It all started with my mother sitting my sister and me down to inform us that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. It hit us hard, but we knew how strong our mother was and that she would get through it all, even with both of us away at college.
Fast forward almost a year later, with my mom beating her first round of cancer, we found out that my grandmother also had oral cancer. It took so long to get a diagnosis because she had been so worried about my mother that she never wanted to go in to have the spot looked at until it was already pretty late.
Knowing my nana’s age, I knew that she would have a much harder time going through the treatments than my mom did. Because my mom was working full-time and my sister was living in Maryland, I came back home to Charlotte to be her primary caregiver. This would begin the roughly 2-and-a-half-year span where I looked after her.
At first, it was super easy. It mainly involved scheduling appointments and driving her to them, talking with the doctors, etc., since she was still able to perform almost everything independently. So, for the start of all this, I would let her do her own thing, and I would hang around and relax until I was needed.
As time moved on, her condition would worsen, and I would have to do more for her. It became hard for her to speak clearly, and, even worse, she soon was not able to eat or drink anything by mouth.
While her treatments were working, since the cancer was already at a later stage, it took drastic effects on her. With her health deteriorating, she still fought tooth and nail to get better, and I was there by her side, supporting her all the way.
I would help her walk safely, feed her through a g-tube throughout the day, and continue doing what I did before while also constantly checking up on her. The hardest thing about all of this was seeing her lose more and more of her independence — something that was extremely hard for her to do.
When we saw that the cancer was literally eating away at the flesh on her face, she decided that she would go and have a major surgery done to remove the cancer and replace that side of her face and jaw. For her, even if she didn’t have a high chance of surviving the surgery, she was not going to give up.
She ended up making it through, and it was quite successful — a “miracle,” some of her doctors called it, given her age and overall health.
After some recovery time, she was back to as normal as could be. She still had a hard time speaking and still couldn’t eat or drink much, but even the smallest amount made her happy.
Unfortunately, the cancer would return about a year and a half later — with a vengeance at that.
Still, she fought it by once again attending chemotherapy sessions and once again taking on this tough fight. However, this time was different. This time, the fatigue she would experience was much more transparent and frequent.
This was when I finally saw the strong woman who was my nana start to show signs of weakness in this battle.
The days became more frequent where I would go to wake her up in the mornings, and it would take her a few hours just to find it in her to get out of bed. I would make sure that she got her medicine and got her feeds throughout the day, but, by this point, all she wanted to do was rest — really, that was all she could do.
Being able to look after my nana was one of the biggest joys of my life, yet it hurt me so much toward the end seeing her hurt so much. To me, being able to take care of her as she did me growing up made it feel like a type of repayment that I would never be able to give back fully.
Looking after such a strong-willed, independent person was no easy task either. So often was she determined to do what she wanted when she wanted to. The whole process was hard on her, having to understand that she couldn’t do the things she once did like they were nothing.
No task was an easy one for her, which is why I always made it a point to be by her side and remind her, “Nana, if there’s anything you need, know I’ll be right here to get it for you or help you. All you need to do is just tell me what it is since I’m no mind reader.”
For me, it felt like I had to tiptoe a fine wire to make sure that I wasn’t being too nice with her. Just like a kid, if I were too nice, she wouldn’t do what she needed to throughout the day to help herself, like get up, change, or wash her mouth out.
This experience gave me the insight that there is no one solution to working with people. Even the same person has multiple ways to be dealt with and helped out at any given time. It made me truly appreciate all that she and my mom did for me as a child.
By now, all my days consisted of making sure that her days could be the best that they could be. I never wanted her to feel alone, so I would always be by her side if she needed anything. She knew that if she needed something, all she had to do was give me a holler at home, and I’d rush to her side. That gave her great comfort.
All she wanted was to know that we were there for her, that we loved her no matter how tough of a day she was having and no matter how awful she felt, and that we would always be there next to her.
On the other hand, it was frightening to look after her in her bad health. There were some days where it hurt my soul to see her not be able to get out of bed, and there was nothing I could do to help her. Being her caregiver had many ups and downs.
When she was healing, it felt like a miracle with how brightly she shined. On her bad days, though — especially the most recent ones — all you could see from her was that she was ready to transition onto the next stage of her long life.
Watching somebody, especially a loved one, go through these stages and slowly wither away felt much more painful than anything else. Every day I would look after her. Toward the end, she just lacked the energy to get up in the mornings, and no matter what I did for her, it never seemed to be enough to truly help her get through the day.
It just broke my heart to see the strong and independent grandmother I looked up to be in the state she was in.
Being her caregiver was a big growing experience for me. Having to look after another person was harder than I had ever imagined. There was no manual for me to read to get me through the days. There was no one-size-fits-all solution for the problems she faced as an individual.
Luckily for me, she and my mother gave me the best solution growing up: love.
No matter what I did, I always did it out of love for her — to be by her side and help. As long as I put my heart into looking after her and kept her company, that was all she truly wanted.
Unfortunately, she passed away this September, but looking after her couldn’t have been a greater joy for me. Being able to spend time with her and look after her, knowing that my company meant the world to her, makes me feel truly blessed.
I love you, Nana.