I hear the distinct rustling of someone attempting to be quiet. I don’t need to see over the lumps of laundry padded around me to know that it’s Calvin; he’s only eleven, and at eleven it’s impossible to be quiet even when you’re trying so so hard and not even breathing. He’s prowling the perimeter of my room, scanning the floor with those blue eyes of his that are still too large for his face. Guaranteed, he’s looking for socks, but he won’t find any on the floor. I had Greg move all the laundry onto the bed before he left this morning because I was feeling well enough to try to sort, fold and match a few things. I’m less picky now. I used to be emphatic that socks had to be matched with their exact partner, but now I think in approximations: more black than blue, more sport than dress, roughly the same size. Even with those relaxed standards, the task still overwhelms me. The net result is that I’m living under a pile of laundry.
And I like it that way. I’m almost always cold at this point and it’s nice to be surrounded by things that remind me of Greg and the kids. Living in a house with three men means socks by the dozens come through the laundry. Left to their own devices, Greg, Calvin, and Noah would perennially have one foot in something three sizes too big and the other foot cramped in some shrunken sock left over from the stone age.
The laundry alternates between our bed and the floor, depending on how I’m feeling. Either way, it sends my mother right over the edge. “You’re buried in laundry,” she yells at me when she comes to visit, which isn’t as often as you’d think.
“That husband of yours needs to hire someone to do the wash while you’re sick,” she adds. I wish he’d hire someone to dust. Every surface in the room is strewn with pill bottles, hardcover books dropped off by well-meaning friends and flowers wilting in scummy water. At least the laundry is evidence of status quo.
“I’m not ‘doing’ laundry,” I say, “just trying to sort it.” Also, while I’m sick?
She looks at me like the chemo’s gone right to my brain; which, of course, it has. But I still know what I like.
My kids, for one, and I want to see them. But Calvin and Noah are busy with school, which is as it should be and I want them to stay focused on their day-to-day. I want them to know that they have lives totally independent of me. Even though I believe that a little separation is good for them, it still tears me up when my boys, as different as two brothers can be, enter my room in the same way: quietly, eyes down, like they might be bothering me.
Noah understands more than Calvin. At sixteen he’s awash in testosterone, test scores, and texts. He also understands more than Calvin what’s happening here to me, to us. Calvin’s young and flexible enough, and Greg’s old and pragmatic enough, to be able to replace me with some loving facsimile. They’ll be able to move on with some pallid—I jest!—substitute, but Noah’s potentially fucked, as he’s going to launch into adulthood with a hole the size of my heart cut into his chest. As a result, I’ve been ruthless with him, pushing him hard to stay focused on his own life.
Calvin’s my weak spot, my puppy; the one I’ve allowed to stay closer to me because I know he’ll forget and because I need him. I want him, his joy. He’s just young enough to believe me when I tell him that everything will still be okay.
As boxed in as the boys are, at least they aren’t like all the adults, who fall into three categories. There’s the cheerful segment of the population who, in addition to feeling entitled to touch you in ways that they wouldn’t have dreamed of when you were well, are cloyingly cheerful as they attempt to fluff your pillows and talk about how lucky you are to have had the life you’ve had. Then, there are the gloom-and-doomers, the ones who want to hear every gory detail so they that they can then attempt to one-up your experience by telling you some horror story from someone else’s life.
Here’s a misconception: misery loves company.
And then, flying in the face of science and reason, there are the ones who refuse to look you in the eye, never mind get close to you, because they’re scared that whatever you’ve got might just be catching. But everyone, to the person, hates to be around someone as sick as me because it reminds them that this could happen to them too. Healthy living is a good idea, but cancer prevention is a fallacy.
Calvin and Noah used to tell me everything, but after months of: “leave her alone so she can rest,” “love her up,” and “stand on your own two feet,” their confidence in me is diminishing. Today, Calvin hits the turn by the bedpost and—he can’t help it—he looks at me. “Hi Mom!” he says, pinning me with his bright stare. He’s still baby-faced and soft, but his cheekbones are emerging; his nose is thinning out and he’s getting taller every minute. Of course, I haven’t stood next to him in a while, so it might just be my perspective.
Calvin’s the cheerful one in our family; he’s the one who doesn’t fit in with the rest of our surly, glass half-empty, sarcastic brood. When the ultrasound revealed he was another boy, I cried. But then he showed up and obliterated any desire I’d ever had for a daughter. It’s funny how we get so hemmed in by what we think we want.
Calvin stops looking for his socks and peers over the pile of whites looking for me under all this stuff. I see in his strained lips what it costs him to always put on a cheerful front, to never be just himself. I wonder how I could have failed him so spectacularly that he doesn’t know that I’d love him even, maybe especially, if he came home and cried or raged or complained.
“Hey sweetie, there’s a whole pile of your stuff over here,” I say and motion to a stack by the headboard. I keep his clothes up close to my head so I can see his face and smell his breath when he leans across me to get them. He hasn’t hit puberty yet: he still smells sweet.
“Thanks, mom,” he says and hesitates. We talk about his day for a bit. It was “great,” per usual. There’s a big test in Latin coming up that he’s worried about. The science test from last week was a disappointing “B.” On the home front, Noah drank the rest of the orange juice, and put the carton back in the fridge empty and Dad didn’t notice and so now we’re out of juice.
“It’s okay,” he says, “water’s healthier.” I see him flipping clothes this way and that. Frustrated, his mouth pulls into a pucker.
“Looking for something in particular?” I ask.
“It’s stupid,” he says.
“Those blue wool socks you got me for Christmas last year? The ones that you always say cost a fortune?” He holds up one of the pair, a total indulgence. There are possibly better things for a mom to pass on, but I’m reasonably confident that they’ll always think of me when they put on their socks, and right now that seems like some kind of victory. Noah was in earlier looking for the match to the red pair I gave him. This is the kind of stuff you do when you’re a mom: give socks and underwear for Christmas. I am no exception.
What we aren’t talking about is that I start the last round of chemo tomorrow. I mean, no one says that this is the last round. You can’t get that level of straight talk from any oncologist anywhere, but I know that if this fails—and most likely it will—that this will be it. I wear my hope like a parka in July: for show, to prove that I still believe it might snow good fortune.
But, I’m forty and I have stage four, small-cell lung cancer that they discovered when it was at stage four. I smoked a little in college, back when cancer and forty both seemed like far-off impossibilities. Fat lot of good my restraint did me. I should have smoked my ass off and done a million other bad things, things I would never have considered in the name of good health, safety, and propriety. The worst part about having lung cancer, other than dying, is that everyone assumes that you had it coming. “Well,” I hear them say in their not-so-sotto-voices, “she used to smoke.” As if the two cigarettes a week I smoked because they were cheaper and less fattening than beer, as if that, justifies this.
It started around Thanksgiving. I was just tired. The holidays do that to everyone, I told myself. I was out for my usual five miler with Noah when a tightness crept into my chest and wound around until I felt like there was an iron clamp screwed all the way down on my lungs.
“Mom?” he said, when I slowed to walk.
“Go on,” I said. “I’ll meet you at the finish.”
“I’m too young, right?” I said to Greg after I walked the two miles home. “Totally,” he said. “And, you’re a hypochondriac.” And I am. So I didn’t do anything right away. Not that it would have mattered, there’s damn little to be done about small-cell lung cancer except submit.
“But, at least you won’t have to have surgery,” my mom said when I told her that the surgeon had refused to consider operating. She’s pathologically afraid of being opened up.
“A surgical strike would be more useful,” I said.
“Still,” she said, “no operation, that’s good.”
Instead, they’re trying to poison the cancer cells one-by-one. But they’re losing ground; I can feel it, literally, like in every cell. This kind of cancer is near impossible to stop and all the ways they have of trying to kill it are proving more toxic to me.
In that initial confused flush all I wanted was to latch on to some shred of hope. “But,” I said when they told me the initial prognosis, “I’m in the middle of a wonderful life.” Upon hearing that, Greg—never one to cry in front of others, even me—broke down. Things hadn’t been going that well between us, but there’s nothing like putting an expiration date on your lifetime commitment to make it seem a little better than it was before.
We started at Mass General, but now we’re off to Dana Farber for this final round. When you’re youngish they throw everything at you in the hopes that something will stick. It screws it up for everyone when you die before your kids are launched, before your parents go. Even though there is no evidence to support the idea that they can do anything for me except “make me comfortable,” and they’re failing miserably at that—no one’s willing to admit that there’s no cure. Instead—as if you don’t already feel this way—they ask you to try everything, on the off chance that some miracle will happen and you’ll get to stick around for another six months, maybe a year to see your kids and your spouse. What they fail to mention is that the chemo kills the joy in any time it buys.
It’s not that I don’t want to try. I still don’t understand how I’m going to leave Greg, Calvin and Noah. It seems physically impossible to part from them, to leave all this behind.
For fuck’s sake, look at all these socks.
But, after a while, you start to feel like these doctors—well-intentioned, kind, intelligent people—don’t have a clue what that viscous liquid they’re feeding into your shunt—buried deep in your chest, precariously positioned right over your heart—will actually do to you. They’re just as blind as everyone else when it comes to some of this stuff. Because limits. Because the human condition.
* * *
We’re sitting in the lobby of the cancer center at Dana. Both Greg and Calvin have brought me in. I don’t think Calvin should be here. “Taking the cure, ” is a bizarre euphemism for “six-hour, poison drip,” but, Calvin insisted, and Greg had a meeting in the city and as much as I didn’t want Calvin to come, I am glad not to be alone. He is just the right age to believe in the positive combustion of science and magic, the two are not mutually exclusive in his worldview. His unabashed youth brightens the lobby. I’m glad to hold his still-chubby hand, to hear his quiet nasal breathing beside me, to feel his pulse throb through his warm fingers.
At this point, even under my wig, I look more like his grandmother than his mother. The lines in my face that we might have once referred to as laugh lines are now carved rivers running away from my eyes. Other lines have appeared too, lines that divide my face along planes I didn’t know I had.
“Good morning, Becca,” says the nurse who’s hooking me up. She’s one of those excessively cheerful young nurses who thinks her good mood and overly personal—we’ve never met before—greeting can infect me. It can’t, but I see Calvin is swayed by her smile, so I cut her a little slack. She smiles at him and then checks my chart. She frowns when she sees the near lethal dose of Carboplatin they’re giving me. At this point, I’ve wandered off the “established” protocol and am into purely “experimental” territory.
I’m due to be there for six hours while the cocktail drips into my veins. It’s uncomfortable: both the sitting there that long and the actual drip. When they find out you have small-cell, the first thing they do is put in a chest shunt so they can pump the stuff directly into your major vessels without having to burn the lesser veins in your arms. Calvin and I play gin rummy and chat until I can’t keep it up anymore and then he pulls out his phone and starts texting friends. The plucky nurse comes back at eleven-thirty to check on my progress. She brings Calvin a comic book and a sandwich from the cafeteria. “It’s so hard on the kids,” she says, smiling over his head at me while she tries to ruffle his hair. I want to kiss him when he ducks away from her hand. As if anyone needs to tell me that this is hard on my kids.
Everyone thinks that for a woman it’s when your hair falls out that you come face-to-face with your diagnosis. But for me, a disaster planner from way back, the hair was no big deal. In my mid-thirties, friends were getting breast cancer like we were living near Love Canal. Implants, chemo, wigs—I’d been through it all by proxy. Back then, it seemed like getting breast cancer was inevitable, the price you paid for having a job that required dry-cleaned clothing. In our neck of the woods, it seemed like everyone who got sick also got better.
I picked out my fantasy wig when I took my friend, Mara, stage-one-two-rounds-of-chemo-partial-mastectomy shopping for hers. Why not be prepared? She went for a close approximation of her natural color. I fulfilled a lifetime obsession with red ringlets. I used to wear it to sex up any Halloween costume, but now it feels like a clown wig, a joke gone horribly wrong. I don’t even wear it much anymore because it scratches too much, mostly I’m resigned to soft skullcaps, like newborns wear. But for today, for big occasions, for Calvin and Greg and Noah, I trot it out.
It was toward the end of the first round of treatment, when my feet numbed and never woke up, that I felt the cancer settling into my body in a permanent way. The nurse said, “Sometimes they grow back,” when I asked if the nerve deadening was temporary. She wasn’t convincing and they didn’t grow back.
After the first round, Greg asked if I wanted him to try and find my dad, with whom I had an on-again-off-again relationship. “I don’t have enough time to say goodbye to all the people I actually love,” I said. Greg’s an upstanding family guy and I know he takes it as an affront to fathers everywhere that I don’t want to see mine. But I think if you pussyfoot around spending time with people who don’t matter to you, you screw the people love out of the time you have left together. Cancer’s taught me to be economical, ruthlessly so. Still, I have regrets.
* * *
Greg’s close to his parents and can’t imagine that it could be any other way. It was one of the things that drew me to him. Today, I hear his mother downstairs, working in the kitchen. Ever since I’ve been trapped up here, she’s been coming over after work to make dinner three times a week. His parents are very supportive of “this situation.” I know she blames me for the cancer, for leaving her son, for shirking my duties, for condemning my children to be “those poor boys.” Did I mention that they’re stoic New Englanders?
Listening to the paper rustle of the grocery bags, my mouth waters, but not for food. Like a phantom limb, I sense my kitchen, hear the dull thud of the knife on the cutting board, see the particulate haze revealed by the morning sun blasting in the kitchen window, feel the heat radiating from the flame under the tea kettle. I can’t remember the last meal that I turned out. You do something so often that you think you’ll always do it and then one day something changes, just a smidge, and later you realize that the moment that ended a whole string of moments has come and gone and there you are looking in the rearview mirror wondering where you left your heart.
“Diane!” No one hears me. I yell again, this time for Noah. He hears. He comes. I’m glad, but damn—
“Get your grandmother for me, will you?
She visits a lot, but she rarely comes upstairs to see me. I understand where she’s coming from. If some woman went and left my son and grandchildren in this kind of fix, I’d be mad as hell too, but I want to see her, want to envy up close the woman who’s subbing in for me with my kids.
I hear her on the treads, pert and deliberate. She’s in good shape for a woman her age. When I first met her, seventeen years ago, she was just a little shy of fifty. Greg, not good with expectations, brought me home for a surprise meeting. She waltzed in wearing her tennis whites and all I could do was look at her legs and marvel. That’s his mother?
We got along for a while, pretty well after the boys were born, but she cooled when everything went to pieces. She doesn’t like sick people. At least we agree on that much.
“Hey lady,” she says, coming into the room. That’s the other thing she does: when she sees me she acts like I’m just hanging out up here with a broken leg. “You rang?” She looks at me, moves her hand to my head and adjusts my cap. I can tell from the lines in her brow that I must look worse than I thought I did. And I thought I looked pretty bad. She hasn’t been up here in a least a week.
“I just wanted to see you, say hello.” I think that’s what I say anyway. She looks a little confused. I might slur a bit these days, especially after the five p.m. dose of fentanyl, but maybe it’s her hearing, probably it’s some combination of both of us.
“Can I bring you anything?” Not, I note, how are you? Self evident. She’s not one to waste time on the obvious.
I try and say “I’m good,” but explode into a coughing fit that contracts my whole body. She presses a Kleenex to my mouth and then pulls it away after I cover it in blood. She replaces it with another. Ditto.
I’m trying to catch my breath as she trots away, holding the spittle-soaked tissue between her index finger and her thumb. “I’ll let you rest.”
“Diane, please,” I say.
“What?” She drops my tissue, covered in lung debris, into the trash and turns around, arms folded, lips parted as if she might speak. I stop her.
“How are the kids?” I ask.
“How do you think?” she says.
“I’m doing the best I can. They’re not stupid.”
My chest seizes up again. Tears too. Once I start I won’t be able to stop. “Could you just act like you know that you’ve got everything I want.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“Don’t be such a bitch,” I say, but I deserve that. “You have no idea.”
“Really? Greg’s just like his father. You think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the trenches with two little kids and a husband who’s never where you need him to be? Why didn’t you go to the doctor sooner?”
“I didn’t ask for this!” But that’s not it. What I didn’t do was appreciate what I had when I had it: health, family, love—albeit imperfect.
“You had a responsibility to Greg, to the boys, to take care of yourself.”
I’m out and out weeping now, tears running down my face, pooling in my ears. I know she doesn’t mean this. She doesn’t really believe that I failed to prevent this madness, but some part of her accusation sticks. It’s hard to tease out cause from causality on this one.
Mucus is everywhere. I can’t breathe. I’m drowning in my own phlegm. I roll over on my side and pull the covers up over my head. Make this end. I hear her leave the room. I cry. And cry.
A few minutes later I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“I brought you some tea. Sit up. Come on, there’s no point in crying away the day.”
She rolls the covers back, props me up to a seated position, and tucks the bed in neat around me. She’s got tea and a warm washcloth, which she hands me and I wipe my face and hands. She pats my shoulder and hands me the mint tea.
At that I start sobbing again. “My sweaters. My beautiful sweaters. You have to take them. Say you’ll wear them.” I’ve spent a lifetime collecting sweaters and we’re the same size. Even before I got sick, I was frequently cold. She stares at me like she’s waiting for me to say more. I feel like I should say something else but in the moment all I really want is for her to say that she’ll care for—wear—my sweaters. In that moment it seems like the most important request I can make of her.
“I’d be honored,” she says. “Of course.” She moves closer like she’s going to hug me. Instead she puts her hand on my shoulder. It feels firm, well muscled and strong. “Smell that?” She sniffs at the air. “I need to go stir.”
I can’t smell a thing.
* * *
Every night after the homework has been checked, the bills paid, the dishes done, the dog walked, and the boys have been put to bed, Greg crawls in and pulls what’s left of me to him, bony and sore. Even with my numb fingers and toes, I find his body a solace. Greg isn’t so good with words and there isn’t much that he could say to comfort me, but his bulk and his warmth do the work his words can’t. We lie there under the still-shared weight of our responsibilities and talk about the day and what’s on deck for tomorrow. It’s the one hour when I feel like I’m still participating in the household as a full-fledged member when really, I’m more like some thief who whips in under the cover of darkness and makes off with the family photos.
Sometimes all the clothes on the bed make it hard to move around. But since I’m chilly, Greg piles the stuff up all around me and we make do. He’s been a good sport about all this. Never has he accused me of doing this to myself, or of not acting quickly enough, or not trying hard enough, or even what he might rightly accuse me of doing: leaving him.
We go back to Dana Farber three more times. Calvin insists on being there each visit. I stop protesting; I’m happy to be with him. I even relent and let Noah skip a final to come sit with us for the last round. It’s selfish of me. I don’t care. Greg’s increasingly anxious and withdraws into his work. He spends nights hunched over insurance claims; my medical bills are putting a serious dent in our nest egg.
The final round goes as expected.
At my request, they cease all heroic measures. I’m home now for my birthday and to just be here in this house where my life and everyone I love will go on even when I’m not here to see them. It’s April and the days are longer. I hear the birds early in the morning. Stupidly, I planted all the spring bulbs in the front beds, but our bedroom looks out on the backyard. Greg tells me how all the neighbors keep stopping by to comment on how great our tulips look. As if that’s what needs saying.
Tonight Noah and Calvin come in together in search of school clothes for the morning. They’re both freshly showered and sweet smelling. “Come give me a kiss,” I say, and they roll onto the bed like puppies, forgetting that every movement hurts me. A few months ago I would have winced and asked them to be careful, but now I lean into the pain. I’ve got eternity to feel nothing.
“Tell us a story,” Noah says and they jockey over who gets to sit where on the bed. Irritated at having to work around five loads of laundry, they dump it all on the floor. “But—” I say, but they aren’t listening. They’ve each burrowed in, one on either side of me. I can feel their hearts beating, their breath on my face. I rub my feet together under the covers, trying to recover any feeling whatsoever: red sock on the right, blue sock on the left. I hope, when they figure out what I’ve done, they’ll forgive me for stealing what’s theirs.
Katherine Rooks is a Boston-based writer, teacher, nonprofit executive, wife and mother (not necessarily in that order) who received her MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson in July 2016. She lives with her husband, two nearly grown sons, and two medium sized dogs.