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 cancer.
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 Bubby.
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.
Her 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 dance floor.
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 wheel.
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 jstrong720.wordpress.com.