Mia stood in front of the fireplace at her grandfather’s country home. Atop the mantle sat a large silver picture frame that displayed a picture of a woman. Everyone told Mia that was her grandmother, but she didn’t know her. They talked about her a lot at holidays and in December for some reason. Mia heard her GiGi, her great grandmother, talk about the Cancer that killed the woman in the picture once when no one thought she was listening. She was suppose to be taking a nap, but she had snuck back downstairs to find her stuffed snowman whom she could not sleep without. It was late now, and she was supposed to be going upstairs to take a bath, but whenever she was at Paw Paw’s house she always got to stay up late, all the way until the sun went down.
Just as Mia thought she had avoided her bath time for a second night, Paw Paw came around the corner from the kitchen.
“Hey munchkin! You read for bath time?” Mia’s Paw Paw was a kind man. He always had a sparkle in his eye when he smiled at her.
“Paw Paw, what is cancer?” Mia innocently questioned her devoted grandfather.
“A killer,” was his quick reply, and the sparkle suddenly disappeared from his eye.
“Why don’t the policemen stop him?” Mia pictured a big scary man with an angry face.
“It isn’t that kind of killer. Cancer kills people with their own bodies. The policeman can’t stop something that attacks your body from the inside like a when you get a cold.”
“It makes you sick?”
“Yes, very VERY sick.”
“Why don’t the doctors stop it?”
“They try. But some killers can’t be stopped by the police or by doctors.”
“That’s why I never met her?” Mia pointed to picture on the mantel.
“Yes, but she knows you, and you can bet she loves you just as much as I do.” He smiled again, but with a different kind of sparkle in his eye. The kind of sparkle you get when you are both sad and happy at the same time and you can’t decide if you should cry or not.
Mia took Paw Paw’s hand, and then the two walked up the stairs for a bath, a book, and bedtime.
Six Years Later
Mia was back at her grandfather’s house for Christmas dinner. She sat in the living room on the big fluffy white couch under the window while most of her family was either cleaning up dinner or quickly wrapping those last minute gifts in the basement. Once again, she couldn’t help but look up at that silver picture frame on the mantel and wonder if the woman who is her grandmother enjoys watching her family from on top of that fireplace at special holiday events like this. She seems so far away from everyone.
Mia’s father sat down next to her. He had clearly been shooed out of the kitchen by her mother for being in the way. He sat down and grabbed a newspaper to read while he listened to the repetitive Christmas music coming from the television.
“Hey there, cutie! Enjoying your quiet time out here?” he asked her with a playful tone.
“Hi dad,” Mia rolled her eyes at the word cutie, “are they about done in there?” She was ready to open presents but didn’t want to admit to it for fear that it would make her sound too childish.
“Oh, I think so. But you know how your grandpa is. Does things in his own way and in his own time.”
“Why does grandpa keep grandma’s picture there?”
“Because he doesn’t want to forget her maybe. Does it bother you?”
“No…and yes I suppose. She seems happy, but I feel like we might make her sad. She is missing everything.”
“Oh no, she isn’t missing everything. She sees it all, probably better than we do.”
“Did the cancer make her hurt?”
“Well, I think it probably made her feel pretty bad. Your grandma though, she was tough. She didn’t let on how bad she felt. She was happy to see us when we were there and happy to talk to us when we called even when she was probably too tired to handle any of it well.”
“How did she get cancer? Did she smoke?”
“No, she hated smoking! Unfortunately, sometimes people just get cancer. There is no good reason for it. That’s why we do our best to take care of ourselves and our loved ones and spend time together. You just never know.”
“Like GiGi. She has to be 100 by now.”
“Ha! Yes like GiGi. The meanest old woman anyone will ever meet. She struggles sometimes but she is still with us.”
“Why didn’t GiGi get cancer?”
“Like I said you never know. Sometimes people get it and sometimes they don’t. And a lot of times people get it and live. Don’t be afraid of cancer. It is a possibility. Possibilities can be good or bad. You shouldn’t be afraid of them just because you don’t know what they are yet.”
“What are you too up to in here? It is awfully quiet.” Mia’s mother came in the room.
“Nothing dear, just having a nice chat,” her father replied with a smile.
Mia knew that this meant their chat was over. She read her father’s expression as not in front of your mother. They never talked about her grandmother in front of her mother.
Another Six Years Later
Outside the little yellow country house was two quick honks. Mia ran past the picture in the silver frame and out of her grandfather’s house towards the little green hatchback with a bad muffler. It was the last day before Christmas break. The last Christmas break of her high school life. Next Christmas she would be in college. The thought of the freedom made her impatient.
As she slammed the rusty door shut she greeted her best friend, “Hey Daisy! Ready for the final in AP BIO.?”
“NO! That’s why I asked you to bring your notes.”
“Yah yah, I got them. Are you freaking out again? You already got accepted to Butler, I don’t know why you are still so obsessed with your grades. You think someone will change their minds over there?”
“Well some of us just like to get good grades and haven’t checked out of high school yet. I missed last week, did you grab a copy of the notes for me?”
“Yah, how is your mom doing anyways?”
“Um, she seems to be doing a little better. The chemo was really making her feel bad last week. I think they are trying something new this week to try to make her more comfortable. Cancer really sucks you know.”
“Sure. I guess that’s what they say. I don’t really know. People just say, ‘cancer sucks’, all the time like that explains it all. Why doesn’t anyone really talk about it?”
“Well, I guess it is one of those things that is hard for people to talk about. Plus there are so many different kinds it is kind of hard to be an expert on all of them.”
“If people would talk about it maybe fewer people would get sick. Instead they just say cancer sucks and wear their purple ribbons like that solves the problem.”
“Geeze what’s your problem? It’s not like you have cancer.”
“No, cancer killed my grandmother.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I mean I knew she was kind of old.”
“No not that one! My Grandma Miller died before I was born. Her picture sits on the mantel of grandpa’s fireplace, but no one will talk to me about her for more than a few minutes. I think they are all afraid to.”
“Cancer is one of those things that happens to people, and they never forget it. If it ends badly it seems to stay with them for a long time.”
“I’m going to talk about it more. I want to learn about it and understand it so I can talk about it and actually help people.”
“Can we start by studying for this AP BIO final first?”
“Yah, sorry. College is going to be so much better!” Mia got out her AP BIO notebook and began to reread her note from the week before on gene therapy in lab rats.