Updated: Mar 23, 2020
What I remember from cancer, growing up, is that it was a rarer disease. Not something you get from the air, the water, from food or aging. Not, for sure, something babies are born with.
So the first time I heard my grandma’s Clara had returning lung cancer I was devastated. The first time she got it was I a baby. My recollection is something small and “simple”: a lump, removed, some chemo, done. Now, more than twenty years later, it was back, and it would kill her at age 74, which, of course I didn’t know as I first heard of it.
My grandma never smoked. But she would sit with smokers to play cards at the Hebrew Country Club of Rio de Janeiro twice, maybe three times a week. They all survived her, but her lungs were way too clean to handle the amount of pollution other people were creating around her. If you think about, it is the most unfair thing to be a secondhand smoker. But, listen, you do have to divorce friends and family if they smoke around you, as we are almost never ready for other people’s poison.
It was a Sunday morning when my father called me in the Brentwood condo, where I was living with my boyfriend in Los Angeles. It was all part of a life plan: I had attended writing and screenwriting classes at UC Berkeley from 1997 to 1999, then had gotten a manager during a trip to Los Angeles. The next obvious thing was to move to Hollywood and make all my dreams come true. I was 25 and kicking.
Things worked very quickly in LA for me. Essentially, because it felt like home. It seemed strange, and only many years later I understood it, during psychotherapy: when I was one year old, I left Brazil (where I was born) with my mother to stay with my aunt in Santa Barbara. I heard it was very difficult times for both of my parents. My father had to travel to Mexico and Italy. My mother and I stayed with my uncle and aunt, and my three cousins. And during that time, since all my mom was doing was taking care of me, we build a very special connection. Less than a year later we moved to France, which has always felt home to me, but Hotel California became a thing in my heart.
The point is: I was where I wanted to be when my father called saying that Clara had another lump in her lung. I was feeling home and working on the notion of moving permanently to LA. I had been in a very solid relationship with my boyfriend of seven years. I was writing. I was starting my professional ascension. I just had a script read by Leonardo di Caprio’s company, which was amazing – Titanic had just swiped eleven Oscars and he was the hottest thing (literally) in town. Let’s just pause here for a moment: do you get where I was at in life? Have you ever felt like this: everything aligned, all felt right, and the only thing in the way of you being happy is that underlying feeling that since your shit is so together, something will hit the fan?
Nevertheless, all of this disappeared when I hung up the phone with my father. All I cared about was running toward my grandmother and being by her side. And that’s exactly what I did: dismantled my life goals to enjoy every lasting minute of Clara. And I never regretted it, although it took me another 15 years to go back to where I was before.
Clara was the daughter of Jewish Romanian parents who immigrated to Bahia, in the North East of Brazil. She was more beautiful than a Hollywood movie star, and there was no one who would not turn their heads when she would walk into a room. At age 18, her family shipped her to Rio de Janeiro to meet “the right guy”. This person would be my grandfather, a Jewish Russian whose parents fled the Bolshevik Revolution to start again in Brazil. I don’t know the details, and I always remember them in such harmony that it makes it difficult for me to imagine they were kind of set up. I know they grew founder of each other over time, in a loving and caring way.
What I know is that they loved me a lot. Endlessly. And that she nurtured me with so much love and care, she thought me so much of what I know about how to treat people, how to connect, how to go about life. I was her only grandchild and we had an extremely privileged bond. So much so that as soon as I got back to Brazil and hugged her for thousands of hours, I decided I would finally get pregnant. I wanted, more than anything, that when her time came to leave this world, she would know, for a fact, that her continuation would be there. Her DNA, her name, her legacy would be carried on.
Luisa was born in April 2001. Clara was in ecstasy to meet her at the maternity. More so since they looked so much alike! They had a good year of a close relationship, but in October 2002 my beautiful grandma rested, not having had the chance to meet my younger daughter who was born one year and two days later. She and my grandpa remained married for 54 years, in what looked like a very loving harmony.
An Angel Who Drove a Cab
Three years later, after my grandfather passed, also from cancer, I took a cab from their old apartment, that I was in charge of renovating to sell. The driver looked at me in the mirror and asked: “You are Clara’s granddaughter, right?” Well, she was very popular in her neighborhood, Ipanema, she was the true Girl of Ipanema. I nodded yes, tears immediately springing out of my eyes. “I was her last driver. I took her to the hospital, and then I heard she passed and never came back”, he completed. I was already crying so hard that it took me a second to notice that the driver himself was also in tears. “That day she told me that she wasn’t worried, she knew that even if she did not make it home, she was reassured that she would still be around. Because she had a great-granddaughter who looked just like her, and a granddaughter who had her looks and essence, so that was really immortality.” My heart pounded so fast that I could not move from that cab. He never charged for the ride, and he got out of the car to hug me. That angel disguised as a man regenerated something very deep in me.
Well, life is fair, after all. It all makes sense, even when it doesn’t.