I remained mostly calm as I drove my mother to her first cancer treatment on a sweaty summer day in July. Only my fingers gave away my nervousness as I repeatedly scanned through radio stations, searching for a familiar tune— anything I could sing to—that had a positive message or happy lyrics.
I focused on getting her there in time, pushing out of my mind the self-imposed guilt I felt for holding onto a secret, the longest time I’d ever kept one from my mother: I was getting divorced, and less than a handful of people knew about it. I decided weeks before that my news could wait. My mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and needed to focus on healing; I needed her to be okay during a time when many other things in my life were not. Instead of sharing my secret, I made small talk with her about the ice chips and lip balm suggested in the cancer treatment video we watched together when I was in town for her first oncologist appointment.
Giving up on the radio’s scan button, I turned the volume down as we pulled into the parking lot of the cancer treatment center. Patients in various stages of treatment came and went. Some had hair and some did not. My hands began to tremble on the steering wheel, as I silently wondered what my mother would look like in a few weeks and a few months. Perhaps she was wondering the same thing, too.
“You can just drop me off here,” she said quietly, pointing to the covered drop-off area.
“Are you sure?” I asked, not wanting to let her out of my sight.
“It’s fine,” she said, her voice cracking just a little. The anticipation reminded me of dropping my children off for their first days of preschool, except I was certain my mother wouldn’t be leaving from her first treatment filled with glee, holding a crayon drawing and chatting about new friends.
As we entered the drop-off zone, the radio switched on its own from soft background music to static. It sometimes does that, since my preset buttons are programmed for out-of-town radio stations. The radio must’ve lost the station signal, again, I thought to myself. I decided to fix it later. As the car slowly came to a complete stop, I searched for an uplifting word or phrase and the courage to utter it without breaking out into tears.
Joyful accordion sounds came to my rescue; polka music blared through the car speakers. Dah, dah—dah! Shocked, my mother and I stared at the radio. Then, we looked at each other— our eyes wide in disbelief. “Millie!” she exclaimed, tearing up and smiling.
“Grandma,” I whispered. Goosebumps and giggles ensued. Millie, my father’s mother, was an angel on Earth for decades before she died in 2001 due to cancer.
My small-but-mighty grandmother always had polka music playing on the radio console table in her living room. We sat outside the treatment center, suddenly not the least bit concerned about cancer treatment or hair loss or death. I absorbed each of those playful beats of music into my bones. It felt like confetti in my toes, a never-ending kind of confetti that doesn’t fall on the floor and make a mess.
Millie exuded love and kindness. She brewed gallons of iced tea for the dozens of family members that filtered through her home on a weekly basis. She stirred dozens of scrambled eggs with her favorite wood spoon for her children and grandchildren— serving up not only eggs, but also crispy bacon and her own blend of self-deprecating humor. She and my grandfather took me in to live with them for six weeks while my mother had back surgery; I was four years old at the time. After that, my world so revolved around her that I sometimes referred to my grandparents as Grandma and Grandpa Millie.
We kept in touch with handwritten letters after I moved away for college. Her letters often included tales of late nights when she couldn’t sleep, what the tomatoes in her garden were doing (or not doing), and what Grandpa’s snoring sounded like. She died a few months before I graduated.
Here I was, a mother struggling to comfort my own mother in her time of need. Millie lifted our spirits in a way that only she could, and made us smile during a time when that seemed impossible. One of my favorite stories she told was about how hard it was for her to behave appropriately during very serious situations, like church services.
According to her story, her mother carried a wooden spoon in her purse. If someone sang a note off-key, or anything went slightly awry, little Millie found it unbearably funny. Laughing in church, however, meant she’d get her hands slapped with the spoon. But she could just – not – stop – laughing. Even as she told the story, she laughed uncontrollably. It seemed as if she were finally able to fully let it out without any fear of the wood spoon.
When that polka song finished playing, my mother got out and went inside. I found a parking spot, a smile still plastered on my face. Thankfully, I’ve experienced plenty of close calls and lucky breaks in my life. During those times, I’ve thought that surely a guardian angel, or two, or three, were responsible for helping me. Even though I couldn’t see Millie with my eyes, I felt her presence in my heart that day.
Millie was with my mom and that was the best medicine of all.
Elizabeth M. Wood is a writer who lives in central Ohio with her husband and children. Over the past 15 years, her work has appeared on blogs, websites, newspapers, and magazines
wood changed to wooden spoon