When I think about my most vivid childhood memories, a good chunk of them involve my nanny. My family celebrated her on Cancer Survivor’s Day last month. She went from diagnosis to end of treatment in less than a year.
Nanny is 100 percent Polish, and it shows—she’s tall, strongly-built. Her blonde bouffant hairdo has been her signature for decades, and she’s never owned a pair of glasses that I wouldn’t wear myself. She has the most unique laugh I’ve ever heard. My cousins have tried countless times to record it (and to imitate it), but we can never get it quite right or capture it organically.
She’d walk me to preschool at St. Hedwig’s from my great-grandparents’ house on Mulberry Street, or to the house she lived in with my pop-pop and aunt on Pine Street. We’d walk to Henry’s deli on Brunswick Avenue, where she’d pick out giant pickles from an old-school barrel of brine (still the best pickles I’ve ever had) and I’d munch on a chilled Milky Way.
My nanny lost her father and then her husband within less than a year of each other in the early 2000s. Without missing a beat, she took in her mother, who lived well into her 90s.
We watched my pop-pop go through bouts with cancer and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and the treatments that were supposed to help him get better ended up causing more harm than good. He developed a drop foot and number of other complications, and toward the end of his life, he was too weak to go up and down the steps or bathe without help. But there was Nanny, always taking care of him, no matter what.
‘This has all been a lesson on what happens when your caretaker is now the one who needs to be taken care of.’
That’s what she’s been for as long as I’ve been on this earth—a caretaker. My cousins, brother and I spent summer after summer with her, splashing in the inflatable pool she’d put in her backyard or painting her nails or walking to the mailbox down the street. She taught us how to play War and 500 Rummy. She helped instill in me a love of word games, Jeopardy, crossword puzzles and Scrabble.
Then there’s my Aunt Lynne, who is 55 years old and has Down syndrome. My nanny (plus my pop-pop, when he was living) has been her lifelong caretaker. They do everything together. Partners in crime. Recently, she’s been dealing with some new cognitive and neurological problems, so Nanny helps her with things she used to be able to do independently—bathing, cooking, taking medicine.
Her seemingly bottomless resilience is part of what made it so hard when Nanny was diagnosed with cancer last year. Hearing a loved one say those words is always a shock. But watching a woman who we’ve all seen as a pillar of strength—almost superhuman or immune to pain—deal with this was very difficult.
I think there was a lot of denial on our part leading up to the diagnosis. “Maybe you’re just dehydrated” became “It’s probably just an infection,” which turned into “I’m sure it hasn’t spread” and then “There’s no way it’s in the later stages.” But it was what it was. Her treatment plan started with surgery, but the incision took longer than expected to heal, so chemotherapy had to be pushed back. Then, radiation followed.
She faced everything with strength and grace, and she pressed on even when her desire to fight wavered. She was herself throughout the whole process and stayed true to the things she’s most passionate about—more often than not, Nanny has a book in her hand, and I guarantee you’ve never met a more dedicated Rafael Nadal fan. She’ll wake up pre-dawn to watch him when he’s playing in a different time zone, and then she’ll stay up to watch the replay in the morning. And that’s why we felt confident about her body’s response to the cancer and to the treatment. She never stopped being herself, even when it was a mellowed-out version of what we were used to.
The relief we all—and especially Nanny—felt when her most recent PET scan a few months ago came back clear was just pure joy. You could hear it in her voice, and she genuinely seems like she’s back to her old self, always up for a game of cards and never turning down dessert.
This has all been a lesson on what happens when your caretaker is now the one who needs to be taken care of. As I get older, I can’t really ignore the fact that my grandparents and parents are getting older, too. These are figures in my life who I thought, growing up, would always be around, would always be healthy. I feel pretty lucky to have generally healthy parents and step-parents, plus an active grandmother and step-grandparents in their 90s. I realize how fortunate I am to have had nearly 30 years (and counting!) with my nanny. That’s something I think none of us take for granted.