In September, I ducked out of my feminist theory class to take a call from my dad, who had been phoning me every few minutes.
“Mormor has lung cancer,” he said as I leaned against the windowpanes of the wide University hallway. “It’s bad.”
It wasn’t a secret that my grandmother had mistreated her lungs. She started smoking at 11 years old in Denmark and spent the 1970s working as a carpenter at poorly ventilated construction sites.
“That’s just how it is now,” my dad told me. “People are living so long that everyone’s going to get cancer and die from that.”
I stood in Angell Hall surrounded by students who were reading, texting and chewing pencils — bored out of their minds as they waited for classes to turn over. As I thought of my grandmother watching the winter birds feed through her bay window, I tried not to become “that girl” — weeping in the midst of a crowded hallway.
I told him I’d make it up north soon and hung up.
After immigrating to the United States, Mormor raised three kids alone and started several businesses. She could drink more schnapps than anyone else I’ve met. She was the strongest woman I knew, and now she was dying.
On the crowded bus ride to my art class, I realized my grandmother wasn’t going to make my wedding dress and repeated the phrase to myself until a stranger in a fur hat looked as if she could cry by osmosis.
This is when I started treating myself like a victim of her illness. I’d sulk in my bedroom hours from home, mourning her last bit of life over a Styrofoam box of Bibimbap and a bowl while my parents dwelled in the true shadow of her sickness. They sprinted between pharmacy, radiology and oncology and lived in a limbo between diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, toilet and bed. Five times a week, my dad drove her to radiation — an hour each way through the snow.
“Doctors treat her like she’s already dead,” he said through the phone in a whisper.
As the months went on, Mormor’s list of illnesses lengthened — strokes, seizures, thrush, pneumonia — and my courage in the face of her deterioration grew. Every other weekend, I drove four hours through Flint and frozen farm country to be with her.
Because much of that time was spent in the hospital, my dad, sister, mom and I lived in a circuit between the cafeteria, a visitor’s room with free coffee that tasted like shoe polish and Mormor’s bedside, where we’d catch up with her many specialists and watch the Food Network on a small television mounted on the ceiling above her bed. The hospital elevator became a place where I’d manage a moment to myself, and if a stranger accompanied me on the ride we’d stand in silence as we speculated about the other’s source of sadness.
After a particularly difficult day at the hospital — she didn’t speak or look into our eyes — my father swallowed tequila; my mother gulped gin. I sipped red wine and shucked the shells of frozen crab legs with my bare hands. There was nothing else for us to do.
As ice chips flaked onto the cobalt countertop, I watched them melt and realized I was already grieving. We all were. Grief’s undertow had taken us while we were caught in the frenzy of diagnosis and treatment, and now that recovery wasn’t an option we were surprised to find ourselves already out to sea.
We each treaded water in our own ways. My mom coped with her mother’s sickness by making dioramas with Risk pieces and Internet printouts of medieval villages. My dad dove into his work, which was selling instruments out of our house. I digested feminist theorists and used candle wax as a metaphor for cancer in my art projects. My sister was 10, so I don’t know how she dealt with the imminent loss. I don’t know what she could have done; Mormor was her third parent and best friend.
In January, my mom called, and the next day some family friends drove me through a blizzard to my grandmother’s house. All evening we sat weeping by her bedside, and she asked me to hold her for a while. And I did, telling her it was okay to go. That night, as I knit a hat in the living room, the dog barked and she died.
I visited my parents last weekend, and somehow — maybe because they didn’t have to make hospital trips or wonder what would happen next — I expected them to be relieved within their grief. My dad told me otherwise.
“It’s all still there,” he said. “She’s gone, but it’s still there. We cry all the time.”
And of course they did, and still do, but why don’t I?
I think my grief is the quiet kind. I go to class, make art, write columns, go to work and keep my upper lip stiff, because that’s what she’d have done. My grandmother was a hard-working warrior of a woman and, though I miss her stern grace, I feel at peace knowing I wrung myself out to her before she died. She didn’t leave without knowing that she taught me how to be strong, so I can never be without her.
Emily Pittinos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.