For Geraldine (Lost to Cancer)

This essay was originally published on April 18, 2011.

This past week has been a tough one for me; I lost someone to whom I was very close. Her name was Geraldine, and she was first cousin to my mother. She died last Tuesday, having lost a bravely fought battle with a rare form of bladder cancer.

I sat down a bunch of times to try to pen something that would do her justice, but I failed miserably, so I’ve decided to stop trying. You can add obituaries to the list of things I don’t write particularly well.

Instead, I’ve decided to share a memory with all of you.

It was the summer of 1978. I was 11 years-old and decided I wanted to go to summer camp with all my cousins. They made it sound like so much fun and I couldn’t wait to get there. When I got there, I was so thoroughly homesick that I called home collect about a dozen times begging my mom to come get me. She was steadfastly stubborn in her insistence that I complete the 6 weeks she paid for, and said not only would she not bring me home, she would not come to see me on visiting day. Instead, it was Geraldine who showed up on visiting day, ignoring her own children in order to comfort me while I sobbed in her arms. I’ve had to put up with incessant teasing over the years about my homesickness that summer, and it was the only summer I ever went to camp.

Geraldine was the kind of person who never had a bad thing to say about anyone. Her reaction to my hysterical bout of homesickness was to say that summer camp was not for everyone. In the ensuing years, she was privy to many a mishap and slip-up. Whether it was her own kids or another member of the family, she never judged us; she rode out the storms and was always looking forward to calmer days ahead.

Her home was always open to everyone. It didn’t matter if it was for a holiday, or just a quick visit; she was always ready to receive whoever wanted to visit her. Her door was literally always open, and now that she’s gone, it’s sad to realize that I’ll never be able to just walk in and see her again.

When Geraldine found out there were no treatment options left for her, she decided that she wanted to remain at home with her husband and family by her side. It was tough to see her bedridden and getting progressively weaker as the days and weeks passed. There was a period over the winter when I went six weeks without seeing her. The changes she underwent during that time, both physically and emotionally, were nothing short of astounding. I immediately felt great sadness for letting so much time pass between visits, but I knew in my heart that this was not the Geraldine I wanted to remember. The Geraldine I knew made the most amazing chicken soup, could talk for hours on end about anything and everything, and was always there to encourage us no matter how insurmountable we thought our problems were. She was truly one of the most kindhearted, genuinely good people I have ever known. There were never any ulterior motives or hidden agendas in Geraldine’s closet; she personified the saying, “what you see is what you get”.

I’ve often lamented that there are many things I hope to live to see in my life. Add to the list a cure for cancer. Not just some cancers; all cancer. To bear witness to what it does to people and to see them have to suffer in ways you never thought possible is one of the most unbearable things in life. I hope with all my heart that Geraldine is in a better place now. With a little luck she’s having a kaffee klatsch with my mom, her mom, my grandmother, and assorted other relatives who are no longer with us. Sadly, my family is dwindling, but I think we’re all going to pull together and be there for each other, despite the shrinking number.

My family and I are very grateful to the Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care for taking such incredible care of Geraldine during her illness. I encourage everyone to follow the link to find out more about this program, which is affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital here in Toronto.

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