Cancer is like a bee.
It stings you while you are relaxing at a picnic table enjoying a peanut butter sandwich. Then it flies away and you almost forget it was ever there. But it returns without warning, buzzing around your hand, leaving a trail of panic to replace the peace that existed moments before.
The best we can hope for is to live long enough to watch our parents die. The reverse is unthinkable. I know this, it would make sense written in an Encyclopedia under the section titled: How Life Goes. But I can’t make sense of it in my heart. When I picture watching the first man I ever loved weakening like a cut flower in a vase, I can’t see the way through it. The best I can do is blink it away.
History and common sense tells me I will survive losing him, whenever it comes, even though I can’t see how. I guess that’s what losing a parent is, going through that invisible door. You could never see it or imagine it until you are painfully stepping through it to the other side. But I’m guessing there’s an innocence and a big part of who I am that I won’t be able to take it with me through that threshold.
Tonight, Natalie and I had a rough time. We argued over bath time, we argued over bedtime, and finally we just couldn’t hold it together. Dolls were confiscated, I don’t even care!’s were shouted and tears were shed. Later on, when I hugged her, and it was just the two of us, I told her: Look, I’m your mommy. I’m going to be your mommy forever. She stared back at me and said, No, you will die.
I don’t know why I smiled; maybe it was seeing some parts of her growing before the others, a complex understanding coming from a little girl in a nightgown. Yes, I said, you’re right. I will die someday. She grabbed me and squeezed me tightly, gave out a whine that said “don’t ever leave!” but in a way that showed she wasn’t convinced my departure was really possible, like death was only as real as the Tooth Fairy, or outer space. I told her not to worry, because Mommy won’t die for a very long time. Like when I’m 35? She asked. I told her yes, like when you’re 35. And then came this sudden look of joy and relief, like 35 was so far away, and by then she wouldn’t care anymore. We kissed, hugged, and she went off to bed.
Then my sister calls me, tells me the cancer may be back. And here I am, 35, and it’s like I’m five years old all over again. Sitting here quietly pleading with the universe to give us a little more time.
What I can’t tell Natalie is this: yes, 35 is a very long way away from now, but when she loses me, or her daddy, it will hurt her just as much, maybe more. That no matter much you grow and change- years after dolls and nightgowns- you never stop being that little kid clutching your parent, begging them not to go.
I will find my way through the invisible door, not because I’m strong, or brave, but because I’ll have to. I’m not sure how, and I believe that’s the scariest part, the part that cramps my stomach, brings me tears on the subway train in the morning. Maybe someone will have to carry me, like my husband, kicking and screaming.
Or maybe it will just be moving one foot, and then the other, with a little girl named Natalie and her baby sister, each holding my hand, until I reach the other side.