A Smile for Hope

April 5, 2012
By Anonymous

I was drowning- drowning in the massive tide of emotions that threatened to consume me, to take me into its clutches and never let me go. And for the first time, I gave up to the roaring current without a fight. I let them fill me up, the monsters that were despair, hopelessness and sorrow. It was relieving to succumb to the tears that threatened to dance their heartless way down my face for once, allowing me to truly show the agonizing pain that I felt inside. The hurt was so tangible, so real that it was almost as if I could reach out and touch it. Dropping down on the floor of the school bathroom, I leaned my flushed cheek on the tiled wall and let the coolness soothe me as heartbroken sobs racked my body. As I let myself cry, one of the many thoughts that crossed my mess of a mind was how disconcerting it was that life could change in the thud of one heartbeat.
It had been a regular morning. Almost all traces of the winter chill were gone and the morning sun shined brightly, lighting up my bedroom with its cheerful yellow hue. The world seemed to be so full of life, with the birds regaling each other with their bright tweets and with the way the trees seemed to dance in the breeze that seemed to hint of spring -the season of life. Although my morning routine stayed the same, forcing myself out of bed, freshening up, changing out of comfortable pajamas, then heading downstairs for breakfast before getting into the car to make my way to school, there was a sense of freshness in the morning procedure that I found so monotonous before. It was spring and finally the poor bulky coats that needed to be squashed into the tiny lockers were no longer needed and my legs were able to bask in the crisp spring air after long periods of suffocation under jeans and stockings.
I sat in what seemed to be a comfortable silence with my mom while peering out of the window, drinking in the world that passed by. I hummed quietly to myself, feeling caught up in the liveliness of the world that morning. Had I not been so infatuated with my surroundings, I would have noticed that the silence between my mother and I was not so comfortable after all. Had I been paying attention to the blatant elephant in the car, perhaps I would have noticed my mom’s tightened grip on the steering wheel and the mask she donned in order to hide her worries from me. Yet I was oblivious. I failed to notice the signs of distress in my mother, which is why the news that hit me like a harsh slap in the face seemed so much more unexpected and out of the blue.
At first I did not hear the words that escaped my mom’s mouth in a strangled whisper. Before opening the car door to step out into the unadulterated sunlight, I turned to bid goodbye with a smile when her quiet words faintly brushed by my ear. When asking her for clarification, it was the first time I fully looked into her dark, warm eyes that morning. And seeing the underlying concern so clearly defined in her usually calm orbs, a sense of foreboding filled me in the brief period of time it took her to say the words that will haunt me forever.
“Sweetie, I got a call yesterday night… and I’m so sorry but Nanna has been diagnosed with stage four cancer.”
My hand froze on the handle of the door, clutching it tightly. At first I couldn’t process the words that had reached my ears. No. It couldn’t be. Ignoring the overwhelmingly sympathetic look from Mom, I stepped out of the car as if everything were normal instead of admitting to the fact that my heart was crashing in my chest.
Everything seemed to run smoothly partially due to the fact that I could not wrap my head around the devastating news. I was able to put on a smile and pretend that everything was perfect, laughing in the correct times and not portraying any of the confusion, hurt, or worry that I felt on my face. It was as if I were playing a game with myself to see how long the poker face could last- to see how much later I could put off realizing that my Nanna could be taken away from me in the blink of an eye.
I had almost fooled myself into thinking that I would be able to carry on for the rest of the day as if there wasn’t an enormous weight in my chest that made it hard to breathe. I thought I would be able to defy the odds and ignore the jabs of pain in my chest for only a few more hours, then I would be able to unleash the dreaded tears and despair in the comforting surroundings of home. Yet luck seemed to not smile upon me that day. It was Tuesday, and Tuesday lunch was rehearsal for Select Choir members. Singing was always a source of my escape, so with a heavy heart and hopes of unleashing some of the burden in the songs to be practiced, I stepped into the choir room.
Maybe it was the sound of the resonant voices of the basses and tenors, the soft angelic voices of the sopranos, and the calming voices of the altos all blending together in a heart-lifting way that acted as a catalyst for my tears, or maybe it was because for the first time I actually listened closely to the message that lay embedded in the melodious tune of the song that reminded me so much of Nanna.
‘I pray you’ll be our eyes, and watch us where we go. And help us to be wise, in times that we don’t know.”
With every word that I sang, the message seemed to ring more loudly and clearly as I stood there, trying to find catharsis in singing. As the song progressed, memories of Nanna threatened to completely take over my frazzled mind, until it eventually became unbearable. I was horrified by the tears that threatened to spill over in front of all my fellow choir members yet was unable to stop the flow once it had commenced. I clamped one hand firmly over my mouth to stop any sobs that threatened to escape and darted from the room without any explanation. I did not know where my feet were carrying me, but all that mattered was that I was out of the choir room, away from the engulfing music and away from the concerned eyes of my friends that were trained on me.
Looking past my vision blurred with tears, I found myself finding refuge in the familiar girls’ bathroom with its comforting pink tiled walls and bright lights. Sinking down on the floor, I let the memories that had been threatening to break through the mental restraints I had put around them flood in. Nanna. My sweetest, loveliest Nanna had stage four cancer. I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud, in fear that doing so will make it more real. Cancer had always seemed so far away, almost to the point where it seemed as if it were a mere horror story. But now the formidable monster was more real than ever, barging its way into my life through threatening the very life of one of the people I love most. Now that I thought about it, all the life contentedly observed that morning- it all seemed like the universe was playing a colossal joke on me, introducing me to the absolute beauty of nature then turning around and striking me in the face with the harsh slap of reality.
Nanna is not my grandmother in terms of science and biology. Her blood does not run through my veins and we are not connected in any legal means. Yet she is my grandmother in every other way possible and imaginable, in every way that a grandmother should be a grandmother. Her voice and presence is the melody of my childhood- every memory that I have pertaining to my past as a toddler and baby is all centered around one incredible, patient, loving, warm woman who is my Nanna. The woman who grew from a paid nanny to one of the most important people in my life, the one person that perhaps impacted me most in the establishment of my identity and personality as a human being. She is my family in every way, for it is not science that defines what family is. It is the little actions that portray love and care that make people connected in an intimate way that is family.
Sitting there in the bathroom, cuddled into a ball as if putting my arms around myself would keep me from shattering into a million pieces from the indescribable blazing pain, I thought of all the things that Nanna had taught me. From the very beginning, just her maternal presence taught me how to love. Although her nanny license allowed her to take care of other children and earn more money, once she had fallen in love with a baby that was by some miracle, me, she refused to be a nanny to any other child and refused her paycheck for taking care of me- insisting that her care was all out of love. With her soothing voice and kind eyes, Nanna taught me how to be patient, holding my hand as I tried out my new found fascination with walking and never raising her voice no matter what sorts of mischief I got myself into.
Before I knew it, I found that the sobs had slowly stopped and that my body was no longer shaking like a leaf trying to hold on in the harsh winds of December. Instead, I was shocked to discover that there was a small, watery smile on my face as I relived the moments of the past that I had spent with Nanna, and I was dumbfounded to discover that each new memory that came into mind no longer hurt like a stab in the heart. Immediately, a feeling of guilt washed over my body. How dare I smile and be happy when the woman who raised me to be who I am was suffering. How dare I have the audacity to remotely feel better when awful, disastrous things fell upon those who deserved it the least. I immediately wiped the smile off of my face, feeling abominable. Yet the moment I did so, I heard the voice that is so familiar to me ring loudly in my head a phrase that she always used to tell me whenever tears dripped down my pudgy toddler face.
“Smile, sweetheart, you’re the most beautiful when you smile.”
Another wave of guilt washed down my body, except this time it was not because I had been smiling. I felt ashamed because I had acted as if all was over, that there was no hope to be found. My Nanna was still alive, still breathing, still here- and most importantly, still fighting. If there was one woman that I knew could beat cancer, it is the perseverance and the strength that is Nanna. There was no reason for the tears down my face. Nanna had always said that tears were a sign of giving up, and I knew that I would never give up on her. Not now, not ever.
Splashing my face with cold water, I placed a confident smile on my face and stared into the mirror. Of course Nanna was right, she always was. Tears are a sign of giving up, and by crying I was doing nothing to help the woman that had shown me nothing but support and care as I grew to be who I am today. Now it was my turn to be there for her as she was there for me- with unyielding love and selfless care. Now more than ever was the time to make her proud and be the optimistic woman Nanna brought me up to be, staying with her just as she did with me. Just as she gave me her strength and patience in my times of need, it was my turn to do the same for my Nanna.

The author's comments:
My Nanna is one of the most important people in the world to me, and it shattered my heart to hear the news of her diagnosis. A year later, I look back and reflect on what perhaps was the worst day of my life- somehow trying to express the complicated mixtures of pain, grief, worry and hope into tangible words.

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