Because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it appropriate to tell you a very personal story to honor someone I loved dearly and to demonstrate the love and laughter that can exist despite the tragedy and loss we experience in life. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “survivor” as “To carry on despite hardships or trauma; to persevere. To remain alive.” I define the word survivor as someone who displays hope and strength despite tremendous adversity. My grandmother was not able to “carry on” after her diagnosis of breast cancer, but she certainly displayed hope and most definitely was strong during her battle.
JoAnn Czarlinsky was a woman who many of you knew and loved, but for those of you who did not have the privilege of knowing my grandmother, allow me to share this amazing woman! Her smile was enough to light up a room, and her laugh was boisterous and full. She reminded me of Jackie Kennedy: stylish, beautiful, kind, and intelligent.
My grandparents owned a men’s clothing store in downtown Jefferson City called Czarlinsky’s. Raising three daughters, my grandmother was the supportive wife and the social belle, all the while making sure the business ran smoothly.
Because my grandmother married young (at the age of 18) she never went to college. When she was sixty years old she decided an education was important and so despite her age and holding down a full time job, she enrolled full time at Columbia College. In four years time she graduated with honors!
In August of 1998 my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A lump in her breast had been overlooked on her last mammogram. She spent the next three months in and out of chemotherapy and radiation, hospitals and doctor’s appointments and on November 11, 1998 she lost her valiant battle.
Perhaps the last week of my grandmother’s life is what holds so much emotion and reflection of who my grandmother was. Family was most important to my grandmother, and our family came together in the final moments of her life, just as she would have wanted.
In order to appreciate my memories of that week, you must come to a full understanding that my family tends to be…how can I say this nicely? Sit-com worthy. Drama surrounds us and we undoubtedly put the word “fun” into “dysfunctional!”
After three months of treatments, nausea, fear, pain, and confusion, the doctors finally shared with my grandfather, my mother and my two aunts that my grandmother would not beat this horrible disease. They had done everything they could for my grandmother; now it was time to just make her comfortable. That conversation was on a Friday evening, and my mother immediately called me to tell me that I should come to the hospital and say my good-byes. I was the first grandchild; my grandmother and I had a very special bond. She was my best friend, my confidant, my biggest cheerleader in life. I immediately went to St. Mary’s Hospital and was greeted by my mother, my dad, my grandfather and my two aunts. I fell into a deep sadness and began to sob while my mother comforted me in her arms. Stroking my hair my mother very tenderly said, “Everything will be fine. She will be at peace. She will not be in pain anymore.” I violently shook my head; the thought of losing my grandmother was too much to bear. “But who will I call when I need someone to talk to? Grandma and I talk almost everyday!” I broke down in the brightly lit, sterile hallway. My mother, cupping my face with her hands, gently replied, “You can call me.” As hot tears spilled down my cheeks onto my sweatshirt, I looked at my mother and said, “But most of the time I called her to complain about you!” Yes, my grandmother understood me like nobody else, rebellion and all!
There were seven of us crammed into grandmother’s tiny hospital room. We took turns sitting next to grandmother, stroking her arm, holding her hand, watching the nurses come in every hour to take vitals or to administer more morphine to make sure she was comfortable. Sometimes my mother would sing; sometimes my aunts would share funny stories of growing up; sometimes we all just sat in the quiet, listening to my grandmother’s breathing. We all stayed, day and night, sleeping in upright positions. Sometimes a few of us would sleep in the waiting room. My great-grandmother (Cerese Hockaday, my grandmother’s mother) wore a special watch for the vision impaired that announced the time every fifteen minutes of each hour in a robotic voice. It became very annoying, often times making us jump, wrestling us from the little rest we were able to get. One night, deep into the midnight hour, my mother had had enough of the robot voice and very gently placed a pillow over my great-grandmother’s arm in hopes of muffling the sound. Thinking that the interruption had come to a halt, the room erupted into laughter when a muffled robotic voice announced “The time is now one o’clock a.m.!” Sometimes even today when I’m lying still under the covers, eyes closed, drifting into a slumber, I can still hear that computerized voice –and I smile!
Before my grandmother drifted into a coma, she was able to talk with us. Knowing that her time was limited, she asked my mother and her two sisters to sit and listen to a few things she wanted them to know. She wanted each daughter to know how much she loved them and how proud of each one of her girls she was. Perhaps the most memorable advice she had given was to my aunt Stephanie (to those of you who know my aunt, she isn’t fond of wearing make-up and often chooses comfort over style). The last words my grandmother spoke to my aunt Stephanie were, “Wear a little lipstick and suck in your tummy.” I crack up just writing that! To my mother, my grandmother pleaded, “You and Stephanie need to be nice to your sister” (the youngest of the girls, my aunt Charlayn tends to have the reputation of a spoiled “princess”).
There are so many memories: bribing the nurses with money to turn off the lights in the hallways and waiting room so we could rest a bit easier; making an “emergency” call to my mother, who had run home to quickly shower and change, my aunt (remember the spoiled “princess”) wanted microwave popcorn and forced me to call my mom’s cell phone and ask her to stop at the store and bring some back. Before my mother had left the hospital, she sternly warned us that we were not to call her unless my grandmother had passed…so you can imagine how my mother answered my “popcorn” phone call. The fact that we were able to find humor in such sadness was a testament to the love we had for my grandmother and for each other. We “steel magnolias” had to survive for my grandmother.
It was, indeed, a very sad time. A woman we all loved and adored was dying. But it was also a time of much laughter, a time of togetherness and a time of incredible love. I can’t help but be inspired by the effect my grandmother had on those around her. Even in the midst of a horrific battle, she still managed to bring those whom she loved most to feel peace and comfort and to bask in the light of her glory!
I recently found this quote somewhere. I do not know the author: “Cancer is so limited…It cannot cripple love, it cannot shatter hope, it cannot corrode faith, it cannot eat away peace, it cannot destroy confidence, it cannot kill friendship, it cannot shut out memories, it cannot silence courage, it cannot reduce eternal life, it cannot quench the Spirit.” Even thought I lost my grandmother to cancer, I know these things to be true. I also know that my grandmother’s spirit lives in me. Thank you, grandmother, for being a survivor!