14 YEARS EARLIER
My mother has spent the last ten years trying not to die.
It all started when I was barely eight years old. My parents brought me into the living room and solemnly sat me down on the couch. I thought for sure they’d found out I’d been sneaking candy at my friend Brianna’s house. I had my face all screwed up, ready to start crying when they confronted me about those Jolly Ranchers. But they didn’t know about the candy. It was much, much worse.
“Bailey,” my father said to me as my mother sat beside me and held my hand. “Mommy is sick.”
He always called my mother “Mommy,” even though I’d stopped calling her that over a year ago. She was “Mom” to me, but always “Mommy” when my father said it. He still says “Mommy,” even though I’m now officially an adult, of the age when I can legally smoke cigarettes and vote and play the lottery.
The details came spilling out. Breast cancer. Chemotherapy, whatever that was. Radiation, whatever that was. And a surgery. I understood the surgery part, and that’s when I started crying.
“Don’t worry, Bailey,” Mom said as she squeezed me close to her. “I’m going to be fine. I’m going to beat this.”
I still remember the warning look my father gave her, telling her not to promise anything she couldn’t deliver. I knew it even then, at age eight.
But she was right. She did beat it. And when the cancer came back five years later, she beat it again. When it came to breast cancer, my mom was winning, two and oh.
And now, just three weeks before I start my first semester of college, I find out that she’s going in for Round Three.
I’m lying on my bed in my small room, my CD player beside me, headphones on my ears, when my mother enters my room. I’m listening to an album by the Strokes, and the current song blaring into my eardrums is called “Last Nite.” I know I’m going to remember forever that I was listening to “Last Nite” at this moment, the same way I still remember I was reading Freckle Juice by Judy Blume the first time my mother told me she had cancer.
“Can we talk for a minute?” Mom asks me.
I pull the headphones off my ears, my stomach sinking. The tears are already welling up in my eyes. I know. I know.
She perches on the edge of my bed, on my Hello Kitty bedspread I’ve had since I was nine. When I was very young, my mother had dark brown hair like mine that everyone used to call “chestnut.” She confided in me that she had some gray strands she would dye. After the second bout of cancer, her hair grew back entirely gray and she left it like that. At first, I hated it. I wanted her to color her hair and be who she used to be. But now… I don’t know. I like the gray. Her hair is thick and healthy and beautiful.
Although not for long.
“It’s back,” I say, before she can get out the words.
She nods. “I know the timing couldn’t be worse.”
Is the timing ever good? Has anyone ever said, “Gee, this was such a great time to get cancer!”
“I’m going to postpone the chemo until after we bring you to college,” she says.
I frown. “When do they want you to start?”
“Next week.” She shakes her head. “But an extra two weeks won’t matter. I want to help you get to college.”
“No.” I sit up straight in bed. I will not be responsible for my mother failing to win Round Three—I want to stack the odds in her favor as much as I can. “If they want you to have the treatment next week, you should start next week. I can drive to college on my own.”
“I won’t let you come with me.”
My mother can be stubborn, but it’s a trait I’ve inherited. And I’m much worse.
“Daddy will come with you,” Mom finally says.
“No,” I say again. “Dad should stay with you.”
My father will be on my side with this one. A bunch of my friends have divorced parents, but I know this is something that could never happen to my parents in a million years. My parents met during their second week of college and fell instantly and desperately in love. Mom got a care package from her parents and she was having trouble carrying it up the stairs—and then Dad appeared, skinny and not muscular by any means, but he still hoisted that big box up three flights of stairs to her room. She offered him a cool glass of water in her room. And as they say, the rest is history.
They’re still absolutely infatuated with each other. It’s really sweet and only sometimes a little bit sickening. I’m embarrassed to admit my personal romantic ideal is to end up with a guy who I love the way my parents love each other. So far, I’m batting zero. I’ve never even had a serious boyfriend.
“I’m going to be worried sick about you.” Mom says, a crease between her eyebrows.
“Well,” I say, “I could take off the first semester. I mean, you could probably use my help…”
She doesn’t even hesitate. “No. You are not giving up college for me, young lady.”
“It’s just one semester…”
“Out of the question,” she says sharply. Her eyes soften. “What if your future husband is right down the hall from you and you miss out on it because of me?”
I laugh. “How likely is that?”
Mom winks at me. “You never know…”
“Oh, come on…” I say, although I don’t want to admit there’s a small part of me hoping she’s right. Maybe the love of my life will be living down the hall from me at college. You never know.
“We don’t need your help,” she says. “To be honest, you’re probably the worst person to have around while I’m going through this.”
I open my mouth, but it’s hard to protest something I know is true. You’d think with a mother who spent the last decade of our lives going in and out of hospitals, I would get immune to illness and needles and blood, but I somehow went in the opposite direction. My mother’s illness did a number on me. Whenever I get near a hospital, I break out in a cold sweat. When I see blood or an IV, my head starts to spin. Even when I have a bad papercut, I get a little woozy.
I probably need therapy.
“Okay, fine,” I agree. “But I promise you, I can make it to college on my own. I’ll be fine.”
Mom reaches out and grabs my hand. Usually I pull away quickly when she tries to touch me these days. Not that I don’t love my mom, but what teenager wants to hold her mother’s hand for an extended period of time? But now I don’t pull away. I squeeze her hand back, wondering if this could be one of the last times I’ll feel her touch.
No. It can’t be. She’ll win again.
“We’ll see,” Mom says. “I think I can spare Daddy for a couple of days.”
I don’t argue with her, knowing that once she’s vomiting from the chemo, she won’t have it in her anymore to insist. I will drive out to college on my own. I’ll be fine.