Editor's note: Jamie Polakoff Lasko was planning a wedding,
teaching preschool, and looking for a house while juggling tutoring, teaching
dance, and babysitting when the unimaginable happened. The day after her 29th
birthday-just three months before her wedding-she was diagnosed with breast
In the beginning, radiation was
flying by and I couldn't have been happier to see it end. But about halfway
through, my feelings about things winding down changed. That's because counting
down the days until it was over also meant we were getting closer to losing my
On Christmas Eve, she arrived home from a three-day hospital stay
with an around-the-clock hospice nurse. We were told her kidneys were failing
and she would only be with us for another week, maybe two or three. As much as
we knew this day wasn't too far into the future, it still came as an absolute
shock. Yes, she was 95 years young. Yes, she had been saying for the last few
years that she was ready to go. But at almost 96 years old, she was still living
alone in her Skokie home of 53 years. She was bored and lonely because she
outlived everyone and had stopped driving a few years ago, but still she was
otherwise independent. So how could someone go from taking care of her home and
getting out and about to suddenly being unable to eat or drink or walk and only
having a few weeks to live?
Well, as sudden as it was, if you have to
leave this earth - and we all do at some point - this was absolutely the way to
do it. Bubby refused to move out of her home over the last few years and said
she would die in that house and she did just that. She was able to come home
with dignity and grace. She had a hospital bed in the family room and visitors
came in and out to say their goodbyes. What is more amazing, however, is that
she was completely aware of what was happening. For 95 years old, her body might
have been failing her, but her mind was still SO sharp. She always said she
didn't feel her age, and didn't think her age. We all thought she didn't look
her age either. Again - all reasons this came as such a shock.
doctor told her she was dying and she accepted that. It was her time and she
couldn't be more ready. She's been saying for years that she lived a good life
and that was a statement she repeated over and over again these past few weeks.
She never wanted to be a burden on anyone nor did she want to slowly turn into
someone other than herself. She got her wish. The first two weeks at home, she
would tell stories and crack jokes and it was the Bubby we all knew and loved
shining through. Honestly, we had missed that personality of hers and we wanted
to soak up every minute - even if she did repeat things. It was incredible how
she could answer any question you asked, memories of an entire lifetime still
fully intact. It is amazing how the repetition that frustrated us over the past
year suddenly made us happy just to be hearing her voice.
Ever since my
husband and I got engaged, Bubby would constantly say, "I just need to make it
to July 20 (our wedding) and then I can go." Of course, that's not something you
want to hear, and you tell her she's crazy, she will be around forever, and she
will see great grandbabies. But in the back of my mind, I began to worry she
might not make it to that day. Well she more than made it - she tore up the
After the wedding, she continued to say she was ready to go
and we'd continue to give her things to look forward to. She even found herself
a new countdown - the end of my treatments.
You see, while I don't carry
the gene, my Bubby had breast cancer too. We were always told it was something
she would die with and not from. When you live as long as she did, cancer just
happens, but it generally grows too slowly to kill you. Regardless, while she
didn't want any surgery or chemo or any drastic measures taken for any aspect of
her health, she still knew what it felt like to have breast cancer. Sure, she
might have had a skewed understanding of how cancer works; when I told her my
news, she'd say over and over that she wondered how I got mine because of
course, she got hers in her car accident when her breast hit the steering
Regardless, Bubby would ask how many treatments I had left every
time we spoke. Even in her last few weeks at home, I would come in and she'd
say, "Jame, how many more?" I would tell her and hold up my fingers in case she
didn't hear. She would hold up her fingers back to make sure she got it right
and I would nod. She would nod and say "good, then I can go. When I know you're
okay, I can go." And you know what? She did just that.
The last few days
of my treatment, I hated telling her the number. She couldn't ask it anymore but
I could see by the look on her face that she wanted to know, so I would tell her
and she would smile and nod. When I got to her house at my last treatment, I
took her hand and I said very loudly that I was all done. She gave a nod, which,
while so tiny, was clearly done with all the energy she could muster as she
squeezed my hand. Over the next few hours, her breathing became shallower and
more labored. As hard as it was to watch, I sat by her side and held her hand.
Perhaps her eyes were only watering, but once I could no longer fight back my
tears, I smiled through them as I held her hand. She appeared to be crying too.
Her eyes were open and she just kept nodding. Maybe it was her restlessness, but
I choose to believe that she knew what was coming and was telling everyone it
was okay, she was ready.
That entire week, we went home by 9 or 10 p.m.,
but there was something about last night that made us all unable to leave that
house. We had made the decision to spend the night when it was after midnight
and we are so glad that we stayed. She stopped breathing at around 1 a.m. We had
been anticipating this for weeks, but no matter how prepared we were, in those
last few hours it was over in a snap. But she did the two things she said she
wanted to do: she died in her home, on her terms, and she waited until she knew
I would be okay.
I never used to think I was anything like my bubby. She
was so tough and strong and stubborn as hell. I was the softy of the family. But
I think these past few weeks made me realize that I get my strength from her.
She went through a lot in her lifetime and she always came out stronger on the
other side. While I know that everyone in my life has helped me stay J-Strong, I
think it is her blood running through my veins that turned me into the strong
woman that I never knew I could be. I only hope I live as long as she did and
never let go of who I am.
Now it is my turn to repeat what I said at
least a hundred times in the past few weeks. I love you, Bubby. And even though
she isn't here to say it, I can hear her voice saying, "I love you more."
JFor more on Jamie Polakoff Lasko's journey, visit