Nothing But Cancer

Image courtesy of Paula Schmidt via

Image courtesy of Paula Schmidt via

Out of respect for the living (and the dead) the names and relationships in this essay have been changed. The person I say is my grandmother was related to me in a different capacity, but her offences are fact, and everything surrounding her is genuine. I’m sure you’ll agree with this decision after reading.

The day my grandmother died was easily my fourth best day ever. It was the best day of my mother’s life. I remember how she was smiling when we received the call that she was in hospital with something the doctors could not identify nor begin to think about how to treat.

This was it. We could all tell. We were in no rush to go see her, as it would mean packing away everything that concerned us once again and travelling to Marathon, a town that got the bagel in 1991. Emotionally, none of us had the capacity to care as much as we maybe should have. We were busy. It had been a hard year. So we continued, busy with Christmas and exams and work deadlines. In our world, her death was not to be a devastating loss: instead the ripping of a Band-Aid. Something bad gone quickly.

You see, my grandmother, Carol, was a very, very bad person. And you must be thinking that my family and I, to have such reactions to someone in our family dying, must also be very, very bad people. But we aren’t.

Carol used to beat my mother so bad that much later in life, doctors found microfractures that never healed. My mother has been in pain every day of her life as a result. One day, when she was four, my mother returned home from school to find that every individual possession of hers, from the books to the mattress she slept on, had been sold. She slept on the floor for six years. Carol ran over my mother’s cat with the family truck on purpose to teach my mother a lesson about taking care of something properly. The cat was outside after all, why is a vehicle any different than a coyote? This was her argument, as my mother held the crushed body in her hands, the cat’s ribs deflated like a sick slapstick punchline.

 Nothing was sacred in Carol’s house, and nothing was safe.

And on and on and on the list can go. She even hit me once, when I was five and dropped a glass full of water on the floor. That was when she was banished, my father screaming at her, citing how unwelcome she was in our home from that moment on. I remember Carol smiling wryly as she left, already on the phone with the nearby hotels.

The thing about my grandmother was that she understood the effect of her violence but didn’t care. And that’s where the real hatred came from. I grew up to a family so afraid of violence that I could never, and will never, understand the desire to make someone cry. But that was where Carol lived: to be in control of someone else’s emotions was as close as she ever got to satisfaction.

Imagine being exposed to someone like that, for years. Imagine being asked to love them. It’s like I said, we aren’t bad people. But we knew one.

When it seemed like she was going to die, it seemed like the most evil thing I had ever known had finally earned back its karma. It seemed like we’d be safe.

Every night, my uncle would call us. He had lived next to his mother his whole life and had therefore never left that tight space under her dangerous thumb. He would call, breathless and exhausted, grieving before the grave was dug. My family would gather around the phone, listening in rapt exhilaration.

“They say it could be West Nile, or Polio,” he said on the first day.

“Polio would be good,” my mother replied.

“Sarah!” came the reprimand.

The second day, they were thinking something else.

“A stroke! A stroke! They say it’s definitely a stroke.”

On the third day, biblical as always, she was stable enough to be moved to an MRI.

“It’s cancer,” Jason told us. “They say she has nothing but cancer in there—no organs. They’re just covered in tumors. We’re counting in hours, not days. Get here.”

Now, I still don’t know what it is about cancer that makes people seem so paper thin. I have sincere issue casting blame on anything without a brain, but people blame cancer for things all the time. Cancer is doing a job. Cancer is a cell that walks off and starts growing a new liver in a lung. Cancer is trying to survive, through its own division, like every cell does. Two by two by four by four; this is how everything we have ever touched or seen is made. And yet, bound by identical rules, cancer is deemed evil.

We didn’t ask to see the body. Apparently, some people want to see it, afterwards. Touch it, talk to it. We didn’t. We let them prepare it, in a cold, clean room, far away. I think that’s a good way to think about her life and death: we wanted it far away.  

The funeral was ill-peppered with grievers. Most people weren’t even wearing black, in a silent solidarity that said, “we know what she was.” No one cried. No one spoke but for the pastor, who’s uneasy eyes seemed to stand as testament to how odd it must have seemed–a crowd of wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to care for the fallen member of the flock.

No one stayed for cake. My family went home. We continued, had a good Christmas and a better New Year’s, and when my birthday came around there was something missing in the air.

My mother’s elation had calcified–instead there stood a loss.

My mother broke down and cried while we were about to walk into an Escape Room, one of those puzzle rooms that builds teamwork or, I don’t know, fixes marriages. But there she was, red faced, crying so hard it sounded like laughter.

We didn’t know what was wrong at first, so we crowded around her as she knelt in the street.

“Oh my god,” she gasped, “I think it’s done. I think it’s done. I think it’s done.”

I don’t think any of us really, really understood what that meant. We never asked. And out of respect for the dead, we never will. But we knew the shape of its meaning. And I think you do, too.              


Shannon Morrow

Shannon Morrow is always curious, and as a result, loves knowing all sorts of things. A second year professional writing student, she enjoys telling people about her weird dreams, birds and trying to learn how to cook- that one isn’t going too well. And yeah, she knows her glasses make her look like a beetle sometimes. Roll with it.