The disease that had inflicted pain on so many women around the world had finally found its way to Gran. This was the summer of 1980, at a time when the amputation of a woman’s breast was not only taboo, but also a safely guarded secret in St Lucia.
If fact, even as I visited my grandmother at St. Lucia’s Victoria Hospital, I did not have a clue that the surgery of which my family had spoken was to amputate her cancerous left breast. I learnt the truth that evening, and with this stunning revelation came a responsibility that years later would change my life forever.
In the years following the surgery, Gran and I had grown extremely close to each other. I would visit her each day to help around the house and carry out a few errands. On the stove in the concrete section which formed part of her home, where the small kitchen overlooked St. George’s Street, there was always a pot with some warm milk awaiting me. At about the time when she knew that I would arrive from school in the afternoon, she also made sure that there were enough loaves to go with my milk.
Gran was still agile in those years. For although she had given up on her life as a seamstress, she still routinely attended the early morning services at her church each day, and did not miss a beat when it came to the vespers, which was always at about 6 p.m. each evening. I would sometimes catch up with her in the streets and walk her up to the doors of the church, or to her home. But those years would soon come to an end. This monstrous phenomenon, that silent killer called breast cancer, the same disease that I thought had been stopped with the amputation of Gran’s breast, had evidently reared its ugly head. At the exact location where the surgeon’s knife had performed what was thought to be a life-saving operation, the cancer had began to eat away at her flesh, and with this came the end of her agility as a woman.
The withering away of my grandmother, Mrs. Edela Prudent, forced me to move in to live with her. I occupied a small bed which was adjacent to her old queen-size bed in the master bedroom. Uncle Lewis, a man who had served with distinction in the British Army and the St. Lucia Police Force, occupied the second bedroom in the concrete wing of Gran’s home.
At nights when the lights were turned off, and the virgin lamp that sat on a shelf above the feet of Gran’s bed cast its shadow over the room, she would suffer in silence. Some nights were better than the others, but on the worst of her nights, I couldn’t sleep a wink either.
In the months ahead, Gran would suffer a series of mild strokes. The first made it impossible for her to do things on her own. It was particularly difficult for me as a teenager, since it now meant that I had limited time to enjoy myself and to do the things that teenagers do. However, despite the challenges that her illness presented, it was never a source of annoyance to me, since from day one I was convinced that the commitment I had made to care for her was borne out of love.
Aunty Suzette, who lived in a part of Gros Islet called Massade, would visit the house each morning. Then, together with a relative who hailed from Canaries ( where Gran was born), they would sponge her with water drawn into a basin. Out of respect for Gran, I would always leave the room. However, once they were done and had given her a change of nightgown, I would always return to massage her arms and feet with ointment.
Somewhere deep inside, I had this strange conviction that I could save Gran from the illness that threatened her life. With each passing day, I never ceased to believe that this was possible. Usually at nights, when the quiet of the evening had crept around the house, I would engage Gran in conversation. I often made her laugh, which was my way of helping her cope with her suffering, but there was always something besides the laughter. During that period, I gathered a wealth of information about my father’s side of the family. I also learned about my grandfather, whom I never knew, and of how Gran had single-handedly raised eight children after his untimely death.
Gran was always a brave woman, so brave that she had even dealt head-on with her own mortality. But this was before the second stroke. After the first stroke, she had instructed Aunty Suzette and two of her best friends, Mrs. Helena Montoute and Mrs. T-yon Altenor, to purchase some cloth with which to make a dress in the event of her death. Her wishes were followed, and within weeks the dress was ready and waiting. However, by the time she suffered the second stroke, which slurred her speech a bit, the fear of dying had finally penetrated her psyche.
The rapid progression of the cancer, coupled with her fear of dying, had driven Gran to be overly dependent on me. Between helping her on the potty and keeping watch on the nights when the pain was so great that she thought that death might visit her, I did not have much sleep at all. Silence, like the cancer which was eating her up inside, was something that she couldn’t live with. Therefore, upon her urging, I had to remain awake on some nights.
On the night that the chariots of death arrived for her, Gran was not even aware that they had come. In fact, she had slipped into a coma a few days before, and did not even wait for Uncle Clement ” T-Boy” Prudent, who had arrived from England in hopes of seeing her alive. And so, as I watched in silence over the 83-year-old woman on the bed, I placed my hands in her hands for the last time, thankful to God that I had fulfilled a commitment of love.