Laura Elizabeth Willis died on August 18, 1958 of aggressive ovarian cancer, caught too late, that spread throughout her body. She was my great-grandmother.
For as long as I can recall, the women in my family have approached age 32 with a silent dread, an unspoken fear that they too would somehow die at 32. It was talked about sometimes in whispers, sometimes in jest, but it was talked about with such frequency that it was woven into the tapestry of who I was before I even fully realized its significance.
At 29, my Nana had her first of many severe, life-long issues with Crohn’s Disease and spent substantial time in the hospital undergoing various surgeries and treatments. My mom was 12. Nana assumed that although she hadn’t quite reached 32, she was dying all the same. I remember sitting in Nana’s green bathroom on a closed toilet seat when my mom was nearing her 32nd birthday. Nana was cleaning the sink, telling an all too familiar tale: she was 12 when her mom died. She went to live with her grandparents. The rest of her half-siblings were given to various relatives across the United States, some ending up in places as far flung as California. Her mom was buried in a lilac gown. Her little sister who didn’t attend the funeral had dreams for weeks of a woman in a purple dress telling her everything would be okay. Nana believed in spirits because of that. Mom would be 32 in September. Nana prayed every night to let mom see 33.
At nine years of age, death seemed like some vague, abstract concept.
Having never lost anyone, I felt like we were all immune to it. Sure, people died every day, but not our people. Not my people. Certainly not my mom. 32 seemed just as old as 102 in my adolescent brain that summer. A few years later, my mom had some significant health issues requiring surgery and hospitalization. Somewhere in the back of my then pre-teen mind, I wondered if we were still close enough to 32 and 12 for her to actually die.
In a few short weeks, I will turn 32.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t watching around every corner for the Grim Reaper to snatch me up. Death itself isn’t scary to me I suppose (although I find myself wondering if Hell is all fire and brimstone or like that sitcom on NBC, if Heaven has food, if we all just hang out, or whether we get reincarnated and I come back as a yardstick or something equally tragic). What terrifies me however, is leaving my boys behind. What would happen to me if I were to go at 32 may be a mystery, but I am keenly aware that I would leave six brown eyes, red rimmed with tears, shaking hands in a line no child should have to stand in; one too small to remember me, the other two so protective of him and dependent on each other, with only six and eight years of memories of their mother. And, since they all have different dads (clutch your pearls — it’s fine, I am nothing if not a cautionary tale), I wonder: would they grow up together? Or would they be like Nana’s siblings — whom I either don’t know or barely know — separated and divided into their dads’ care without each other as safety nets?
For the last few months I have been gripped with this irrational terror, sometimes sitting up in bed at night or saying aloud in the car, “Please God. Let me raise my babies,” as if saying it out loud will save me from my hypothetical fate.
But, that’s essentially all it is. A hypothetical fate. To the best of my knowledge, I’m not sick in any way. Granted, the death angel on my shoulder (who watches way too much Grey’s Anatomy) likes to whisper that no one really knows how sick they are with something like cancer until the symptoms indicate a whole host of problems internally. And with every new ache and pain, or new mole or freckle, I am convinced like Fred Sanford that this is, in fact, the big one
Laura Elizabeth, and I am quite literally coming to join you. Realistically though, I am also pretty physically hard on my body to be someone of as small stature as I am, so it’s normal to ache after carrying a giant antique something around after painting it all day. Still though, the doubt lingers, and I sometimes fail to see the sunny side to this all important, almost legendary, age.
I fear the unknown at times and I fear the legacy my great-grandmother left behind.
I cannot imagine the pain and the agony she felt knowing she would leave her babies to a world where she was only a story. Nana has been dead for about a year and a half now, but I know that if she were here still, my upcoming birthday — one that isn’t exactly a milestone to anyone else — would be a whispered talking point to her, one she would feverishly pray over for 365 days; I can nearly hear her saying something to me about my birthday and her mother in the same sentence.
I don’t want my story to end at 32, as I’m sure no one else would either. I want to have my sons and their kids over on holidays and nag them and give their partners unsolicited advice and feed my grandbabies 10-pound chocolate bars five minutes before they leave my house and, most likely, I will get to do all those things and more. My family, and my own longevity, isn’t cursed and doomed to repeat itself just because of one tragic event that took a beloved wife and mother from her family when she was far too young, 60 years ago.