For as long as I can remember, I have known that my grandmother died of breast cancer.
Her death came in January, four years before I was born, and she was just shy of her 65th birthday. But when I was little, and for most of my life, none of those details registered with me.
All I knew was that her name was Fleeta. She had breast cancer, she died, and I assumed she was old.
As a child, 65 was old to me.
But now, as I've grown and gained my own experiences, and then learned more about her life — and her disease — my understanding of the circumstances of her death has changed. My awareness has evolved from a one-dimensional plane to a three-dimensional prism as time has passed.
I didn't miss her when I was little. I didn't know that I should. I had the blissful childhood gift of accepting my situation exactly as it was, not as I hoped it could be. Other people had four or maybe even eight grandparents, and I could see the advantages of having more relatives around when it came time for birthday presents.
But it never really bothered me that for most of my life, I only had one grandma. My other grandparents died before I could meet or really remember them.
In time, I've learned that there was something to miss in my grandmother Fleeta's absence — and it wasn't just the lack of presents. As I've grown, I've wished I could have met her and talked with her. I wish she would have painted my fingernails and fed me candy and given me advice I didn't want to hear. It's when I wonder what she would have said that I now miss her most.
Over the course of my grandmother's medical treatment, she had her uterus removed. Then when the cancer resurfaced in her breast seven years later, she had it removed. When the cancer came back a year later in the other breast, it was removed, too. I knew that much, growing up.
But I didn't know the rest of the story until a few years ago at Christmas time when my parents came to visit. I was driving them to do some shopping when I started asking about Fleeta's cancer. I'd never asked much about it, but I was starting to wonder more about her, wanting to put the pieces together.
"She tried really hard to get rid of the cancer," my mother said. "She tried all kinds of experimental treatments to beat it."
I listened, my cold hands on the steering wheel, watching the road ahead as my mother explained.
"She said she wanted to make sure none of her grandchildren would have to go through the same thing. She wanted her doctors to find a cure, so if there was something experimental, she was willing to try it."
My eyes welled up with tears. She did that for me? For my children?
I had no idea.
I always think of Fleeta whenever I see the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon.
I think of it as a badge of honor for her. But for me, it represents my own fears of having the disease. My grandmother died from it — so I was bound to do the same, I worried.
I fretted over little lumps I found in my self-exams and when I didn't find anything at all. I worried that because my grandmother died, breast cancer was an impossible fight.
But now I know that wasn't the message she was sending. For one thing, my risk is about the same as it is for any woman, no matter what happened to my grandmother. For another, her sacrifices were in the spirit of courage, not fear.
Decades ago, she started fighting this battle for me. I may never have to walk the same path she did, but if I do, I know she has already been there, helping to forge the way.
And that is the best present of all.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.