When I was ten years old, there were only two things in life that I loved beyond question: horses and my Nana. Nana, whose real name was Jenny Silver, was my maternal grandmother. She and my grandfather, known of course as Papa, lived in Augusta, Georgia on a tree shaded street in the true heart of the deep South. I was sent to visit them in the summers, and to me their house was paradise, with beautiful wallpaper depicting knights on horses in the dining room, and carpet the color of teal on the floor. Their backyard seemed vast, especially since we had no yard then—my parents and two siblings shared a 2 bedroom apartment in Texas. Running the length of that yard gave me a true sense of freedom, and privacy behind the low brick walls that lined the yard, cool with the scent of magnolias.
That summer of 1963, when I was turning ten, was to be a special summer for me. After years of being begged, my parents finally succumbed to my pleas to let me take riding lessons, and I found myself at Pin Oak Stables, home of tall , genteel and beautifully gaited Saddlebreds. I was assigned to a nondescript brown gelding—an old school horse named Toga. I was taught to put the bridle on and to lift the saddle to his slightly swayed back and to fasten the girth. As I climbed on from the mounting block ( I was far too small to get on from the ground), my proudest moment was when I confidently pronounced the words, “Walk on, Toga!” It would be many years before I heard the Arab proverb, “The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears”, but from my vantage point on Toga’s back, I knew the meaning of happiness.
That happiness was to prove to be very short lived. One hot afternoon, as I arrived home from my weekly riding lesson, my mother greeted me at the door. She said, “Your Nana is very sick. She has cancer. We are bringing her to Houston to be treated at a special hospital for cancer patients called MD Anderson Hospital.” It turns out that Nana, who was 59 years old, had been having abdominal pain all summer. She was treated for various ailments including ulcers and a “nervous stomach”. There were no CAT scans and no fiberoptic endoscopies back then. She was losing weight. She had fevers and night sweats. Finally, in desperation, the doctors took her for an “exploratory”. It was, as they say, an “open and shut” case. Her abdomen was loaded with tumor, which was biopsied and found to be lymphoma. They closed her up. There was nothing they could do.
But they didn’t know my Nana. She was determined that at 59, she was NOT ready to die. She had my Papa to take care of, and she had, by that time five grandchildren. She was going to go to the ends of the earth to fight this thing, and that is what she did. At MD Anderson, a new chemotherapy drug, Cytoxan, had been developed, and was in early clinical trials to determine the appropriate dose and schedule. Nana was assigned to a high dose arm, and her lymphoma began to melt away. She had tremendous side effects, bleeding from her bladder being the most difficult for her, but she persisted. Needless to say, my parents were far too preoccupied by her illness and her appointments and her medical expenses to take me to my riding lessons, and I knew better than to complain. By the end of that summer, her cancer was gone. By late fall she was able to return home to Augusta, where she lived another 22 action packed years. She was a feisty old lady as she aged—at 75 she insisted on having breast reduction surgery. She said to me, “I didn’t survive cancer to drag these old bags around for the rest of my life!” Until she died, she proudly invited her granddaughters to take a peek at her perky uplifted remodeled breasts.
It was Nana who taught me about grace under pressure, about stoicism and about courage. She taught me other, quite practical things like how to knit (I’ve long since forgotten), how to appreciate good jewelry and to be sure to meet the parents of any man I dated. (“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, dear!”) She also told me “It’s just as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man.” (Obviously, I didn’t listen to everything she said!) Her proudest moments were dancing at my wedding, and meeting my daughter, her first great grandchild. When she finally passed away, in her early eighties, her entire community mourned, and my grandfather, who lived to be 93, was never quite the same.
In medical school, I had the opportunity to do electives in many different specialties, and there were many that I loved, especially those that required enhanced visual skills and spatial orientation—I liked “looking”, and “seeing” to make a diagnosis. Dermatology fascinated me, radiology was fun and easy, and plastic surgery was beginning to merge the boundaries between art and science, with the advent of microvascular techniques in reconstruction of birth defects and trauma victims and the reattachment of severed limbs. But in the end, it was the memory of my grandmother’s fight, and her victory that drew me closest and keeps me where I remain, taking care of cancer patients.
Nearly 30 years passed after that fateful summer before I got back on a horse. In the words of the late Vicki Hearne, in one of my favorite essays of hers, “Oyez a Beaumont”……that was the soonest I could get to it, what with one thing and another.