My grandmother’s health has been declining over the past few years. It’s been in small stages. She’s fallen. She’s developed arthritis. She’s become forgetful. She can’t start sentences without stopping to correct herself. She’s become slovenly. She’s frequently light-headed and has intense, reoccurring bouts of shoulder pain. My mother takes her to the doctor to soothe the aches and check on the pains. These trips used to be infrequent but with each day, there seems to be a new ailment that needs to be mended and monitored, so now the ventures are commonplace.
And now my grandmother has skin cancer. Specifically, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, a particularly rare and aggressive form of cancer that is not playing around.
It started when my mother noticed a growth on my grandmother’s nose. They went to the doctor to get it checked out. There was a series of appointments and a biopsy. That’s when they got the cancer diagnosis. They were referred to another doctor. Between doctor visits, the growth grew in size and severity. Like I said, this cancer doesn’t joke. It spreads fast.
It was decided by her doctor that the cancer had to be cut out. There was a possibility it could even spread to her lymph nodes. I worried because her surgery was scheduled about two weeks after her latest appointment. What if the cancer got worse in the mean time?
Surgery day came and while I was at work, Mom texted me with updates. The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes but the doctor did take a large chunk out of my grandmother’s nose.
Afterward, they spoke with a plastic surgeon who offered some not-so-great options for reconstructive surgery, including pulling her forehead skin down or pulling her cheek over and using the tissue to fill in the gap in her nose. These methods would mean multiple surgeries, all of which would require my grandmother to go under anesthesia again, and at her age, it doesn’t seem like a good idea.
It’s especially not a good idea because not only has my grandmother lost her nose but she’s essentially losing her mind as well. My mom told me she suspected my grandmother is suffering from mild dementia. I could have told her that. I’ve noticed it for years now. I don’t know if my mom has only started noticing it due to being around my grandmother so much due to the multiple doctor visits or if she’s just been in denial and can no longer refute the obvious.
Because my grandmother isn’t functioning at full capacity, my mom is worried she wouldn’t take care of her wounds properly if further surgeries are a possibility. Mom has already reprimanded Grandmother for not keeping her nose bandaged. I spoke to my mom on the phone the other day when I was at work and on break.
“I told her that no one wants to see that,” my mom sighed, referring to Grandmother’s now mangled muzzle.
“Does it look that bad?” I asked.
“Yeah, it really does.” I feel like my mother has a tendency to try to make things seem not-so-bad for me (she babies me, I can admit it) and because I had no idea how severe the cancer excision was, I assumed she might have been missing a small bit from the bridge of her nose. But Mom told me in no uncertain terms it was bad.
“And it’s not just how it looks,” she added. “She’s letting germs in by not keeping it bandaged. She could get an infection.” Her voice sounded strained from frustration and exhaustion
I felt this nervous sinking feeling in my stomach as she spoke of more doctor’s appointments and the likelihood of leaving my grandmother’s nose alone, to leaving her looking like an elderly Voldemort. I feel bad for all involved, but especially my mother. All the doctors my maternals have had to go to have been three hours away. My mother works on the weekends and many times, she’s only been able to get a doctor’s appointment at the end of the week. This has led to her driving three hours for the doctor appointment, driving three hours back and going right to sleep in order to wake up at one in the morning to get ready for work. I know she’s tired. I know she’s worried. And it worries me.
There’s no one else to take care of my grandmother. My grandfather is dead and the only other family she has is her children, a son who can barely take care of himself and my mother. So, it’s all up to my mom. She has to juggle me and my dad and work and home and now my grandmother’s decline.
I think the stress gets to her, causes her to be out of sorts. She tells me she thinks she’s going crazy. She forgets things a lot. And she’ll pick up the wrong item at the grocery store. Frequently. And I just tell her it’s because she’s not paying attention to the label or that she has a lot of things on her mind. I try to brush those things off, because they are small things, after all. Everyone makes that kind of mistake. But she gets angry at herself about it.
I asked mom once if we have a history of Alzheimer’s or mental illness in my family. Because my family on both sides don’t keep up with that sort of thing, it didn’t surprise me that my mother didn’t “think” so. The only person we knew who had it was my great grandmother on my father’s side. But my dad’s mom is super sharp, even at 80-something. All my other family members died from smoking or alcohol related illnesses. Seriously. I can’t think of anyone who died from natural causes. I guess we are all really good at putting ourselves in the ground.
I know things are only going to get worse for my grandmother. We’ve past the point of overlooking her forgetfulness. She’s declining. It’s not as if she’s tap dancing naked on the sidewalk or eating cat litter cereal for breakfast. But I’m worried those days are coming. And I’m afraid they’re coming sooner rather than later. And I’m scared that is going to happen to my mom. And I’m scared it’s going to happen to me.
There are days when I honestly feel I am losing my mind and I can’t fathom how my brain will function if I make it to 40, 50, 60. It’s as if this deterioration is hitting us all younger and younger. Or maybe it’s just my paranoid mind acting up again. I think about things and I go from totally ignoring everything to wanting to grab a Sudoku and some sunscreen, something to beef up my brain and strengthen my skin to prevent, or at least slow down, my own inevitable nosedive.