I DIDN’T NOTICE but my brother Johnny did. He knew they were up to something. I caught them closing doors a few times sure and whispering behind thin planks but I didn’t really get the fullness of it.
Not until they sat us down on the couch. Family meeting they’d said.
Seated on foamy cushions I asked if I was in trouble. I figured I wasn’t because I hadn’t smoked for two months but just wanted to ask anyway to cover all my bases.
No Cassie you’re not in trouble.
Then they told us. A little bit of cancer. Smaller than the size of an eraser on a pencil.
What I said.
Smaller than the size of an eraser on a pencil completely treatable they said. They listed numbers and statistics and percentages which would allow her life to continue after the procedure but once you’ve heard the word cancer it’s hard to fit anything else in your ears.
Johnny was quiet. He processes things in a different way. I wondered what path his thoughts were on. Mountainous like mine or a thin line like his mouth?
They said that for a long time they didn’t know how severe it was how treatable and imagined the worst. Closed doors spared us the waiting.
We wanted to be straight with you both but it wasn’t worth making you worry until we knew everything.
I imagined how scared they must’ve been waiting for the verdict. Did she cry into his shirt on sleepless nights? Did they memorize each other’s eyes? Did he calculate how much time we’d have left with her? His father died when he was twenty and I was sixteen. Would I be allowed to reach twenty with her?
At this point things get a little blurry and distorted like I’m looking at the memories through a foggy window fresh with winter’s breath. I don’t know how long this is going to take.
But you pointed to the blinking numbers of a digital clock sitting on a shelf and indicated that we have a full hour. I looked away from the numbers and instead at the walls. I hate the walls of this office. They’re a pasty yellow that you only find in bacteria cells that you study in biology class. Probably the same color of cancer cells. Pencils too.
You said maybe I should write all this down all of these words clouding my head. Well all right then I guess I will. You said start writing from the moment things get foggy until everything is expressed.
I might cry while I write it. You said yes yes that’s fine.
You said that’s good even. To locate the pain I can’t have anything distracting myself from it I have to try not to fight it back down. Give it a voice you said an inky wet voice and let it talk let it sing even let it mock you.
But it hurts.
You said that’s okay. Don’t lose this feeling this voice not now. Not after it’s been hidden concealed for four years.
I’m back on the couch with the pillows that did anything but cushion the blow. So this is the next step they said vitamins then pills then the procedure. They stopped talking and let the silence take over.
I choked on the quiet with sounds and wiped salty tears into my hair. Air felt empty in my mouth. Johnny didn’t speak but looked solemn. I’ve never forgotten the way his eyes became misty and his mouth that thin line. Nothing ever dripped from his eyes but the moisture was there. No words crossed his lips either but unspoken sentences that got caught hanging in silent webs. What was going through his mind?
I went to school the next day and so did Johnny. I told one of my friends hoping she’d be less distant from me but it didn’t work. It didn’t matter either our friendship was breaking in an organic way. In her place I found friends whose eyes stayed on my face while I trailed off in thought who would swing an arm over my shoulders at lunch when I got too quiet and who would stay on the phone with me until 3am without talking just so I knew someone was there on the other line.
In the car driving Em home Dad told her. We’d known each other since pre-K but I still couldn’t tell her he had to be the one to say it. Words like cancer and surgery wouldn’t touch my lips yet. But then I told the triplets too.
And then months passed and she was fine. Told me that anesthesia was like a heavy thick blanket that almost covered your entire body and that it was easier than falling asleep. Told me how she held the hand of another patient in the waiting room before she went in for the procedure. That the IV felt funny but also made you light–headed and that sometimes doctors came in and wouldn’t say anything and look at a folder by the bed and leave again.
Dad said that we never would have let anything happen to her that all of us the community the church and all our friends at school and their parents and our family in Minnesota and in the Netherlands rallied around her and helped her get better that we believed she would be healthy.
And he was right.
But under those blurry months I kept my head buried in hoods and knitted scarves and told myself some version of how I wasn’t worried. But things started to become smoggy and thin and lacking in color. My eyes stayed open longer at night watching shadows imitating things and turning the dark into fakeness until I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or awake.
There were nights when I wondered why my eyes stayed dry why they didn’t mist up like Johnny’s had. Sometimes I longed for the relief tears bring as I gazed emotionlessly at my silent computer its sleeping button glowing green against the dark. How could a machine rest so peacefully when my eyes were as dry as my thoughts?
How could I know then that I was so scared so terrified of being so utterly useless and insignificant to help in any way. Living next to reality meant burying those emotions underneath piles of clothes I hadn’t worn since middle school.
It’s a wonder how the mind can labyrinth itself into corridors you can’t find doors you can’t unlock and rooms that you found once but have long since forgotten the combinations to. Sometimes there are places in your mind you can’t access until four years later when you’re the age your dad was when he lost his and you’re sitting in a crowded dining hall on a university campus. It’s hot in there and fragments of laughter and dialogue float past while you scrape the last of your pasta with your plastic fork. The boy across from you leans over the table. His nose ring catches the light for a second and his mouth crinkles upward in a soft smile. You wonder what your mom would say about his two tattoos even though they’re crosses. When you met him at the party last weekend you thought he seemed cool and plus he had that bad boy flair but still seemed sensitive enough and thoughtful. He inches forward even closer, his finger tracing symbols on your hand and his lips open to ask you a question and it suddenly hits you like bricks.
Why was it that I was only able to admit the truth when a stranger asked me point blank if I had any secrets?
By the end of the night my face was red from tears that had waited four years to fall after I’d revealed my secret to a pair of wide unsuspecting eyes a nose ring and two tattoos of crosses that although the cancer is gone and abolished from my mom’s body I still don’t trust life and fear she could be gone from our family at any second.
The boy came home with me that night and stayed until early morning. We didn’t spend the night talking about my feelings.
But on that first night sitting on those cushions and feeling the weight of the sky breaking over the roof of my house I made a pact with the inky girl in charge of my fear quota. Make sure these worries never see the light of day pack them into a small drawer where I can forget about them until they die I said and handed her the key. I don’t remember her face but she smiled darkly and nodded under her hood her smoky fingers curling around the key.
She was true to her word that girl. The next four years piled thoughts relationships colors friendships ideas classes music and fights over that drawer hiding it from the light making it smaller than an eraser on a pencil. But that one night in a crowded dining hall on a university campus a spotlight shone on the small dark drawer and a question that fell from a boy’s lips jiggled the key and loosened the lock and the drawer creaked open. I learned what had been growing inside that drawer gnawing the wood away all those years. And this is when the wetness returns to my eyes and the throb in my forehead pulses like a clock’s hands and my vision gets watery. Everything is becoming gray.
But you told me in your office with the sickly yellow walls to continue not to stop until everything is expressed. But I can’t get those sickly yellow walls out of my mind. And I can’t keep going through these days knowing she’s okay but feeling like she might not be one day. I can’t keep pretending it doesn’t hurt like it still doesn’t affect me like it didn’t disrupt my life. I can’t keep talking about this anymore. Mortality really fucks you up.
You said Cassie. Continue.
So now I’ve seen the inside of the drawer and I’ve taken out the pieces and examined them talked to them analyzed them. I’ve sprayed light in the drawer’s eyes and I’ve given whatever was growing inside a voice mocking brilliant and cruel. I’ve let the words of the drawer come alive and strangle me with their hatred choke themselves down my throat and kick in my ribs until they break. And that’s why I’m telling you all this because you said I should because you said the lumps in my throat would go away and because you said the freckle-stained tears on my face wouldn’t fall anymore and dry up. You said that the pillows on the couch would feel soft when I feel myself falling again and that I could break that sickly yellow pencil a thousand times over and smother that eraser stamp it under my foot scream at it to go away and leave her alone that it has no place in her body our lives and anywhere in my world.
But then in this pasty yellow office you asked me why I can’t talk to her about it.
Because it still hurts it still feels as if I found out yesterday it still feels like the tears are endless and that the damned rock in my throat won’t budge.
But you said one of these days it’ll get better.
Family meeting they said.
Cassie it’s only smaller than the eraser on a pencil.
Yes but it also happens to be my mother’s life.
Yes but you said.
She lived you said.