I still remember it like it was yesterday. The crisp January air stung my face as I hurried across the Lubbock Christian University campus, my mind abuzz. The 2010 Spring semester had just begun, and I was determined to end my sophomore year with high marks. I’d just reached the warm shelter of my car when I received an odd text from a family member asking, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What didn’t I tell you? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I quipped back with as much annoyance as one can muster via text message. I was answered with the news that our grandfather, Alex, had just been diagnosed with lung cancer.
At the time, my mind couldn’t process what I was being told. I didn’t want to believe it. This information had to be wrong. Some wires must have been crossed. I knew Alex had gone in for a doctor’s appointment due to chest pains and general tiredness, but I never believed the outcome could be something like this. In a state of shock, I called my mother for details. I was hoping it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, she confirmed the news. He was scheduled for another appointment to assess the severity of his condition and options moving forward. That chilly day was a prelude to the heartache to come.
As the days progressed, the bad news seemed to snowball. Alex was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One of his lungs had collapsed around a tumor. Operation for repair wasn’t an option, but chemo was. He attempted chemo for a couple of weeks, but it was too hard on his body. It left his esophagus so raw he couldn’t eat or drink without pain. I’m not sure why I was present the day he gathered my Memaw, mother, aunt, and uncles into his room to tell them he wouldn’t be continuing his chemo. All I can remember is a numb heat spreading across my body as tears welled in my eyes. This was it then, the beginning of the end.
Every hour I wasn’t in class, I was sat by my grandfather’s side in his hospital room. I did most of my homework there while he watched, a proud yet sad smile on his face. It was so strange—no, surreal—to watch one of the most stubborn, strong-willed men I’ve ever known be reduced to a frail remnant of his former self. I viewed him as indestructible, a force to be reckoned with (and, boy, was he). In my mind, he’d be around forever.
People describe cancer as a monster, but it’s difficult to comprehend its ugliness until you’ve watched it eat away at someone you love. Its hunger is insatiable. The inability to do anything to stop it can break you. My role as bystander, as witness, left me emotionally drained. I tried to put on a brave face but the façade waivered from time to time.
There was a moment I shared with my Memaw after a day at the hospital. We’d retired to my uncle’s house for the night, but I couldn’t sleep. I went to her room and sat on the floor next to her bed, laying my head next to her hands. I asked her if my grandfather was going to die. “I don’t know, honey,” she said as she stroked my hair. But we both knew. Maybe it was easier not to say it.
Alex held on until March 10, 2010—just three months after he’d been diagnosed. Losing him was like having all the wind knocked out of me. Nothing could ease the pain and bitterness. We had a freak snowstorm just two days after he died. It was as if the world were mourning with us. The condolences and casseroles came pouring in. We made arrangements, shared memories, and even laughed a few times during those heavy days leading up to the funeral.
At the time, I was a student journalist for my university’s online newspaper, The Duster. I’d written an article about Alex for the paper a few weeks prior, and I read it at his funeral. I wasn’t prepared for the reality. I spoke through tears to a room full of people who had gathered to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man. I couldn’t look at anyone, especially my Memaw.. Grief like that can’t be put into words. It was an anguish I felt deep in my bones.
Navigating the world without Alex hasn’t been easy. I found myself looking for someone or something to blame. I wanted to blame the doctors for not finding his cancer sooner. I (unfairly) wanted to blame Alex for not visiting a doctor until it was too late. I wanted to blame modern medicine for not being advanced enough to cure him. I wanted something tangible I could use to make sense of the situation. I never found it, but over the years, I’ve discovered a sense of compassion—one which I can use to help others. I was lucky enough to have a solid support system of family and friends to help me through my loss, but not everyone has that luxury. I’m ready to offer comfort to anyone who needs it.
The hurt ever goes away. There are days when Alex’s absence feels overwhelming. I find myself wishing he was here to see all the things I’ve accomplished and will accomplish in the future. I’ll always want just one more hug or just one more day. Instead, I laugh about his preference for being called by his first name instead of grandpa or some other endearment. I remember the summer days my cousins and I watched him cut fresh watermelon for us under the shade of the pecan tree in his backyard. I smile when I unexpectedly catch a hint of his tobacco scent lingering in the air. I imagine him watching me. I think it’s what he would’ve wanted.
Hannah Fields is a writer and editor from Texas. She is currently living in Scotland where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in Publishing at the University of Stirling. She has worked on various publications from children’s books to award-winning magazines. You can follow her on Twitter and can read more on her website and shared blog.