As a kid, Christmas was my favorite time of the year, and not much has changed. As Christmas approaches, there are so many memories I’m thankful for. I remember decorating Christmas cookies with my mom, made with my grandma’s delicious homemade frosting.
I remember driving around looking for Santa, and leaving reindeer food all over the snow-covered ground with my grandpa on Christmas Eve. I remember listening to Christmas music for hours on end with my grandma, and falling asleep next to her every night before Christmas. She would always lay with me until I was asleep and it was safe for Santa to come.
I have many memories of spending Christmas day with my extended family. We exchanged gifts and ate a huge Christmas dinner, mostly prepared by my grandma. She was the head chef every holiday, and we had to force her to let us help in the kitchen. Looking back, I wish I could re-live some of those moments, back when everything was the way it was supposed to be. Memories stick with us for as long as we live and I am beyond grateful for that. Last Christmas was the first Christmas without the head chef to prepare our meal.
She was so much more than that. She was the backbone to our entire family and then in the blink of an eye, everything changed. On a December afternoon, almost two years ago, my grandma found herself lying in a hospital bed instead of enjoying her vanilla flavored coffee and watching the five o’clock news.
Being the strong willed and stubborn, 68 year-old woman that she was, my grandma shoveled her driveway and then proceeded to take out the trash when she slipped on ice, causing a trash can to land on top of her. The wind-chill was a freezing negative 14 that day. She yelled for help, but my grandpa was unable to hear her from inside the house.
After 30 minutes of struggling, a stranger drove by their house and saw her in need of help. My grandparents, along with the amazing middle aged man who stopped to help, made it to the hospital where a full body scan had to be done.
Because my grandma was so frozen, they weren’t sure what all had been damaged in the fall. The results showed that she had a broken hip, which could be healed with surgery, but the surprising tumor they found attached to her right lung and her heart, they weren’t too sure about.
My family spent Christmas in the hospital that year. After more tests and second and third opinions, my grandma was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. It came as a shock to all of us, and quite honestly, I’ll never get over why this happened to her. My Grandma Jacqueline had always been the healthiest one in my family. She took her vitamins, rarely got sick, and my family often joked about how she was going to outlive us. How could she have stage four lung cancer?
She didn’t smoke and she didn’t even have any symptoms.
During the 13 months she battled cancer, I never once heard her complain. She never let her sickness bring her down. She never used it as an excuse, and she was always positive. My grandma began radiation and then chemotherapy. The doctors told her she didn’t have a chance and gave her six months to a year to live, but she fought until her last breath, a year and one month later. My grandma continued to stay active after her diagnosis. Besides chemo appointments, she was always up to something. She made the most of the time she had left on earth.
Even through becoming sick, losing her hair, spending too much time as a patient in waiting rooms, and realizing that she wouldn’t get to see her seven grandchildren grow up, she stayed strong. The last year of her life wasn’t always filled with amazing moments, but she tried her best to have as many as she possibly could.
Because I lived two hours away, I didn’t get to spend as much time with my grandma as I wish I could have, but she was still a huge part of my life. It took me far too long to realize that even people who I thought were invincible, aren’t that way forever. Before her diagnosis, I had this false sense that I would always have my grandmother around, and that I could call, visit, or make time for her whenever it was most convenient for me. It saddens me that it took cancer for me to get so close to the woman who would do anything for me, who always believed in me, and who unconditionally loved me for who I am. When life throws you a curve ball, you can let it hit you in the face and knock you down, or you can catch it and play ball. I chose to strengthen my relationship with my grandmother as much as I could while she was still here, even though losing her has been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.
It became a priority for me to call my grandma every day. We talked, laughed, and I enjoyed hearing all the stories she had to share about her life. My grandma was also a great listener. She gave the best advice and she was always real with me.
When I asked her how she was, she was always upbeat. “It was a good day”, she would often say. Even if I later found out from my grandfather how far from the truth that really was. I taught her how to text, something she swore she would never do and we communicated that way a lot as well. I may have taught her a thing or two, but I learned far more from her than she ever learned from me.
I’ll always remember my grandma as the strongest woman I know, next to my own mother that is and there’s no question where she gets that from. When my grandma had every right to break down, and to fall apart, she never did. The biggest lesson I ever learned from her, she didn’t even try to teach. She was a fighter and she never gave up.
My grandma always said that she’d have pink hair someday, since it was her favorite color. When she began to lose her hair, we got her some wigs, but she never wore them. I remember hanging out at my grandma’s house one day, with her, my mom, and my aunts. We tried on the wigs, and just joked and made fun of how we looked in them.
My grandma was beautiful with or without hair on her head. I really wish she hadn’t been so stubborn about having her picture taken, so I’d have more photos of her to look back on. I know it bothered her, but she never let any of us see that losing her hair affected her. She smiled and laughed as we tried on different hair colors and styles. She was never a fan of hats, but on a normal day, she wore a head wrap with some sort of design on it.
When I’d visit, we’d spend the day playing cards, watching our favorite shows, baking, and she even made time to help me learn to sew. She also tended to be my personal chef whenever I was around. It’s funny how much a 17-year-old and an old lady can have in common.
My grandma was the worst at cards games, but she’d tell you it was the seat she was sitting in. She loved “Everybody loves Raymond”, “Reba”, and “Judge Judy”. She even enjoyed watching those singing and dancing reality shows. She made the world’s best O’ Henry bars, and her Oreo cookie dessert was delicious. A few months before we lost her, she even took an entire day teaching me how to make fleece blankets, because unlike her, I’m not too crafty.
I’ll never forget our shopping trips. The women in our family love to shop and we’re pretty good at it too. School shopping for my senior year of high school was a big deal. I remember she didn’t feel too well that day, but my grandma wanted to go out shopping with me anyway. We spent the day at the mall and a few department stores, and she made sure to give me her opinion on everything I tried on. For someone in her 60s, she had a decent eye for style.
Christmas rolled around again, and for once, it wasn’t a Christmas that I looked forward to. My grandmother’s favorite holiday was Christmas. She loved decorating her home for the holidays. She looked forward to the music, the food, the movies, and the fact that all of her family was together. She got to bake, wear her favorite Christmas sweaters, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, listen to Christmas music for two months straight, and spend hours tuning into the holiday shopping networks.
Although she spent her last Christmas in a bed unable to care for herself, she still found joy in the fact that she was able to be home with her family. Just one month later, four days before my 18th birthday, my grandma died.
I’ll never forget the last time I spoke to her. The night before she passed away, my mom held the phone up to her ear and I was able to tell her how much I loved her. She got so upset because she couldn’t respond, but I could hear her cry and fight to find words to speak. She was strong, not only for herself, but for her family. Once we told her it was okay to go, that she didn’t have to live in pain anymore, I think she felt relieved and knew it was time.
I wish she could still be here. I wish she got to see me play the lead in my school play, and watch me graduate from high school. I wish she could see me graduate from college in a few years, get married, and meet my children some day. I wish I could still call her up and tell her about my day. It’s not fair, but I’ve learned that life never is.
Cancer took my grandma way too soon, but she fought lung cancer with everything she had. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two years without her. She only wanted the absolute best for all of her grandchildren and I hope I make her proud.
As Christmas comes around again, it may be sad, but I still have so much to be thankful for. I’m thankful to have had a grandmother so amazing that I can miss every single day. I’m thankful that through her, I learned how to be strong and never give up.
Life truly does pass in the blink of an eye. It’s important to make the most of the moments you have with the ones you love, because the opportunity won’t always be there and eventually everything becomes a memory.