This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. So hard, in fact that it’s taken me three years to be able to complete anything. There is no way that I can do justice to the memories I have, but I’m going to do my best to honor them.
When I was in fourth grade my brother, Clockwork, and I had two anoles. Other than goldfish, the anoles were the first pets we’d ever had. I remember loving that little green lizard - who I’d affectionately named Stitches - with all of my heart. I remember the heartbreak I felt when Stitches went missing one day. I mourned the loss of my little friend as much as any 9-year-old can.
This must be when my mother realized that pets were a good way to teach her children about loss. That’s when we got the kittens. Two adorable, 8-week-old kittens we named Peanut (because he was nuts) and Amber (because Jurassic Park had just come out and Clockwork and I have always been geeks). Mom, who’d grown up on a farm where kittens come and go quite regularly, thought that we would have Peanut and Amber for a couple of years and would then learn about grief when the cats went missing. Little did she know this wouldn’t happen until I was 19-years old and Peanut escaped from the house one night (we still have Amber to this day).
And when that happened we certainly did learn about loss. Mom, Dad, my brother and I realized how much our pets had come to mean to us as we grieved for the loss of our kitty. But even through that grief, my brother and I still hadn’t learned what it was like to lose a family member. We knew we were lucky – all of our grandparents were still alive and the only family members we had lost were great aunts or uncles that we’d never had an opportunity to bond with.
But all of that changed on Valentine’s Day in 2009.
On Valentine’s Day, my parents had a party at their house for our extended family and some friends. My grandmother, Butzie (whose real name is Madonna, but has always been our Butzie), wasn’t able to attend because she’d been sick with a cold for a while and didn’t feel up to going. After the family function, my boyfriend and I went out to celebrate the holiday.
The next morning, the world came crashing down.
My cell phone rang around seven in the morning. I picked it up and heard my mom’s voice on the other end of the line. She was calm as she told me that Butzie had been admitted to the hospital in Madison and that the doctors thought she had some kind of cancer. My heart sank and I began to sob.
All I could think of was that it couldn’t be Butzie - that this couldn’t be real. Of my four living grandparents, she had been the one in the best health. She was still getting around well, still cracking jokes, still going dancing, still enjoying the occasional whisky and coke.
Mom told me that she and Dad were heading up to Madison right away and that my brother and I should go up as well. As I calmed down, my rational brain kicked in and I thought, “Cancer doesn’t mean a death sentence. Cancer is treatable. She’s going to be ok. This isn’t good, but it’s going to be ok in the end.”
Clockwork and I drove to Madison together. When we got there, we were greeted by hugs from our somber-faced family. My mom is one of seven children and I’m one of 16 grandchildren so typically when our family gets together we create quite the ruckus - but not on that day. My amazing family, usually so full of life and laughter was quiet and buzzing with worry.
When it was our turn, Clockwork and I went into Butzie’s room to give her our love. She looked just like herself and was talking just like usual; except that they had her hooked up to machines and her neck was a bit bigger than normal. We hugged her and kissed her and held her hand and told her she would be ok. It wasn’t until later that day that we learned what type of cancer she had.
The doctor’s called it Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer. Wikipedia says this about the prognosis – “The overall 5-year survival rate of anaplastic thyroid cancer has been given as 7% or 14%, although the latter has been criticized as being overestimated.” The potential treatments – radiation, chemotherapy, tracheostomy or gastronomy – were all equally horrible to imagine happening to my beautiful grandmother.
When faced with the prognosis and potential treatments, Butzie made the choice to forgo treatment and live the rest of her life naturally, without the sickness and discomfort the treatments would have caused. We all learned quickly that this meant our grandmother was not going to be with us for long.
She stayed in the hospital for a few more days, under the doctor’s care. Those days were some of the worst of my life. There was my grandmother, lying in a bed, preparing to go into heaven and there I was – expected to go about my life as usual. Our entire family had work or school we were expected to attend and to go about as if nothing was wrong.
I skipped all of my classes that week – how could I sit in class and try to absorb any information when the heart of my family was living the last days of her life somewhere so far away? I missed work so I could make the two-hour drive to the hospital in Madison to spend time with my family as we kept vigil in the waiting room of the hospital. We would take turns spending time in Butzie’s room – making sure someone was holding her hand at all times.
In that time I got to see a different side of my family, a side that I hadn’t ever experienced. It was during this horribly painful time that I finally realized the beauty of a family – the true support and care you can give and receive from people who you might not have anything in common with other than DNA. Some of us have completely different views of religion, ethics, or politics, but when it came to love and compassion, we were all on the same page.
After a few days of staying in the hospital, Butzie was taken home where the family could prepare to say our goodbyes. Each day, the house was filled with family coming and going. My mom’s family is from a small town in Wisconsin, and it seemed that during that time half of the town was helping to support our family as we prepared to say goodbye to her. Countless people brought food and drinks, sent flowers and offered compassion for our ailing grandmother.
The days passed in such a blur that it’s hard to remember everything that happened, but I do have a few memories that stick out plainly in my mind: my brother telling Butzie that he had prayed for the first time in over a decade for her pain to be taken away; my grandfather sitting at her bedside and singing quietly as he held her hand; my little cousin Bella cuddled up on the bed next to Butzie and telling her about her day in school.
And finally, on the day that she slipped into a coma, I remember sitting at the dining room table with my brother and a few of our cousins. My mom and three of my aunts were in the room with Butzie, taking care of her for a few minutes before letting the family resume our bedside vigil. My cousins and I were going through old family photos trying to find pictures for the DVD the funeral home was going to make to play during Butzie’s wake. Even though the last eight days had been a horrific ride for us, we were able to find joy in those old photographs. We joked and laughed about the pictures and were almost having a good time.
In those minutes, the mood in the house was borderline lighthearted as our family was coming to peace with the loss we knew we would soon be facing. It was during that time that one of my aunts came out of the room where Butzie was and called the Hospice nurse to join the 4 ladies in the room with Butzie. Silence spread through the house as we realized the implications of this small change in what had become the routine of the last few days. For a few minutes, our family sat together in the dining room, holding hands or crying softly, waiting with trepidation for the ladies to reemerge from the room where Butzie was sleeping.
When they came out, they let us know that our beloved Butzie had left our world. We all went to sit with her and held each other as we cried. We opened a window so her soul could go to Heaven. Her sisters were called to come and say their last goodbyes. Even as we waited for the priest and the men from the funeral home to arrive, we never once let go of her hand.
Three years later, I think our family is still recovering; still regrouping from the tremendous loss we’ve felt after our matriarch was ripped so suddenly from our lives. But in so many ways, her death was beautiful. Sure, the cancer was the cause, but she chose to forgo the treatments and to be able to experience her final days on her terms - surrounded by the loving support of all of her family and friends. Together we shepherded her into the arms of the God she loved so much.
Eight days is all it took to change my life forever. I suddenly realized that life can end at any time, for any person. I learned that if I wanted to achieve the dreams I had for my life, I needed to be working toward those things every day because there is no time to waste.
Before she slipped into the coma, while she was still in the hospital, there was a time that my cousin Patrick and I were alone with Butzie in her hospital room. We sat on each side of her bed, each holding one of her hands. She was still able to speak at this time and what she said to me that day I’ll never forget.
My grandmother who loved to laugh and dance and listen to Patsy Cline had always had a heart for adventure and a love of romance. That day, she looked pointedly at Patrick and I and said “Annie, Patrick, I want both of you kids to go out and lead fun and exciting lives.” We promised her that we would and that promise is one I still try to live up to.
I know my life could end at any time and because of this, I try to live my life in the moment. I don’t mean this as some sort of immature “I don’t care about the future!” battle cry. I mean that I don’t let opportunities pass me by. I work hard so I can play harder. I plan for the future but live in the present. I don’t let worries bog down my soul to the point that I’m paralyzed with fear.
When my time comes, I hope to be able to tell my family that I lived a life full of adventure and love. I hope to be able to go bravely into the next phase of existence like my grandmother did.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of the woman who taught me what life and death are all about. To the woman who taught me what love is and most of all – what real bravery and strength look like. Three years ago today we lost her, but the lessons and love she bestowed upon us will stay with us forever.
Love to you, Butzie,