The Realities of Disease
You know that warm feeling that overwhelms you upon entering the embrace of a grandmother? That cinnamon smell that wistfully drifts out from the kitchen, signifying a particularly delectable future? That satisfaction of knowing your burden is shared with somebody else who has the life experience to make even the darkest of situations just a little brighter?
I wish I could say I do. Disease has robbed me, and I’m sure millions of others, of these possibilities.
My paternal grandmother lies buried in a cemetery in Michigan. She died of cancer when my father was my age. Her death contributed to my grandfather’s series of questionable decisions and eventual reclusion and my father’s dropping out of college, and she is never discussed or brought up except under the rarest of circumstances. I can honestly say I know almost nothing about her and would not even know she existed were it not for the words of my father and a glimpse of a photograph, as I’ve never even seen her tombstone.
On the other hand, my maternal grandmother is still living. When I was around a year old she suffered a stroke that destroyed her ability to speak and gradually began eating away at her mobility. Despite photos that depict a blonde woman holding a swaddled child, my earliest memories of my grandmother are of her seated at a table with crossword puzzles and word searches within an arm’s length of her walker. Today she resides at an elderly care facility in Michigan, fully restricted to a wheelchair and the use of her left arm, the other curled with arthritis. We visit her once a year around Christmas, where my mother, my siblings and I try to carry out a conversation of the words hanging in the air, leaden and weighty upon our shoulders but always just out of reach.
This entire post is probably overwrought with unintended melodrama (sorry!), but the sheer frustration my grandmother exhibits upon having something to say but not being able to say it, combined with the incompetence on my family’s part of being unable to pick up on it, is truly heartbreaking.
What I mean to say with these extraordinarily personal anecdotes is how these diseases shape somebody’s life, both those who are victims of the diseases themselves and those merely associated with these victims. Had my dad’s mother never gotten sick, would he have graduated from college and gone down an entirely different career path? Almost assuredly. I probably would have grown up in Michigan and lived a completely different childhood in close proximity to both of my grandmothers. The possibilities of cures for afflictions like cancer or more effective treatment for the aftereffects of stroke presented in the Nova special would have a profound impact on everyone’s lives, for better or for worse. Sort of like making my current upbringing a “science-fiction”y sort of alternate dimension of another life of another me.
It kind of makes my head hurt.