Where Illness Could Not Touch

It has been several months since the passing of my grandmother. I cannot remember everything I did the day I received the news of her death, but what I remember most about my grandmother were the events that occurred in the month prior to her passing. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and sent to a convalescent home during treatment. The center was a typical old folks' home with faded pink floral walls, chipped wood railings, and scuffed linoleum flooring. My grandmother had a room to herself at the end of a long hallway. Room 114 had walls that were unpainted in some areas and chairs that were molded into the shape of a large man's butt. What room 114 never had was the silence and loneliness often felt among the aging in a convalescent center.

My grandmother was busier than she had ever been when she was well. Family from Oregon drove down; we danced and sang around her bed, the small room growing hot with ten bodies in it. The family was loud, obnoxious, and probably provided the most entertainment her fellow residents had had in a long time. She enjoyed having so many people around her and cherished the sound of laughter. However, the calm moments meant more to her.

I would visit her with my mother during the hot June afternoons, looking over her and keeping her comfortable in the heat. I would give her massages everywhere I could, relieving her of pain caused by the cancer. I cherished these moments; it gave me peace, knowing I was doing something purposeful, something that contributed to her comfort. These moments taught me what was important.

My grandmother died on July 5, 2006. She lost her battle with lung cancer quickly, but her family had won. We won an intimacy that would have never developed if she had not brought us together during her illness. We have gained a deeper understanding of life, love, and family that will grow once we stop mourning the death and start celebrating her life. -- Erin Bradley,Rancho Bernardo H.S.

Five years ago, Jose C. Fejeran, my grandfather, died. I was about 12 years old then and was only half a semester into seventh grade. School had just ended for the day, and my sister and I were walking home. About halfway there, Jesse, a close friend of the family, pulled up next to us. He said that my mom had asked him to pick us up and take us to the hospital. We knew that Tata (that's what we called our grandpa) was going to have surgery soon and, knowing my mom, she probably wanted the family to be there together. As Jesse drove closer to the hospital, I started to feel apprehensive. I started asking him questions. "How did she sound? Is he in surgery yet? Are we almost there?" His answers were short and vague, qualities befitting one who did not want to be the bearer of bad news. We finally arrived, and I saw my dad make his way toward us. His deliberate gait was replaced with a somber trot. He placed his arms around my sister and me and held us close to him. "Tata," he said, "passed away. He went peacefully."

As we walked to the hospital's viewing room, I started thinking about his life. I imagined him as a guardsman assigned to protect the governor's palace on Guam in the 1940s. I saw him defending the capital on December 8, 1941, the day the Japanese troops invaded Guam. I could see him working in the rice fields in the hot South Pacific sun under the watchful eye of Japanese troops.

I fast-forwarded decades later to my fourth-grade field trip to the War in the Pacific Historical Museum. I remember seeing a picture of some of the surviving guardsmen. There, standing alongside his compatriots, was my grandfather. I remembered watching him weep at the war memorials for the friends and family that were not as lucky as he had been.

My grandfather was also a fisherman. I could see him weaving gigantic nets, known to my people as the talaya. He would weave these nets by hand, a skill that I wish I had learned. Even as his mind started to fail him, his hands would still go through the motions of weaving a talaya. The skill could not be taken from his mind; it was stored in a part of him that no illness could touch. -- Joe Fejeran, Mt. Miguel H.S.

'Candy?" Holding her frail hand, I repeated again, "No, Granny, it's me...Casey." "Oh, hi sweetheart," she replied. I shifted her covers to make her warm again. She had been bedridden for months, an unfamiliar state for such an independent woman as my great grandma Anna Lee. She passed away on September 30, 2006. Over 96 years of life might have been an indication that the end was near, but I didn't expect her to die. I expected at least two more weeks, or maybe even two more months. I guess even that amount of time wouldn't have prepared me.

I hate funerals. I've only been to three: a friend's, a great-uncle's, and my great grandmother's. My great grandmother wanted to be buried alongside her family in Arkansas, so we said our good-byes at the Clairemont Mortuary before my grandpa flew her up. She didn't look like herself, which in a way made it easier for me.

My great grandmother had given me numerous antiques a few months before she died. A pitcher reminded me of a story she told me. She told me that being left-handed during her time was considered "the devil's work or hand." She told me her left hand would be smacked whenever she used it to read or write during schooling, which caused her to be ambidextrous. It created a bond between us because we were the only left-handed people in the family.

Looking back, time seems to have been taken for granted. I wish I had spent more time with her, found out more about her life. Now I have only the strained memories and photo albums to quench my curiosity about the fruitful woman she was. -- Casey Koehly, Monte Vista H.S.

I've never been that close to my extended family. All the family I know well lives in the same house with me: mom, dad, and sister. I've never really known my grandma, grandpa, step-grandpa, aunt, uncle, cousins. We'd go back to Alabama once a year or once every two years and say hello to everyone, but that was the only interaction I'd ever have with them. Two years ago, my grandmother died. She had been sitting in her living room watching TV with my uncle when she stopped breathing. The paramedics came and resuscitated her, but by that time, her brain had been deprived of oxygen for so long that she fell into a coma and was essentially brain-dead.

My mother, sister, and I flew out to Alabama that day and rushed to the hospital, where we met up with my aunt and cousins. Within ten minutes of my mother going into my grandma's room and seeing her, talking to her, and making peace, my grandma passed away. It was a shocking event for my family. My grandmother was an energetic, seemingly healthy, and lively old woman. She had an herb store that she'd go to every day, and everyone was shocked that she outlived my step-grandfather.

What happened after my grandmother's death is one of my fondest memories. Even though it was sad, she died in Alabama, and we got to experience genuine Southern hospitality. The day after we arrived, neighbors and other extended family members started to pour into my grandparents' old home, bringing with them fried chicken, cakes, homemade baked beans, macaroni and cheese, pulled pork, you name it; probably the best food I've ever had.

It wasn't just the food that made it a good memory. My mother, sister, and I were only in Alabama for a few days, but in that time, my sister and I got to know our cousins and other interesting family members. In the South, especially in a small town, everyone is related to everyone. I was meeting tons of new family members; little old ladies would come up to me and tell me they were my fifth cousin once removed, and that they remembered my mother when she was a baby.

My grandmother's death and funeral were, in an odd way, fun. We met so many new family members. I think that's exactly how my grandmother would have wanted it. -- Laurel Popplewell, Madison H.S.

After basketball practice in eighth grade, I jumped in the car, ready to tell my mom of the new play I had learned. I began talking away, but realized something was wrong when I looked at my mom's tear-streaked face. The car fell silent, and she told me news that made everything else seem insignificant. My grandpa, "Big Lee," my hero, my role model, my favorite childhood playmate, was gone forever. I don't remember much of that night, but I remember seeing my dad cry really hard for the first time. I remember sitting in my room alone, replaying my memories with Big Lee. He was the only one who seemed genuinely excited to take me to the park and watch me play on the monkey bars. He participated in my games in which I made up fantasy worlds. Even my parents didn't do that. He seemed to enjoy every minute we spent together.

One time he took me out to a movie I really wanted to see, just him and me. Afterward, we broke my grandma's rule and went to the bakery next door to get cookies before dinner. As I got older, I could talk to him for hours about everything from politics to basketball. He was extremely smart, funny, considerate, and athletic. I always appreciated what a great grandpa I had, but I didn't realize how many other people respected him until his funeral.

Hundreds of people he hadn't talked to in years flew in from Maryland to attend. And the thing was, everyone had a story about Big Lee. They talked about how he helped the University of California Irvine as chancellor and how he taught his assistants so well, they went on to become chancellors at UC schools. His friends told funny childhood stories about what a great guy he was. I started to realize how many people he affected in his life from being a good-hearted person. It amazed me and inspired me.

Even though he is gone, he continues to influence me in so many ways. I will feel like I lived a successful life if I live half the life my Big Lee did. -- Bryanna Schwartz, Westview H.S.

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