And, while I ride with all of my family members, and friends, that have come up against this nasty beast called cancer, win or lose, in my heart, there is one that I will ride with on my bike. That would be my grandmother, Margarete Wasser.
She was the first person that I knew who had cancer, let alone who died from it. She was an Olympic gymnast (or would have been, had she not quit in protest of Hitler propagandizing the Berlin Olympics), an equestrian, philanthropist, rebel, ground-breaker, and the strongest person that I have ever met, to date. All this in a maybe 5-foot frame, with a strawberry blonde cotton-candy like pouf of a hairstyle, crystal blue eyes, a smile that made everything bad in the world disappear, and the sweetest, most soothing light German accent you've ever heard. She was a mother, a wife, the family matriarch. She was a community leader, and let nothing stand in her way. Stories of her notorious, and surprising, physical strength get passed along from generation to generation in my family. Tales of how one day, when her husband left to go to work, she dug, sealed, filled, planted and populated a fish pond in her yard and was done by the time my Grandfather returned at the end of the day.
20+ years later, I can still remember her papery, feather-like skin brushing against my arm in her 1950's, pristine kitchen while we made Jell-O instant chocolate pudding together, stirring the brown, velvet concoction in a pot older than my mother with a wooden spoon. I can smell her Bauernfruehstueck (without the bacon, of course), as she cooked it on mornings after I'd slept over when my parents had "date night".
She taught me how to tie my shoes when I was 4, in her bedroom, sitting on the edge of her bed, which always smelled lightly of 4711 Eau de Cologne, Kolnisch Wasser (which sat in a huge bottle on her vanity.) We were going to Israel together that summer, and it was time I learned to tie my own shoes. I didn't realize that, soon after that trip, I was going to be teaching her elementary things to be able to walk.
There, in Jerusalem, she and I shared a room at the American Colony Inn. It was beautiful - part stucco, Mediterranean spa, part exotic, tiles, Moroccan-esque palace, with all the luxurious amenities of a fine European resort, with belly-dancing and kebobs at night by the koi ponds. One night, when the rest of the family went out on the town, she and I stayed behind. In the dining room, we sat, alone, with a waiter, who served us the densest, richest, most succulent chocolate cake. I can still taste it, feeling the way the fork melted through his huge wedge of dark, chocolate goodness.
A Polaroid picture sits on a shelf at my parents house. I have my signature, Laura Ingalls braids, a navy blue terrycloth and white polyester trimmed jumpsuit, white socks and red sneakers, and I'm sitting on the sand in between my grandmother's legs at the base of Masada, as a light show was being performed, re-enacting the fall of Masada. We'd just had our picnic dinner, and the foil bag that held my orange juice drink sits beside me.
When we got back to the States, we were all very tired. Gramma was especially tired. One afternoon, she was too tired to play piano with me at her house. She was too tired to go out and weed the garden with me. She passed on walking in the woods behind her house to teach me about all the plants in the lush, green forest behind her house (avoiding the poison ivy that I'd fallen into the year before). We made our Jell-O chocolate pudding together, and took naps on the sofa, instead. I watched her do her needlepoint.
I don't remember when, exactly, but soon after, her bright green car with the black roof was parking in our driveway, and I had a new housemate - Gramma moved into the bedroom next to mine. It was wonderful! I got to slip into her bedroom after I'd been "tucked in", wearing my pink polyester Minnie Mouse, high-collar and ruffled nightgown, and snuggle with Gramma, wearing her blue satin bedcoat, white cotton chemise, singing "Tumbalalaika" to me until I fell asleep in her arms. I'd wake up in my bed in the morning, brush my teeth, go to the bathroom, and greet my Gramma with a "Good morning!" or a bowl of Cheerios, if my father had woken me up for our pre-work commute breakfast rituals. I'd go to school, come back, and we'd take a short walk down the driveway to get our mail and back.
Then, one day, Gramma came back with a stick. And a scowl. And she didn't want to go out of the house. But it was time to get the mail! Time to play with the cats outside! Time to see what was blooming! She shook her head and pointed at this stick. "But, Gramma, it's just a walking stick!"
"Yes, süßes Kind, but I can't get up with it!"
"What do you mean, Gramma! I can teach you how to do that! Let's go out, please!"
And, in the front of my house, we practiced getting up and down with the walking stick. We sat on the bench in the front, I was wearing my jeans, Mork-from-Ork rainbow suspenders, blue madras plaid shirt, rainbow striped socks and Keds, she in a leisure suit and white comfort shoes, and we practiced putting the stick between our feet, putting one hand on top of the stick with the other on the seat of the bench, pushing our rear ends off the seat and putting our weight on the top of the stick over and over.
"Ricaleh! Now, ve can go for our valk!" And we went and got the mail together.
One night, my parents went out, and I was watching "The Muppet Show". Afterwards, there was going to be a Charlie Brown special. And I wanted to see it. And Gramma said, "No." I begged her, reminding her that Mommy and Daddy said that I could. But she growled, "NO!"
And I said I hated her. I looked at her in her face and yelled, "I HATE YOU!" and I stormed off to my room, slamming the door, and cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, I didn't wish her a good morning. I didn't open the door. I got dressed, had my breakfast, and took the bus to school, walking by her big green car, still fuming that I'd missed the Charlie Brown Special. When I got off the bus in the afternoon, I went up the driveway. Gramma's car wasn't there. No one was home. I took the spare key, let myself in, and soon after, my mother came home. She asked where Gramma was. I shook my head and told her I didn't know.
Then we got a call. Gramma had some kind of attack and had driven herself to the hospital. Almost 20 miles away. I got thrown into our brown and blue station wagon, after Mom left Dad a note and called his office, and we went to the hospital.
Gramma never came home again. I wasn't allowed in her room, at first. So, of course, I creeped in. A nurse was wiping her down with a cloth. There were tubes up her nose. She was making sounds that didn't sound very jovial. She looked so small. I knew I must have really done it the night before.
A nurse pulled me back into the hallway. I told her that I was sorry that I'd hurt my Gramma and that I'd never do it again - that I'd go to bed when she told me to next and if we could go home now. She smiled, but teared up a little. She asked me if I knew what was wrong with my grandmother. I told her I was really bad the night before and I must have upset her. (I kept thinking of how sick Auntie Em had gotten when Dorothy ran away and how I must have done the same thing to her.) She took me to a small room, knelt down so that our noses were almost touching. Then she asked, "Do you know what cancer is?"
"Yes! My cousin is one!" She looked at me with confusion. "Your cousin has cancer?"
"No! She's a cancer. I'm a gemini. That means I'm a twin! She's a crab."
Again, she smiled, but looked like she was going to cry at the same time. "No one told you what's going on with your grandmother?"
And that's how I learned what cancer was. She had a very hard to cure type of disease in her lungs. It was really bad. There weren't a lot of medicines that could fix it. Cancer isn't like a cold. It wasn't like a flu. She explained that cancer is like a really bad rash, but on the inside. And it ate up healthy cells in our body, leaving big, yucky lumps. I tried to explain to her that the lumps on Gramma were just because she was old, and she had lots of freckles. But she countered, and told me the lumps were deep on the inside. That's why Gramma was tired a lot. I just stood there for a minute and asked when we could take Gramma home. She said it wasn't for her to say.
For the next couple of months, after school, I'd get picked up and we'd go to the hospital. On occasion, my aunt, who worked at the hospital, would take me to the gift shop and we'd buy something for Gramma, and something for me. Around Valentine's Day, I got a Snoopy doll with heart pajamas. I got Gramma a card. On weekends, my cousin would come down, and we'd color together at the table in Gramma's room and share Fruit Stripes gum. We'd bicker over who needed which color the most, and one of our parents would "shush" us, and Gramma would say, "No, no, it's ok."
When Gramma was in the mood, or no one was looking and it was just us, she'd take those plastic tubes out of her nose, tell me to hop into bed with her, and she'd sing to me. She'd tell me stories. We'd talk about her cats, Samson and Delilah, and she asked that I make sure that they were both very loved and very happy. I promised her that I would take care of them until she came home. She'd smile, kiss my head, and tell me to go along and finish making whatever it was I was making at the table by the window. I'd read poems that I'd written in school. And, as Spring was coming, and soon after Passover, it would be Grandparents' Day, I asked if she'd come in to school - after all, she was my only grandparent! My other grandparents died long before I was born. And she'd say, "Ricaleh, I vouldn't miss it for de vorld."
The day before the 1st seder, things weren't right. They just weren't right! Gramma wasn't there to make me clean and shred potatoes for her kugel. We weren't dying eggs at her dining room table, to make them pretty for the seder. Things were just wrong.
Then, the phone rang. I don't remember much, I just remember the phone ringing, I ran to get it, but someone else had gotten it. That's all I remember until the next morning, when I was arguing with my mother about what to wear to Gramma's funeral, whatever that was. She wanted me to wear this goofy dress, and I wanted to wear my dark burgundy sailor dress that twirled when I spun. She said I had to wear dark colors, and I told her that dark maroon was dark enough. And Gramma liked the outfit. I knew Gramma wasn't coming back. I knew she wasn't asleep. I knew she was dead. And I wanted to wear the outfit that Gramma liked. So I did.
Before we left the house to get into the limousine, (the last time I'd been in one of those fancy black cars was to and from the airport with Gramma), I went to the bathroom, stood on the lid, and reached deep into a fish bowl on a shelf hanging on the wall over the toilet. I grabbed a few shells we'd collected at the shores of Acco and some sand from Tel Aviv. I put it in a paper Dixie cup from the plastic dispenser on the countertop and ran out to the limousine. I'd heard, somewhere, that Jewish people needed to be buried with stuff from Israel, so I thought Gramma should be buried with sand and shells that she and I had collected together. If my cousin wanted Gramma to have something they collected, that was up to her. But I knew those shells were special. I was even giving Gramma my favorite, big, white pearly shell.
When we got there, the family was brought into the back of the building. At one point, some ladies and the Rabbi pulled the adults into another room, as they were crying, and had some business to discuss. My cousin and I were told that we could play in another room while the grownups talked, but that someone would get us when it was time. I knew I had a job to do, as did my cousin, plus, I still had to give Gramma my sand and shells when it was time to say goodbye. My cousin and I started playing Chinese Checkers, not that I knew what they were. She cheated anyway, so I knew I'd lose. Then the door clicked. We went to the door, thinking someone was coming to get us. But the door was locked. We started to knock and call out for someone, but all we heard in response was some lady saying to another person, "It's best for them. They'll be fine." We later discovered two of our family acquaintances had decided for our family that my cousin and I had no business being part of a funeral, that it wasn't appropriate, and took it upon themselves to lock us up in the playroom. Our parents, clearly, were distracted, and didn't realize that we were absent, or thought we'd chosen not to be there. Little did they know that my cousin and I sat, alone, in a room with each other, knowing we were missing our jobs, and the chance to say goodbye to Gramma. We wouldn't get to sing to her one last time. We weren't going to be able to play piano or recorder for her again. And I wouldn't be able to give her our sand and shells.
After some tears and time, and some Fruit Stripe gum later, the door clicked and we were released to an empty hallway. We saw the adults walking out the front, and we were whisked into the black limousine once more. The doors opened to a light snowfall, in grey light. The clouds and sky melded into one pale, grey blur. The trees that, on most spring days, showed tiny green buds and leaves instead looked skeletal and dead. For once, I wasn't being dropped off across the street at the Town Park for day camp, into a field of happy, playing children. The door opened to the slope of grass leading to the stone wall and Route 124 across the street from the pond. There was a huge hole in the ground. And a box inside of it. I don't remember anything except for feeling the tiny snowflakes land on my nose and melt away. I remember seeing black figures standing around the box. I don't remember, however, any sound. Until the thud of dirt hitting almost hollow wood started. Thump after thump. And then it stopped. I think it was my father who took me by the hand and told me to pour the contents of my Dixie cup into the ground. I was somewhat confused until I realized that inside of that light wooden box was my Gramma. This was goodbye. I poured in the sand, and I scooped up some dirt, by myself, and I "planted" Gramma. Just like we'd planted seeds the summer before in her garden. Just like she helped me plant flowers around the tree in her backyard where the Disney-like statue of a donkey and a cart sat. Just as we'd planted trees in the Jewish National Fund forest in Jerusalem. I was planting Gramma.
I don't know how long it was until we went back to our house. And we kind of had a seder. Only, instead of the brightly colored eggs we'd make with Gramma, there were deviled eggs served on plastic dishes. (Plastic? Hardly dignified!) I don't even remember a seder, amid the bustle of people excusing themselves as they walked by. I don't remember looking for the afikomen, losing the hunt to my cousin, as always, but still getting a prize from Gramma. I just remember more and more people leaving the house, brushing my teeth, getting into my Minnie Mouse nightgown in the bathroom, and walked towards "our" end of the hallway, seeing the door next to mine slightly ajar, with the lights out. It still smelled like her 4711. Her things were still set on the vanity. Her sheets were still made and on her bed. Her cat, Samson, purred and wrapped himself in and out of my legs. Delilah, however, stayed hidden for days under her bed. I picked up Sammy, who licked the tears off my face, kissed him and hugged him so hard I could have broken his ribs and went into my room.
Things were never the same again.
That's why I ride.
UPDATED: I finally found out the exact cancer that she had:
My mother enjoyed exemplary health until she was 70 at which time she
was diagnosed with cancer in the blood vessels surrounding the kidney
which ultimately affected her kidney. We were told that hers was an
unusual occurrence of cancer and was not likely to be hereditary. The
affected kidney was surgically removed and she underwent
chemotherapy. Unfortunately, in about 2 years the cancer had
metastasized and she succumbed to cardiac infarction at age 72. Her
mother died at 90ish. Her brother lived into his 80s. Her father and
other brother died in WWII.