When I started blogging again a few months back, I decided to resurrect the name of my decade old blog with the hope of reposting some of my favorite posts. Reading this beautiful post from Mamalina reminded me of a post I first wrote on 10.13.2005 about my grandma Bette. In light of this post and Mother’s Day, I’m reposting that entry here today.
I can distinctly remember when I first met cancer. My grandmother Bette had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At this time, in the late 80’s she was instructed to have a full masectomy of the cancerous breast.
Some time, shortly thereafter, our family traveled to Cincinnati/Ft. Thomas for a visit. The typical ritual for visiting our grandparents was that the six of us (Mom, Dad, Don, Doug, Katie and myself) piled into the Buick LaSabre station wagon for the 14 hour roadtrip to Ohio. Upon arrival, we would designate where each of us kids were going to stay. My father’s mother, Catherine, lived in a two bedroom apartment in Pleasant Ridge (a suburb of Cincinnati) and my mother’s parents Paul and Bette lived in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky in the same house where they had raised my mother and her three siblings.
Grandma Kate usually spent our visits crying, pleading with us to go to church more and to PRAY THE ROSARY. This made my crabby father even more unbearable — so the accomodations at Paul and Bette’s were slightly more preferable.
I say slightly preferable in light of the fact that for one to liken Paul and Bette to warm and fuzzy grandparents would be akin to saying the Artic Circle is ripe for sunbathing. Still, there was something mystifying about them. My grandmother was what we still called an “Indian” in those days. She had met my grandfather in England during World War II while she was enlisted in the Women’s Army Air Corps (WAAC). While my siblings were terrified of the basement in their house, I loved to go down and look around my grandmother’s art studio and I was amazed at the array of brushes, pastels and colored pencils. There was also an old work bench where my grandfather would polish stones that would later be made into Native American jewelry that he and my grandmother would then sell at flea markets.
In her bedroom, Bette had this beautiful vanity where she housed her seemingly endless supply of curlers. With each visit, I couldn’t wait for the moment where I would be left to my own devices and I could sneak off to search through the drawers of her vanity and admire all of the different beauty products. Things like her pots of rouge — always a cream based product in the richest roses and pinks. Her lipsticks always in these same rich bouquets. Vials of lotions and perfumes to sniff out. It left my breathless wanting to sample all of these delights but knowing that if discovered, I would receive a tongue lashing the likes of which I had never received from my own mother. Not that anything of my mother’s enticed me to go off snooping. My mother’s own assortment of delights were recklessly strewn all around her vanity with absolutely no care. No, my mother had not inherited Bette’s appreciation for preservation and order. So this foreign delight was one to be sifted through. Each bottle touched.
But Bette wasn’t the warm and fuzzy grandmother who took pleasure in sharing her life with grandchildren. Instead, we were a nuisance — merely part of a package that came along with a visit from my mother. Whenever Bette discovered me riffling through her belongings I was quickly scolded for being such a nosy child and furthermore, she could hardly believe that I had been raised with such a blatent disregard for the belongings of others.
Classic jewelry boxes that did not exist in my house were an instant delight. I marveled at the music they played when the top was lifted. No sooner lifted, however, that is was slammed down on my fingers. Fingers that today exist as a mirror image of Grandma Bette’s beautifully feminine hands. The skin of a tone and texture that I longed to touch. The nail beds long and smooth the edges of which were perfectly oval as an emery board was never out of site. Nor was the spearmint chewing gum — a smell that will forever remind me of her. For Bette always had emery boards, chewing gum and her fuschia lipstick in her handbag.
At some point in this particular visit, it was my turn to stay with Bette and Paul. When I approached their powder blue bedroom, my eyes were instantly drawn to the silver wig sitting on the foam carving of a woman’s head. On top of my grandfather’s bureau sat a box, a peculiar woman’s picture on the front.
"You want to see my new boobie?" said the sugary Southern voice behind me. I turned around terrified to have been caught snooping by my grandmother now standing behind me.
On her head, where her once raven colored locks has always been perfectly coiffed sat a brightly colored terry cloth turban. My grandmother rubbed her lovely hands together and laughed.
"You like my new hat? My head is always cold." She said, the statement causing her to shiver.
She walked to Paul’s bureau, pulled the box down and directed me to sit with her on the bed.
"This is what I have now that they have taken my bosom." She batted her eyelids when she mentioned the last word. Her lovely hand lifted the lid from the box revealing a flesh colored latex prosthetic of a breast.
"Do you want to see?" It was clear with this statement that she was asking me whether I wanted to see her surgically altered chest.
Ever the snoop, I managed a small nod through a mixture of horror, admiration and amazement.
Her lovely hands went to the zipper of her velour robe.
"Help me with this" she pleaded "I still don’t have a lot of movement in my arm.
With her robe around her waist she turned to show me gnarled tissue that had once been her breast. Though I had yet to start my own development, I understood the magnitude of this loss. Her breast. Her body. Her womenhood, or half of it, was gone.
"You see, they had to cut me all around here." She traced the scar with her fingers lifting her arm to reveal its path like a purple river through her olive skin. "The cancer was in the nodes under my armpit so they had to remove it from there as well. I still have to do exercises to get the strength back" she told me pointing to a small two-pound weight at the foot of the bed.
From there she pulled the robe back up and smiled, “You wouldn’t believe how much that boobie cost!”
I returned the smile feeling as though I had finally shared something other than quarrels with Bette. I believe she was still going through radiation at the time. And I don’t remember how long she was in remission but I think it was a couple of good years before I was being told that my grandmother was going to be having a complete hysterectomy. More of her womanhood removed. More remission. Then a tumor started growing in her feminine parts…parts that couldn’t be removed this time. All they could do was more radiation. More terry cloth turbans. More remission until Bette finally lost her battle with cancer in September 1996.
I remember visiting her in the hospital the week she passed. In the bed was a woman who bore little resemblance to my grandmother…completely bald and ravaged by this horrible disease. We were friends by then. My admiration for Bette had grown to an iconic status. As I kept vigil she awoke between morphine induced “naps” and took my hand. Her hands — that are now my mother’s hands as well as my own — were still lovely. Still the softest thing I have ever felt.
She spoke to me then. She told me she loved me. I told her I love her. She promised to come back to let me know she was okay.
"Look for a white dove. I want to come back as a white dove."
Finally, after more than a decade in battle Bette had found her peace.
~~October 13, 2005