My grandmother just passed away yesterday afternoon after battling advanced stages of breast cancer for little more than 6 months. I clearly remember the last time I saw her; a sprightly 80-something with wispy gray hairs and a big smile. She came for my graduation from medical school. Though she seemed non the worse for wear, she had been complaining of weight loss and frequent hacking coughs.
Before she went to sleep the night she visited us, she pulled me aside and asked me what blood streaked sputum could mean. She asked this in a low, conspiratorial whisper. Knowing that she was a breast cancer survivor, I suspected what soon came to be the dreaded diagnosis- pulmonary metastasis. The cancer from her breasts that lay dormant for all those long years has slowly, inauspiciously spread to her lungs.
I told her that she had to have her cough checked by a specialist when she got back home. I assumed then that my dad and her other sons knew about the blood streaked sputum. I soon found out that I was wrong. They didn’t. And my grandmother, stoic and strong old lady that she was, bore the cough silently.
It was not long when her cough drew the attention of other concerned relatives. They did have it checked out and was given the grim news. She was dying. The doctors gave her 6 months. In those six months, my family made trips to visit her. Due to work, I was the only member of the family who wasn’t able to visit her. Looking back perhaps I should have made the time. Perhaps I should have at least made the effort. But I didn’t.
Flash forward to last Sunday. My dad and his brothers started getting blank text messages from her. A phone call from my uncle who my grandmother lives with confirmed the news- she may die anytime soon.
My dad leaves with my brother on last minute trip to Iloilo. They make it there just last Thursday. My grandma is in bad shape. Sunken cheeks, bed-ridden. Even breathing requires the largest effort. But she still recognizes family.
On their last day there, my dad tells me that he just couldn’t leave. That he couldn’t bear to say goodbye to his mother. But he does. He whispers a last ‘I love you’. My grandmother, already on her deathbed acknowledges this and nods vigorously. Tears fall as they hug one last time. My dad and my brother boards the boat home. She dies the next day.
More than a day has passed since she went to that great home in the sky, and it hasn’t actually hit me- ’till now. As I sit here, I look back at the times I spent with her. And shamefully, I realize that they were little. They mostly consisted of warm, almost cordial greetings during family get-togethers. Somewhere along the way, the distance, not to mention growing up, got in the way.
I guess I got so used to my grandparents living in another city that I kinda took them for granted. During those rare family reunions, I got so used to the adults gathering around the table that I never actually joined them. They had their own stories, their own ‘adult’ lives to share that I (as a kid) couldn’t relate to anyway. So I usually joined my cousins and later on, when I grew older, spent the time in front of the computer.
Quite simply, I forgot that my grandparents, old and ancient though they are, are also people. People with feelings. People who smile when they’re happy, people who are glad when they are remembered.
As I delve into those scant memories of my grandmother, I find myself stumbling on two words- if only. I admit that I am wishing that I should have at least made the effort to get to know her better- to spend more time with her when I had the chance.
For I know that I’ll never get that chance again.