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I Was 17 When Breast Cancer Took Her

Image Source: Serge Bielanko Private
Image Source: Serge Bielanko Private

Mostly I remember the ring she wore on her finger.

It was made of old bent spoon handles and it had been there all my life. And on that cold November afternoon, as I held my grandmother’s hand in a windowless hospital room not too far from where we’d spent so many years laughing and talking and eating her roast beef dinners, I still remember touching her spoon ring and leaning down into her ear, my fat teenage tears plopping down on her gown in the hours before she died.

“Mom-Mom,” I whispered, “I’m never gonna forget you. I’m not, Mom-Mom, I promise.”

She was unconscious; we knew she was going. The words just came pouring out of me.

“You can let go now, it’s okay! I will be okay! But thank you so much for loving me the way you did, Mom-Mom!” I gripped her hand so tight. “Thank you so much for being the best friend I ever had!”

You might think I’m exaggerating here, maybe imagining a bit of tiny magic in a moment long past, but I swear to you I’m not. I swear to you that for a second there, she squeezed back. She really did. I felt it.

That was the last time I ever saw my Mom-Mom alive.

She died around 4 that same afternoon.

I was 17 when breast cancer smashed a hole in my heart.

***

I was born on the same block as Mom-Mom’s house and spent countless hours there eating lunches she made me while I watched football on TV or telling her the 500 different things I wanted for Christmas. And when my parents’ marriage crumbled away one night when I was 9, it was around the corner and straight into Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop’s open arms and tiny house that our mom took my little brother, Dave, and me.

We lived together for years then, all of us jammed up in an ancient home that was falling apart. But we didn’t care. We needed each other at that point in time and we found each other easily during those first sad, cautious months divorce drops on kids. Even then I could sense the pageant going down behind the scenes, how my mom and her parents would do anything to give us the love we needed right then and there.

My Mom-Mom became my best buddy, my confidant. Her ability to listen was unmatched by any human I have ever met. And her words, when she looked at me and told me what was up, were the heaviest I’ve ever held to my heart.

She’d make us roast beef every Sunday and smile her goofy smile at me when she told me to eat the fat. “It’s the best part,” she’d shout. And even though it was pretty terrible, you know I ate it.

Because, hey… Mom-Moms are never wrong.

***

Her breast cancer struck like a whip when I was 15. Right away I couldn’t really fathom the magnitude of the thing. I was young and timeless and unable to conceive a world where Mom-Mom might not be around for me, for us.

Neither did she, I guess. She battled so hard to remain; the chemo, the radiation, the weakness that overtook her chubby frame — once so full of life and laughter. It couldn’t kick her butt enough to ever let her show her fear, though. She refused to speak of any of it in front of us.

Instead, even in hospital rooms where the writing was scrawled on the depressing wall, she’d steer us away from the breast cancer, from the fear and the pain she must have been drowning in. She kept telling my brother and me that we were going to be rockstars some day.

“You guys are gonna be the next Bruce Springsteens,” she’d say, and we’d smile at that.

We loved rock-n-roll music and playing our cheap guitars, and she was the first one who ever looked us in the eye with a twinkle of belief and faith in what we were someday going to accomplish with music.

See, the funny thing is, years later my brother and I formed a band called Marah and it’s still a huge part of our lives. We’ve made a bunch of records and toured all over the world. And once upon a time, on a certain summer night long after Mom-Mom had died, the two of us played on stage with Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Close enough, Mom-Mom?

Close enough.

***

To this day, I still can’t believe she had to die when she died. I still try to imagine it as some sort of awful mistake. She was so vital to me. Her heart bled all over mine day after day. She was a force of nature in my life, this woman who taught me to love everyone: to kick racism and hate and bigotry in the chin every chance I got.

Her spirit dumped massive amounts of human electricity onto mine.

Her voice still rips through my head a few times a day.

“You’re gonna be a big rockstar, Serge. You and Dave, big rockstars.”

Oh, how we loved her.

***

As I grow older and raise three kids on my own, trying to bring them up the best I can through the wake of my own divorce from their mom, I’ve begun to realize how much the breast cancer must have broken my grandmother’s heart. It had to, even far beyond her own natural human inclination to survive. It was way more than just that for her. She wanted to live so she could be there for my brother and me, through those years without a dad that she knew would be hard on us.

She never let on, but I get it now. I can only imagine just how much she didn’t want to leave us when she knew we needed love the most.

She would have never died during our search for truth and peace unless she had to. She had to be pissed off at the whole situation.

It didn’t matter though. She taught me so much when she was alive and even more when she was dying. Her spirit never wavered, her eyes never quit twinkling when I showed up at her hospital bedside. Hell, she always tried to act like she’d be home in a few days.

But I know she knew.

Her love was so real to me. But her death, even now, still feels like a strange dream.

***

Breast cancer is a coward and a snake, the kind of outlaw who bum-rushes women. Moms and Mom-Moms and daughters, sisters and girlfriends and wives, how could you ever pick a more necessary, loved, and special group of humans to try and destroy?

So we fight on, try to find a cure, never giving up the hope that someday there will come a day when we don’t have to give up so much in the name of something so cruel.

I’ve stood outside a lot of hospitals in my time. On long autumn afternoons/on punishing winter evenings/and on magical spring mornings, I’ve been there, always biting my lip and holding back tears, a young man just wishing I could climb into that stupid hospital bed up there high above the street to trade places with a woman I loved.

But I could never figure out a way to do that. And to this day, that really sucks.

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