Thorn

How Tragedy and Loss Broke Down Walls and Created Deep and Healing Connection By Anna Vizzare

Story Contains

“Many people have said that the four of us were Grandma’s whole heart. I totally agree with that, and I also see the unique spots that we each filled in her heart.

Sammie was her helper, the one always ready for a card game or a puzzle, or the one to do something weird and make her smile that million-dollar smile.

Ellie…her Ellie-Blue. Ellie was her precious and kindhearted girl. Grandma could always count on Ellie to keep the peace between us.

Anna? Anna was pretty much a thorn in her side. Her troublemaker and challenger. Anna constantly baffled Gram.”

"This is an excerpt from my sister’s eulogy from my Grandmother’s funeral.  I’m Anna. The thorn, the troublemaker, and the challenger".

These words were spoken in front of roughly 800 people. The reaction? An audible laugh and some less audible pity that I was the one that drove my Grandmother, a saintly woman known throughout her community, absolutely crazy.

Throughout my life, my relationship with my Grandmother has not been easy. The title of “thorn” has haunted me for many years. I have spent many nights crying, wishing, and praying that I could be different, and it gave me this deep desire to do any and everything to be better for the best woman that I know.  

Now, at age 23, I can say with confidence that “thorn” is a name that I wear with pride. The little girl in me still cringes a bit when she hears it, but it has become empowering and something that I am proud to be, specifically for my Gram.

What caused this transition, you may ask? The short answer is cancer. Terminal, ravenous, take down the strongest woman I know cancer. The long answer, well, you’re about to find out.

This relationship, the one between my Gram and I, has been the most influential one in my life. She was, from the start, a third parent to me, and one of my primary attachments. I craved her love and wanted her approval more than anything…and it was hard to come by for me.

In our family system, there are some strong unspoken rules:

·       Always be strong.

·       Stand up straight.

·       Always look good. In every sense of the word.

·       Don’t ever let them see you sweat.

·       Take care of your family.

·       Enjoy your food, but not too much.

These rules were established and carried out by my Grandmother. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and these rules were the scaffolding under which she structured her entire life. Everyone in the system followed suit, and it worked for them. Not for me.

"I craved her love and wanted her approval more than anything…and it was hard to come by for me".

This is the way that I earned the title of “thorn”. I truly was a thorn in the side of my Grandma and, well, my entire family. As a child, I was a thorn because of my big feelings and my inability to fit into the system. But, what they couldn’t see was how desperately I wanted to fit in. I would have given anything just to be more like my sister and cousins. I am the oldest and was certainly a leader, but I often felt like I had the most to learn. My sister was the apple of Gram’s eye, and even my cousins, who are eight and ten years younger than me, made my Grandmother beam with pride on a daily basis. For me, it didn’t feel like a choice to hold back my tears or the excitement. In fact, these emotions and feelings often flew out of me without me even knowing it. All of these things made me feel an intense amount of shame. I blamed myself for not being able to fit in. I wished that I was smaller and I certainly wished that my Gram would be proud of me and would approve of my behavior and personality.

As I grew and matured into adulthood, the thorn also grew and matured with me. Due to copious amounts of therapy, I got a handle on my big emotions, and while I still had them (and confused Gram with them), they were more contained and manageable for me. Instead of flying off the handle, I did little things that constantly infuriated her. She was frustrated that I never brushed my hair and sat with my feet up at all times. She was confused by my beliefs and my willingness to fight for them. My passion, high energy level, and headstrong nature also confused her, and she made it known every single day. I laughed it off and continued to do the things that I knew frustrated her, but, deep down, I was still that little girl who wanted nothing more than her Gram’s approval.

"She was confused by my beliefs and my willingness to fight for them. My passion, high energy level, and headstrong nature also confused her, and she made it known every single day".

Flash forward to August of 2018. Gram has been having some back pain for a couple of months now, and it’s recently gotten really bad. For reference, the woman once passed a kidney stone without even knowing it, so when she says it’s bad we take it very VERY seriously. I’ll save you the medical mishaps and the amount of false positive hope that we got over the course of the next few weeks. Bottom line is that on August 25th, 2018, my Grandma was diagnosed with Stage IV Parasitic Musculoskeletal Sarcoma.  

This disease is about as scary as the name makes it out to be. Within the course of the next five months, I would watch this disease slowly destroy the strongest person I’ve ever known, and she didn’t even stand a chance. She started this journey walking about 4 miles a day and being extremely active. Over the course of the next month, she made the transition to a cane, then to a walker, and then to her bed. It became a struggle to get her from the bed to the chair just to go to the bathroom or go for a short walk. Watching this unfold before my eyes was nothing short of horrifying.

Due to the fact that I was a senior in college with a somewhat flexible schedule, I was able to be with her a lot. I sat with her for hours each day and, although I had no idea how I would emotionally handle a family member with terminal illness, it turned out that what made me feel best was being right there on the front lines with her. I was, by no means, her primary caregiver at the time. She was in an assisted living home or a hospital at all times and had many frequent visitors, including my mom and aunt who tended to all the logistics. I was, mainly, just another competent adult that could be there for her in hours of the day where most people were at work.

During that time with her, I witnessed many traumatizing things that I won’t go into, but what really stuck with me was that I was seeing this woman that I had idolized and loved fiercely for so many years break down. And in that broken down space, she was a hell of a lot like me. I saw her find a new freedom and joy in food which was crucially healing for me. As her strong walls begin to crumble, her inner, constantly hidden anxiety began to blare. She even had a couple of panic attacks. My mind was being blown daily as I realized that her seemingly invincible nature was just an act. She was exhausted, she was scared, and she was vulnerable, and even more significant is that she was letting me see that. I witnessed this for five months and I didn’t say a word about it to her (a large feat for me) because I didn’t want her to spend any more of what little time she had left hiding.

"My mind was being blown daily as I realized that her seemingly invincible nature was just an act. She was exhausted, she was scared, and she was vulnerable, and even more significant is that she was letting me see that".

These final five months of her life were so fulfilling and healing to me. She began to put her trust in me. I could step up for her, I could help her, and I would fight like hell to make sure she had what she needed. And she knew that. She saw that I would be okay. We also began to understand each other. We are more alike than I had ever imagined, and I know that she was seeing that too. Through her experience of panic attacks for the first time and her anxiety bubbling up to the surface more than ever before, she truly saw me for the first time. And that was all I needed.

This continued for five heartbreakingly short yet painfully long months until she passed away on January 16th, 2019. She was surrounded by her family, including her thorn. Watching her pass was the single most significant event in my life thus far. It is the moment that will forever divide my life into a “before” and “after”. I didn’t think it was possible to go on without her, and yet I knew that, because of her and who she helped raise me to be, I could and I would.

Her last true message to me is one that will live with me forever. I rolled into her hospital room a couple of days before her death and was being my thorny self. She chuckled a bit. I said “Don’t waste your breath, Grammy. I know…I’m annoying you”. She said, “Of course you are. But, honey, you annoy me because you’re so much like me”.

"Watching her pass was the single most significant event in my life thus far. It is the moment that will forever divide my life into a before and after".

Flash forward to today. It’s about a year and a half later. I’m now 23 years old, graduated from college and am unexpectedly fulfilling her dream for me….becoming a teacher. I still think about this journey that I took with my Grandma every single day. I think about her death, I think about the life I had with her, and I think about her smile. This journey changed my life in a big way, sure, but it also changed how I feel about myself and how I look at who I am.

Before cancer (or BC as we like to call it in my very Catholic family), I hated my thorn. I wished it away daily even before my sister put a name to it that day at the funeral. However, now, I take pride in my thorn because I know that, deep down, my grandma had it too. And that, even deeper down, she loved mine…. even if it drove her insane.

I feel my Gram with me every day. She’s there in my strength. She’s there when I’m teaching my students in the classroom. She’s there when I’m being a thorn. She’s the one who, when times get tough, is behind me pushing me forward. She will forever be my strength, my guiding light, and the thorn in my side.

"I feel my Gram with me every day. She’s there in my strength. She’s there when I’m teaching my students in the classroom. She’s there when I’m being a thorn".

“Many people have said that the four of us were Grandma’s whole heart. I totally agree with that, and I also see the unique spots that we each filled in her heart.

Sammie was her helper, the one always ready for a card game or a puzzle, or the one to do something weird and make her smile that million-dollar smile.

Ellie…her Ellie-Blue. Ellie was her precious and kindhearted girl. Grandma could always count on Ellie to keep the peace between us.

Anna? Anna was pretty much a thorn in her side. Her troublemaker and challenger. Anna constantly baffled Gram.”

"This is an excerpt from my sister’s eulogy from my Grandmother’s funeral.  I’m Anna. The thorn, the troublemaker, and the challenger".

These words were spoken in front of roughly 800 people. The reaction? An audible laugh and some less audible pity that I was the one that drove my Grandmother, a saintly woman known throughout her community, absolutely crazy.

Throughout my life, my relationship with my Grandmother has not been easy. The title of “thorn” has haunted me for many years. I have spent many nights crying, wishing, and praying that I could be different, and it gave me this deep desire to do any and everything to be better for the best woman that I know.  

Now, at age 23, I can say with confidence that “thorn” is a name that I wear with pride. The little girl in me still cringes a bit when she hears it, but it has become empowering and something that I am proud to be, specifically for my Gram.

What caused this transition, you may ask? The short answer is cancer. Terminal, ravenous, take down the strongest woman I know cancer. The long answer, well, you’re about to find out.

This relationship, the one between my Gram and I, has been the most influential one in my life. She was, from the start, a third parent to me, and one of my primary attachments. I craved her love and wanted her approval more than anything…and it was hard to come by for me.

In our family system, there are some strong unspoken rules:

·       Always be strong.

·       Stand up straight.

·       Always look good. In every sense of the word.

·       Don’t ever let them see you sweat.

·       Take care of your family.

·       Enjoy your food, but not too much.

These rules were established and carried out by my Grandmother. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and these rules were the scaffolding under which she structured her entire life. Everyone in the system followed suit, and it worked for them. Not for me.

"I craved her love and wanted her approval more than anything…and it was hard to come by for me".

This is the way that I earned the title of “thorn”. I truly was a thorn in the side of my Grandma and, well, my entire family. As a child, I was a thorn because of my big feelings and my inability to fit into the system. But, what they couldn’t see was how desperately I wanted to fit in. I would have given anything just to be more like my sister and cousins. I am the oldest and was certainly a leader, but I often felt like I had the most to learn. My sister was the apple of Gram’s eye, and even my cousins, who are eight and ten years younger than me, made my Grandmother beam with pride on a daily basis. For me, it didn’t feel like a choice to hold back my tears or the excitement. In fact, these emotions and feelings often flew out of me without me even knowing it. All of these things made me feel an intense amount of shame. I blamed myself for not being able to fit in. I wished that I was smaller and I certainly wished that my Gram would be proud of me and would approve of my behavior and personality.

As I grew and matured into adulthood, the thorn also grew and matured with me. Due to copious amounts of therapy, I got a handle on my big emotions, and while I still had them (and confused Gram with them), they were more contained and manageable for me. Instead of flying off the handle, I did little things that constantly infuriated her. She was frustrated that I never brushed my hair and sat with my feet up at all times. She was confused by my beliefs and my willingness to fight for them. My passion, high energy level, and headstrong nature also confused her, and she made it known every single day. I laughed it off and continued to do the things that I knew frustrated her, but, deep down, I was still that little girl who wanted nothing more than her Gram’s approval.

"She was confused by my beliefs and my willingness to fight for them. My passion, high energy level, and headstrong nature also confused her, and she made it known every single day".

Flash forward to August of 2018. Gram has been having some back pain for a couple of months now, and it’s recently gotten really bad. For reference, the woman once passed a kidney stone without even knowing it, so when she says it’s bad we take it very VERY seriously. I’ll save you the medical mishaps and the amount of false positive hope that we got over the course of the next few weeks. Bottom line is that on August 25th, 2018, my Grandma was diagnosed with Stage IV Parasitic Musculoskeletal Sarcoma.  

This disease is about as scary as the name makes it out to be. Within the course of the next five months, I would watch this disease slowly destroy the strongest person I’ve ever known, and she didn’t even stand a chance. She started this journey walking about 4 miles a day and being extremely active. Over the course of the next month, she made the transition to a cane, then to a walker, and then to her bed. It became a struggle to get her from the bed to the chair just to go to the bathroom or go for a short walk. Watching this unfold before my eyes was nothing short of horrifying.

Due to the fact that I was a senior in college with a somewhat flexible schedule, I was able to be with her a lot. I sat with her for hours each day and, although I had no idea how I would emotionally handle a family member with terminal illness, it turned out that what made me feel best was being right there on the front lines with her. I was, by no means, her primary caregiver at the time. She was in an assisted living home or a hospital at all times and had many frequent visitors, including my mom and aunt who tended to all the logistics. I was, mainly, just another competent adult that could be there for her in hours of the day where most people were at work.

During that time with her, I witnessed many traumatizing things that I won’t go into, but what really stuck with me was that I was seeing this woman that I had idolized and loved fiercely for so many years break down. And in that broken down space, she was a hell of a lot like me. I saw her find a new freedom and joy in food which was crucially healing for me. As her strong walls begin to crumble, her inner, constantly hidden anxiety began to blare. She even had a couple of panic attacks. My mind was being blown daily as I realized that her seemingly invincible nature was just an act. She was exhausted, she was scared, and she was vulnerable, and even more significant is that she was letting me see that. I witnessed this for five months and I didn’t say a word about it to her (a large feat for me) because I didn’t want her to spend any more of what little time she had left hiding.

"My mind was being blown daily as I realized that her seemingly invincible nature was just an act. She was exhausted, she was scared, and she was vulnerable, and even more significant is that she was letting me see that".

These final five months of her life were so fulfilling and healing to me. She began to put her trust in me. I could step up for her, I could help her, and I would fight like hell to make sure she had what she needed. And she knew that. She saw that I would be okay. We also began to understand each other. We are more alike than I had ever imagined, and I know that she was seeing that too. Through her experience of panic attacks for the first time and her anxiety bubbling up to the surface more than ever before, she truly saw me for the first time. And that was all I needed.

This continued for five heartbreakingly short yet painfully long months until she passed away on January 16th, 2019. She was surrounded by her family, including her thorn. Watching her pass was the single most significant event in my life thus far. It is the moment that will forever divide my life into a “before” and “after”. I didn’t think it was possible to go on without her, and yet I knew that, because of her and who she helped raise me to be, I could and I would.

Her last true message to me is one that will live with me forever. I rolled into her hospital room a couple of days before her death and was being my thorny self. She chuckled a bit. I said “Don’t waste your breath, Grammy. I know…I’m annoying you”. She said, “Of course you are. But, honey, you annoy me because you’re so much like me”.

"Watching her pass was the single most significant event in my life thus far. It is the moment that will forever divide my life into a before and after".

Flash forward to today. It’s about a year and a half later. I’m now 23 years old, graduated from college and am unexpectedly fulfilling her dream for me….becoming a teacher. I still think about this journey that I took with my Grandma every single day. I think about her death, I think about the life I had with her, and I think about her smile. This journey changed my life in a big way, sure, but it also changed how I feel about myself and how I look at who I am.

Before cancer (or BC as we like to call it in my very Catholic family), I hated my thorn. I wished it away daily even before my sister put a name to it that day at the funeral. However, now, I take pride in my thorn because I know that, deep down, my grandma had it too. And that, even deeper down, she loved mine…. even if it drove her insane.

I feel my Gram with me every day. She’s there in my strength. She’s there when I’m teaching my students in the classroom. She’s there when I’m being a thorn. She’s the one who, when times get tough, is behind me pushing me forward. She will forever be my strength, my guiding light, and the thorn in my side.

"I feel my Gram with me every day. She’s there in my strength. She’s there when I’m teaching my students in the classroom. She’s there when I’m being a thorn".

Anna Vizzare

I am a teacher and an actor in the Seattle area. I have struggled with mental health issues my whole life and have specifically experienced anxiety, eating disorders (anorexia), and grief and loss.

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