Breast Cancer Doesn’t Care if You’re Naughty or Nice

“Welcome to the Hotel Derlachter.”, is how my grandmother—AKA Mama, my grandmother on my mother’s side—would greet my brother and I when we came over to her house for weekly Friday night dinners or when we stayed there when my parents went away.  That is the first image that pops into my mind if you asked me what I remember about my grandmother.

I also remember how she served us breakfast in bed. Tiptoeing up the stairs, as quiet as a mouse, she would enter our bedroom holding a serving tray filled with the utmost deliciousness. Two slices of the freshest pumpernickel bread spread with real butter (not margarine or Earth Balance) at least an inch thick, a perfectly prepared soft-boiled egg in an egg-cup, with the top removed, and a glass of Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Not the typical breakfast selections you may find on a room service menu but the only items we would have ordered if given the choice.

I remember Saturday afternoon shopping expeditions, Sundays at the symphony, and our annual March Break ski trips to Colorado. My grandparents were excellent skiers and continued to ski until they turned 72. I remember the one ski trip to Keystone, CO when my grandmother fell and we had to radio for the ski patrol.  “How old are you Mrs. Derlachter?”, he said in the sweetest of voices. “I am 35-years-old.”, she answered sternly. “Ask a stupid question. Get a stupid answer.”, is how she shut that one down. At 4 ft. 10 inches tall, with a snow white perfectly coiffed bob, stylish, smart, and intelligent, she was a mighty small force to be reckoned with.

I also remember the Friday night dinner when my grandmother didn’t open the door to greet us. A Russian woman by the name of Yaduiga was there to welcome us instead. “Who is this woman?”, I enquired. To which my mother mumbled, “She is helping your grandmother out with the cooking and cleaning.” No one but my grandmother was allowed in her kitchen when it came to matters of cooking. I knew something wasn’t right at the Hotel Derlachter. 

Two minutes later I heard a distinct creek come from the direction of the wooden staircase. When I looked up, I saw my grandfather escorting my grandmother down the stairs, arms linked. This was not the grandmother I saw three weeks ago. (Note, due to circumstances that were not shared with me until later that evening, it had been three weeks since we attended our last Friday night dinner.) This grandmother looked frail and weak. Her perfectly coiffed bob of thick snow white hair was replaced with wispy white locks with patches of scalp clearly visible underneath. “Why isn’t anyone talking?”, she asked as Yaduiga served us dinner. I don’t know how we did it but we managed to see my grandmother’s comment as funny and the dinner conversation became more lively. Sometimes laughter is the only way to deal with uncomfortable situations. This was the first Friday that I did not want to stay at the Hotel Derlachter. It was also the first Friday that we were not invited to stay and it would be the last Friday that we would go there for dinner.

Later that night, my parents came into my bedroom, sat on the edge of my bed, and told me that my grandmother was very sick. She had breast cancer in both of her breasts and the cancer had spread to her liver. She started chemo three weeks ago but her body was not responding as they hoped and that she would be going into the hospital for further tests and treatments on Monday. At the time, I couldn’t express the emotions that I was experiencing. 29 years later I can tell you that I was mad at my parents for not sharing this information with me and furious that this ugly disease could steal my grandmother’s personality and physical beauty away from her.

The next and last time I would see my grandmother would be one week later at Mt. Sinai hospital, her even smaller frame hidden beneath the thin sheets of her hospital bed, her now hairless head wrapped in a Schiaparelli pink patterned scarf, and her wrists tied to the bed posts with long strands of gauze.

“Why are Mama’s wrists tied to the bed? That’s what they do to crazy people in the movies!”, I asked as I held back my tears. “Because Mama pulled out the morphine drip.”, my mother answered. “Well maybe it’s because it’s hurting her.” To which my mother responded, “Morphine makes the pain go away.” Thinking that my grandmother was asleep, I leaned in towards the covers and put my head on her stomach. Much to my surprise she was awake. Her visibly emaciated arm moved from under the covers and as she put her hand on my head she whispered, “Why are you crying my sweetness?”, and then her arm and the body it was attached to went lifeless. The electrocardiograph monitors flat-lined, the call button went off, the nurses came in, and my grandmother was pronounced dead no more than 10 minutes later. A DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order was signed and in full force one week prior.

My grandmother’s funeral was two days later. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. I was angry at the world for taking the most incredible woman—who skied until she was 72-years-old, who volunteered at a home for the elderly—from me.

The tears eventually came three hours after the funeral. My grandfather came into my room to check on me. “She was such a good woman.” Those were the first words that came out of his mouth. And then I cried. If emotions were a dam, then my barrier broke that afternoon. I realized that my reaction to my grandmother’s death was completely selfish. I wasn’t the only person who loved her. I didn’t take into account how it was affecting my mother and most importantly, my grandfather, her beloved husband. My tune quickly changed as I learned how important it was to share my favorite memories about my grandmother with the people who loved her as much as I did. Although, she is physically no longer with us, I know she is here with us in spirit. I know I have a guardian angel. To this day, whenever something good happens to me, I immediately give credit to my grandmother because I know she watching me.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Ask Cancer that question and you won’t get an answer. Cancer does not have one-on-one’s with its survivors, its victims or the people closest to them. That is why it is important to share your feelings and have the conversations. I know that one-day way we will find the answer—a cure—and that the conversation will focus more on the solutions vs how to keep the pain tolerable. Until this happens, please join us as we support Breast Cancer Awareness month by supporting CancerLink. Donate if you can, join the walk if you can, but please share the message. Cancer affects us all, we all have a story.

– Anonymous, AKT Client

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