María Esther (Mexico City, Mexico / Diagnosed at age 55)
“When your grandma found out, she tried to hide it from all of us.”
With these words, my mother confirmed the impression that I always had of my grandmother as a lonesome warrior. Back in high school, I wrote an essay where I claimed that thanks to grandma I learned to go through a personal hell without letting it show. The reason why I wrote that phrase was because my last memory of her was a chaotic morning at her house. Everyone was crowded around her bed and there was a sense of sheer panic in the room. Everyone was talking loudly, telling each other what to do, and simultaneously trying to figure out exactly what to do. I wasn’t exactly in the room, but something had made me run upstairs and turn the corner, which is how I became a witness to all the chaos. Yet, in that moment of calamity, before my own family kicked me out and shut the door on me, my grandma and I made eye-contact. She smiled at me and waved as if to say “hey kiddo, just give me a sec.”
I was 6 years old, and it was the last time I ever saw her.
Maria Esther, or “Etty” as her family calls her, died from brain cancer in 1996. Based on that final meeting, and on the fact that I really didn’t know “just how sick she was”, I formed the impression of my grandma as someone who could go through an internal hell while giving off the external appearance of an angel in heaven.
She always brought us toys from the US, gave us money to go to buy candy at the store, and spoiled us in ways that only grandmas seem to be capable of. So at some point in my life I remember being upset about the fact that she never told me she was sick, really sick.
Well, apparently she tried not to tell anyone.
In 1987 (two years before I was born), she felt a lump in her breast. It grew rapidly until she got a screening test and was told that she needed to get diagnosed to figure out if it was malignant. She refused. And she didn’t tell anyone about it. The only reason why the family started finding out was because her oldest daughter came home early one day and found a letter about it that no one else had seen. Etty’s plan had been to simply tough it out and wait until she could get an appointment with the Mexican social security office. But all her daughters (and son) refused the idea. So they got in touch with a private medic, who then referred them to another one, until she had a biopsy taken that same weekend after the letter was discovered.
It was in fact cancer. And after some time she got a mastectomy where they took out her lymph nodes. She then got chemotherapy and radiation therapy until in 1992 everyone celebrated that she had beat cancer.
But in 1994, during a trip to the US, she noticed a lump in her neck. This time, it turned out to be a tumor in her brain. If you know much about Mexican culture, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that she complemented her radiation and chemotherapy with acupuncture, shaman visits, green diet, rattlesnake skin capsules, and just about any home or local remedy that there was.
None of it worked.
In the end, according to my mother, the bones in my grandma’s radiography were almost transparent, “like eggshells”. That’s also why she had a triple pelvis fracture after she fell once. She refused to take any type of morphine for the pain because she didn’t want to lose control of her own body. She had to rely on oxygen, and in the end died because her lungs were no longer filtering air. She had a stroke on the way to the hospital, and the only thing I can remember was that my mom didn’t come home that night. She called me and my brother the next morning and perhaps she doesn’t remember how she told us the news, but I will never forget her words: “God has prepared a little star for your granny, and from now on that’s where she’ll be”.
Even though Etty tried her hardest to go through this entire struggle alone, like a good grandma she still had one final story up her sleeve…”She recorded everything in a notebook that we found after she died. In it, she predicted how her body would be affected by every medicine that she was given, and how things would progress until the end.”
19 Feb 1932–12 May 1996