Family members pack the small room. Tubes snake from beneath the sheets. To a casual observer, this might be a party. Not Happy Hour. A tea, perhaps.
The woman sleeps. Or is comatose. For two and a half years a demonic Pac Man has been devouring her, bite by bite.
She’d called on a dazzling summer day. I could tell from her phony calm that she would tell me something was wrong. Something horrible.
“I have aggressive, metastatic breast cancer. The prognosis is not good.” Matter-of-fact. And my dog has fleas.
“Thank you,” slips from my lips. Thank you? For the worst news I have ever heard?
In the hospital room I join in the mindless chitchat over the day’s headlines. What else can one possibly discuss? The lead story is too blatantly obscene.
Holding the menu, her mother asks my friend what she’d like to eat the following day. How about a miracle stew?
She opens the front door on my first visit since her chemo, radiation and surgery. She glows. We embrace.
“You’re right,” I say. “The wig looks better than your own hair.” Ha ha.
Four hours later I’m boarding a southbound train. She can’t be that sick and look so good. Maybe the doctors are wrong.
We met as young, suburban mothers looking for a little excitement outside our respective kitchens. We sated our journalistic idealism at a community newspaper.
It was, what we would later call, “instant like.” First link: forged.
The doctors are committed to keeping her breathing for another week, another day, another moment. Their reputations are on the line. Oops, this one’s getting away. Can’t allow that.
We share coffee and conversation between reporting, carpooling and grass stains. Starting a small business, we are incredulous that people pay us for having fun while we churn out rhyming couplets for special occasions.
She advances from reporter to editor to press secretary. My career takes me in another direction and I move an hour away. Fiber optics and occasional visits keep us close.
She asks me to help her. I don’t have to ask, “help you what?”
If I had a magic pill I would gladly gift it. I hold her hand, wishing I could play God and end her pain.
Her eyes plead with me. “My luck, it would make you sicker and I’d end up in jail,” I say. She laughs. Ha ha. Laughter without conviction.
Our marriages end. We are fiftyish roommates. Weekends we dance to “I Feel Like A Woman” while dusting the condo.
Evenings she comes in late from her high-powered job, dressed to kill, still looking fresh. I am in a coffee-stained robe; Oscar to her Felix.
We have dinner then tear into a giant bag of M&M’s for a rush that should be illegal. Our hysteria ends with shrieks and pleas to “Stop! Stop! I’ll pee myself.”
She needs help getting to the toilet. I fear upsetting the wheeled monitor that has become her steady companion.
When I manage not to trip over it, I make a self-deprecating remark. “Oy,” she says. “You’re such a klutz. Don’t mess me up.” We chuckle. Ha ha.
She moves to Philadelphia. Sometimes she drives from her Baltimore job to my house in Annapolis and we stay up late talking.
The next morning I stand in the doorway while she puts on make-up. We talk between mascara and lip liner.
I feel an unexplained sadness when she leaves. A voice tells me to store these moments in my memory bank. And I do.
Her eyelids flutter and her lips part. I lean closer. “I want a donut.”
Must be the drugs talking.
“You want what?”
For days she has consumed little but the chemical cocktails they pump into her.
Okay, I’ll play along. “What kind?” I get the first real smile I have seen in a month.
“Cream-filled. Wicked.” Barely able to lift her head, she eats it all.
She calls to announce the arrival of her first grandchild. The receiver pulsates with her joy. A rara avis, she slips into the new plumage of Grammy with her usual aplomb.
She asks about my kids before falling back to sleep. I dab some cherry-flavored lip balm on her dry, cracked lips.
“You don’t have to stay,” she says. I can’t imagine being anyplace else. I pat her forehead with a cool cloth.
In a café we talk about ourselves between bites of éclairs. Perspiration blossoms on my forehead.
The heat from my face could melt the polar icecap. “Omigod, you’re having a hot flash!”
“No,” through my gritted teeth. “It’s the chocolate.”
We dissolve. Five, 10, 15 years later she is still repeating the story to anyone who’ll listen. Everyone listens. Ha ha.
The images play in my head as I ride the train back to Maryland. For two years I face these visits with apprehension and fear. I create impediments—rearranging closets, making phone calls, changing clothes—and almost miss the train, every single time.
Once there, I am becalmed, as if she is ministering to me.
I put on my coat, bend to kiss her forehead. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
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