Artem, you were the best kind of person.

A year and a half later, I’m still trying to make sense of your death. When I drive by your old building, I still don’t fully understand that you aren’t up there in your apartment, playing with your daughter while your wife makes dinner. Sometimes I think I see you on the street, and start to call out to you, only to realize that it can’t possibly be you. Sometimes I’ll read something funny, or see something that makes me think of you, and then suddenly remember that there’s no way to tell you about it. What do I do now with all these thoughts that I have of you, all these stored up memories and bits of information?

I wish that there was some way to tell you that I did my best when you were sick and dying. My poor, inadequate best. I should have done more. I should have been a better friend to you. I wish I’d been a better friend.

I dream about you sometimes. In my dreams we talk, or hug, or just sit silently together. Always, always in these dreams, I am aware that you are dead, and at the end of our time together you have to go back to wherever it is you are now. I wish I knew where you were now.

I miss you.