My mother has a way of rolling out bad news as though it were the last thing on the agenda, but the card was gently misplaced. So cancer gets wedged between really-cold-here and I-had-a-delicious-croissant-for-lunch with the ease and hustle of a 72-year-old waitress at an Old Timey diner affirming your request of extra ketchup while halfway across the diner to her next table during tourist lunch rush. It’s a skill I’ve taken the effort to nurture, but I am also suspicious of a mutated gene, particularly when I begin to fire off the one about the-string-who-walked-into-a-bar just before delivering the accidental punchline of I-had-a-miscarriage. The hard wiring of brain-to-heart has a few disconnects that spark to my mouth in a way that I am certain makes my mother question whether the gene pool was poisoned in transit.
As the youngest of four, Saturday mornings not spent in the woods were spent alone with my mother, running errands, then covering the house methodically with Pledge soaked rags made from my father’s torn undershirts. I captured a certain zen from handling each trinket and picture frame, lopping the dust that settled from the week from each arrangement, and creating an intricate storyline from each tchotchke that bled down with family names and scandals that didn’t exist. Each item could be sacred, although was likely picked up from Walmart.
I was looking for a rumbling in these later moments. A time for my mother to explain to me the secret that would explain our being here in this small town in Western Pennsylvania. But I was more often given her rote responses of I-don’t-know-where-that-came-from or that’s-just-your-great-grandmother. I needed more. Something to change the family landscape.
Taking a cue from the old man’s playbook, casting myself into a world even smaller, I asked my mother what she intended to do when dad died.
She stopped dusting jam cabinet my brother had made, back turned.
“Mom?” I pressed.
Dad has been in a hopeless fight against time since his late thirties. “Forty-five,” he would say, “I don’t plan to live a day past forty-five.” My mother fought his prophecies hard enough with eye rolls and don’t-you-dares that held him here past forty-five. Then fifty-five. Now past sixty-five, with cancer past and a couple tips of his fingers sawed off, he begrudges her will to keep him with her indefinitely. Superstition works itself out to keep those asking to move on stuck here, held by the ones who love them. It is the craft of having others knock on wood for you, when you are surrounded by nothing but steely reservations.
“Mom?” I reinstated. “Did you hear me?” The question didn’t seem unreasonable. He was planning to go any day now, after all. She turned around. She looked lost.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said.
“But he said–” I started, pleading for her realize how understandable my question really was.
“No.” she responded, beginning to cry. “I will choose not to think of that.”
The clever play between death and life is not to be administered with planning and fact. The roar and ripple are delicately balanced with a blatant mockery of our imminent end.
I took to my father’s defiance of death in my early college life. Maybe it was the unfathomable spool of time unwinding itself faster and longer than I could bend my brain to that made me rattle out my own prophecy of death by twenty five. I upped the stakes. The good die young, I learned from the piano man himself, as I cranked old school jangly pop from my bright yellow truck and imagined the ways in which one person could go from a routine college commute to a horrific car accident. But tricking death only works if you are surrounded by people who want you to stay. I siphoned the proper eye rolls and don’t-you-dares to keep me to nearly twenty-nine. But I’ve stopped my prophecies since. Between a decade of smoker’s lungs and the long swoops into deep depressions, when it’s time to live, it is important to enjoy it.
Yesterday in a gas station restroom in Kentucky, en route home to Tennessee from a well wishing visit to my mother in Pennsylvania before her procedure to remove the cancer they discovered a few weeks prior, an older woman wobbled in as I was washing my hands. She took care to steady herself from her husband’s hand to the wall when I turned around. I aided her to the handicapped stall and retrieved the towels she asked for to clean the seat. Here, in the grime of humanity’s waste, she begged me to never get old.
“I’m sorry to say,” I responded, “that I seem to have every intention of lasting that long.”
My response startled even me. The genetic line of hope-to-god-I-die-young disintegrated here.
“Well,” she said, “you are a beautiful young lady. You look like my granddaughter. I’m glad I found you. My husband was hoping I would find someone here to help me, and here you are.”
This is the best case scenario. We stumble forward in hopes to find an arm to hold on to so that we can perform the basest of human functions. And when we have the leave that steady arm of the one we love, we hope there will be another. On the other side of the door, her husband waited to receive her again.
I understood, then, what my mother meant that day I carelessly called out our sobering reality. I simply did not want to think about a time when he wouldn’t be there.