Lola asks me to steady the bowl so she can stir. Scrape the sides, I say. It’s so obvious, she sighs. Mommy, I know how. I’m almost five. Lola watches Food Network. She knows frittata, pavlova, bucatini all’Amatriciana.
Lola doesn’t want help, but the mixing hurts her arm. How long do we have to stir, Mommy – my whole life?
It’s like that at four: everything seems forever. Lola still asks daily what day it is. She asks when her sister Faye, not yet two, will be big. She asks when I will be all better, when the cells inside me will stop growing like too many Lego blocks, when my hair will grow back, when I will be able to taste cookies again. She asks why nighttime is so long.
It will take some time.
So we can rest.
Truth is, I ask myself these questions, too. Six weeks into more than a year of infusions, operations, radiation – time is suspended. With kids, you watch it fly, they say. You just blink, they say. Yet days are longer. Now so much longer.
I can add the salt, Mommy.
Lola measures the salt over the kitchen sink, spilling the excess off the teaspoon. Food Network taught her to be precise, that the right dose of salt intensifies sweetness.
Someone my parents know is lighting a candle in Italy. My sister-in-law sends me long-distance Reiki. Two friends in California suggest medicinal marijuana and their facility to track it down. Another friend – one with experience – says eat bonbons.
I’m no hero; I know this happens to a lot of mothers.
Unable to move, I drink water in the darkness, trying to reconstitute myself. This empty feeling may subside or take root. It’s best not to acknowledge any cracks forming, little slivers in my fight.
Sam died five months ago and lately, often, I think of him. He was a celebrated writer whose opinions mattered, an impressive man who mentored me in my twenties – not with lessons, but with thoughtful edits, a knowing nod. Do you have any idea what happened? a colleague had asked me on the cemetery lawn. I didn’t. Unexpectedly at home, said the obituary. Beloved husband. Devoted father. His first love, writing short stories.
When I saw a mutual friend recently, I asked if Sam had been ill.
I thought you knew. Sam killed himself.
Killed himself. Sam, who always smiled, cracked jokes, and had a daughter he adored. He decided he was done with his life while his wife of almost 30 years was away for the weekend.
He used a plastic bag.
I went on to my afternoon meeting just as I had from an unanticipated biopsy that same morning, the ground shifting under me. I drove with an ice pack where the needles went hunting and was diagnosed 24 hours later. Fast-growing. Aggressive. Every trick in the book.
When I’m hooked up to the I.V. all day, it feels at once like survival and its opposite. Poison, the nurse says. She blends it in the back and delivers – each time, tapping the port, inserting the needle, setting the drip to slow. One week off, then back. Multiple surgeries, endless testing, pain. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want this either – sometimes so deeply, there’s an absence of reason.
At four, everything seems forever. Or at forty-one. Or sixty-nine.
Sam must’ve grabbed the plastic bag, a much larger one than those that drip me well/ill from my I.V. pole. He chose not to go for a long walk on his beach or write a story or ask for new anxiety meds. He didn’t loosely tie the seal or rip open the bag. He didn’t have a second thought. Or a third.
I knew Sam as someone who knew things. I wonder how he could give in to anguish. Yet, recently, I don’t wonder why.
Mommy, let’s pretend we have our own cooking show.
Lola holds up a bag of chips to an imagined camera beyond our chrome toaster. We learned to temper chocolate for dipping, so it’s stronger and won’t melt to the touch. On Food Network, it’s done in a microwave, warming then stirring, again and again – an inconsistent temperature key to the richest result.
We fold in some chips as Faye wakes from her nap – that sudden where-am-I-and-how-did-this-happen-to-me cry. Lola’s eyes get big and full of fire: no interruptions on air.
Be gentle, please, sweetheart, I say. Let’s keep everything in the bowl.
Be gentle, please, she repeats to her viewers. Keep everything in the bowl.
I take Faye in my arms, and we watch Lola over-spoon dough onto the baking sheet.
We slide two trays into the oven, set the timer and wait.