A meditation on hospitalization, family, and healing

WANTED: healers. All methodologies welcome.

I was 9 or so — almost exactly the age my daughter is now when my mom’s mom, Marjorie Helen, first got sick with the Big C. It started with ovarian, but by the time it ended about three years later, it was all over the place.

Mom was homeschooling me at the time, and she’d also taken her mother’s health as her responsibility, so I recall spending a lot of time in the hospital. And overhearing a lot of conversations between my mom and the doctors. Then mom my repeating the latest forecast to the entire family via phone, one by one. Then the entire family showing up en masse at the hospital to cluster around morbid whispers in the hallway. But only when things got really bad.

I remember vividly the waves of tentative hope which rippled through the family when a new treatment at University of Michigan was proposed. And I remember the waves of rage which shuddered through after Marjorie had been poked and prodded and studied for several months, then was released feeling significantly less human and nowhere closer to remission.

My mother and her older sister Sharon fought for Marjorie’s life like a pair of mother bears protecting their young. They wrestled apathetic doctors into exploring less invasive treatment options; they learned the names of all the doctors; they kept a vigilant eye on the accuracy of the information which landed on Marjorie’s chart, nurse’s shift change after shift change. They wrestled the toxicity of chemo, and tried to bolster Marjorie’s immune system. They explored every natural cancer cure they could find — which, being a pair of college educated, career-seasoned, entrepreneurial mothers, was quite a few.

And yet.

It seems that there was just nothing for it.

I remember sitting in my grandmother’s bedroom with her, alone, during her home hospice care the day before she died, listening to my older cousins and mother and uncles in the next room cry about how sad it was that today was her birthday.

Marjorie looked peaceful, albeit strained, and her aura was beautiful. I could feel her seethe with frustration, from her unconscious state, that her family around her was in such negative spirits. That they couldn’t put their wanting things to be different aside enough to lighten the mood and pour the love and gratitude into Marjorie which would have brightened her passage. That they weren’t sitting beside her, reading her their favorite stories she read to them as children, recounting their countless happy moments from childhood — commenting on what a magnificent, deep well of joy and unconditional love she had been to her family and community. That instead, they sat huddled around their loud whispers as per usual, stroking their sense of bereavement.

Perhaps it was just me who felt that way. Perhaps it was both of us. Who’s to say? I was just a child, and children see the world quite differently than adults. As do the elderly, and dying.

Dealing with the situation as an adult is quite different. As I know now.

It was my younger cousin, actually, who went next — Sharon’s eldest grandchild. Leukemia. Mom always said that Victoria’s parting just broke Sharon’s heart, and she never could put it back together again. Sharon died from stomach cancer a few years later. Her passing was quite quick — she was gone within six months. I was away at college while mom tended to her in the hospital. Mom now had no mother, and no sister. Sharon’s husband waited about a decade before following her; a type of cancer not dissimilar to his wife’s.

Dad waited until after I came home from college to pass, although not by much. I missed the lion’s share of the hospital scene over the course of the four-ish year affair, but I came home that last year, and was there with my mom during the last few months, including hospice care.

My mom’s cousin George passed a year or so ago from I forget which kind of C. Colon I think. I went with mom to see him in the hospital, and made a visit while he was in home hospice a few days before he passed, to bring him some vaped cannabis flower for pain and some reading to stimulate the brain. A more accurate statement would be that I drove two hours one way in a snowstorm to do so, even if it does sound like it’s trolling for praise. The reason I mention this, and all my and my mom’s involvement in her family’s illnesses which I list above, is to illustrate the rhythm we’ve developed. A dance of death, you might say.

George was my dad’s best friend, and the reason mom and dad met. And also a lifelong atheist, an angry alcoholic, a brilliant intellectual, and a madly soft-hearted human being. He was mom’s favorite cousin. He would, when he visited every 6–18 months, bring mom bizarrely beautiful and practical gifts — like the solar-powered rainbow maker which hangs in the kitchen window.

George’s presence was the only one I could stand, among all the friends and extended family members who came to visit during dad’s final stretch. Some people came to exorcise dad’s cancer. Some came to speak in tongues. Some came to tell tales of miracle healers in Canada. Some came with their self-involved tears and bereavement. George came with nothing but himself. He just drank and smoked on the porch with me and told stories. Which is why I needed to do the same with him, near the hour of his passing. He was, after all, somewhat responsible for my birth. I owed him my respect in his death.

Which is something my mother taught me, really, which she inherited from Marjorie. Those who had been a boon to her in life, she fought to keep comfortable and cared for in sickness and death, come hell and high water. Countless hours and overnights in the hospital. Home remedies and food. Massages and playlists of favorite songs. The most vigilant of care. This is how we care for those who’ve cared for us, was the message.

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marjorie steele

poet, educator, hillbilly gnostic pagan. teaching business to designers.