Every October the tree tops turn muted shades of gold, red and orange. But things also turn pink for a very different reason. The color pink is everywhere now and is recognizable as a universal symbol of breast cancer awareness month. Pink ribbons don shirts, car bumpers, purses and even mailboxes! In Kansas City, the city of fountains, they dye the water pink. Every time I drive by a fountain flowing pink I feel kinda sad. I know I’m not supposed to. I should be proud that everyone rallies around this cause and tries to spread awareness. That’s what the color pink is all about this month. To remind people that October doesn’t just mean piles of leaves, pumpkin patches and Halloween. October means so much more to so many people. But for those who have lost someone to breast cancer sometimes seeing pink can make you feel blue.
I was just a little girl when my grandma died of breast cancer. Too young to remember her well. But certain memories of her will never fade.
I remember looking out the back of my parents station wagon as the gravel created a gray cloud behind us on the way to their house.
I remember the floor plan of their small white farmhouse. I can still close my eyes and picture myself walking through every room.
I remember the song of the grandfather clock chiming every hour on the hour.
I remember the smell of bacon in the early morning. And the taste of her fried chicken served on a dining room table covered with a green lace table cloth.
I remember staying there a few nights while my parents went on vacation. I got scared in the night and my grandma warmed some milk on the stove and rocked me in the chair until I fell asleep again. Every time I see a blue flame on a gas stove it reminds me of her.
I remember when she and grandpa came to live with us. I guess that’s when things started getting worse and she was closer to the hospital that way. I lost a tooth one night and the tooth fairy came the next morning. I remember flying down the staircase and running into the room to show her what the tooth fairy brought me. I remember her smiling as I jumped up and down on the bed.
I remember having soup one night for dinner. My grandma shook so badly that the soup kept falling off the spoon as she tried to keep it steady enough to reach her mouth. My mom stacked some books on the table and placed the bowl on top so it was easier for her to eat.
I remember driving to the hospital one afternoon. My mom talked to us girls before we got there. She told us that grandma didn’t have any hair on her head and she asked us not to point at her or mention it. I remember feeling scared and confused when I saw her.
I remember playing hide and seek in the hospital waiting room. Until my mom came in and told my sisters and I to come in and see grandma. She wasn’t able to speak to us and her eyes were closed. I think my mom was having us say goodbye. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time.
I remember sleeping in my mom and dad’s room one night. My mom made a bed for my little sister and I on the floor next to her. Early the next morning the phone rang and my mom left. We didn’t know where she was going. I now know that my mom had us sleep next to her that night because she knew her mom was dying. I think she felt better with us beside her. And my mom was right. She did die early that morning.
I remember the doorbell ringing a lot in the days to follow. I remember food and cards and flowers.
I remember getting out of the car the morning of the funeral. My older sisters were crying before we got to the door. I remember being confused. I didn’t understand what was happening. I saw all of these people around me. Many of them with their heads down. Many of them crying.
I remember laughing with my little sister and young cousins. I also remember sobbing. But only because I was overwhelmed. At the time I didn’t understand where grandma was going. But I remember being told I would not see her anymore.
I remember someone lifting me up so I could touch her one last time. Photos of all of her grandchildren lay beside her.
I remember looking at my dad, the strongest man I have ever known, as one lone tear fell from his cheek in slow motion. To this day, that is the only time I’ve ever seen my dad cry.
I don’t write this today to make you cry. I’m writing it because every October I feel that loss all over again. Some might think I was young enough that it didn’t affect me. But it did. It affected me in ways I will probably never understand.
Right after she died I began to have problems. I developed severe separation anxiety. Whenever my parents left I thought they were never coming back. I also became so terrified of thunder storms that my mom would have to come pick me up from school whenever it rained. I have no idea if the problems were related to the loss. But it is certainly not an unbelievable notion.
I didn’t get to have a strong relationship with her growing up but that doesn’t negate the fact that I still lost something precious. I think I feel that loss even more now that I’m a mother. As I watch my sons with their grandmas I see what a wonderful relationship it is and I realize how great the loss actually was. My hope is for them to experience what I couldn’t. My hope is that my sons never have to lose someone to breast cancer or any cancer for that matter.
I cannot even imagine what my grandma’s illness and death must have done to my mother. Grandma’s battle with breast cancer lasted six years. I believe she was diagnosed when I was 2-years-old and my youngest sister must have just been born. My mom was raising four young daughters AND taking care of her sick mother. I feel so bad that she had to carry this burden on her own. It must have been hell. This was at a time when breast cancer wasn’t talked about and there was little awareness being raised concerning the topic.
My how times have changed. My mom had a breast cancer scare in July. She found a lump and due to family history she went to the doctor the same week. The lump turned out to be nothing but due to that scan they ended up finding a calcification and she had a biopsy done the same day. I can’t tell you how nervous I was (and I’m sure she was) waiting to hear the results. Thankfully, it was not cancerous. If my mom or anyone else had been complacent about the lump it could have been much worse.
And now women know that. We know that we need to do a monthly self-examination of our breasts (if you don’t know how this is a great resource). We know that we are to receive a baseline mammogram at 40 years of age and continue each year (and sometimes earlier depending on risk factors and family history). We know that we are supposed to be there for people who are diagnosed or whose family members are diagnosed with cancer. Because no one should fight this battle alone.
I think that’s why we can be proud when we see pink. It is normal and healthy to remember and feel sad for the loss. But we can also stand strong and united knowing that breast cancer no longer holds a death sentence. There is treatment. There is remission. There is survival. There is hope.
And for me, there is the memory of a woman who loved us all very much.
Grandma Myrtle with me and my sisters
April 14, 1920 – June 15, 1987
How has breast cancer affected you? I would love for you to tell me your “pink” story in the comments or on your blog.