When cancer becomes something real

Photo by  Yeshi Kangrang  on  Unsplash

Until 18 months ago, the concept of death was one I had never had to give much consideration to. Cancer was something that happened to other people and, when it did come into our family, it was in the far reaches of our Martin clan, striking people I’d met maybe once or twice as a child. In December 2017, that changed. My mum had tried to call me while I was at work, and I remember being mildly irritated by it somehow. As I walked home after my shift I called her back and everything changed.

‘Dad has cancer.’

I stopped walking. Asked her to repeat it. He has lung cancer, as a result of asbestos exposure. And there’s no cure. That was when I realised what a bitch cancer is.

My grandad, Ron, is a healthy man. He walks everywhere, always has. He smiles and laughs all the time, even now when he can’t really breathe. He’s a man who’s liked by so many. He’s a grandparent, and a great-grandparent. A really, really good one. And cancer doesn’t care. I was absolutely devastated, called Simon and asked him to come home. And I cried.

I felt guilty because a few weeks earlier, I’d been thinking ahead to christmas. The thought crossed my mind that something usually happened - someone would get sick or engaged or die. I had no idea why I thought that, or why the thought that my super healthy grandad would get cancer, but I did. And then I told myself not to be so morbid or stupid, because he’s the last person that would ever get a cancer diagnosis.

But a couple of weeks before Christmas he did. I flew home to be able to spend what looked like the last christmas with him and the rest of my family. It was a wonderful day. We laughed so much and he seemed so normal. Still joking, still trying to get us all a bit tipsy, still him. And then it looked like he started to get better. Against all the odds, the fluid on his lungs seemed to dry up and he went from having them drained every couple of days to once a week. Life continued. It’s 18 months and he’s still here, though we really don’t know how much longer for.

Meanwhile, last summer, my boyfriend’s grandad died suddenly and unexpectedly. At 87, he seemed like he would go on forever but he went before my cancer-diagnosed one did. Until that point, I’d only seen a dead body for a matter of seconds. A cousin of mine had died of smoke inhalation when their house caught fire and he was the same age as me, just 14. Jamaicans traditionally have open casket funerals and I remember freaking out after approaching the coffin and leaving the church quickly. But when Simon’s Opa died, that wasn’t an option. His mum needed support and so we sat with his grandpa in the funeral home. His grandpa looked so tiny. And he was completely gone. Until then I’d thought that a dead body might just look like someone who’s sleeping but it didn’t. He simply wasn’t there anymore. And of course, the knowledge that this would be the case with my grandad, with everyone really, ran through my mind.

Where the hell do we go when we die?

I was raised as a Christian. And I do believe in an afterlife of some kind. I don’t know exactly what but I’m sure that our souls go somewhere, that the energy we have, that essence that lights up our eyes and animates our bodies, that energy, has to go somewhere. Energy is never lost, it’s just transferred. But where do we go? When my grandad closes his eyes for the last time and we have to say goodbye….is that it?

In yoga we speak so much about non-attachment. Being able to let things and people go. To love them yes, but to be able to let them go. But how do you practice non-attachment when it’s one of your own? How do you reconcile the idea that someone you love has to leave? That any of us have to leave? Not to mention allowing yourself to feel those heavy emotions of wanting someone to stay even though going would end their pain.

Death is the only thing we will all do, that we can’t avoid. Grief is something we will all have to experience at some stage in our lives and yet nothing can prepare you for the reality of it. In two weeks, I’ll be finally getting back home to spend some more time with my grandad and the rest of my family. And I suppose, there’s not much more to do other than enjoying the time we have left and accepting that dying is part of the human condition. Cancer affects 2 in 3 of us. And it helps to know I’m not alone.