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A Trip to Grandma’s House

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This Sunday morning about 3,500 people are expected to take part in the 15th Annual Cancer Survivors’ Celebration and Walk. The event starts in Grant Park, and includes a four-mile lakefront walk. Chicago writer Jessica Young won't be walking, but here she recalls a frightening ride that drove her straight into the face of reality.

This spring, I drove through the fields of central Illinois, smoldering with brush fire and sodden with rain, on my way to Grandma's house. There was no pretty red riding hood for me, and no clever wolf waited for me behind mile markers or exit signs. My only steady companions were leaky, heavy rain clouds, and the worrisome thoughts of my grandmother's illness.

You're not supposed to say the word cancer aloud, I've heard; you say it in a whisper. “Have you heard? Janet was diagnosed with… cancer,” like it's a dirty word. In saying it, you're suddenly reduced to an eight-year-old burrowed beneath blankets, flashlight in hand. I never understood all that whispering business. It was silly and superstitious: just say it.

Then my grandmother got sick. Just like that, a word went from clinical to frightening and potentially fatal. The words were just harder to get out. They felt heavy in my throat, and angular and awkward in my mouth. They felt like dark, slick, adult words, words like divorce, mutual fund, fixed mortgage rate, and fuel injector. These words, like cancer, are not words that get used by someone like me, who spends most days pacing in front of her computer and arguing with her boyfriend about prepositional phrases and French verb tenses. There was no room in my life for this word, for my grandmother to be so sick.

But that didn't matter: the word had grown in my grandmother's left breast, and it had to be removed. So, quietly, quickly, I found myself on a slippery, concrete stretch of I-57 driving south to be with my grandmother. I had no idea what was to come: my mother hadn't said much on the phone, just that Grandma was having a mastectomy and that I should drive down from Chicago. 

I thought on the drive how little I knew about my grandmother. I didn't know that she had moved north to Illinois from Mississippi, one of the millions of bodies swept North in the Great Migration. I didn't know that she had her first child when she was fourteen. I didn't know how comfortable she was making her own decisions and holding others at bay. Now that her health was in jeopardy she had to draw her family into her business. I didn't know that the lump she'd found in her breast wasn't the first lump she'd ever found, nor the first to be removed.

I sighed with relief to find that when I arrived at Grandma's house, her spirits were high. There was no trace of the wolf, and cancer had not gotten the better of her either. Grandma sat with me, and without fanfare or drama, poured her thoughts and feelings onto me like water, like baptism in a fountain of story that she was aching to tell. She talked with me for hours that night, the night before her surgery, and set the narrative of this illness—its fear and loneliness, its humor and our family—flowing into my welcoming ear.

Despite the rain that fell from the sky the whole way downstate, it was not until I spoke to grandma that my soul felt watered. My grandmother is not afraid of the big bad wolf, nor afraid of an adult illness like cancer. She's not bulletproof or unbreakable; but today, she's a survivor.

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