I was cleaning off my desk. I wanted everything to be ready, just in case. There was a pile of self help books. All designed to help you figure out what you really want to do. I keep starting them, then tossing them aside. I’m not sure I ever really performed the exercises or answered the profound questions. Why do you need so many books to answer one simple question – “What should you do with your life”? I set them aside. Possible lymphoma the doctor had said. Perhaps, if she were right, I’d go through them during chemo.
I boxed up all my paints – oils, watercolors, pastels, stabilizers, thickeners, and brushes. I doubt I’ll be using them any time soon. Perhaps I should give them to some young artist, maybe the Allen boy. Art supplies are expensive and he’s in college. He’d appreciate them.
I found the paint set I got for my tenth birthday, tubes of acrylics in a little wooden box. There were plastic inserts used to mix the paints with just the right amount of water. I used these to create my first masterpiece of a horse, Old Billy, eating grass in front of the barn. The brushes are gone, the paints dried up and the plastic inserts have disintegrated, but I think I’ll keep them just the same.
I keep thinking about my mother, diagnosed with cancer at my age, dead two years later. But I don’t have to worry, I don’t have cancer.
I sorted through some old files and found sketches I’d made in high school. When I was young, I thought I’d be an artist, a painter. I’ve been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what I’ll do with these old pictures, but I can’t throw them away.
When should I tell my family? My younger sister, Allie has depended on me since our parents died. I don’t want to worry her if it turns out to be nothing, but I don’t want to wait too long either. I just don’t want to worry anyone if I don’t have to.
I was on a mission to get rid of the excess things in my life. Clean up, clear out, and get rid of my extra baggage. I was working on the bathroom. A cabinet full of products I hadn’t used in years – moisturizers, conditioners, makeup, lotions, scented soaps, odds and ends of medicines, band aids, and gauze.
Leaning against the wall were the shell pictures Charlie had promised to hang. After all these years of being single, when did I become so dependent on a man? Do I really need a man? Man, no. Hammer, yes.
I was wandering through the rows at the hardware store, looking for a hammer. I came upon a rack of seeds. Carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and flower seeds. Racks and racks, rows and rows. Beautifully drawn pictures and amazing photographs of huge specimens. I felt a change of plans. I needed to reconnect with my Mother and Grandmother. I find myself missing them more and more lately. I remember those summer days, watching my Grandmother and later my Mother bent over a patch of vegetables, weeding, watering and harvesting. As a child, I wandered barefoot through the rows of lush green plants. I want to feel that carefree peacefulness again.
I loaded my cart with more than thirty packets of seeds; seven varieties of tomatoes, six types of lettuce, two kinds of cucumbers, squash – yellow and green, spinach, beans – string beans, green peas, and lima beans, potato starters, garlic and onion bulbs. My cart was overflowing with bags of soil, containers and gardening tools.
Not to forget the gardening gloves. Grandma always had pink flowers on her gloves. I searched through the racks. Solid colors mostly – green, pink, and yellow. A few lavender flowers in back. But I needed pink. Finally, on the bottom of the rack behind a row of red rose print, I found the last pink floral gardening gloves. I added them to my now impossible to maneuver basket.
Once home, I started on my mission. I filled rows and rows of tiny containers with soil and seeds, misting each set as I went. I literally had hundreds of soil filled containers when I finished. Perhaps I had gone a little overboard. It doesn’t really matter. Now I can water and wait. Waiting is how I spend most of my time these days. But this is much better than waiting for test results.
I met Allie for lunch today at a small Italian café halfway between her house and mine, which means about a block from her house and twenty miles from mine. She has a funny way of calculating halfway.
I was still debating about whether to tell her about my latest doctor’s visit. Only Allie was there with me when Mom had cancer. Making her relive that again seems unnecessary, especially since I haven’t even had a biopsy yet. There isn’t any point in worrying her if it turned out to be nothing, is there?
Allie was late again, as usual.
“Wait for me by the gate,” she had said.
It was part of our old childhood code.
When she finally arrived, she went on and on about being fat and ugly, as if we hadn’t had this conversation hundreds of times.
“You’re not fat,” I snorted.
I’d always been envious at how this awkward, gangly kid had become a glamorous woman. She’d thrown on a black dress, flipped her auburn hair into a clip and added a pair of sunglasses. In fifteen minutes, she walked out of the house, looking like a companion fit for Jackie O.
“People are like shoes, you know. When I was in college; I was a strappy pair of heels. I was cute and sassy. Men were attracted to me. I could have my pick.”
Leave it to Allie to boil her life down to shoes.
“After we had children, I became sensible, intelligent, hardworking – like nurse’s shoes. Like you,” she continued.
I on the other hand had brown hair that was never tamed by a clip or anything else. My clothes never quite fit right. The shoulders were too big or the sleeves too long. I wasn’t built for glamour; I was built for comfort.
Allie went on and on like that for half an hour and then I did the one thing I wasn’t going to do.
“Margo thinks I have cancer,” I blurted. “Not cancer really, a lymphoma. Not even lymphoma, a tumor. Just a tumor, not cancer.”
And that’s how I said it. No lead in, no softening the blow, I just blurted it out.
“What do you mean cancer?”
Allie’s fork stalled in midair.
“I don’t have anything really.”
I found myself back pedaling. I certainly didn’t mean to say it like that. I just needed to get it out.
“Mom’s cancer was cause by a virus. That’s not hereditary. No one in our family has ever had cancer, not genetically,” Allie reminded me.
“I haven’t even had a biopsy yet.”
“Gosh Jo, you scared me to death.”
“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said anything yet. I wasn’t going to worry you.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. Besides, Margo will handle it. You’re so dramatic,” Allie continued, hardly pausing.
She was right. Cancer doesn’t run in our family. I felt foolish and relieved. What had I been so worried about?
I went in for a biopsy today. Allie was going to go with me to the hospital until something came up with Ladies Guild. Something seemed to come up pretty frequently, but that was Allie. That was my baby sister.
“I’ll meet you by the gate,” she said, when she called early this morning.
I knew she meant she’d be waiting in my room when they brought me back.
But Charlie was with me. He was there overseeing everything, asking the pertinent questions and taking note of any instructions. In my room, waiting, I had Charlie. As they wheeled me towards a roomful of strangers, panic set in. But by the time I got to the procedure room, I realized I was holding my breath.
I need to remember to breath.
I had heard stories of my Mom, how she joked with the staff and even argued with them. Not me, I couldn’t stop shaking, couldn’t breathe, barely held back tears. I don’t know how she held it all together.
People around me were preparing, talking to each other, and hooking up equipment. I tried not to think about what they were doing.
I forced myself to concentrate on something other than what was about to happen. I tried to think about Allie, when we were kids. How we walked home together. I tried to recount the path. We’d start by the big oak tree by the gate to the playground.
“I’ll meet you at the gate,” we’d call to each other, parting in the morning.
And there she was waiting every afternoon. Well, almost every afternoon, sitting among the big gnarled roots of the tree.
My back started to tremble. I tried to relax the muscles to make it stop, but couldn’t.
You’re panicking just relax.
We’d walk down the side walk, the few blocks to home. We’d talk about our day and homework.
My teeth were chattering. I tried to keep my breathing even. I was shaking all over.
I needed to think about something else. I remembered Allie’s favorite dress. She wore it almost every day in the third grade. I tried to talk her out of it. It was embarrassing having your little sister wear the same dress every day. Mom washed it every evening. She didn’t care, but I did.
I could hear instruments rattling on a metal tray. My cheeks were moist from tears.
The dress, think about the dress, it was a cotton print with strawberries and a red collar. Grandma made it for her.
Someone slipped a plastic tube in my mouth.
And what about my brother, Bryan? Why had he abandoned us when we needed him most? How had he gotten so far away? How had I let this go on for so long?
I tried to remember to breathe, tried to relax, tried to stop shaking.
Gardening day had arrived. The day my sister and her husband, Gordon came to help me prep my garden. Allie brought Grandma’s old tiller. It’s a wonder it still worked, but it did.
Charlie and Gordon unloaded the tiller and started strategizing the best way to till the soil. Leave it to men to turn a garden into a military campaign.
I could hear my phone, playing a lively tune in the house and ran to catch it.
I recognized the voice on the other end. It was Margo. My childhood friend turned doctor.
“Jo, I need to see you right away,” her voice cracked.
“I can’t get away from the office for at least a week,” I told her.
I couldn’t just drop everything.
“It has to be Monday,” her voice rose in desperation.
“I can’t,” mine rose in irritation.
There was a loud crash outside.
“Just tell me.”
“Stop, stop,” everyone was yelling in unison.
“Margo Lynn Johnson, tell me now or I’m hanging up and you won’t see me for a month,” I demanded.
The smell of smoke hit me. Grandma’s tiller lay on the ground in two pieces.
We’re not going to be able to fix that, I thought.
“It’s cancer,” she broke with a sob. “I didn’t want to tell you. I wanted you to come in on Monday. We’d sit in my office and I’d find a way to tell you that wouldn’t hurt you. But there isn’t really any way.”
Stunned, I watched Gordon and Charlie struggling with the tiller. Allie stood nearby shouting orders.
Had she actually said cancer? No, this has to be a dream. I don’t have cancer. Cancer doesn’t run in my family.
I went to see Margo today. It’s still hard for me to take her seriously. I keep forgetting that she isn’t playing doctor. I halfway expect Dr. Miller to come in and take his coat and stethoscope back. Dr. Miller, the old town doctor sold his practice to Margo when she finished her residency.
Allie and I helped her “redecorate” his office when she took over. We started by removing Dr. Miller’s physician’s brick-a-brack. The exam rooms were a sea of plastic models and three dimensional posters – hip bones, hearts, digestive systems, ulcers, arteries, and sinuses. Every wall and surface was plastered and stacked with the stuff.
We replaced it with caramel colored walls and poster size photographs Margo took on a trip to Europe her parents had given her when she graduated. Each exam room was a different country. I was in the French room with pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Arch de Triumph, and a bridge over a quaint little brook with flower boxes bursting with pink and purple flowers.
Margo was surprised that Charlie wasn’t with me. She admonished me for not talking to him yet.
“You have to tell Charlie,” she said, going over my labs.
Once I told them, there would be no more pretending, no more places to hide. I really would have cancer.
“And Allie too.”
“Yep,” I said, focusing on the caramel colored walls.
I studied a photograph of a church, not Notre Dame, but a small country church with large arches constructed of gray stone. Climbing vines thick with pink flowers obscured the doorway. I imagined you could discover the real France, alone in the early hours of the morning before tourists were crowding the roads and countryside.
“I’m sending you to Dr. Goldschmidt. He’s the best oncologist in Dallas.”
“Did all of France look like it was just pulled from the pages of a fairytale?”
“This is serious,” Margo replied.
She didn’t seem to understand what this had done to my world.
“I was just wondering. I always thought I’d go there someday, when Logan was older and settled.”
“You’re still going.”
I wasn’t sure, though I didn’t tell Margo.
“Yep, France when I’m seventy. That’s the plan. Maybe you and Allie can come with me. Girls gone wild… with canes. We’ll trip the Frenchmen.”
I usually make her roar with laughter, but not today.
“I’m taking you out on disability. Friday’s your last day.”
Margo turned back to her medical records, trying to be all business again, but I caught sight of the tears she was blinking back.
“I was thinking I’d keep working.”
“You work fifty hours a week,” she said.
“I’ll work less hours.”
“I want to work until I can’t anymore.”
“You can’t anymore. You’ll have a lot of doctors’ appointments over the next few weeks, the oncologist, radiologist, nutritionist. Once you start treatment, you won’t feel like it anymore,” Margo replied.
I don’t remember much about Mom while she was sick, not really sick. My grandmother and father kept me away from her, especially towards the end. How did she feel? How would I feel if things didn’t go well?
When I went in to work, everything was the same. The candy dish was still on the counter. The receptionist was still answering the phones. The coffee was bubbling away as usual. Everything was the same except me.
I normally love the dark wood paneling and the logo, a sailboat superimposed over a compass, etched in the glass doors. The etching sparkles in the morning sun, sending prisms of light across the front of the receptionist’s desk. The counters covered in dark granite with streaks of green and aqua lights are cool to the touch during the hot summers. Usually the office looked rich, successful, stable. Today it looked dark, oppressive, ominous.
I sat at my desk looking at the report I spent ten hours putting together Friday. Why did I spend that time away from my family? No one cared if that report was finished Friday, today or tomorrow.
My reports that were so important last week, helped people make decisions. Decisions about whether to buy, sell, or develop properties. That’s what we did, develop and manage properties. At least, that’s what they did. I wasn’t sure what I did anymore.
This report listed all of the vacant space that needed to be leased. There was a couple of suites in a medical building, the fourth floor in a downtown office building, and an empty retail space two thousand square feet next to an anchor tenant in one of our strip shopping centers. Good space, should lease easily. The list went on.
Taking numbers and data and turning it into pictures and graphs. That’s what I did. I spent time from my husband and son writing a report about empty space, air, nothing.
All morning my office door kept opening. People coming and going, complaining as they always do. A salesman felt his territory had been encroached on. The receptionist didn’t get her break. Someone was taking lunches out of the refrigerator again. Everyone was looking to me to mediate the complaints. They came to me expecting understanding and solutions. But like the empty report on my empty desk, today I could only look at them with empty eyes.
I had fallen in love with my house as surely as I had with any man. It wasn’t a house of aluminum or vinyl siding and a tidy little lawn. It was a strong stone house with a large meandering lawn shrouded in the shade of old oaks and pecans. Its strong, rugged appearance appealed to me.
The deep shade of the porches wrapped the long, low house, providing the perfect retreat from the hot Texas summers. The old tin roof had seen almost a hundred summers. Unfortunately, it was the first thing to go, replaced by a rust red version.
The wood floors were worn smooth from generations of feet padding through the large rooms under the high ceilings. The plank and beam ceilings had been blanketed with thick white paint when I moved in. No amount of caustic chemicals or scraping was able to completely lift it. The white still clung to the pores and cracks of the silvery wood. The old owners could never be completely erased, each generation leaving something for the next. I like that thought.
In the early morning I was alone, barefoot on the porch, looking out over the lush green carpet down to the little creek. Pink and white azaleas lined the near bank with hostas, ferns and ivy on the far side. In back was a workshop painted a paling sky blue. The tall gables and large windows beckoned to me almost as much as the house. It would be the perfect guest house. But that was a plan for someday.
The main house wasn’t in the best of shape, but I was eager to bring this country remnant from the past back to life. And now listening to the rain on the roof, relaxing on the long deep porches, or sitting within the whitewashed stone walls, under the planked ceilings it was home.
I watched the tree branches waving slowly in the early morning breeze, the play of light glinting off the creek. Sitting in the Adirondack chairs, I realized this house was the only thing I’ve ever really planned in my life. I spent months and months deciding every move that would be made. I hadn’t spent half that much time, figuring out what I wanted to do with me.
Once you have a family, you have responsibility you can’t just quit work and do what you want. You still have to earn a living. With a child to put through college, I had to be practical. I should want what I’m good at, what I can make money at. That would be the easy course.
Allie found me in my contemplative state, sipping tea. Margo says I need to hydrate, to get ready.
“We did a good job out here,” she said, plopping down beside me.
“Yea, this part is mostly your work.”
Allie came by almost every day when I first bought the house, painting, scraping and scrubbing. I ran out of ideas when it came to the garden, so she took over. She put the plan together. I hardly knew the names of any of the plants. She had been the one at Grandma’s side helping in the garden.
We sat for a while in silence.
“What did you want to be when you were a child?” I finally asked.
“Malibu Barbie,” she replied without hesitating. “You?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve been thinking maybe I should start my own property management company.”
“You should, everyone says you should,” Allie agreed.
“I just don’t feel it’s enough.”
It was enough until a few weeks ago. Why doesn’t it seem to be enough anymore? So I’m sick, that doesn’t mean I still don’t have forever, does it?
Charlie was ensconced in the little back room he’d converted to an office. There was floor to ceiling bookshelves, a large desk, three computers and stereo equipment that made me wish we’d sound proofed before he moved in. I was itching to make it my next project, but he had me swear not to touch it when he’d first moved in. There were boxes in there whose contents hadn’t seen the light of day since he was in college, but now were off limits to me. I should never have made that promise. How long after you’re married do you have to wait before you break a promise?
It had been a little over three years since Charlie first rang my doorbell. He was the new youth minister. The youth group had been meeting in my house since my son, Logan was nine.
The attraction wasn’t instant for either of us. Whenever I was around he seemed to be explaining lawn maintenance. I had a lawn service, why did I need to marry one?
Our friends were always trying to set us up. Finally, I asked him out for coffee to shut them up. We met at a little coffee shop. He was discussing black hole theories. I realized he was smarter than I thought.
He explained how that affected his theory of predestination, whether God already knows if you’ll choose Christianity. Then I realized he was smarter than me.
After that we started seeing a lot more of each other. I hadn’t intended to remarry after one failed attempt. But when I looked into his eyes, there was an intensity there I’d never seen anywhere else. I was captivated by him, his intellect and his sense of purpose. We were married less than a year after we began dating.
I have to tell Charlie. But what am I going to say? Hey Charlie, we’ve only been married for a year and I have an illness that’s probably terminal. I need you to stop what you’re doing and play nursemaid. How’s that fair?
The end of the year program was held at the school. It was the same red brick building I’d gone to all of my childhood, K through twelve all in one building with the high school upstairs. Before I was in high school, I longed to ascend those stairs but grade school students weren’t allowed upstairs.
I would run my hand along the banister, when I passed by waiting, always waiting. Finally, the day came. I remember getting my first locker upstairs. Then one morning I was climbing the stairs and realized I could see out to the distant horizon from the first floor landing. I was sure I could see to the edge of town. I use to imagine I could see all the way to Dallas and maybe even beyond. One day, one day I would go that far and further. I knew my future lay out there somewhere beyond that distant horizon.
All the parents and grandparents gathered in the cafeteria. The hard plastic chairs were lined up in rows facing the stage. The decorations were handmade, tissue paper flowers of every color, shape and size.
Margo’s orange skirt slipped up to show the scar on her knee as she sat down. I remember how she got that scar, when she and Allie were children. Allie always had some brilliant plan and poor Margo followed. I remember the time they climbed to the top of the oak on the big hill in Parlet’s Field. Allie was sure they’d be able to see all the way to Dallas.
Margo got stuck at the top afraid to come down. I climbed up after her, helping her place her feet in the right spots. I got her safely to the ground except for a scrapped knee. I treated the scrape with hydrogen peroxide and a bandage. I was her doctor then.
Here at the school, Margo was just a mom like me. She had traded her lab coat for a blue jean jacket.
“You haven’t told Allie yet,” she hissed.
“Well hello to you too.”
“You have to tell her. Have you told Charlie?”
The first graders filed on stage, singing John Jacob Jingle Himer Schmidt.
“What did I miss?” Allie asked, wheeling in her baby carriage. Luckily her son was in the second grade.
“You’re late,” Margo whispered.
“Couldn’t find anything to wear,” Allie replied with her standard excuse.
Allie had on a black, short sleeved a-line dress printed with large white flowers. The wide scoop band at the neck gave it a retro look. She could have fit in anywhere, elegant as always. I hadn’t given it much thought pulling on a pair of jeans and my old twill jacket.
We sat through several rounds of I’m a Little Tea Cup, Bingo and Farmer in the Dell. Finally, it was time for the fifth grade awards.
The principal, Ms. Howard, stood on stage handing out “awards” printed from the school computer. Logan’s name was called for Excellence in Mathematics. I knew as well as anyone else those awards were just color printer paper from any office supply store. But I also knew once my son’s name was printed on them, they became more than plain old office paper. They would be something that I, like all the other parents, would keep for years.
I managed to escape another lecture from Margo. Perhaps if I don’t take this whole thing too seriously it won’t be too serious. But she’s right and I know it, I can’t keep waiting for the right time to tell Charlie and Allie. I have to face reality, there isn’t a right time.
I was sitting in the weathered leather chair in Charlie’s office, trying to decide how best to approach this. The chair belonged to his mother’s father. The great captain of industry had sat in this chair amassing a fortune. He was a financier. He bought, sold and traded companies, like pieces on a chessboard. He was born wealthy, so I didn’t think acquiring more wealth was necessarily any great accomplishment. But to hear Livia, Charlie’s mother, tell it the man walked on water.
Charlie was a theology professor by trade and volunteer youth pastor. He’d come to Christianity late in life, a confirmed atheist and bachelor. His views on the world and his faith were different from most. He held degrees in Chemistry, Physics, and most recently Theology. So his faith was founded in math and science. I admired his ability to debate the existence of God without ever quoting the Bible.
“You can’t use the Bible as an argument if your opponents don’t believe in it,” he’d say.
He’d spent years studying math and science, sure in his believe that God didn’t exist. He felt a sort of quiet superiority over those of “faith”. But after all those years of study when he was graduating with his first PhD, his convictions become less clear.
Charlie decided to take an extended trip to clear his head. He was really looking for answers he couldn’t find in a classroom. He didn’t travel to Europe and the civilized world as his mother would have liked, but to primitive areas. Places that could only be reached by the heartiest jeep, horse or on foot. His travels took him to remote villages in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Places no one had heard of, that weren’t in travel guides, where five star hotels and post cards didn’t exist. It had started as a spoiled kid looking to “find himself”. People without money don’t have time to find themselves. They have to be happy with whatever self they have.
Early in his trip, he met up with some missionaries bringing medicine to the remotest of villages. At first they tried to convince him of God’s existence, to save his soul. But after several unproductive arguments, they gave up, though they still let him tag along.
In many places, the number one killer was starvation, but Charlie was surprised at how many people still died even with enough food. Impure water was another big killer. Even though the water wasn’t clean, the people had little choice but to use it.
Something happened during that trip that math and science guy was never quite able to explain. All of his questions and doubts, all of the quiet whispers in his head began to come together and he knew. For the first time since he was a boy, he just knew. God existed and had something for him to do.
He came back ignited with a passion to find a way to clean the water of villages like these around the global. His parents were excited about his new found passion, though they felt it would be better directed at his career, but at least it was something.
This trip did more to Charlie than create a passion, it turned him from a spoiled kid with too much time on his hands and no direction into a man of compassion and purpose. It would be nice to have that kind of passion and certainty in what you’re doing. At times I envied him. Why couldn’t I feel that same certainty in what I was doing?
I went to the radiologist today, my first big appointment. I haven’t told Charlie or Allie, so I went alone. I decided I could handle these first few appointments on my own anyway. No need for everyone to start worrying, there’ll be plenty of time for that later.
I hadn’t intended to stop, but there was an art gallery a few blocks from the medical center. I thought it might be fun to stop in and I was already there. So I decided, why not?
The walls were pristine white with lights shining on the carefully placed art and sculptures, huge, modern paintings with bold slashes of color and bronzes soaring into the air. The furniture was as beautiful and sleek as the art, modern lines, black leather, Lucite tables and soft music playing in the background.
My shoes echoed on the sleek stone floor. I found myself holding my breath. It was nothing like the art galleries Mom use to take me to. Those galleries seemed warmer, the people friendlier and less stuffy. I was on the verge of turning to leave, when a severe looking woman all in black, her dark hair drawn back, seeming it emphasize her sharp features approached.
“May I help you,” she asked, looking me up and down as if I looked as out of place as I felt.
“I was driving by and noticed the gallery and thought I’d stop in and take a look.”
“Well by all means, let’s take a little look then,” she simpered, as if making some joke.
We spent the next twenty minutes strolling around the gallery, my guide pointing out various pieces of art, explaining the technique, describing the artist and telling little stories. It was a well rehearsed stroll.
“This piece is from a notable Aborigines artist, Ginger Namatjira,” my guide said, pointing to a painting.
It was at least four feet by six feet, too large for any room in my house, but it was fascinating just dots in rows sliding down the canvas. All colors of blue and purple. The entire canvas was covered in these dots made with thick paint. From a distance, it looked like water running down the painting. There was another just like it of reds and oranges that looked like liquid fire.
“We’ve just shipped two of these to the Sultan of Dubai for his country palace. Of course those were much larger then these and were one hundred thousand each. These smaller pieces are only thirty thousand. Would you like me to have them delivered?”
Was she kidding thirty thousand dollars?
“Shipping is free,” she coaxed, with the Cheshire cat’s smile spreading across her face.
I had stepped through the looking glass into Wonderland in this world where sultans bought hundred thousand dollar paintings for their country homes.
As I was leaving, I noticed a sculpture of a woman rising from swirling flames, clutching a child tightly against her. Her face looked almost familiar. The child was a little girl. It reminded me of Mom holding Allie. It was a glorious bronze with a hint of hand rubbed patina. The sculptor’s name was Alexander, my mother’s maiden name. Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much.
It held me captive for a moment. I simply stared at it for a long while, until my guide coughed.
“Alexander is one of our most popular sculptors. I’m sure his pieces are out of your price range. You might try Hallmark. It’s just down the street. I’m sure they give tours.”
I turned to go, but not before glancing once more at the bronze woman and child.
The oncologist said he thinks he won’t have to use a strong treatment of chemo and radiation. That’s something I guess. He gave me a fifty-fifty chance. He said those were good odds, but I can’t stop thinking it’s just the flip of a coin. It could go either way.
I dreamt of the bronze lady last night. She was still hugging her baby close, but there was another little girl clinging to her skirts. The woman wasn’t calm and serene. She was begging for someone to watch over her babies, as the flames consumed her. I was helpless to help her, to ease her mind. And then she was gone and the two children were left behind clinging to each other.
Charlie was filled with hope and excitement. I was beginning to worry that this project would defeat his spirit, but the old Charlie was back. He was pacing his office, with Tom and several younger men, rifling through his designs and parts lists. He was making notations in red, taping the resulting sheets on one wall. His office was a flurry of activity when I came in.
Tom in the mechanical engineering department at the university had signed on to the project. He was even talking about going over personally to install the first prototypes with his graduate students. Tom had suggested that they speak to Martin, a professor in the biochemistry department, researching alternative energy. He was also excited about the project, seeing it as an opportunity to demonstrate a practical application of some of his theories.
The three older men brought together the best and brightest from their fields. Charlie’s office was filled with young engineers eager to save the world. He had inspired this newly formed group with his stories and pictures.
I’m glad he spent this last day in a euphoric state of activity and anticipation. Tomorrow I have to tell him no matter what. After all, what difference will a day make?
I told Charlie I have cancer today. He stopped in mid-stride and sat in his chair staring at me, his shoulders slumped. I had done the only thing that could defeat him right now. I was sick, as sick as the people he was trying to save.
He began silently rolling up his designs, notes and parts sheets, and taking the most promising designs down from his walls.
Charlie wanted to resign immediately. This is exactly what I didn’t want. I would not be the reason he gave up his dream. I would not do to him what was done to me.
I was finally able to convince him to keep working at least for a while. Besides, I’ll have Allie. I won’t need him every moment of every day. I promised to be there when he takes the first prototypes over.
I didn’t want to take away his hopes, his work, and his dreams. I know what it’s like to give up on a dream to accept responsibilities and I didn’t want him to give up so easily. Perhaps I shouldn’t have given up so easily.
I went to the old drive in for breakfast this morning. It’s been a while since I was last there.
I remember hanging out at Marty’s during high school, not much has changed since then. I sat in the car under the red and white metal awning. The few cars there were arranged in a semi circle facing the red and white checked front with the chrome strip gleaming in the morning sun.
I could see Laura and Nancy inside. The morning shift still belonged to the ladies, three women now in their fifties who ran the drive in. Martha was still manning the grill. Nancy was taking orders and running out the food. Laura must have been in the back tidying up and preparing for the day’s business.
It wasn’t long before Nancy had taken my order and return with a hash and egg sandwich, sunny side up. I sat there staring at the old picnic tables, the warm yoke running into the hash, soaking the bread and my napkin.
We use to hang out here in high school. We’d talk about the things we were going to do and the places we were going to go. I don’t remember ever saying I was going to go to the local college, get a job and live here the rest of my life. No, I’d sit on the picnic table with my friends talking about art school, painting, and traveling to foreign places.
“I’m going to art school in Chicago,” I would say, “I’ll live in Italy and travel to London, Paris and Rome.”
But life didn’t happen that way. I was left waiting, waiting until Allie didn’t need me, waiting until I finished school, and finally until my son was older. When do I stop waiting and start doing?
My thoughts were interrupted by the whirl wind that accompanied Allie as she jumped in the front seat. She practically climbed on my lap to place her order. It wasn’t long before the smell of pancakes and syrup was mixed with eggs and hash.
“What are you doing?” I asked Allie.
“Having breakfast,” she replied with a mouthful of pancakes.
“Because I don’t want to get syrup on my car.”
That was just like Allie. I decided to ask her the question that was on my mind. I thought I might be able to find an answer through her.
“Did you come here when you were in high school?”
“Yea, sure I think everyone does. Why?” she replied, pouring more syrup on her pancakes.
I tried to explain it to her.
“I was thinking about all the plans I had back then. I haven’t done anything I thought I would.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean my job.”
“You have the perfect job.”
“I just create reports to help other people make decisions, without actually making any of my own.”
“Who does all that stuff they talk about in high school anyway?” Allie continued taking another bite.
Yes, who does all that stuff they talk about in high school, certainly not me.
I asked Allie the big question.
“If all jobs paid the same, what would you be?”
“I’d be my own personal shopper,” she replied without skipping a beat like she’d already thought it all out.
I was supposed to want a real estate management firm. That’s what everyone said I should do, so that must be what I should want. But I didn’t.
I spent the day sorting through the kitchen. I packed up sets of dishes. It’s amazing how many sets you can accumulate over the years. Yellow flowers, solid pink, and a blue lattice pattern I never really liked anyway. I boxed up bowls, saucers and cups. A couple of teapots bought for a party that never happened, all found their way into the donation box.
Sushi plates? Do I really need sushi plates? They’ll go to charity. Someone will find a use for them.
I kept the important things. Grandma’s china from the 40’s, Mom’s stoneware from the 50’s, Charlie’s Grandmother’s fine china, and Portuguese crystal goblets with an intricate floral design. Allie brought them back for me when she was on vacation in Lisbon. She was always traveling to some place exotic and I was always saying maybe next year.
I kept the dishes Mom helped me pick out, a delicate pink floral collection of fine china. She took me to Europe when I was eleven, just the two of us. We brought those dishes back.
I was captivated by Venice. I was going to be a great artist. I was going to paint in a studio overlooking a canal with an orange cat sitting on the windowsill. I don’t know why the orange cat. Cats seemed to be everywhere in Venice and it sounded romantic and a little tortured. The great American artist painting alone with only her cat for company. Now I would add the occasional hunky Italian, but mostly just the cat. How silly childhood dreams are.
Mom and I brought this set of china back with us. I’ve never used them. They’re the “good” china. Why do we wait for the right occasion before we use the things that mean the most to us? Why do we keep those things packed away waiting for the right time? A time that may never come.
I thought I would have plenty of time. That I’d wait until after my son was grown or I retired to start living, but what if that time never comes? What if my right time has already passed? What would I do if I knew I only had a year or two left? I’d certainly use the good china. No one has ever used Mom’s good china. Those plates were made to be used. I think I’ll use them tonight.
I wasn’t sure how long Margo could keep from telling Allie about my cancer. I wanted to be the one to tell her, but I didn’t want to tell her on the phone. I was starting treatment in a few days. I had to tell her today, no more excuses.
We met at a sushi restaurant near her house, of course. I’m not much of one for raw food. I even like my vegetables cooked until there aren’t any vitamins left. But today it didn’t matter. I picked over fried rice while Allie ate eel and squid wrapped in rice and seaweed paper. Eel and squid, really?
She was telling me about her latest coup at Ladies Guild. Almost every woman in town was involved in some way; I never had the desire to get involved in ladies politics.
“I’m chairing the fund raising committee,” Allie was saying. “I’ve wanted to do an auction for years now, but no one ever listens to me. We always do bake sales and the fall dance. I think we should forget about the little bake sales and hold a dinner and silent auction.”
Allie continued talking nonstop through lunch. I was trying to find the right time and way to tell her. But to be honest, it was easier to let her talk, putting off the inevitable as long as possible.
Finally, the bill was paid and we were gathering our things to leave. I couldn’t put it off any longer.
“I have cancer.”
Allie slumped back in her chair. Her face was motionless, frozen in confused, disbelief.
“You mean they think you have cancer. They don’t actually know yet.”
“I mean the biopsy came back positive. I have cancer.”
She looked at me the way she did the day Mom died. The way you looked at your big sister when she’s failed you, again.
“How long have you known?”
“About a week now.”
“You waited a week to tell me?”
“I couldn’t find the right time.”
“Well that’s just great Jo. I have commitments. I finally get a committee.”
“You’re worried about your committee? I have cancer and that’s what you’re worried about?”
But Allie was already dialing the phone.
“Hello, Louise Honey, bad news,” Allie mewled, “I’m not going to be able to chair the fund raising committee after all. I’m sure. I’m just not going to have the time. Jo has cancer. Yes I know. It was shocking to me too.”
I left Allie giving her big resignation speech.
I thought she’d fall apart, that I’d spend most of my time consoling her, taking care of her. Like I did after our parents died. Part of me wanted her to crumble, to be devastated. Wasn’t I worth a little devastation? I guess Margo was right. She wasn’t that little kid anymore. I’m just not sure I know who she is.
The last person I was thinking about this morning was Charlie’s mother, Livia. To be honest, we barely knew each other. She was a mover and shaker in town, running much of the political scene both in the university and out. Her husband’s family had a long history at the university. They were founders, deans, and department heads. Her family was long time supporters of the university, the arts and the local political scene. Allie was more likely to run in her social circles than I was. Livia didn’t even know I existed before Charlie and I were engaged. I’d hardly seen her more than six times, including the wedding.
So I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that I told everyone I had cancer – Charlie, Allie, everyone at work, and all my friends, but I forgot to tell Charlie’s mother.
“How do I learn my daughter in law has cancer?” Livia asked, perched on the edge of the sofa, sipping tea.
I didn’t reply. I thought it was more of a rhetorical question. She would tell us anyway so there was no point in guessing.
“Louise from Ladies Guild, that’s how. Louise knew before I did. She insisted on taking over my chairmanship. So I’d have time to help my daughter-in-law.”
“We’re really sorry, Mother. We should have told you,” Charlie replied.
I think he was hoping for a quick exit but he should have known better.
“It wasn’t just any chairmanship. I was chairman of the Arts Committee. Do you know what it took me to get that position? Do you know how many women I’ve had to lie to, persuade and court? I practically had to wrestle it away from old Mrs. Gartner. Now it’s all gone. Louise has had her eyes on the Arts Committee for years. I’ll never get it back.”
I know I should have felt bad for not telling Livia myself, but the idea of being used to stage an uprising to overthrow Livia made me want to laugh. At least cancer could be used for something positive. It also made me certain in my decision to never join the Guild of Backstabbing Biddies, as Charlie called them.
“Livia, I’m sorry we didn’t tell you. I’m still in shock myself,” I said trying to sooth her ruffled feathers.
“What’s done is done,” she sighed. “I must turn my attention to you, of course.”
“We’re fine. Aren’t we Charlie?”
I gave him a swift elbow in the side, just in case there was any doubt.
“Nonsense, there must be something I can do. I’d loan you my housekeeper,” she sniffed, looking around. “But I depend on her too much. I’ll drive you. I’ll be your constant companion through all of this.”
I had just heard my worst nightmare, six weeks of constant and continuous Livia. I pinched Charlie so hard, he could hardly speak.
“Really, we’re fine Mother,” Charlie said, with tears in his eyes. “It means a lot to us that you would even offer, but I think Allie has already volunteered. We couldn’t tell her no now.”
“Yes, yes, of course not.”
Unfortunately for Logan, he picked the wrong time to come romping through the house with his football in arm, fresh from a game with his neighborhood friends.
“The boy, Logan, I’ll take the boy,” Livia said, triumphantly. “Logan dear, I’ll take you to your tennis and golf lessons.”
“I don’t take tennis or golf,” Logan innocently confessed.
Livia was floored. There for a moment, I thought she was speechless, unfortunately she recovered quickly.
“Then we’ll start. Business is won or lost on golf courses and tennis courts, my father use to say. Leave it to me, by summer’s end you’ll be a gentleman ready for society.”
And here I thought business was conducted in boardrooms and on the stock exchange.
It seemed to be settled to everyone satisfaction, though probably not Logan’s. Livia and Logan would spend the summer together, with luncheons at the club, tennis lessons, and golf lessons. I don’t think Logan really knows what he’s in for, but my boy’s tough. It will take more than Livia to turn him into a socialite fit for society.
I was cleaning out another closet when I found boxes of old clothes, too small for me. I keep thinking I’ll get down to a six again. I haven’t been a six since the eighties, leg warmers and stirrup pants. It’s a shame I was thin when fashion was stupid. I donated them to charity; maybe someone will need a Halloween costume or some rags.
A dusty box on the top shelf had pictures from my childhood. There was Allie staring up at me with red pigtails and a front tooth missing; Bryan in a cowboy hat sitting on top of a pony; and the three of us on Christmas morning.
I flipped through pictures, instead of organizing. It was a good distraction and distractions are what I need most these days. I found a black and white of my father. He was best man at his friend, Chuck’s wedding. I think Chuck was at Dad’s funeral. There were too many strangers to remember.
I came across the only picture I had of Mom, an old picture from when she taught art at the local high school, blue background, white shirt, red hair flung back over her shoulders, and green eyes.
I remember how Dad was after Mom died, like a drowning man. I asked him if I could put a few pictures of her up in my room. He grabbed them from me, hanging onto her images like they were life preservers. I think he knew he was slipping away and was desperate to stay afloat. It was like he hoped her memory could pull him back to the surface. I watched him slipping further under, further away each day, unable to help him, unable to bring him back.
Dad died not long after Mom. He’d been sick, but I hadn’t realized how sick he really was. Perhaps if I had, I could have helped him somehow. One night he didn’t come home. I called Grandma the next morning.
They found him at the cemetery lying on Mom’s grave. He had pneumonia and he died a few days later. It was rumored that someone gave Mom a lethal dose of morphine. Even at the funeral, I heard people talking. It must have been Dad. He was the only one who took care of her. It must have been him. I always wondered if he died from a broken heart or guilt over what he’d done. As a kid, I was angry at him for taking Mom from us. As an adult, I realized it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Dad would have done anything for her and maybe he did.
When they met, it was love at first sight. Dad seemed to have found what he was looking for when he met Mom. He quit college, gave up a full scholarship and never looked back. He took a job working for her father. Always a loyal employee and devoted husband, both of those seemed out of place these days, old fashioned.
These were the only pictures that had survived the many evictions and moves from when we were in college. I lost so much during those times.
It wasn’t hard to figure out my parents had to get married, if you counted the days between their wedding and my brother’s birth date. Mom had been on her way to New York to become a commercial artist when she was waylaid by my brother. Girls didn’t have babies out of wedlock like they do now. She dutifully married and settled down, having a couple more kids.
When I was a child, she took me to gallery openings and art exhibits. We went to Olla Podrida, her favorite gallery several times a year.
I asked her why her pictures weren’t in the galleries.
“That’s not what Mommies do,” she explained.
Even I knew her art was as good as any in those galleries. I heard other artists urging her to submit her work, but I knew something they didn’t, that’s not what Mommies do.
She never got rid of her easels, always kept painting. Painting pictures for no one. That would never be hung. I could tell she wanted to do more than teach. She regretted having to throw away the life she wanted.
As a girl, I thought I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. My pictures would hang in galleries. No one was going to stop me. But then I did stop. I accepted the responsibilities life handed me. I couldn’t just abandon Allie. I wasn’t like Bryan.
I did what women of my generation are expected to do get a job to support themselves and their families. Don’t be dependent on anyone else, especially a man. Be responsible for yourself and your family, always doing your duty and ignoring yourself. Am I like my Mother? As much bound by my modern societies’ conventions as she was by hers? What would I have done if the rules hadn’t applied? It’s too late to even consider what if’s now. Nothing could come of that.
I pulled a box down from the top of my closet. I found my birth certificate, yellow with age, two little black foot prints. I found a copy of Logan’s birth certificate, social security card, my will and life insurance policies. All the important stuff, along with birthday cards, childhood drawings and macaroni art. Maybe I should think about keeping my legal papers separate from Logan’s art. After all the art was really important, irreplaceable. It should be in a fire proof box. I could always get copies of legal documents.
I noticed an old Christmas card in the pile, a cheery, red nosed Santa. As an adult I began to think Santa needed a little nip now and then to keep the stress under control. It was a card from Grandma to Bryan on his first Christmas. Mom must have kept it all those years.
I remember when we were kids, one Christmas Bryan and I tried to stay up all night to see Santa. We snuck out of bed and hid under the big, blue sofa. I fell asleep waiting. By the time I woke up, Santa had come and gone. I never knew if Bryan was able to stay awake. Did he discover the secret that night? I don’t know, I might never know. I’ve been thinking a lot about that little boy, the boy I grew up with.
Before Mom got sick, we were inseparable. We spent our days running through the fields together, playing hide and seek, and commanding the seas from our old tree fort. We built our secret fort from odds and ends of left over wood and castaways. One wall was composed almost entirely of old dresser parts.
It was Bryan who made me feel safe during thunderstorms. Was he the one who could make me feel save now? I want so desperately to feel save again.
I haven’t seen him since we sold Grandma’s house. I’d been told that dividing estates always causes some sort of rift, but I didn’t believe it. Grandma’s house hadn’t been worth much to anyone but us. It was built in the thirties, when city codes and inspections must have been lax. Her sewing room and another bathroom had been added in the forties. The whole addition sloped several feet. We were told the bathroom was just sort of hung off of the back, without any foundation. The whole thing seemed to be falling off.
I had wanted, not just wanted, needed to continue living there with Allie. She was still in high school and I was already working full time to support us, going to college at night.
Bryan wasn’t helping us. He started drinking when Mom became ill. By the time Dad died, he was on to stronger drugs. He disappeared after that. We didn’t see him again until Grandma died. He’d sobered up by then. He needed the money. I guess he saw Grandma’s house as his opportunity.
He forced us to sell, even threatened me with attorneys. After he collected his money I never saw him again. I hated him for a long time after that. How could he do that to me? I was only nineteen.
How could he betray us? How could he just not care? I had dreams. If he had stayed and helped out, I could have continued going to art school, become a painter. Who knows I might even have my work in galleries today. Instead I gave up my dreams to take care of Allie.
I wonder if he even knows what he did, what he cost me. Would he even care?
Charlie found his address for me. I’ve just been holding on to it. Perhaps now is the right time to get my answers.
Today I wanted answers. I wanted to know why Bryan left us all those years ago. He didn’t just leave us, why he left us with almost nothing. I was determined to have my answers. I’m just not sure I was ready for what I found.
Charlie gave me Bryan’s address. It turned out to be an old brick warehouse. It must have been built at least eighty years ago. I was surprised to find Bryan working in such a place.
When I opened the door, I stepped into another world. This old factory with ceilings that soared to the heavens and arched windows overlooking a courtyard had been transformed into a sculptor’s paradise. There were tools of all assortments, platforms of wood, ladders, and casts for poring molten metal.
A man with a torch wearing a welder’s mask was perched on the edge of a scaffold, encircling a bronze horse rearing on his hind legs. He moved deftly around the horse ten feet about the floor, flames leapt from his torch.
I tried to attract the man’s attention.
“We don’t give tours,” he yelled, without even pausing.
“I don’t want a tour,” I yelled back.
“My work’s in galleries, if you’re interested there’s one on Cedar.”
“I’m not interested in your work. I’m looking for Bryan Burke.”
“Why?” he continued.
“Is he here?”
“No one sees Bryan unless they talk to me first.”
“I’m his sister.”
The man paused to lift his welders mask. I couldn’t see his face any better, covered in grime and sweat.
“Jo?” a voice from my childhood called.
“I’ll be right down,” he said, removing his ear plugs.
I noticed a sketch taped to the wall of a woman holding a baby in her arms. The same bronze woman I’d seen at the gallery. Bryan was Alexander? The sculptor whose work was so popular?
“What’re you doing here?” he asked, wiping his hands with a rag.
His hair was so thick with plaster; I couldn’t tell if it was still brown or gray. The fine dust had settled into the deep lines on his face. He looked hard and cold like one of his statues.
“I wanted to see you, see how you’re doing?”
Now that the moment had arrived, I didn’t know what to say. I knew I wanted answers, but hadn’t thought of how I’d get them.
“I’m fine,” he said, motioning to the workshop around him. “Living the dream.”
He was living the dream. He was living my dream.
“I’m glad you’re doing well,” I lied.
My brother was the artist. The artist I wanted to be, that I was meant to be.
“What about you? Still painting?”
How did this happen? Bryan was good, but I was more talented. I was the one with the scholarship.
“Any galleries?” he asked.
“No, just a hobby.”
He nodded as if he understood. But how could he? He was the famous artist. I was the one who got a job and took care of our younger sister. I was the one who sacrificed everything when he took what we had and left us alone.
“You’re a sculptor?”
“Yes,” he replied.
After we’d been so close as children, shared secrets, summer adventures, and bedrooms, I never thought there could be awkwardness between us. But there was. All that easy familiarity was gone. We stood staring at each other for a long while, not knowing what to say.
“Well, I’m going to get back to work. It was good seeing you again, Jo.”
He turned his back on me like he did all those years ago. I almost let him walk away again without knowing, but I just couldn’t.
“Why did you force us to sell Grandma’s house?”
“I didn’t force you to do anything,” he laughed. “I took what was mine.”
That’s how he looked at it, like we owed him.
“What was yours? You threw us out on the street and never looked back.”
“You were on full scholarship. You had a dorm room to go back to. Allie could have stayed with friends and then gone to college somewhere or got a job,” he said.
“I had to quit because of you.”
I was yelling for the first time in a long time. I was yelling and it felt good. I wanted to let him know what he’d done to us, to me. How unfair he’d been. How he had changed the entire course of my life. I should have been the one with the workshop and paintings in galleries, not him.
“I didn’t make you quit anything. You were an adult, an adult, Jo. An adult who was and is responsible for her actions,” he yelled back with a violent anger I’d never seen in him, but I was through backing down.
“I had no choice after you took everything we had.”
“You had a choice and you chose to quit and from the looks of it, you’re still choosing to quit.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you wouldn’t be here if you had the guts to actually pursue your dream and use your talent. Don’t come here blaming me. You’re a coward, too afraid to even try,” he said.
“I’m not a coward,” I screamed back.
He didn’t know what courage it took to walk away from everything, to accept total responsibility for a kid when you’re little more than a kid yourself.
He asked what I was expecting from him. I was expecting some kind of explanation that would make sense of everything that happened after Grandma died. I was expecting an apology to squelch the growing anger. I was expecting to find my brother, but left knowing he wasn’t there anymore. I wasn’t expecting to be left with nothing, a hole, doubts. But I couldn’t express all my feelings, so I just left.
Why did I quit school all those years ago? Why did I change my major to business? Was it because Allie really needed me or was I afraid that without anyone to fall back on I couldn’t make it? I knew the road would be hard, maybe too hard. Maybe I thought I didn’t have the talent everyone kept saying I had. I still have my doubts.
It didn’t matter anymore. I have a fifty percent chance that I won’t survive anyway. So what do I have to lose now? I want to be a painter. I’ve always wanted an impractical dream. Why not? Now was the time to forget practical and just live. How did I get so far from that kid who use to wait by the gate, dreaming of tomorrows?
When does it happen? When do you close the door you always knew you’d take? You lock it away, so firmly you won’t even allow yourself to remember it’s there. Afraid if you open it again, the memories will be so painful you won’t be able to stand it. So, you’d rather let the truth of who you are remain buried.
I opened the door today. I was back there again in that dark place, between death and nothing, surrounded by darkness. Only this time there wasn’t numbness and shock to carry me through. This time I was overwhelmed with the grief I hadn’t experienced after my parents and my grandmother died, when we were left alone in the world.
Charlie unpacked my easel and I began painting again. I was amazed at how quickly I fell into a pattern of painting and organizing attempting to bring order to my life, now seemingly filled with uncertainty. My paintings weren’t exactly what I’d hoped for. I found myself drawn to blacks and grays with slashes of angry red. No matter how hard I try each painting echoed a mournful loneliness.
Perhaps I’ve waited too long. Perhaps this is something I can never complete. Perhaps my time has passed.
I was contemplating another painting of depression and anger when Allie came by.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, perhaps for the first time in her life.
“I’m feeling ok, more scared than anything else.”
Honestly, my symptoms had been few which was why’d I let it go for so long.
“Everything’s going to work out fine. I talked to Margo, she said Dr. Goldschmidt’s the best. He’ll handle it. It’s going to be fine.”
“Yea, I know,” I lied, not telling her about my fifty percent chance.
I didn’t want to say it out loud. I didn’t want to have to hear it again. I didn’t want to hear myself argue against my own survival.
“I’ve been thinking about what I’ve done with my life,” I continued.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been wondering what might have been, if I’d gone back to art school.”
“What might have been? Why do you care? You have a job your good at, a good kid, a good husband. All that adds up to a good life. You don’t need anything else,” Allie said.
I was amazed. She just didn’t get it. You could have a good life and still not be happy, not be doing what you loved. I’m not sure I could explain it to her.
“I need more, not more really different.”
“Different. What are you talking about?”
“I’ve decided to start painting again.”
“Painting? Why?” she asked.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“Since when? You gave that foolishness up years ago and rightfully so. Do you know how ridiculous this is?”
“It’s not ridiculous. I saw Bryan and I realized I might as well be spending my time doing what I love.”
“You saw Bryan? Why? After everything he did to us,” Allie asked.
“I wanted to give him a chance to apologize.”
“And did he? Was he sorry?”
“He could care less then and he could care less now. Why would you listen to him?” she asked.
“He’s a sculptor.”
“He ruined our lives then and he’ll ruin your life now,” Allie shouted, grabbing her purse.
I wasn’t the only one angry with Bryan.
Was she right? Perhaps it was foolishness to hope that after all these years I could regain some childhood dream. But wasn’t it worth trying?
My mother use to take me to a gallery called Olla Podrida. Artists had studios there and the public could watch them working, sculptors carving or casting molds, painters layering paint on canvases, or potters throwing pots from raw clay. As a child, it seemed all types of artists were represented. It made my heart race to watch what I thought of as masters plying their trade. I think my Mom was happiest there among kindred spirits.
Olla Podrida was an old factory in the downtown area that had been renovated with old timbers salvaged from churches and government buildings being torn down in Mexico. The massive timbers supported the high ceilings in a lattice work of beams. I guess we weren’t the only ones tearing down the old to make way for the new. And as fate would have it, Olla Podrida was torn down several years ago to make way for a high rise office building.
Mom once had a painting hang in Olla Podrida. She dressed us all up to go see her painting there in the gallery in the building’s center. It was the only time she and Dad took us all to a gallery together. Afterwards, Dad took us to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate – chips, salsa and enchiladas. Mom was glowing. She had her day. A day she probably thought would never come.
I was more than a little surprised when a table made of thick planks with a finish as dark as espresso was delivered to my house. The note simply read – Made from beams salvaged from Olla Podrida. Bryan
Why was Bryan sending me anything let alone a table made from the old gallery’s timbers? The gallery that meant so much to me and Mom. The gallery that was so tied up with our childhood.
Tomorrow is the big day, first day of treatment. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. I wanted to stay there, hiding, hoping tomorrow wouldn’t come. Then I realized this is my last day of freedom at least for a while. I don’t know how radiation and chemo will affect me. Most people have some form of illness with it. I heard of a few friends of friends who weren’t sick at all and even start feeling better. I’m hoping I’m for the later, but fear the former.
I thought I’d paint the day away. I had pictures taped to the wall of landscapes that looked like they’d come from a French fairy tale. The more I worked, adding more color, the darker the painting became. It began to look like a storm was waiting just on the horizon to take over my painting and my life.
I heard Livia’s voice calling to Logan, she had decided to show off her “grandson” to Louise today.
“It was not funny and your etiquette classes start next week,” Livia called after Logan.
She didn’t sound happy.
“Do you know what your son did?” she asked, pacing in front of my easel.
“No, but I’m sure it was an accident,” I tried soothing.
“Accident? Burping the National Anthem isn’t an accident,” she fumed.
It seems Louise asked him if he played an instrument and right there at the table in the middle of the club, he burped the National Anthem. I wish I could have seen their faces. I told Livia I’d have a talk with him.
But she insisted I didn’t.
She laughed, “He’s a pistol, that one.”
She even commented on my painting, saying, “You’re not half bad. Your paintings I mean, they’re actually quite good and I know art. I have been the chairman of the Arts Committee for more than eight years now.”
I heard Livia talking to Allie in the hall.
“She’s painting. She’s really very good. I should have realized. She has that artist personality. Doesn’t care about her appearance, a kind of obsessed with something else look.”
“I don’t feel like fighting,” I called out after Livia left, “So if you’re here for round two, forget it.”
“I’m not here to fight.”
Allie paused behind the easel.
“She’s right, you know. Did you ever think you were meant to be an artist?”
I lied when I said, “I haven’t thought about it in years.”
I had thought about it, not every day, but periodically I would wonder if I could have been an artist or if I could still be one. After a while of day dreaming, I’d put away the fantasy in regards for reality. Knowing that someday when the time was right, when I had less responsibilities and more time, I’d come back to it again.
“You quit because of me,” Allie replied.
“I quit because of circumstances. You weren’t even out of high school.”
“I made you quit. I practically insisted.”
So Allie felt guilty.
“It was my choice. I made a decision.”
“I couldn’t do anything without you. I should have gone to college alone. I didn’t need you. I’m sorry I took your dream from you,” Allie insisted.
“I didn’t quit because of you. I quit because of me. I was scared and you were an excuse. After Grandma died, I had no one to go back to. I was alone too.”
That was the truth. It wasn’t Bryan’s fault. It wasn’t Allie’s fault. It wasn’t my parents’ fault. Ultimately it was my decision and my fault. I had no one to blame. If it didn’t work out now, it was only my fault. I had taken responsibility for everyone else except myself. I had been avoiding myself out of fear. As long as I never tried, I’d still have the dream. If I failed, then I would have the truth, it was just a silly dream. I might as well be dreaming of winning the lottery. At least with the lottery I’d have a chance. Once I tried and failed, my dream of being an artist would be over.
The treatment has kicked in with a vengeance. I spent most of the last few days sicker than I can ever remember being. If this is how sick you get with a low dose, I’d hate to see how bad a heavy dose would be. The medication that was touted as taking care of this nausea doesn’t work for me. Despite the illness and exhaustion, I’ve kept on painting. Not for hours at a time like before, but for minutes, whatever I can manage. Charlie moved my easel so I can see it from bed. I study my painting for a while and then work for a few minutes. I’m so exhausted, I can’t see straight sometimes, literally. My vision blurs and I know I’ve pushed myself too far; it’s time for a nap. A little sleep and all is right again.
Allie came by, as is pretty much her usual now. I’d been thinking about Mom lately.
“Remember the day Mom died?” I asked her. “You ran off and no one noticed until dark.”
“Everyone was looking for me, but you’re the one who found me.
“Sitting by the gate to the schoolyard.”
“Do you know why I went there?” she asked.
“I knew you’d find me and bring me home. I knew everything would be fine if we just walked home together. Mom would be in the kitchen again, fixing dinner. Nothing would have happened. You could fix anything.”
“But I couldn’t fix it.”
“I know but you brought me back,” Allie said.
“I wish I could have done more.”
“Without you, I wouldn’t be here now.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, squeezing Allie’s hand.
“Hey, meet me by the gate.”
Allie turned to look me in the eyes, like she was searching for a truth.
“Always,” she replied.
I’ll always be waiting by the gate. No matter what, we’ll always have each other.
I could hardly crawl out of bed. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I refused to let myself believe it was going to be this hard. It wasn’t just hard for me, but Charlie too. He spent the first few days of my treatment trying to coax me to drink and eat, then watching when everything came right back up. I can’t remember having spent so much time in bed.
I feel bad for Charlie. I thought he’d be able to continue working on his project in spite of my illness, but now he seems to spend most of his time taking care of me. At least he has a break when Allie stops by.
“Do you remember when you first found this house?” she asked, lying next to me as if we were just taking a little nap instead of lying here because I can barely hold my head up.
“Do you remember the look on Gordon’s face when we brought him here?” I asked.
“He thought you’d lost your mind buying some house that would be better off condemned.”
The old house had fallen on hard times. The walls were covered with peeling layers of browning wallpaper. The settling foundation had opened cracks that had torn through the wallpaper, leaving holes large enough to put your fingers through. A beam had cracked breaking through the living room ceiling. The backyard was filled with waist high weeds.
But under all that was a stone farm house built in the eighteen nineties. It was a one story structure that had been added on to over the years. Deep cool porches lined both front and back offering shade from the hot Texas summers. The backyard was almost forested by trees and beyond the weeds was a small creek. I had fallen in love with the tall ceilings; the dark wood floor with planks wider than my hand; and the long windows set into the thick stone walls.
“Remember how you spent almost every day here helping me tear this place apart?” I reminded her.
“And then putting it back together.”
“I thought we’d never finish.”
“I wish we hadn’t. How did we wonder so far apart?” Allie asked, taking my hand.
“We aren’t far apart. We see each other every week.”
I knew what she meant, but wanted to feign innocence.
“That’s not what I mean. How could we see each other every week and not see each other?” Allie asked the question I had been asking myself.
“Just life I guess.”
People continue marching along as if they have all the time in the world, never letting themselves think that their time here is limited. No one can guess how long they have, but we all live as if that day will never come. We all know we should live each day as if there will be no tomorrow, but we don’t. We think that applies to everyone else except us.
There are so many days I regret now. Days wasted in mindlessness. How I wish I had made better use of those days.
I wanted to paint today, maybe even paint my vegetable garden. I call it my garden, but it turns out I’m in it less than everyone else. I can see it from my window lying in bed. Everyday Charlie or Logan drag the sprinkler around to water rows of lettuce and cabbages, tomato plants in wire cages, herbs of every sort, and corn stalks waving in the breeze.
Today must have been Allie’s turn. While Charlie was making tea, Allie was dragging the garden hose around. Dressed in a brown skirt, orange sweater set, and heeled sandals, she tromped around in the dirt and mud. Usually the sight of her in a skirt and mud would have made me laugh. Today I’m just thankful to have her.
Once she completed her chore, she came bearing tea. I guess Charlie thought if Allie brought it, I might drink more. It doesn’t matter who brings it, the result is the same. I’m already tired of the concerned looks. But, I’m determined to make a good effort. However my mind had other thoughts. Every time I tried to reach for the cup, I missed as if I couldn’t bring myself to take it. After a few failed attempts, Allie pushed the cup into my hand, holding it there for a few minutes while I secured my grasp.
She sat next to me, shoving another pillow behind me to help prop me up. She clutched my hand so tightly I could feel her desperation.
“Remember how I’d wait for you by the school yard gate?” I asked.
“And we’d walk home together. Sure.”
“Those girls, who pushed you around, pulled your hair, and called you names, like Red Head Fred.”
“Not when my big Sis was around,” she said.
I reminded her of the time I lost her or at least thought I had lost her. I’ve never been so scared. I ran around looking for Allie for what seemed like hours. I found her playing hopscotch with those girls like they were best friends. I was so angry. She scared me to death. I don’t know why I keep thinking about it.
I still remember the look on Allie’s face when I was screaming. I don’t know why I did that.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. It was stupid,” I told Allie.
“I’m sorry I scared you.”
“I’m sorry I’m scaring you now,” I whispered.
Allie tightened her grasp on my hand.
“You’re cutting of my circulation, Carrot Top,” I said, wincing.
She laughed. It was good to hear her laugh again. I haven’t heard her laugh since that day at the sushi restaurant.
I moved to the sofa today, perhaps a change of scenery would help me feel better. I was hoping just getting out of bed would be enough to perk my spirits and reduce my feelings of illness. Perhaps if I didn’t stay in bed, I’d feel less like an invalid. I was also hoping if I was closer to Charlie’s office, he wouldn’t feel like he had to spend every minute watching over me. If he was within calling distance, maybe he’d work for a while instead of hovering.
“Is there anything I can get for you, Dear?” Livia asked, as Logan came into the room swinging his tennis racket dangerously close to a lamp.
He was dressed in khaki shorts and a red t-shirt.
“I’m ready for my tennis lesson,” he replied, his backhand coming within inches of a long mirror.
“Logan dear, change into your tennis whites. Club rules,” Livia informed us.
Tennis whites? Both Logan and I were perplexed.
“White shorts and shirt,” Charlie explained.
“I don’t have tennis whites,” Logan said.
Livia picked up her phone, called the club and cancelled Logan’s tennis lessons. But if he thought he was going to get a Livia free day, he had another thing coming to him.
“I can take a hint. I understand the need to shop better than anyone,” Livia said, grabbing her purse and Logan. “There are some days when all you want to do is bury yourself in a little retail therapy.”
With that, she swept Logan from the room for a day of shopping.
Allie came as dressed for work as Allie ever was. She was in slacks instead of a skirt. With Allie around, I was able to convince Charlie to work for a while. He’d been neglecting his project and I am tired of his constant reminders to eat and drink. I know he means well, but it gets annoying. I know I need to eat and drink and if I could I would, but I can’t without getting sick.
I’ve been sick for the last few days. I’m too tired to make one more trip to the restroom. Charlie brought me a bowl and I just lie on the sofa, while he and Allie take turns dumping it. I know they’re both worried. I can hear them talking in the hall.
“I don’t know how long she can do this,” I heard Allie say.
And I agreed with her. I don’t know how long I can or want to do this.
You think you’ll do anything, give anything to live, but when it comes down to it, sometimes you wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to let go. I’m worried I’ll feel that way before this is all done and over. Maybe that’s how Mom felt, she just couldn’t go on.
I heard Livia join in the conversation in the hall.
Livia brought Logan in to see me before they left. She wanted to show off his new outfit. I didn’t know which to look at first, the blue argyle sweater vest and plaid pants or the fact that he and Livia were wearing matching outfits.
“Shouldn’t I stay here and help with Mom,” he silently begged Allie for help.
“How sweet. But your Aunt Allie and Charlie have everything under control. Besides your mother wants you to go out and have a good time,” Livia said, getting her keys out.
“Great,” Logan replied though he didn’t sound the least bit convinced.
Allie shoved a bowl of cream of mushroom soup at me. Usually, it was my favorite, but today it was revolting.
“It’s homemade,” she said, coaxing. “Mrs. Wood at the market made it.”
I would have been shocked if Allie had cooked anything “homemade”. Her children weren’t even sure what a grocery store was for. The waitresses have her number on speed dial. She once tried cooking for a few weeks and got calls from restaurants checking to see if everything was ok.
I lied, telling her I’d try some later. I’d be lucky to keep the crackers down.
Charlie received a letter from a colleague he had traveled with. When the group bringing medications returned to a village, they found most of the twenty some odd inhabitants dead or dying. They did what they could to try to ease the suffering and save those that weren’t too far gone. However, they arrived too late. They were only able to save two of the twenty. Eighteen were lost. It really wasn’t a village as much as a cemetery now.
I feel guilty for hijacking Charlie from these people. He’s so close to finding a solution. I watched as he finally resigned himself to moving their pictures from the right side of his board to the left. He took each picture, stared intently at the smiling face and then tacked it on the left side.
He left his office, quietly shutting the door and began preparing me tea and crackers. He shut the door on his dream, his promises and his friends. I called Allie; I couldn’t let him do it. I couldn’t let him do what I had done. I have to find a way for him to continue his work. I am not going to be the reason he had to quite.
Allie took Charlie aside. She had a list all of my treatment and doctors’ appointments. She had names by each appointment date and phone numbers. Some I knew and some I didn’t. She had organized volunteers, so that Charlie didn’t have to choose between me and his work. Of course Allie’s name appeared almost daily.
She told Charlie she didn’t want him getting sick trying to handle it all. That he needed a break too. He was already looking exhausted and stressed. She knew he wouldn’t ask, so she decided to help him out.
I insisted he go back to work on his project. People were depending on him. At first he seemed reluctant and then relieved.
When did Allie become someone who I could trust with sensitive issues? When did she start thinking beyond herself? Sometimes, given a challenge people rise to the occasion and even go beyond your expectations. Beyond what you or even they thought they were capable of. I’m glad Allie turned out to be one of those people.
I don’t know if I can do this for six more weeks. I don’t know if I want do this for six more days. Please God, please make this stop. I don’t care how. Just please stop it.
I put together a just in case box. I gathered my will, insurance, burial wishes, and pictures of me and Logan in a box under my bed. I want everything to be together so that no one has to worry and make those decisions later.
I remember how hard it was after Dad. No one knew where anything was or what he wanted. I remember having to answer questions and make decisions a thirteen year old shouldn’t have to make.
I wanted to leave instructions and messages about the important things. I wanted to be sure nothing was lost or missed. I need to take an inventory of everything in the house and explain each item’s significance and who should keep it after me.
There was a little picture of Allie with Mom and Grandma. Mom was wearing a blue and white cotton dress and Grandma a green striped dress. Grandma was wearing red lipstick. I think everyone wore red lipstick then, even Grandmas.
Allie was about twelve months old, a big, chubby baby with red hair. Mom’s hair was still dark. It wasn’t long after that picture was taken that Mom started dying her hair. She loved Allie’s hair so much she took Allie to a salon and had her hair dyed to match.
The top of my head is barely visible at the bottom of the picture, cut off by the camera. Even then the world revolved around Allie.
I put a yellow sticky note on the back of the picture.
I know you always hated your hair growing up, but Mom loved it so much, she had hers dyed to match yours. Love Jo
I deposited the picture in an envelope with her name on it and placed it in the box.
Next I picked up a spiral notebook, brown with pink flower. I didn’t want a yellow tablet or a plain spiral notebook, nothing generic. I wanted everything in this box to be an expression of my personality, so that, if later didn’t come, anyone looking in this box would have a sense of who I was.
I began my inventory in my spiral notebook. This was an inventory of my worthless things and what they mean to me. So that maybe when I’m gone, someone will understand and cherish them too. I think everyone should have a just in case box.
Item #1 – Fondue pot
I love chocolate and cheese, separately, not together. What’s better than something you can use for both? Allie, this is yours. You are the only one I know who loves cheese almost as much as me and maybe loves chocolate a little more.
Item # 4 – Silk ivy in the brass pot
I keep it in the kitchen. Logan, this is yours. You were in second grade and having so much trouble learning to read. Your teacher gave each student a ticket for reading five pages. At the end of the year, she had an auction. You had the least number of tickets. At the beginning of the auction, you spotted this plant and wanted to get it for me.
You saved all your tickets, scared someone would out bid you. After you brought me the plant, I took you out for an ice cream sundae, just the two of us. I know you don’t remember, but this plant has been my favorite plant living, dried or silk ever since.
I’ve decided to write Logan a letter. I remember how Allie was so desperate to read Dad’s will. Everyone kept telling her there was nothing in it, just standard legal jargon. As a matter of fact, it read like a form letter.
She had been hoping her Daddy had left her a message. Some personal indication of how he felt about her.
I think she’s still searching for that acceptance, even today.
I want to be sure I leave that for Logan and Allie, too. I don’t want Logan to have to wonder. I want him to know for certain how I feel about him. There are so many things I wanted Logan to know – that I’m proud of him and I love him.
I want to write him a letter for when that first girl breaks his heart, when he graduates from college, gets married, and has his first baby.
I want him to know that pain does not last forever, but love does. Cherish the little things. Money does not matter. Do what you love, because life is too short to work for money. In the end; memories are what you long for. Stay close to your family, because that’s all you’ve got and when everyone and everything seems to abandon you, you’ll know they’ll still be there for you. And if I can’t be there for you, you can depend on your Aunt. These are things I wish I had learned earlier.
Item # 9 – Little Used Picnic Basket
It doesn’t have any special meaning other than I wish I spent more time with the people I loved. Use it, take your kids out and enjoy them. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. This life isn’t forever.
My box would not be complete without a letter for Allie. She was devastated after Dad died. We both were. Losing your mother was one thing, but losing your Dad not long afterwards was almost too much.
Mom had made a point of telling us how she felt about us, knowing she was dying. Still I wish I had it in writing. The pain fades over the years, but so does everything else, even the words. I wish she had written it in a letter that I could read every day and never forget.
After Daddy died, Allie tore through the house, looking for some message he should have left. She riffled through drawers, cabinets and closets, emptying their contents on the floor, clothes, shoes, papers, books, silverware, dishes, and bed linens. The list continued to grow as she worked her way through the house. No room was untouched, not even her own. She left a path of destruction in her wake.
All I could do was watch. I barely had the energy to get up in the morning. I felt the weight of my growing responsibilities on my chest. I thought that no one could live through that kind of pain. First Mom and then Dad, I was sure I was going to be next. I knew I would shatter into a million pieces. Like a puff of smoke, the wind would blow me away into nothing. I wanted to be nothing. The grief was too much to bear. I just wanted to be nothing.
Allie became desperate to read the will. She felt certain Dad and perhaps Mom had left a message for her. Finally, someone got a copy of the will and let her read it.
It mentioned nothing of the sort of thing she had hoped for, no not hoped for, needed. It had been written years ago before Mom got sick. It simply said if Mom died first Dad got everything. If Dad died first Mom got everything. If they both died, Bryan, Allie and I split everything evenly. It went on to list guardians if we were under age. If I was old enough, agreeable and able, Allie was my responsibility. Otherwise, Grandma was at the top of the list of course.
I always considered myself old enough, agreeable and able, even though I was only thirteen. I took personal responsibility for Allie from then on, making sure she was taken care of the best I could.
I didn’t want Allie to wonder what I felt, wishing for some message again. I wanted her to have something she could hold on to and read over and over again, as many times as necessary. I wanted her to know that she had been the light of Mom’s life. When she was born, Mom changed a little. Allie had been a bright, sunny baby. She laughed at the world from the start and everyone around her couldn’t help but laugh too. I wanted her to know that. I wanted her to realize she could be that light again.
Mom’s art had always been dark in color. She painted people with sad eyes, cold winter scenes, and dark abstracts, beautiful in their icy cold sadness. Once Allie was born, her art looked similar, but so different. The people had a softness about them and a small twinkle in their eyes. The abstracts were brighter and lighter. They seemed to soar. The scenes she painted were no longer bleak and forlorn. I suppose it was because she was happier too. Bryan and I hadn’t done that for her, only Allie had.
Dad loved Allie as he loved us all. There was nothing she could have done to help him. Nothing I could have done really, though I blamed myself for years.
But most of all, I wanted Allie to know that I loved her beyond sisterly love. I loved her as a daughter and a friend. I don’t think I could have lived through that time alone, without her. If things didn’t work out, I wanted her to know she saved my life already all those years ago. If I hadn’t had Allie, I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived.
And if this is my time, I was looking forward to seeing them again. I’d tell them they could be proud of Allie. I wanted her to know she would be fine without me.
I tied a ribbon around Grandma’s patterns. They’re mostly for dresses from the forties and fifties. A few patterns for walking shorts, pedal pushers Grandma called them. I guess that’s what they use to call biking shorts.
Each pattern was contained in a yellowing envelope with a line drawing of the outfit inside – smart skirt suits, summer dresses, ruffled blouses, even a poodle skirt, most with matching hats and gloves. All painted with pastel colors.
When I took them, I meant to frame the best of them and display them in my room. But like most of my projects, they were overcome by life’s events, mostly work, stress and exhaustion.
Living wasn’t meant to be so tiring. Had I only started feeling tired recently or was I always this way? It’s hard to remember now.
I slipped a note written on pretty pink paper, under the ribbon.
Now these are yours as they always should have been. Please take better care of them than I did. Don’t just shove them in a box in a closet somewhere; find a place where you can see them every day. Grandma would have loved that, just as she loved you, her favorite grandchild, her little Allie.
I found Allie sitting on the floor of my room today. She had the Just In Case box. The lid was open, its contents strewn on the floor.
“What’s this?” Allie asked accusations and pain on her face.
“It’s just my legal documents,” I said, trying to sound matter of fact.
“Legal documents?” her voice escalated. “These aren’t legal documents. These are goodbye letters,” she said, throwing the envelopes at me.
I tried to explain to her.
“I know how you felt after Dad died. I know you wanted some last message. I want to be sure you have that, just in case.”
“How can you do this to me?” Allie asked.
Leave it to Allie to make my illness about her.
“Do this to you? The world doesn’t revolve around you.”
“I never said it did.”
“You sure act like it. This is happening to me, not you.”
“I’m well aware of that,” Allie said.
“Then, for once in your life, try to think about me. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Yes you did. You always do. I’m too tired to care right now,” I said, crawling into bed, pulling the covers over my head.
I was glad to escape into exhaustion.
It was dark when I woke up. I don’t know how long I slept. Once I was alone with my thoughts, I knew it wasn’t Allie I was angry at. I’m not even sure it was Bryan any more. I was just angry. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was suppose to have more time.
I started painting an abstract that’s been in my head for years, but I’ve never gotten around to painting it, swirls of bright reds and oranges and gold.
I dropped a brown splotch in the middle of the canvas. It wasn’t supposed to be there. The more I tried to wipe it off, the bigger it became.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, not to me.
I tried painting over it. It smeared and ran into the other colors.
I go to church. I pray. I don’t lie, cheat or steal. Not really. I don’t drink or smoke, sure I’m a little overweight, but not cancer. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. Not now, not ever.
I spritzed the canvas with water. Maybe I could dilute it. The spot got bigger, bleeding into the entire canvas.
I’ve played by the rules and did my duty. I worked hard all my life. I was supposed to have time to do things when I retired.
I plunged my brush through the canvas.
This isn’t fair.
I continued shredding the canvas.
“It’s not fair,” I screamed for the first time letting myself say what I really felt.
I slammed the painting against my easel, knocking it over.
I slammed it against the wall. I beat it against the floor until it splintered into pieces.
“You can’t take it away; you can’t let it end. This can’t be all there is to my life.”
I yelled and screamed at God, but God doesn’t listen to me anymore.
Charlie found me on all fours, exhausted from screaming. I had collapsed in a heap, crying.
All I could do was choke out, “Not me.”
I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t stop sobbing. If someone could just explain it, why me? Why not someone else? No one can answer that question. They can answer all the others, but not that one. No one knows.
Item # 11 – Grandma’s Blanket
Allie I want you to keep Grandma’s blanket and think of me. And when you’ve gone, I’d like you to see that it’s passed on to Logan. I’ve spent a lot of time under this blanket lately. Picking out the fabrics from Grandma’s shirts has become a pastime for me these days. I’ve found great comfort in this quilt.
I wrapped myself in Grandma’s tattered, old quilt today. The stitching was coming apart, but for once I didn’t worry about trying to repair it. Some of the fabrics were rotting away. The green and white polka dots had disappeared, leaving small holes in their places. I didn’t try to fight the eventual decay and destruction; I just let it be what it was intended to be, warm and comforting.
It’s by no means beautiful, mostly cotton fabrics, truly random, – plaids, solids and florals. I always look for one fabric in particular, an Indian boy paddling down a green river. Every color from pastel blues, pinks and yellows to dark brown, black, grey, and indigo was present, darks and lights, happy and sad, more happy than sad. I took comfort in that.
These squares of once vibrant cottons, now muted with age, were the remnants of Grandma’s shirts. I could see her out in the garden; straw hat, pedal pushers, and a wheelbarrow, wearing a colorful cotton shirt.
We’d cook and can all summer. At Christmas, we’d open a jar of pickled okra, when memories of fried green tomatoes had long since passed and remember summer days all over again. Those memories come back to me now.
The quilt had been lost, tucked away in Grandma’s closet. Its memory lost with it. After Grandma was gone, the house and everything in it was being sold.
“If you want anything, you’d best take it,” the voice on the phone had said.
We went back one more time; Allie and I. Everything of value had been taken. Allie was sentimental to the end. She sat in the middle of Grandma’s sewing room. I suppose she was looking for the Holy Grail. Something that would have special meaning that was quintessentially Grandma. Something she could hold onto.
When Allie was a girl, she was always at Grandma’s side, out in the garden or standing at the edge of her sewing machine. Allie had turned to Grandma when Mom died. So Grandma’s death had hit her particularly hard. After Grandma died, Allie was more drawn into her own world. Allie-land I sometimes called it. Things seemed to be more about Allie and less about everyone else.
That’s when I snagged a box of dress patterns from the nineteen forties and fifties. She had looked at them longingly.
“I’m the one who sews,” she said, implying they would be better off in her hands, perhaps she was right.
“I’ll share them with you.” I reassured her, lying.
To the victor goes the spoils, I thought.
Bored, I moved onto Grandma’s sewing closet. It was like a dimly lit, walk in pantry. The shelves on three sides were loaded with fabrics from floor to ceiling. The strong smell of musty mothballs brought a tickle to the back of my throat.
On a top shelf, I saw an old quilt, falling apart.
I thought someone could make a pillow out of what’s left.
I noticed five or six black smudges on the edge of one corner.
“Tar, I don’t know if I can get that out.”
I looked closer. It wasn’t tar. Jolene was written on one corner in faded black marker. It was my quilt. Grandma must have always meant it for me.
Since that time, I’ve tried to shore it up with stitching to hold the pieces together, but not tonight. Tonight I wrapped myself in Grandma’s quilt.
Logan brought me a book that I read to him when he was younger. He asked me to read it to him again. I started to say no, but then thought what am I doing? When will I get this chance again? So I started to read.
It wasn’t long before he pulled up a stool and sat with his head leaning against my knee. Charlie pulled up a chair and we sat together listening to how Dorothy made her way through Oz.
Life’s too short not to live it. I may have weeks left or I may have years. Either way, I have a lot I want to do, so I need to stop wasting time. I need to stop wasting time being angry and start doing what matters with the people who matter.
Item # 17 – Small box in top bureau drawer
This box contains a sticker Livia found under her saddle one day. I’m sure you remember the day I’m referring too. Livia knew what you’d done, but played along. She’s a better sport than I imagined.
Logan was excited when he came back from his first riding lesson.
“Mom, you should have been there,” his voice rose with each word, until he was practically yelling. “Livia’s horse went wild. He was bucking and started running. You should have seen it. It was so cool.”
“It was nothing an experience horse woman couldn’t handle.”
Livia folded her hands across her lap. She was the picture of gentility, sitting stiff backed, ankles crossed. But today, an extra smile played across her lips.
“She stayed on his back like one of those cowboys at the rodeo,” Logan continued.
I asked what happened.
“I don’t know,” he said.
He sounded a little too innocent for my liking.
“These things happen,” Livia confirmed.
After Logan ran upstairs, Livia told me the truth.
“That little rapscallion put a cockle under my saddle.”
Livia produced the offending sticker.
“Are you ok? I can’t believe he would do something like that. I’ll have a talk with him.”
I fully intended to ground him to Livia’s care for the remainder of the summer and hard labor during off hours.
“Not necessary. I’m taking care of it,” Livia insisted.
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, dear. You just worry about you. I can handle one prepubescent boy.”
Item # 22 – Button Box
I know you thought I was a nut for keeping the strange odds and ends when we had to move. In my bureau is one of those things. I have an old wooden cigar box covered with buttons. Mom made it for Grandma when she was a little girl. Inside is a tube of glue. Over the years, buttons have fallen off and I glue them back on. Now it’s your turn.
My college years were filled with dark, desperate days. I felt like I was born old. I didn’t have time for parties, drinking or smoking. I was busy working during the day, going to school at night and taking care of Allie in between. So when Allie and Charlie told me they had something for the nausea, excuse me if I didn’t quite get it.
Allie came in grinning. Charlie closed the bedroom door.
“Have we got something for you,” she almost sang.
“Shhhh,” Charlie reprimanded, “I don’t want Logan to know.”
“He won’t. We’ll just call them “cigarettes”.”
Allie handed me a homemade cigarette.
“I don’t smoke,” I protested.
What idiots? Here I am puking my guts out and they want me to start smoking.
“These aren’t regular cigarettes. These are special cigarettes. They’ll help with the nausea,” Allie said, pulling a home rolled cigarette out.
At this point I was ready to try anything.
So I sat up, leaning against the headboard, my bowl handy just in case.
“Here, I’ll show you how,” Allie volunteered, grinning.
You couldn’t wipe the grin off of Allie’s face if you wanted to. Charlie looked sheepish and shrugged.
Those little “cigarettes” as we call them have turned out to be a life saver, literally. I was losing fifteen pounds a week and since using them, I only loose a few pounds. I’ve actually had some weeks when I haven’t lost any weight.
Item # 25 – Plans for my studio
I had the plans for my studio framed. I’d like you to have them. They really are a work of art.
I remember when I was a child, my Mother use to forget her birthday. I never did understand that. How can you forget your birthday? That and she use to say chocolate was too sweet. When I was a kid I was completely baffled. How can chocolate be too sweet? I confess I’m still baffled over that one. I’ve never found chocolate too sweet.
However, the birthday thing I get. I had completely forgotten it was my birthday. I don’t think it’s that unusual. When you reach a certain age, though it may be different for us all, we start letting ourselves forget the passage of time. But this year was different. I didn’t try to forget it. I didn’t ignore it. Time has started to lose meaning. That happens when you’re spending the majority of your time sleeping.
Charlie, Allie, Logan and Livia came in with a vanilla cupcake singing happy birthday. I’m happy to say I was able to enjoy the cupcake without incident. The four of them insisted that I go outside with them to see my gift.
I thought perhaps they’d gotten me new plants, lawn furniture or a porch swing. We got to the edge of the yard where the old workshop stood.
When Charlie and Allie pulled the doors open light came pouring out. The old beams were still exposed between the soft white walls. My paintings hung from the finished walls. The garden and creek were clearly visible outside the wall of windows. Plumbing had been run to rinse brushes and dilute paints. There must have been ten easels ready for use. The table Bryan sent sat in the center of the room set for a birthday party.
I had a studio.
“When did this happen?” I asked.
How did I miss the construction going on in my own back yard?
“The past few weeks. It was mostly Allie,” Charlie replied. “When she sets her mind to something, nothing and no one is going to get in her way, not even construction workers.”
“An artist needs a studio,” is all she would say.
I don’t know that I’ve loved anything so much. I have my own space, my own studio. I am an artist, well almost.
Item # 29 – Grandma’s cookbook
You should take Grandma’s cookbook and find someone who will actually use it after you. I didn’t give you Grandma’s patterns because; well I’m just a little more shallow than you. Yes, it surprises me too. Now you can have them both.
Allie brought me Grandma’s old cookbook today. I didn’t even know she had it. I don’t sew and I have her patterns and Allie doesn’t cook and she has her cookbook. Between the red and white cover are standard recipes and Grandma’s family recipes handed down for generations. The lightest, fluffiest biscuits you’ve ever tasted; the best chicken and dumplings; and pies of every type. Except kidney pie I was always grateful that her recipes didn’t include kidney pie. She gave me Grandma’s cookbook saying I’d make better use of it.
I remember Grandma spending days in the kitchen baking at Christmas. Grandma was full of country wisdom doled out over the mixing bowl. One thing she use to say was you don’t have to be the smarter or prettiest or even the kindest, but you have to be willing to stand up for yourself. How long has it been since I believed in myself enough to stand up?
Being an “artist” is a lonely path. You paint and work and hope, pouring yourself into your work, with the hope that it is good enough. The only way to know if it’s good enough is by the judgment of other people. In the appreciation they express when they are willing to spend money to possess a little bit of your passion, to share in the glory of your work. Then you are an artist, a real artist, not just a woman who plays with paints, dreaming of her chance.
I had Allie put a few of my smaller paintings in the car so I could take them to the gallery I went to weeks ago. It’s the only one on my way to treatment.
I took two of my lighter works inside. Since I started smoking the cigarettes, my paintings had become less dark. Instead of blacks and grays with the occasional reds and gold undertones, my paintings sang of blues, greens, indigos and violets. Some soaring with color like jewels others more muted like the warm shades of a spring afternoon.
I walked inside with my stomach swirling. My shoes echoed on the floor like I had entered a sacred place where I didn’t really belong. I felt myself shrinking in size and importance. Another black clad young woman approached.
I decided to tell her directly my interest. I didn’t have enough time to play.
“I have a couple of paintings I’d like you to take a look at.”
I started unwrapping them.
“Whose?” she asked.
“And you are?”
“Never heard of you,” she said, turning to walk away.
“I know you’ve never heard of me. I just want you to take a look at these.”
I held them out for her to examine.
“New artists must submit eight by ten glossies of their work. Once we review the work, we’ll contact you if we feel your image is in line with ours,” the clerk recited.
“How long does that take?”
“Eight to ten months.”
“I don’t have that kind of time.”
“No one ever does,” she sighed.
“You don’t understand. Can’t you just look at them and tell me if I’m wasting my time?”
“You don’t understand. We have hundreds of inquiries. If I took the time to look at everyone’s work, I wouldn’t have time for anything else.”
“I’m just asking for a few minutes.”
“The name on the door isn’t yours. The owner decides what we do and don’t do here. And we don’t review artists’ works in the lobby. If you want any hope of ever showing in this or any other gallery, you’ll learn to follow the rules,” the pale clerk said.
As I started to leave, she continued, “And I don’t have to take a look at your work, I can look at you and tell you’re wasting your time here. You aren’t the kind of artist we’re looking for.”
When Allie heard the results, she wanted to kick some skinny, black clad, snooty butt, which wouldn’t have helped my cause.
Item # 30 – Painting of Mom and Dad
I’ve painted a portrait of Mom and Dad. I want you to have it. Perhaps if you can hang where you can see it every day you’ll never find yourself unable to remember what they looked like.
I woke up last night, crying. I dreamt I was in heaven. It was bright and shiny. Everyone was happy, just as you’d expect. But I was surrounded by strangers, alone. I couldn’t find my parents. It’s been over twenty years since I last saw them, spoke to them, hugged them, since I became no one’s daughter. I wondered through the crowd, looking in every face. But I couldn’t remember what they looked like. I couldn’t find them. I woke up sobbing.
What kind of person can’t remember their parents’ faces? The people who spent most of their lives taking care of me and I can’t remember them.
I lay in the dark, trying to remember. Dad had dark wavy hair, a large nose I think, but I could only see bits and pieces, like a puzzle you’ve lost most of the pieces to. I tried to concentrate on his face, but it’s just a vague blur.
REMEMBER HIM, concentrate. Remember his face the last time you saw him, at his funeral.
Brown suit, one button, small lapel, white shirt, but I can’t get above his collar. Just when his face starts to become clear, it slips away again. I can’t see him. Why didn’t I commit him to memory? Surely I realized it was the last time I’d see him.
What about Mom? The last time I saw her, she was sick in bed with cancer. I didn’t want to remember her like that. I thought of the picture I have of her, with that red hair and green eyes, surely I can remember. I concentrate on the picture – blue background, white blouse, red hair waving done over her shoulders. I could almost see her face. Her eyes, I couldn’t get hold of her eyes. I had her nose and the shape of her face, but it was just individual pieces. I couldn’t assemble them. I couldn’t see her.
How will I find my parents in heaven when I can’t remember them? Will they remember me? How long before my son forgets me? I’m afraid I won’t find my parents in heaven. I’m afraid in the dark. I am afraid.
Item # 32 – Picture of Cowboy
In the hallway, there is one of Mom’s paintings. It’s of an old cowboy. His face is weathered and worn from decades of sun and wind. But, if you look into his eye, you can still see the sparkle of a young man.
Bryan I want you to have this. When I look in your eyes, I hope to see the young boy again. I know a lot has happened, but I don’t think you could have changed that much. Somewhere the old Bryan still exists.
I’ve been thinking about Bryan and Allie and when we were kids.
I remember the time Mrs. Martin accused us of breaking her window. We were nowhere near her house, but Mom made us pay for it out of our own money.
A few days later, we were walking by Mrs. Martin’s house; she was watering her grass with a sprinkler, the old fashioned kind that sprayed water like a fan back and forth across the lawn.
Tick, tick, tick,
As we walked by Bryan noticed the garage door opened.
Tick, tick, tick.
He looked at Allie and me and back to the garage door.
Tick, tick, tick.
Wordlessly, we picked up the sprinkler.
Tick, tick, tick.
And slid it into the middle of the garage.
Tick, tick, tick.
We pulled the garage door shut.
Tick, tick, tick.
Water sprayed the window.
Tick, tick, tick.
Tick, tick, tick.
Tick, tick, tick.
We never talked about it, never said a word, but Mrs. Martin never accused us of breaking another window or much of anything else after that.
That had been the Bryan of my childhood, full of snappy quips. The Bryan who could make everyone laugh. He was a lot like Logan, carefree and funny.
After Mom got sick, he lost that. He stopped laughing. He looked tired, older, like he was wearing an old man’s troubles. Is that what happened? Mom’s illness had been too much for him. Maybe being younger had protected us from a reality that scarred him.
What did that table mean so tied to our childhood, to our Mother? Maybe sending the table was his way of trying to come home again, an apology of sorts.
I’m going to visit him again. Maybe this time I’ll find Bryan, my brother, the one who put sprinklers in garages and shuts the door.
Item # 36 – Christmas card from Grandma
I found this Christmas card in some of Mom’s old papers. She kept it all those years. I think she would want you to have it. I keep it in my purse hoping for a good time to give it to you, but I’m not sure that time will ever come. So if I haven’t given it to you yet, take it. They would want you to have – Grandma and Mom.
Remember I love you. We all love you.
Bryan hadn’t answered any questions. In fact, he just added to them sending the table. I was going to make one more attempt to find the brother I was missing, the brother of my childhood.
When I pushed the door open and stepped into his world, I felt a pang of envy. He wasn’t in the main studio. Instead I found myself alone with a completed bronze horse and rider.
I heard the sound of steel hitting steel in the courtyard beyond the studio. I picked my way through saw horses holding plaster molds. Large chunks of granite and marble, their half hidden inhabitants waiting to be revealed. A woman roughed in bronze was reaching for the sky. Her face seemed sad almost pitiful.
In the courtyard, I found Bryan with a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other working to free a sleek modern form swirling in and around itself from the tan granite. Dust had settled on his head and clothes mingling with his sweat, so that he almost looked like a sculpture come to life.
He saw me and paused mid-swing. It was hard to tell if he was expecting me or was shocked to see me.
“Back so soon. I was giving you a little more time.”
His hammer continued rhythmically slamming against his chisel.
“Why did you send that table?”
“Direct and to the point, you’ve changed since we were kids.”
“Why did you send a table from Olla Podrida?”
“I wanted you to know it’s not too late. You have a gift and it’s not too late to put it to use. It might take some time, but you can still be an artist. You have real talent,” he replied.
Bryan spoke in rhythm to his hammer.
“I’m afraid I’m past that now.”
My mind raced ahead to what my last days would be like if I went down the same path as Mom.
“You talk like you’re an old woman. You have plenty of time.”
Metal against metal rang clear.
“I’ve come to a point in my life I’m afraid I can’t turn back from.”
“You sound like Mom. She never had what it takes to make it,” he continued.
“She got sick. She didn’t give up.”
I knew she didn’t give up because, like me she never really started. I felt the need to defend myself through her.
“I know more about Mom’s illness than you ever will,” Bryan yelled.
He slammed his hammer into the granite, cracking the statue in half. The pieces fell to the ground with a heavy thud. His face was twisted with anger.
“What do you want Jo?” he asked.
“Some explanation of why.”
“There’s only pain back there. I’ve finally got my life together and I’m not going to let you drag me back.”
“I just want to know why? What happened? What did we do?”
“There’s no explanations, no answers. Why are you here? After all this time, what do you really want?” Bryan asked.
His voice sounded like his hammer, slamming each word.
“I don’t want anything. I just wanted to see how you were.”
“Is it money? Do you need money for drugs?”
Until starting the chemo and radiation, I’d never done drugs in my life and now only for nausea. I didn’t even smoke or drink.
“God, Jo,” his voice softened. “You look like hell. What are you on, meth?”
He thought I was an addict. I looked at the window behind him. I wouldn’t have recognized the woman there. I’d lost at least forty pounds. My cheeks were hollow, my eyes dark, I looked tired.
“I have connections. I can get you into rehab,” he offered.
I remember how he looked when Mom was sick. He didn’t look that different from me now. He’d lost weight and looked tired all the time. He lost the look of a child, looking more and more beaten. I didn’t want to see him look like that again. Not when he looked at me anyway. He was right. I did want something from him. I wanted to use him as a crutch and he didn’t owe me that. I hadn’t bothered to find him until I was sick, until I needed him. I didn’t need to drag him back there.
I took the card he offered me, from some rehab center nearby. I left letting him think I was a meth addict rather than his worst nightmare.
God, let him have some peace. He seems to have been a long time coming to it. I’d rather he think I’m a drug addict than to know I have cancer.
Item # 37 – Honeymoon photos
I want you to keep the picture of you and me on our honeymoon in New Orleans. I remember a jazz band playing while we danced in a square at sunset. I was dancing on clouds. It would make me happy to think that you will look at it every now and then and remember me.
Charlie received a letter today from a little girl, Yamile in Sihisbamyo in the wilds of Peru. She was only five when he last saw her and her younger brother. Now her brother was sick. She wrote to Charlie for help. She begged him to hurry and come save her brother.
He folded the letter, tucked it in his pocket and went back to making my soup. Outwardly he acted as if nothing had happened, but his face had frozen in an odd look of hardened serenity as if it was taking all his will to appear peaceful. Periodically, he would stop what he was doing to grip the granite counter, staring at it, tracing the veins as if they were roads on a map.
He brought me my soup, patted me on the shoulder and asked how I was feeling. When had I stopped being his wife and become his patient? That’s how it was with Charlie and Allie to a lesser degree. I was becoming the sum of my illness. They were both so concerned I might break they were seeing less of me and more of my cancer.
So it was not out of pure selflessness that I told Charlie I was feeling better and didn’t really need him hovering over me. In truth my appetite had returned and my strength with it. I insisted he work on his project, check in with the engineers and students working with him and generally keep things moving. However, I didn’t expect not to see him for the rest of the day, but perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing either. Maybe we both needed a break.
Item # 40 – Pink floral china
Logan, my darling boy,
I hope you aren’t reading this until you are an old man with children and grandchildren, ready to retire with a wonderful wife. But if things don’t turn out the way I hope, I want you to have the pink floral china my mother and I brought back from Europe. And when you are married, I want you to use them often. Those dishes were never used enough.
Charlie has been scarce most of the day. I guess he took my suggestion to get back to work to heart. It’s good for him. He needed to think about something else for a while. It wasn’t long before Allie stopped by. Without Ladies’ Guild, I guess she has time on her hands.
The painting in front of me was of Allie, not today’s Allie, the seven-year-old Allie. The dark lawn in the painting was forested with trees. Evening had set and fireflies flickered among the trees. At the edge of the canvas, just in the corner was the face of a little girl with red pig tails peering over the edge of the canvas. You could only see the top half of her head and her eyes. But those eyes told you a hundred stories of mischief.
“Remember when you left for college, it was just me and Grandma?” she was saying, peering over my shoulder much like the girl in my picture.
Allie picked up a bottle of water and sprayed herself in the face. How could someone look so glamorous and be so clumsy?
“I remember. You missed me so much you never wrote me.”
“Grandma was so sad. I hadn’t really noticed it until you left. When we lost our Mom, she lost her baby, her only child,” said Allie.
I hadn’t thought of what it must have been like for Grandma to watch her daughter get sick and die.
“I became her distraction,” Allie continued. “We’d grab copies of the latest fashion magazines and sit around in the evenings trying to decide which outfit to make next. She’d get out brown paper grocery bags and we piece together a pattern. It was amazing what she could do. Her creations looked like they came from the magazines. I’d try them on and she’d take pictures. I still have those pictures.”
She paused for a moment, staring out the window.
“I never knew.”
“That’s when I found my talent, my appearance. It’s all I really am. I know it deep down inside. I’ve made the best of what I had because I had nothing else,” she said.
“Allie, you’re more than looks.”
I wanted to tell her as long as she believed that, it would be true. The minute she realized she was more, she would be. It sounded like something your mother or sister would say.
But Logan came bounding in as only a ten-year-old boy can.
“Hey Logan,” Allie called, “Are you going to visit your Dad or are you stuck with Granny Liv all summer?”
Livia’s eyes narrowed. I’m sure Liv was not a nickname she wanted to encourage, let alone Granny.
“I didn’t realize you were here,” Livia continued.
“Cami says if she wanted a little bastard around, she would have had one of her own.”
I was shocked to hear that kind of language coming out of Logan’s mouth. I knew his new stepmom didn’t like children, but she needed to watch her language.
“Who’s Cami?” Livia asked, suddenly perking up.
“The latest replacement unit,” Allie explained. “She’s a socialite wanna be. You know her, she just joined the Guild.”
“Did she? And she called Logan a little bastard, did she?”
Livia’s eyebrow rose at a dangerous level while she drummed her finger nails on the table.
“I think Cami’s about to find Ladies Guild more difficult than she ever imagined,” Livia said, smiling at Allie.
The two of them conspiring together was a bit scary, but I was a happy to learn that Cami’s life was going to get more difficult.