Three years ago, when I came back to Austria for good it was partly because I learnt that summer that my grandma had cancer. My world trembled, I felt lost and scared. I wanted to call my grandma but I didn’t know how to, I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t want to do this over the phone so I started to research, I googled my eyes out, wrote down all the information and tried everything to convince myself that there was a cure for her. That after the first chemo, she would be all better and that it all was just a big scare. I prayed for it so much, I hoped my prayers would be heard and that it all was just a bad nightmare.
Of course when I saw here right after I arrived at the airport, I knew that this wasn’t the case. I wished for it so bad, but something in me already knew then. Over the months she lost her hair, she lost weight, she lost the spirit and the optimism, she was sad, she was broken and with her, so were we. I remember sitting next to her, holding her hand and trying to comfort her. Trying to wipe her tears away, I tried to be strong for her, because this was the only thing I could do, the only thing I knew how to do.
I quickly realized that no matter what I did, I couldn’t help her and surely, she went through all the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The first stage – denial: For the longest time she didn’t acknowledge the sickness, she thought everything she used to do, she was still able to do and so she did. She pretended not to need help, everyone that wanted to help, she shooed away and she put her brave face on. When you’d asked her how she was doing, she’d say, ‘the usual’. Instead of looking out for herself, she made sure her husband, her kids and her grand-kids all were in good hands, she made sure that our lives didn’t stop because of this.
The second stage – anger: She got so angry at the world, at anything and at everybody. She wondered why her? Why not someone else? Why did she had to go through it and why won’t we let her be? Why do we insist on helping her, why? She was not done with her life, there was still so much she wanted to do, to see, to experience. She wanted to be at my wedding, she wanted to hold my kids, watch them grow up and so did I – but she got angry, because she feared, that none of this would ever happen – and sadly she was right.
The third stage – bargaining: She said she would change everything, she would turn everything around, she would do all the chemo sessions, she would do anything in her power, to get better. She said, that there must be a doctor, a nurse, a magician, someone who could help her, if she just changed a little bit, if she promised to never smoke again, if she damned the first cigarette she ever smoked. As well all know, this didn’t help.
The fourth stage – depression: Over the months, she got quiet. She kept many thoughts to herself, she got very sad and depressed, I know she tried her best to hide it, but even the strongest person couldn’t hide the sadness she was feeling. She was broken inside, we all knew it and we all tried to help her, but none of us knew how to.
The fifth stage - acceptance: This must have been the hardest part. Now still, it is the hardest part for me and my family to accept, that she is not with us anymore. But for her? I believe she knew that there was not much time left, I believe she felt it long before we saw it coming. I believe that when I last called her on a cold and rainy Sunday in November on my way to the airport, heading back to Oslo, that she already knew then that this very phone call was the last one we would ever have. I guess she suspected that this was the last time she would ever hear my voice. I believe she knew because she started crying, she said that she loved me very much and that she’d be thinking about me. She said to stay save and that she would always be there for me. And then she hung up.
Through three years of her suffering it wasn’t my family who stood next to her, it wasn’t my brothers or me, not my uncles, my aunts, my cousins, none of us. It always has been my grandpa – he not once questioned his being, not once raised his voice, not once got angry, not once thought about leaving her. Every day he would get up and take care of her, every night he would make sure she was laying comfortably. Towards the end, he laid awake most of the night, watching her sleep – that’s what he told me. I don’t know if she ever told him, what she told me once. I don’t know if he ever knew but I am sure he felt it.
She told me that after years and years being with my grandpa, she still loved him like nothing else. She would still get excited, when he would come home and she would hear him turning his key at the door. Her heartbeat would go up, she would get all giddy and happy. Truly happy. She said, that sometimes she can’t believe how after so many years she would still have butterflies just because she got to see him, walk with him, be with him. I hope one day – mind in far future – they get to be together again, having butterflies together, or maybe be them?
A few days before Christmas A and I headed back to Oslo. We were getting ready for our very own first Christmas together. Being a family-person, I always had big Christmas celebrations, many people coming over, having dinner together, playing games, just being merry together, fun, arguments, too much to eat and what ever else you need, to have a true Christmas party but this year was different. This year it was just A and I – a first.
So when we got up early the 24th, I made some coffee and sat down in the living room. A came running in and asked me if we could open presents – NOW. A thought it’d be a good idea to combine our cultural traditions – and put aside our differences – of celebrating Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning and created a pre-Christmas morning. Best idea ever btw. So we sat down in front of our Piss-mas-tree and exchanged gifts. Santa-Christkind-Norwegian-Style brought me wonderful slippers and a bunch of art materials and A’s Santa brought him a couple of champagne glasses and a calendar-of-love (closely related to the book of love…).
We then had some breakfast together and played some games, watched TV, watched movies, enjoyed our day and waited for evening to come. We had plans to celebrate it at the activity house, with all the less fortunate people, which for us was very extraordinarily fortunate. Around 3.30 we left our apartment and headed down to the city. Both A and I were extremely excited. WHAT did we sign up for? Norwegian food? Norwegian traditions? Norwegian people? Can we handle it? That was for us to find out. On the way downtown we suddenly had the realization that the trains might not run all night and that by the end of the night we might have to take a cab to get home, so A told me, if he’d give me the hairy eyeball, it was time to go, just to be on the save-traveling-home-side.
As we entered the house we were greeted by a horrific smell of pinekjøtt. Dried and salted lamb, boiled in hot water and then cooked in the oven for another century or so. Seriously? Is that what you call food? I don’t think so. But A, being very polite person choked down the food and topped it off with a smile. Occasionally we would made some ‘mhmmmm’ sounds which was paired with a little ‘how can I spit this out without anyone seeing it?’ whisper. We washed the food down with some gløgg, a very very very sweet hot drink infused with raisins and nuts and some other things I blended out, Norwegians just drink that to keep warm at Christmas. Needless to say that neither A nor I went for seconds on neither the food nor the drinks. There were about 30 people, all of them dressed nicely and all of them having big smiles on their faces. We all genuinely enjoyed the company (which so far was the only thing we really enjoyed). We had some good laughs, some wonderful conversations, some jokes were told and all in all it was just wonderful to be surrounded by such caring people. And then: dessert. Now, I don’t know how many of you ever heard anybody say ‘let’s go and have Norwegian food, I know this really good Norwegian restaurant, right around the corner’ but I never heard anyone say that, not even in Norway. So you can imagine my face as I choked down some cloud berries. Something Norwegians are particularly fond off, they also are very secretive about there whereabouts and if it were up to me, it might as well stay that way. Cream and tasteless berries. To one of these A is allergic and the other one is just not what you would call delicious.
No surprise here – no seconds either. However we ate all the displayed chocolate, pepperkakene (= ginger bread) and all the other sweets that were put out. And then, the highlight of the evening: the dance around the Christmas-tree. What you need: a Christmas tree in the middle of the room, and 30 people holding hands and a sense for music. What you do: hold hands, walk either one or the other way around the Christmas tree and sing. What we did: laugh. It was just such a bizarre experience, not knowing the lyrics to the songs and walking and laughing and singing and making some hand gestures to the songs that were sung. Needless to say, we had a one-of-a-kind-blast. By the end of this both A and I were just genuinely happy and merry (and made a mental note for a new tradition we wanted to keep). After some quiz-games A gave me a long look, which I interpreted as, ‘I really love it here, let’s stay longer’ but what actually meant ‘let’s go home before we miss our train’. The good news was the public transportation was still running, the bad news was our train needed another 30 minutes before it would get here and we were stuck in the terrible cold. Somehow we made it home, somehow we made it through the day, somehow we survived our very first Christmas all by ourselves and somehow I know with certainty that Norwegian food will never ever, in my life time be on my Christmas dinner list, ever.