Donna’s Story: A Grandmother’s Loss, Generations of Love

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September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day I will feature a different guest blogger who will generously share their personal experience with childhood cancer.  Stories are always more potent than statistics.  The hope is that by learning about children with cancer, readers will be more invested in turning their awareness into action.  Read more about this series and childhood cancer HERE.

By Heather Hornik

John, my husband, had never shown up unannounced at my office.  Yet on a Friday afternoon in March 2007 he was in the waiting room.   “It’s Donna.  Jeremy called.  Donna has a mass in her head.”  My mind generated a flood of denials to undo these terrible words—It’s not possible, Donna’s only twenty months old, These things happen to other people.  John’s anguished face, however, told even more than his words.  “It’s bad.  This is bad.”

He wrenched me out of my denial by telling me that our son Jeremy had sobbed through the call.  John and I sat looking at each other, groping to find some way to understand this news.  “We have to go to Chicago right now,” I said.  John agreed.  We packed hastily, flew to Midway Airport and arrived at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital around ten pm.

Jeremy met us at the hospital’s night entrance and led us to the ICU.  He told us what had happened during the previous twenty four hours, then I joined Sheila at Donna’s bed in the ICU, my first chance to see Sheila and glimpse my granddaughter in the hospital.  Donna lay still and sedated in a high crib, dwarfed by tubes and wires, conduits between her small body and blinking, clicking and beeping machines.  Her pale face was tiny behind a toddler-sized oxygen mask.  Sheila held Donna’s hand and whispered to her as we stood by the crib.  Sheila and I went out to the waiting room so Jeremy and John could take our place at Donna’s bedside.  Shortly after, Sheila, John and I went home to sleep; it was Jeremy’s night to stay at the hospital with Donna.  We returned to the hospital early the next morning.

In the next ten days we sat in the family area with Sheila and Jeremy’s family and friends, grateful for the food they brought and the conversation they offered.  Phone in hand, John and I paced the corridor, notifying family and friends of what had happened and receiving their concerned calls.  Hour by hour we waited for Jeremy or Sheila to appear with an update.

For me, mostly I waited in suspended anxiety to see my son.  I needed to look into his face to read how Donna was really doing, how Sheila was doing, how he was doing.  I trusted in Jeremy’s strength.  Even so, I needed the reassurance that could come only from being in his presence, seeing, feeling and sensing how he was doing.  I deeply yearned to soothe and shield him.

Throughout that first week as I watched Jeremy hold his baby Donna, my memory took me back to the time when I was the parent and he was the baby of twenty months.   I felt his little body in my arms, remembering how safe and warm it felt to hold him as he drifted to sleep.  Yet even as I felt those sweet body memories, I knew that I was never called upon to endure such a trial as a parent.  I never worried as I held my baby that he could come to such harm.  In the hospital I wanted to reverse time and go back to those years when simply holding Jeremy was enough.  And I wanted to erase time so that Jeremy could return to the simplicity and innocence that had been yanked forever from him and his family.

Heather, Donna's Grandma, holding Jeremy, Donna's Daddy, or as I like to call him, Mary Tyler Dad.
Heather, Donna’s Grandma, holding Jeremy, Donna’s Daddy, or as I like to call him, Mary Tyler Dad.

A week or so after those first days Jeremy and I sat over dinner in a restaurant near the hospital.  Donna’s condition was a bit more stable, stable enough for Jeremy to ask, “Mom, how are you doing?   What has this week been like for you?”  Such an ordinary question for a grown son to ask his mother–Mom, how are you doing?  Yet with that question I understood better why I felt such an imperative to be in Chicago with my son and his family.

It was about the question, How are you doing?  When John and I decided so soon after Jeremy’s phone call that we had to go to Chicago, we were responding to a very basic need to be in our son’s presence during this crisis.  We needed to be with him, and we trusted our being there would help him, in some unspoken way.    Nothing we could say or do from a distance would do for us and for him what simply being there would do.

There is mystery in the reciprocal feelings between a parent and child.  There is an essential communication that is not in words.  Parents know this when they hold their baby.  The baby knows it when he or she is being held.  At a time when I expected Jeremy to have nothing on his mind but his wife and child, he asked about me.  That question, How are you doing, can simply be a casual greeting between acquaintances, but between a parent and child it is shorthand for much deeper questions—How are you in your heart?  In your soul?  How are you in the cradle of the family you have yourself created?

When Donna became so gravely ill, I experienced intense fear and anxiety for my son and his family.  I had to go to Chicago.  Only with Jeremy, Sheila and Donna could I know how they were doing.  Only in Jeremy’s presence could I know how he was doing.  Because of the mystery of reciprocal feeling, when I was with Jeremy I also could know better how I was doing.  And I think, too, that I needed to be in Chicago to help Jeremy, in some unspoken way, to know how he was doing.

That was the first of many sojourns in Chicago in the two and a half years of Donna’s life after the cancer diagnosis.  In those years I saw Jeremy intensely joined with his wife and child.  I came to love Sheila deeply, to value her gifts and talents as a woman and mother, and to cherish her love for my son and their children.  In Chicago I watched as Jeremy and Sheila made sure that Donna’s life was not defined by cancer.  They kept their fears in check and gave Donna a good childhood, and this may have been their most heroic achievement.

That little baby above all grown up, swinging his own baby on the swing.  Grief spans generations, and so does love.
That little baby above all grown up, swinging his own baby on the swing. Grief spans generations, and so does love.

Together Jeremy and Sheila loved and cared for and, ultimately, buried their firstborn, a grief that no parent should ever have to endure. Through my visits in Chicago came the blessings of witnessing daily courage and learning to choose hope.  Through Sheila and Jeremy’s care for Donna I learned how resilience is born in character and nurtured in love.  And through their strength I acquired a bit more strength myself.  I am blessed that they allowed me into their home and their hearts.

Grateful thanks to my mother-in-law for providing a grandparent’s point of view on the loss of a child and pediatric cancer.  Donna adored her time with Grandma and Papa and we are indebted to them for all the support and comfort provided over the course of Donna’s treatment.  We could NOT have done it without them.  

If you’re looking for all of the posts in the  Childhood Cancer Stories: The September Series, you can find them catalogued HERE.  

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