I recently painted my 78-year-old grandmother’s toenails. A breast cancer survivor of more than seven years, she is currently battling invasive stage IV adenocarcinoma lung cancer. Her cancer is inoperable, but she is receiving strong chemotherapy.
After her first few rounds of chemo, she felt weak and was sick most days. Not able to take care of herself the way that she was used to, her physical appearance started to decline. Her skin lost its signature glow, her hair began to fall out, and the polish on her toenails became chipped and cracked.
“If I could get these old toenails taken care of, I would,” she said to me in her sweet southern drawl with an embarrassed laugh one afternoon in the fall of 2018. She was too weak and immunocompromised to visit a nail salon and in too much pain to bend over and reach her feet to paint them herself.
“I did it before, and I can do it again,” my grandmother told us with a look of grit and determination. Her positive attitude comforted me.
I watched in awe as she smiled and carried on a conversation as if she wasn’t getting chemotherapy drugs pumped into her veins every other week. “How are the kids?” she would ask. “When do you get to take a vacation?” Our normal banter was punctuated by her hacking coughs that served as a sharp reminder of the cancer-shaped elephant in the room.
As she spoke to me, she kept working in comments related to her appearance. “Your sister brought me some hats yesterday,” she continued, gesturing to the new hats sitting on her dresser. Her eyes were rimmed in dark purple circles, but I could see the same spark in them that I had seen for the past thirty years. Knowing she was in physical pain, but seeing how she used every ounce of her strength to have light and lively conversations with me was inspiring. This inspiration ignited in me a desire to help her feel like herself again. I felt compelled to do what I could to help her see the beauty in her appearance that I saw in her attitude.
I dropped everything and went to the hospital to be with her the day she was diagnosed. Although I was a complete wreck, I walked into her room to see her sitting up and smiling. She chatted with my little sister who always had a knack for making her laugh, even at funerals and in hospital beds. “I did it before, and I can do it again,” my grandmother told us with a look of grit and determination. Her positive attitude comforted me.
Intentionality was paramount. Because she was fighting cancer for a second time, I felt like she needed my support even more to boost her mood. I had spent many weekend afternoons throughout the first few weeks of chemo treatments yapping away with her while my kids and their cousins ran around playing. The television blasting loudly in the background to cover the snores of my grandfather in his recliner.
She has cared for me and the rest of our family for so many years. Now, it was my turn to comfort her.
While these visits were important and made us all feel connected as a family, they were also reminders that our time spent together now revolved around my grandmother’s chemo schedule or her doctor’s appointments. I wanted the toenail painting experience to be different. My grandmother deserved my undivided attention. She has cared for me and the rest of our family for so many years. Now, it was my turn to comfort her.
I made plans to go to her house alone on a Monday morning, and I showed up armed with a ziplock bag full of nail polish choices. Knowing my grandmother well, I was positive she had an old tin full of nail clippers, cuticle scissors, and nail files waiting and ready for me to use. Growing up, I remember this very same tan-colored tin with small green details sitting on the bottom shelf of the side table between my grandparents recliners. My sister and I used to use the cuticle scissors to cut thread from my grandmother’s sewing kit. We would take the spools of thread from her sewing kit and unravel them all around my grandparent’s house. The threads would criss cross around their staircase and across the living room, making a spider web of sewing thread for our family members to walk over, under, and through. We could be entertained with just the contents of the sewing kit and the nail tin for hours. My grandmother loved watching us do this and encouraged it. In her eyes, we could do no wrong. “That’s OK!” she would exclaim over and over again when anyone else in the house would complain. “It’s fine!” she would reassure us. I am immensely grateful for the confidence this reassurance instilled in me.
I was not going to be able to give my grandmother the professional-level pedicure that she deserved. Regardless, I aimed to do my best to make her feel pampered. I gingerly massaged lotion all over her feet and lower legs taking time to make sure I rubbed every bit of lotion in like I saw pedicurists do during my own spa treatments. Then, I fumbled through trimming and filing with little to no finesse.
Throughout my life, my grandmother has always been a source of comfort. When I was ten years old, I spent a few nights with my grandparents while my parents were out of town. One night, I woke up with that terrible, pit of your stomach, homesick longing that kept me from being able to keep my eyes closed. I woke my grandmother up and told her that I couldn’t sleep. My grandmother poured me a glass of ice cold milk in a steel tumbler and sat up in bed with me. I leaned against her as I sipped the cool milk and watched infomercials on TV until I felt my uneasiness slipping away. The comfort she brought me at that moment is something I think back on whenever I wake up with anxious thoughts now as a mom myself. The memory of the cold steel tumbler in my hands, her warm arms wrapped around me, and the blue glow of her old TV in the middle of the night flood my mind and helps quiet my thoughts.
She showed me how to be strong, so now it’s my turn to put into practice what I have learned from watching her throughout my life.
Some days, the reality of knowing she could be gone at any moment has made me want to run and hide in bed under my covers and cry until I can’t cry anymore. And there have been times when that is exactly what I have done since she has been diagnosed. But she doesn’t cry in front of me, so I don’t want to appear so vulnerable as to let her know how truly scared I feel. She showed me how to be strong, so now it’s my turn to put into practice what I have learned from watching her throughout my life. She is courageously staring down the barrel of the cancer shotgun without many moments to spare before the disease pulls the trigger.
Much to my surprise, the day I painted her toenails, she chose a fiery red polish aptly named “Flare” from my selection of mostly neutrals. I painted that bright red polish on each and every one of her toes while we chatted as if we were at a real nail salon together. We talked about the morning’s headlines and caught each other up on the latest family news floating around Facebook. Our conversation was easy and light. The resulting paint job was better than I expected.
After I finished, she looked at me and at her toenails with the type of pride I have seen beaming from many times. It was similar to the looks I remember after she watched me on stage in a dance performance or my sister play in a volleyball game. I had done something to make her happy, and it felt gratifying to see her enjoy something just like she did as her former, healthy self.
“Thank you for coming over here. I know you don’t get a lot of time to yourself, but I sure appreciate you doing this,” she told me. I was always busy, always working or taking care of my kids, but that morning I was putting her first. I was able to help restore a part of her to its former glory. A good pedicure can change your entire attitude.
When I was a new mom and struggling with postpartum depression, my psychiatrist gestured to my feet when I asked him if I would ever feel like my old self again. I cared enough about myself to make sure that my toenails were polished, and that reflected self-love on some level, he suggested. Six years later, I was able to give that same gift of self-love with ten, ruby red toenails. Cancer may take a lot of things—her hair, her health, her physical strength—but it can’t take away her self-worth. I am honored to have been able to give that experience to her.
Ashley Jones is a freelance writer from Houston, Texas. Her work has been featured on Romper, Publisher’s Weekly, Elite Daily and Mommy Poppins. When she’s not writing or reading, she enjoys spending time with her husband and four children.