When I committed to studying at University of Helsinki, I knew that the experience would bring unexpected challenges and uncertain rewards. As with any big life change, I had to leave certain things behind to make room for new experiences and new adventures; not only did I leave behind my physical possessions that didn’t fit in my two suitcases, but I also left my friends and family.
Making the final decision to come to Helsinki was no easy feat, but in some ways I knew it was something that I needed to do for myself. After spending the second half of my undergraduate career working nonstop in order to avoid succumbing to more student loan debt in what has become
commonplace and accepted as the “American Way”, I felt that focusing on my studies would be refreshing and new, which it has been for the most part in my stay in Helsinki so far. I knew that my decision was important and that opportunities to really challenge myself as much as moving to a new country has been rarely actually become a reality.
While I have had my own share of frustrations, mishaps and moments of feeling lost, I still feel that coming to Helsinki is one of the most important things that I have ever done for myself. I am very fortunate to have a family that not only understood my decision to move halfway across the world, but also one that wholeheartedly supported this decision.
And what’s more, one of the hardest things about this decision was that mere days before I flew out (four, to be exact), my grandfather had an exploratory surgery that changed the lives of my family members forever. While cancer may be something that has become commonplace in our discussions about healthcare medical research, for my family it was something inherently new and exceedingly difficult to put into context. We feared for the worst and the worst happened.
Now, this is where I need to pause for a moment to make sure to give you, my dear reader, some context. I come from a tough family. Both my mom and dad’s families have worked hard for everything that they have. That being said, when things get bad, you just keep on going. You can’t stop. And that’s exactly the attitude that my grandpa employed throughout his entire treatment process.
The type of cancer that my grandfather had was called cholangiocarcinoma, which is a fancy name for cancer of the bile duct. This type of cancer is really only treatable by removal of the infected areas and is quite rare in that it only affects 1-2 in every 100,000 people. The exploratory surgery conducted on that balmy August morning left my grandmother, my mom, my aunt Joelle and me with the news that the cancer was stage 4 and had spread from his bile duct to his liver and lymph nodes.
After recovering from this surgery, things returned to normal for a while, at least from what I can make of how things happened after I left. My grandpa came home from the hospital 20 minutes before I had to leave for the airport. Talk about timeliness. Things still seemed pretty okay at Christmastime and I am so thankful that I got to spend time with my whole family at home. I last spoke with my grandfather on the phone about two weeks ago when I called to let my grandparents know that I had officially booked the tickets to come home for my sister’s wedding this summer.
In many ways, I think I am still processing the news that my grandfather is gone. As the oldest grandchild, I think I probably have more memories of him and more stories to tell than my sisters and cousins might. He definitely took the most video footage of me as compared to my other family members… But that can probably be attributed to the newness of both the camcorder technology and having a baby around. I mean, how much video can you really take of sleepy, crabby baby? Apparently a LOT.
But I think one of the hardest things for me is probably also one of the most selfish. I know that I lost one of my biggest supporters in virtually everything I have ever tried in my life. Now that I’m a bit older, I suppose I have fewer band concerts and performances and sporting events to attend, but I always took comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, my grandpa would still be there to help me up (or at least try to make me eat my weight in whatever was in the kitchen at that time).
I am so, so thankful for modern technology, since I was able to keep in regular contact with my grandpa and also receive updates about his condition (I mean, I may have played a role in convincing my grandparents to buy an iMac instead of another P.C. My grandma even has an iPad!).
Cancer, being the unpredictable and untamable beast that it is, sometimes causes its victims pain and suffering in ways hard to predict and also grueling to treat. I feel a sense of relief knowing that my grandpa isn’t suffering anymore. It’s never easy to see your sources of strength in their weakest moments, but I am glad that he passed on surrounded by the people that he loved. I am also so glad to have the ability to join my family at home for a bit of peace and quiet and good old fashioned family bonding. My grandfather made me promise that I wouldn’t home home “when [he] croaked,” but that was simply a promise I could not keep.
Gramps, I’ll miss you more than you probably could have ever guessed. Thanks for everything. I’ll do my best to live a life that would make you proud.