I have often spoken about how my grandmother, Oma to me, Willy [short for Wilhelmina] to others, has influenced me. I have learned many, many things from her and she inspires me in so many ways, even now that she has passed. There is a moment in her life that defines her, for me. A moment that showed me and the world what she was about. I regularly draw on the strength of this moment when I feel that my own chips are down – and it gets me through. Maybe it will do the same for you.
Not long after Oma had undergone open heart surgery in her early seventies, she was called to quite a serious meeting with her doctors to discuss the results of some medical examinations they’d taken during their monitoring of her. Despite living here for over forty years, Oma retained a heavy accent which belied her firm and comprehensive grasp of the English language. Her doctors gravely explained that the results showed that she had a terminal and quite aggressive cancer called multiple myeloma. With sensitivity and resignation they advised her to get her affairs in order as they did not expect her to survive longer than twelve months. They explained how sick she would be and talked about the process of care she would require. Oma seemed to take this in and when given the opportunity to ask any questions of her doctors she asked only this “Can I still dance?” Her doctors had experienced this type of confusion and, perhaps, denial from many others before so asked if her daughter [my mum] could perhaps meet with them and her the following day so that they could explain it to her.
So, the following appointment was attended by the same doctors, Oma and now my mum too. The doctors repeated their prognosis to my mum and explained that they felt Oma was not clear about the terminal nature of her cancer and they asked if mum could translate for them, to overcome what they believed to be a ‘language barrier’. Mum, who took the news a bit harder, did as she was asked and translated the entire conversation into the family’s mother tongue, Dutch, to my quiet but unwavering Oma. The story mum tells me is that Oma listened, nodded and then replied, in Dutch “I bloody heard them the first time they told me, I just want to know if I can still dance!!”
She took that news better than anyone I have ever known to this day. Yes, she understood she had cancer. Yes, she understood it was killing her. Yes, she understood she was dying. But… what she did that day is tell cancer to go and fuck itself. She was going to go out the way she wanted, despite cancer’s plans for her. She DID dance. Five nights a week she could be found twirling around in one of her gorgeous gowns. She could foxtrot, tango, waltz, samba and dip like a beauty queen. Once she BROKE HER HIP and didn’t tell anyone so that she could dance on Saturday night. She was a bit slower on the dance floor that night but she went. And she danced. Then she admitted herself to hospital on Sunday morning, smiling. She told me “It’s a miracle Tania. Even if I can’t walk all week – my legs can move on Saturday night”.
She danced her way through EIGHT YEARS more of her amazing life.
Take that cancer.