Thursday, June 11, 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On

A little over a month ago my dad called to say that my grandmother would be going to the hospital in the morning to get the first round of chemotherapy for a cancerous spot in one of her lungs. My grandmother is not a smoker - she certainly has never smoked during my lifetime - so it's not that. She's just getting old, I guess. Her 80th birthday is in September.

At any rate, learning about my grandmother's condition was the third bad thing in a trinity of bad things that had been going on in my life at the time, the other two being Joey's death and breaking up with Brian. To make shitty news shittier still, it happened that the night my dad called to tell me about my grandmother was the night before an exam. So it wasn't until about two weeks later, when exams were done, that I was finally able to sit down with a semi-clear head and write my grandmother a proper letter to check in and see how she was doing.

It will help to know a little about her. Ginny is a New Englander of Irish/Welsh/Scottish derivation, if memory serves. She is and always has been a stoic, stiff-upper-lip, no-drama kind of gal. But she's warm and energetic, and frankly, Ginny has the most amazing skin I've seen on any woman her age who hasn't gone under the knife or the needle.

I have never felt like Ginny and I really understand each other, but I do know we are very fond of each other, and there is a lot of love between us. We find each other amusing, I think. So it took me a bit to find the right tack to take with this letter. I decided to just be honest. I referred in passing to the fact that I'd had a fairly awful few weeks but didn't give any specifics. (The letter was about Ginny, not me.) I told her a phrase that had gotten me through exams:

My constitutional law professor wore a t-shirt bearing that phrase on our last day of class. The phrase comes from a British propaganda campaign that ran during World War II, when the Germans were bombing London and other places nearby. Apparently, very few of these posters actually were posted, but the slogan has been kept alive.

So I told Ginny how I learned about it from my professor's t-shirt, and how it got me through an emotionally exhausting and extremely stressful few weeks: I wrote the slogan on whatever materials I was allowed to take in with me to each exam, and inevitably at some point in the middle of the test I'd look up and notice it on the desk in front of me, smile, and carry on. I told Ginny all she really could do, all anyone in her shoes could do, was just that - keep calm and carry on - and know that we were all thinking of her and sending her love. On Monday of this week, I got a note in the mail in reply:
I'm sending a check because I feel you might need a little extra cash. That's it.
Now, I'm writing to thank you for one of the most beautiful letters I have ever received.
I am taking one day at a time. On Monday I start my 2nd phase of chemo (they say there might be 3 or 4).
You didn't say what was going on in your own life. I hope things have all worked out.
So thanks again.

I cried, of course. That exchange of letters is probably the most meaningful communication that's ever occurred between us - certainly the most meaninful exchange I can remember. But what really got me was the check inside. Ginny is not the type to send money "just because" - she's never been profligate with money. A birthdays and Christmases only kind of person, when it comes to gifts. And my birthday was still about three weeks away from the date of the note. While Ginny is always on top of birthdays, she never sends cards or gifts that early.

Then I remembered a conversation I'd had with my sister a few nights prior, in which she mentioned that Ginny had sent her husband and her a check as a "second half of their anniversary present," or something along those lines. The check I got confirmed what my sister and I suspected: Ginny's giving her money away because she thinks she's dying.

What to make of that? I do need the money, but I haven't been able to bring myself to deposit the check yet. It feels a bit wrong to run off to the bank with it right away; it feels like that would be reveling in Ginny's cancer. And we don't even know yet how the chemo is working. It all just feels premature and anticipatory in the worst way, and I know that Ginny will not speak of this check again.

It's tucked away in a desk drawer, waiting until the fresh sting of realizing the impetus behind it wears off a bit.

Image used under a limited Creative Commons license from flickr user cromacom

1 comment:

starksane said...

My Great Uncle, after his wife passed away a few years ago starting giving away all of his possessions to family members. Literally, it was difficult to go and visit him in Queens without walking away with some clothing, or dishes, or chatkes. He also gave my sister and I some rather large checks. Initially, it felt really morbid. But, what he kept on repeating was that he wanted to watch us enjoy the things while he was alive. I even started saying yes to things I didn't want because it made him happy. Or I would describe to him how I decorated my house with artwork his wife had painted. It made him really happy to have helped us financially, or given us things we used...