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Chemotherapy and childhood nicknames

By Staff | Jun 9, 2014

Grandma Joane was recovering from cancer, and was showing the effect of chemotherapy. A wig covered her head most of the time, but at home, she’d relax and take it off to reveal the sparsely covered scalp that had formerly been thick wavy blonde hair.

I have known people to become more mellow when facing their mortality, and Grandma Joane was one of these. Her personality had been, shall we say, “spiky,” before the necessities of medical care made her endure pain and fear, and the loss of control. But after she became a patient, the barbs became smoother, which was a good thing for family members who wanted to get close during a tough time.

Meanwhile, in his toddlerhood our son made up special names for his grandparents. This began after I told him one day that we were going to visit the grandma we saw most often, whose hair is pure, snowy white. He responded that we were going to visit White Grandma.

Well, okay. Things got a little more interesting when he applied the naming strategy to my mother, whose hair is bushy and jet black. Our son, in toddlerhood, had both a White Grandma and a Black Grandma, and I learned to ignore the sideways looks we got when he spoke those names in public.

But Grandma Joane was the second wife of our son’s grandfather, and they lived pretty far away. The first time I ever met her, her personality was in full spike. We didn’t see these grandparents too often. She didn’t seem to enamored of visits from small children. There was no special name for her.

It was several years after out son’s toddlerhood that Grandma Joane got ill. A lifetime of cigarettes caught up with her: lung cancer. Spiky as she was, she fought back. She stocked the freezer with popsicles that were easy to eat and napped with her dogs when she got tired. Then, wig on her head, she was back on the golf course, swinging.

But the situation wasn’t good. The cancer retreated from her lungs but settled in her brain. We hurried to visit. Diminished though she was, Grandma Joane settled her wig on her head and accompanied us to a garden restaurant with outdoor seating near a burbling fountain. She wasn’t going to eat much, but she was with us, and we were there.

By this time, our son was a teenager, and the special names he had concocted for his other grandmothers were as much relics as his old, stuffed bunny. But Grandma Joane had a question worthy of her spikiest days. As we sat with drinks and appetizers, with tables of other diners all around. Grandma Joane turned to our son and asked, “You have a White Grandma and a Black Grandma. But what am I?”

Fortunately, she had mellowed.

Because he responded, “You’re Bald Grandma!”