Mother's Day – the Hallmark-inspired combination of flowers, cards, brunch, presents, family time, and whatever else all you Mothers out there desire for the one day a year that is (supposedly) all yours. Even if we should be celebrating mothers every week, it is nice to fully appreciate the oft-overlooked continuous work they do to keep their families from becoming completely dysfunctional. This year, Mother's Day gave me a chance to thank my wife for being Supermom to Josie and Tommy over the last nine months. It also got me to thinking about my Mom, and the generations of Mothers that have shaped my life, including one I never met yet is right next to me during my battle with melanoma.
See, my paternal grandmother, Francis Sharpe, died of breast cancer 43 years ago. Obviously, there is no way of knowing if her cancer had any hereditary impact on my current condition; it's unlikely, but fill out the "Family Medical History" section on enough medical forms and the doubt creeps in. It's also worth noting that both maternal grandparents had their own bouts with the big C, so my ancestors aren't doing me any favors here.
My grandfather remarried a year after I was born, and I am lucky to have grown up knowing his second wife as "Mom Mom," and one of my four grandparents – never as "my step-grandmom." My cousins and I never lacked in the grandmother department, as she treated each of the Sharpe grandkids the same as the ones she already had.
Still, there has always been a connection to Grandmom Francis. Before every high school football game I would stop by her gravesite and say a prayer (including the game we had to arrive at school before dawn – and the Cemetery gates were still locked – between hopping the fence and the dark, it was a VERY quick prayer that morning). Dad would tell us how certain qualities Jason and I had (or should have) came from his mother. Even though she never got to hold me as a baby or come to a birthday party, I always felt like she was a part of my life. She was my first guardian angel – and boy, what a job that turned out to be.
When I was diagnosed in August, I remember talking with Dad a bit about her battle, and have since asked my aunts and uncles about their memories of how she dealt with her cancer. Their recollections all shared the same general theme - it was the mid-60's, and cancer treatments then were limited (she didn't even have an oncologist). The kids were all shielded from the majority of the medical issues, and right until the very end none fully understood how serious and terminal her condition was. They also remembered what a wonderful wife and mother she was to my grandfather and them, each and every day but especially those last few years.
The good thing about genetics is they pass down other things, too. Each of her kids spoke of the same trait that she displayed, sick or not – unconditional love – for them, for Pop Pop, and for all her family, including the in-laws she would never (or barely) meet and the grandkids she would never see. My Aunts and Uncles spoke of strength during the tough times – just how strong she was became apparent many years later, as they all understood the difficulties of battling cancer and the challenges of raising their own families. They told stories of surprising them at home for New Year's, just days before her death, and visiting her in the hospital. They even spoke of the grace with which she handled the diagnosis of her disease, during the annual summer vacation to Ocean City, and the dignity she possessed as her condition worsened.
So Grandmom Fran may have "given" me some predisposition to unregulated cell growth and division, but her real gift has been the tools to handle what life has dealt. She gave five children, fourteen grandchildren, and twelve (and counting) great-grandchildren the foundation of family. Her strength is what I draw from during those long stretches in the hospital. I hear the stories of her putting family first, and know that is where I get my resolve to be there for my children as they grow up. I believe that every IV of immunotherapy or cut of a surgeon's blade has her loving hand guiding and helping the medical teams. I even think a tiny part of the reason she had to pass so early was to ensure that I didn't. From everything I know of my grandmother, she would have made that sacrifice without thinking twice.
Happy Mother's Day Grandmom. Thanks for watching out for me. Keep up the good work. I love you.
T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »