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The Most Important Lessons
Everything happened fast, but now as I look back, it’s in slow motion. Everything is: from the time the phone rang, till that time I held her hand. Her hand, even being so fragile, held my entire life together, and maybe I held hers, too.
I can remember everything from this particular year perfectly. My parents and I were eating dinner early on this night, because there was a Washington D.C. meeting at the middle school. It was 4:46 p.m. and my mom had just put the cheeseburger grinders on the table. My father and I sat down with her to eat. There was a lot of tension around us tonight, because it was the night Doctor Benergie was going to call and tell us whether or not my grandmother’s lung biopsy was positive for cancer.
“Mom, it’s not cancer! The spot is probably pneumonia or something,” I tell my mother, Denise. I had totally convinced myself of that. My parents and I decided that when the doctor called, we would all laugh at how worried we had been over nothing. The doctor had said the results would be in at 4:30 p.m. and to expect a call at 5 p.m. on the nose.
“Char,” my mother called my attention, “no matter what the results are, everything will be okay. I promise.” I hate when she does this!
“Mom, you’re freaking me out! Everything is okay,” I respond. My father just sits in his chair silently, occasionally offering some positive words to my mother when mine failed. I can tell he’s worried about my mom here, and me, although I find no reason myself to worry. The next time I looked at the clock, the time read 5:02 p.m. and the phone rang. I smile to myself at all the memories that come to my mind of me and my Yiayia; my absolute best friend.
When I was four years old, I remember being in the pool with my cousin, Matthew, and Yiayia. She was teaching me to hold my breath and swim underwater. I was wrapped around her with a death grip on her shoulders as she counted down. “Hold your breath, Munchkin! Three, two, one!” We were underwater for all of two seconds and, although I was scared of going underwater for the first time, I knew she’d keep me safe.
The summer of 2006, Yiayia took me to California. We were gone for sixteen days; I never left my mom and dad for more than three days. I was a little scared, but with her, I felt completely safe. Yiayia and her sister, my Aunt Joyce, took my cousin and me to Disney Land. The four of us pulled into a hotel across from Disney Land. “Well, get a good look ‘cuz this is the closest you’ll ever get to seeing Disney,” Aunt Joyce said in her laid-back tone. My cousin and I looked around. The air was warm and pleasant; there was a bird in the tree to the left of our car that was chirping a happy little tune. There was a huge gate that marked the car’s entrance to Disney. Over the top of that gate we could see tops of roller coasters; through the rolled down windows we could smell Disney Land. That was the first time I’d ever smelled fun. Fun smells like cotton candy and fresh cut grass. Fun sounds like kids and adults screaming, laughing, and my grandmother’s voice hollering, “You’re going there tomorrow!” That was the most fun I’ve ever had. But other than running around Disney with my cousin, having my aunt and gram trailing us, I spent every minute of those sixteen days clung to her hip. And she never left mine either.
“Hello?” my mother’s voice was shaking. She put the phone on speaker and walked into the living room. I could still hear what the doctor and she were saying, though I was only listening for one word.
“Hi. Is this Denise?” the doctor asks. My mom tells him it is, and he continues. “Well I have some bad news. The mass we found did turn out to be malignant.” Uh, no. That’s not the word I was listening for. Benign. That’s what he meant to say. “Should I call her house, or would you like to tell her? I know she prefers to hear from you over all.” My mom was standing completely still, her back to my father and me. I could tell she had tears in her eyes even without looking at her. My dad couldn’t move. And me, I still had that stupid grin on my face for about five minutes until I realized what was going on.
“I’ll tell her,” my mom replies. My mom got off the phone and asked me if I wanted to come with her to my grandmother’s house. She lives five houses down the street; needless to say I hate being too far away from her if I can help it. But I declined the offer. Instead I watched her walk down the street. I didn’t know what to do, so I reached for the phone, still smiling, and dialed the first number that came to mind.
“Hello?” the voice said.
“Hey, Julie,” I answered, “I have a favor to ask you. Tonight at the D.C. meeting, can you grab an extra itinerary, please? I can’t go.”
She replied, “Sure. Is everything okay?” This is when that smile finally faded.
“My yiayia has lung cancer,” I cried. There, I had said it. It was real now, and it had registered.
“Oh. Awww,” Julie said. It sounded like she was crying too, but I couldn’t tell. “I’m sorry, Char.” I thanked her and left to walk down to my grandmother’s house to meet up with my mom.
For a few months, there wasn’t anything to do but wait for her to get her chemo schedule, and of course take more tests. We found out about three weeks later that she had colon cancer, too. The cancer was two different cells, which is very rare. She had surgery to get the tumor in her colon out on November 26, 2007. Then, on January 2, the tumor in her lung came out. The doctor gave her a little over a month to get her strength back before she had to be attacked with the army that is chemotherapy.
Before she had chemo, she had to gain her strength back. The two surgeries she had completely wiped her out. I was so scared that I was going to lose my best friend that entire winter, so December was hard for us, mainly her. She stayed at my house so my mother could take care of her. I helped out, too. My grandmother would say, “Don’t give up on school! Go do your homework; make sure everything is done. You can’t give up on school. If I can’t give up, you can’t.” So I didn’t. I made sure I did everything she told me to do. If I didn’t give up, she wouldn’t either. I didn’t sleep the entire month of December. When winter break came, I would spend the entire day in a recliner in her room. “You look tired, Munchkin. Come lay on the bed with me,” Yiayia said to me one day. I realized that even though she was the sick one, my grandmother was still trying to take care of me, and my mom, too. She wasn’t giving up on us and trying to take care of us when we should have been taking care of her. I wonder what was running through her mind here, and looking at her face, it mirrored mine. So I climbed up on her bed and stayed with her. She would doze on and off, and then she said something I will never forget. “You know you’re my favorite, right?”
I looked up at my grandmother, the face I’d seen a million times, but this was the first time I really saw her. Her gentle face held deep, precious wrinkles that told the story of her life; her eyes were a dull green-blue and she looked tired, but behind those tired eyes was an amazingly brave person. She had her right hand propping her head up and her left hand was around mine. She looked into my eyes, her pale lips pursed together.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You are my favorite. I love you the most,” she answered my question.
“You’re my favorite, too, Yiayia. Always will be,” I told her. I don’t know what she meant by that, but I know she loves me. We both fell asleep and slept for six hours. It was the first time I slept all month.