From November 2018.
I’ve loved words and I’ve hated them. Today was a less than stellar day for words. Today, words stuck in my ears. They stuck hard and achy against the sides of my throat. And they broke my heart.
Twice now in the past 18 months I’ve sat in a sterile, puke-coloured hospital room on a day as grey as my feelings about being there in the first place, as a doctor tells someone I love that their expiry date is showing.
This time, it was my mom.
Her white blood cell count gave her away. The cancer drug that’s kept her alive these past three years has quit its only job. They always said it would at some point.
As the doctor danced around the inevitable, I caught my sister’s eye across the room. She knew. And so did I. We didn’t need any more words.
It’s true that these things play out in slow motion. The world slows down in the moments that you will never again be able to forget. Your mind is the only thing travelling at high-speed right then. In all manner of unhelpful directions. The room sort of feels like it has a slow leak and then, suddenly, all the air is gone.
I’ve been worried the past few days that this is what we’d hear. I was equal parts dreading that my gut was right and trying desperately to think of what I’d say to my parents if indeed we learned that her cancer was in the home stretch.
It is a special kind of agony seeing your parents’ innocence crushed like that. Outside in the hallway, while they finished talking to the doctor, I looked at my sister and thought of how they have raised us, loved us, held our fears and worries and fixed all the broken things all the days of our lives. And now they are broken and we can’t fix a damn thing.
“I’m sorry, mom,” I managed as we stood in the lobby waiting for dad to bring the car around. “We’ll get through this the same way we always have. We’ll just go one day at a time. We’re all going to be here.”
“I know we will. What else can we do,” she said as she hugged me, my throat aching.
“I hate coming to this place. I hate what it represents,” I said through angry tears.
“So do I. When we get to Petersburg I always think I just want to turn around and go home. But, just think of all it’s given me. I’ve had 11 more years that I would never have had without it, and I am so grateful for that.”
“I know. I shouldn’t say that about this place. It’s just hard to come here. I’m grateful too.”
It’s funny what will break you.
As I walked along the salty sidewalk on my way back to my car, I happened across a feather. It floated just ahead of me, dancing and tumbling across the asphalt on an invisible breeze before disappearing into the snow. Feathers make me think the angels are near.
Right then, the tears fell like raindrops, dripping off my chin and getting caught for a second on my knit scarf before melting into it. I climbed into the chill of my Jeep and finally bowed to the grief that’s moaned inside of me for my mother these last 11 years.
I cried for her back then the same way as I did today. Openly and without restraint.
But this time, I cried for the long run she has had. For the privilege of more time. For all the things we have done over those extra years, and for those we haven’t — and those we won’t. The tears came in sheets for things said and unsaid, seen and unseen. For her fighting spirit and the pain she has endured just to stay with us longer. For the unknown number of days we have left, each far too precious little for my liking. For everything she has been to me for my whole life. And for my dad, who has suffered in his own quiet way.
I cried til I felt like I didn’t have any bones left to hold me up. And then I went home.
From the second she was diagnosed in the summer of 2007, we’ve known that her cancer was terminal. Stage 4 Terminal. There would be no cure, they said. But there was treatment — the same war by a different toxic name, over and over again, until we likely wouldn’t be sure what took her from us in the end — the cancer or the treatment. Still, while the doctor says it’s highly unusual for anyone to try a fifth round of it, mom opted for it today without a second thought.
“I don’t want to go. I still want to stay with your dad. I’m not ready to go,” she said. “So I’m willing to try.” I swear she must have heard my heart split in two right at that moment.
“You know Mom, I think life is way more painful than death,” I said looking out the doors at the steady stream of traffic.
“I think you’re right, Jan.”
Though I’m so tempted to think of this as heading for an ending — and I inevitably will on the bad days — I know too, that we’re all heading for a beginning. Truth be told, I’m afraid of whatever it is — ending or beginning — but I’ve been afraid of lots of things before and done them anyway. Because my mother taught me that courage is just fear walking.
So, we walk. Into another fight with increasingly tough odds. We’ve got everything, and nothing, to lose. We would sincerely welcome your prayers for the road ahead.