I was seven the first time I learned about death. The cold finality of it all surrounded me like a blanket, keeping me company the remaining days of my life. I remember the coffin, light blue with brass handles. The flowers, Lilies, evocative of death, covered every possible surface filling the church with their strong honey laced aroma. I watched as the adults stood in hushed groupings going over the details of her demise.
“Cancer,” said my oldest aunt. Time erased her name from my memory. I saw her only at funerals and the occasional wedding.
“So sad, she was so young,” Maggie managed to choke out as she dabbed her eyes with the tissue she removed from the inside sleeve of her sweater. She was a longtime family friend of my Grandmother’s. She cried not only at funerals but also after viewing Folger’s coffee commercials.
Great Aunt Esther was young, at least too young to die of Cancer at fifty-five. As a child fifty-five seemed old. That age so easily attained by some seemed elusive to my family. The number became the litmus test by which my family marked all occasions.
A week later, I went with my Grandmother to help her clean out her sister’s belongings. I felt like an interloper to her grief, to this sacred space where I did not belong. Great Aunt Esther had only just passed through a week before, not knowing that her journey would end. I often wondered if she regretted not knowing who shot J.R.? Maybe it didn’t matter so much now.
“You should take something,” Grandma Alice said as she started emptying the closets.
Surrounded by boxes labeled Goodwill she began the sorting process. Into them, she placed the best of Great Aunt Esther’s things. Eventually, they would wind up in the home of someone who needed them. That someone would never know my Great Aunt or the fact that she died too young.
I looked around, I didn’t know what to take. At one point in her life, she collected porcelain elephants, then tiny dolls, before moving on to painting to fill her childless hours. I felt no connection to them, nothing that said take me. Finally, I settled on a pale blue wrap the same color as her coffin. I assumed it must have been her favorite color.
Grandma Alice and I spent the remainder of the afternoon sorting and boxing until the rooms were devoid of all Great Aunt Esther’s personality. Now, they were just empty spaces where life had once been. Every so often, I caught sight of my Grandmother stopping to dab her eyes as she took some small item that held a meaning only they shared. She chose a tiny white porcelain elephant, a small pair of gold Stork embroidery scissors, a few of her scarfs, and a photo album. She placed them all gently in the small shopping bag she brought with her. It amazed me then and still holds some wonder for me now, how an entire life can be winnowed down to the contents of an Acme shopping bag.
I marked the passage of my childhood into adolescence by who died. I broke my arm falling off my bicycle after Aunt Cecilia but before Uncle Harry. I had my first heartbreak sometime right after Grandma Alice died. He had had the decency to wait until after the funeral to tell me.
“You’re just too sad all the time,” he said like it was something I could turn on and off like a TV.
“I just lost my Grandmother,” I thought knowing that it was only an excuse. There was nothing that I could say. I am who I am.
“I just want to be around someone who likes to have fun, like Ashley. It’s nothing personal.”
It was then I learned the horrible truth that life and love are both fleeting. I wasn’t a popular girl, Ashley was a cheerleader, whose constant perkiness seemed to always baffle me. I spent my teen years listening to melancholy music and debating whether or not Goth was a good look for me. I wasn’t obsessed with death but it was my constant companion. When other families had reunions and picnics in the summer, we opted out. Our family reunions were the funerals that seemed to happen at a pretty regular pace.
I was a freshman in high school when I gave up my after school activities and started spending time in hospital waiting rooms with my Mother. Aunt Cecilia, the oldest, was the first. Her diagnosis of Liver Cancer came six weeks before her death. My Uncle Harry, my Mother’s youngest brother, followed a year later with a brain tumor that no one saw coming, he was only thirty-eight. Aunt Lori waged an epic war against three different types of cancers before her heart finally gave out the day after my college graduation. She had always been the fighter of the family.
After school, I used to sit with Aunt Lori at the hospital during her treatments while I waited for my Mother to meet me there after work. It was on the way home and much better than going back to an empty apartment. On her better days, we would talk about music, play cards, and watch General Hospital. She was obsessed with the love triangle between Sonny, Brenda, and Jax. I remember her telling her hospice nurse that she hoped heaven had General Hospital.
“Are you scared?” I asked. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the answer but I asked anyway.
“Not anymore,” Aunt Lori gave up this revelation willingly. “When I first found out I had Breast Cancer, I was terrified. Then they cut them off and gave me these,” she said as she did a little shimmy for me.
Aunt Lori was quite proud of her new breasts having been a member of the itty bitty titty committee her entire life. A full C cup was the least that cancer could give her in return for the many months she hung her head over a toilet bowl, fearing she would give up the ghost at any moment.
I sat with her, holding her left hand as the nurse shoved the butterfly needle into her arm for the I.V. It was the beginning of her third dance with cancer. It had moved from her breasts to the liver, and now it was in her bones. Cancer seemed hell bent on claiming my Aunt Lori as much as she was determined to fight it until Death pried her claim over her own life out of her cold hands.
“I think I’m becoming numb to it,” Aunt Lori remarked when she saw me wince as the nurse stuck the needle in.
I smiled as she squeezed my hand.
“I’m glad you’re here with me but you really should be off doing whatever kids your age are doing these days.”
“I’m fine where I am. I’m not much for hanging out, don’t see the point really.”
“Don’t see the point.” Aunt Lori laughed and said, “The point is to have fun with as much of your life as you have left to live.”
“But you’re not having fun sitting here getting that junk shoved up your arm.”
“That junk is giving me more time.” I rolled my eyes but she continued, “This treatment might give me another six months or if I’m lucky, maybe a year. Do you know what I could do with a year?”
I shook my head.
“I could see another Thanksgiving where maybe I won’t throw up all my dinner,” she laughed and then continued, “I could see you graduate, feel the warmth of a summer day, watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day. There are so many little things you take for granted when you’re young that age and wisdom kick you in the pants for later.”
I hung my head in shame. Aunt Lori was fighting so hard for another year just to see another sunrise. Sitting in the hospital with her absorbed the bulk of my college years but I was the closest thing she would ever have to her own child. Cancer had claimed her fertility along with too many years of her life.
I can hear my Mother’s voice on the phone so clearly, the call could have come yesterday. She debated with herself whether or not to tell me while I was driving. Her better judgment won out because she didn’t want me walking into the house not knowing. It wasn’t a shock, we all knew the day would come, I just never thought it would be that particular one.
“I really thought she’d make it,” my Mother said trying to help Uncle Bob decide on his late wife’s funeral clothes.
“Why didn’t she make a plan,” my Mother lamented. “She had to have known this was coming even if she didn’t want to accept it.”
“I’ll leave it to you, Joyce,” Uncle Bob said as he shook his head and left the room to compose himself.
My Mother turned to me and remarked, “I’ll never leave you holding the bag, that’s for sure.”
My Uncle Donald never quite got over the loss of his baby brother but he stuck it out for Lori. The day of her funeral he sat beside the Elm tree that shaded her grave. He just sat there, his eyes, blank pages that stared out into the world focused on nothing. You could see his heart was broken. A week later he was dead, his heart having failed him at fifty-four. In my mind, he never got up from that tree, he just stayed there, guarding his favorite sister.
After every funeral, my Mother and I would set about the task of packing up the short lives that were forced to end so cruelly and brutishly.
“Cancer is a nasty business,” my Mother said as we boxed up Aunt Lori’s things, her husband too distraught to do it himself.
“Do you think you’ll get it too?” I asked. It was the first time we had ever spoken of what seemed to be our inevitable fate. We knew she would turn fifty that year and even if she never spoke of it. I knew she could see the grains of sand in her hourglass slowly running out.
“I take care of myself the best I can and I don’t borrow trouble. But don’t worry, I’ll never leave you holding the bag like Aunt Lori did.”
That was all she would say about the subject. It was almost an unspoken rule in our family. You don’t mention it. You whisper it like it’s there waiting for you, ready strike at the sound of its name. I would never forget that moment, my Mother taught me everything I needed to know about life and how to handle the challenges ahead of me in a single sentence. It was our family motto: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
My Mother was never really that close to Aunt Mary, her youngest sister. She used to say it was because of the age difference, fifteen years that they didn’t have all that much in common. My Mother felt more like her mother and less her sister, which of course Aunt Mary hated. When Aunt Mary came to stay with us after Grandma Alice died, I gained an older sister instead of a live-in aunt.
We shared a bedroom, Aunt Mary and me until I went off to college. The best thing about it was our late night conversations that occurred long after my workaholic Mother collapsed into bed.
“Mary,” I whispered into the blackness of our room.
“Yes, K.T.” Aunt Mary’s pet name for me because she hated Katherine and refused to call me Katie as everyone else did. At first, she called me Taylor Tot because I was little and my last name was Taylor. Once my Father divorced my Mom, I grew up and shed not only the tot but the Taylor as well.
“Do you want to get married?” I asked.
“That’s random. I doubt it.”
“Why? Don’t you want to have kids?”
“I think it’s selfish to subject someone to the curse,” Aunt Mary whispered the word curse, she didn’t need to spell out what she was referring to, I knew exactly what she talking about. I never looked at it as a curse before but laying in the dark with Aunt Mary, we dared to talk about it.
Aunt Mary continued, “Would you want to bring a kid into the world knowing it’s going to get sick and die? Or fall in love with someone knowing that eventually you’re going to get sick and they’re going to have to watch you die? Selfish if you ask me.”
“So we’re just supposed to stay alone the rest of our lives?” The prospect seemed depressing to me. I always saw myself with a family. Having Thanksgivings surrounded by grandchildren. But our family was almost gone and my dream was nothing but a fairy tale.
“I’m not saying stay alone. Have boyfriends, go out on dates but don’t fall in love and definitely don’t get married and have kids.”
Aunt Mary would eventually find a man that refused to live be her code of never settling down. In exchange for marriage, he honored her request and they never had a child. I filled in that role as a surrogate daughter. I never knew if Aunt Mary ever regretted her decision not to have children, if she did, she never showed it.
I lived by Aunt Mary’s motto until I met a man that refused to take no for an answer. Charlie gave me the audacity to hope that what was the fate of so many people in my family, didn’t have to be mine. When I asked my Mother to help me prepare for a winter wedding she couldn’t have been more thrilled.
“You’re not getting married in a red dress,” my Mother remarked. I watched as she rose from the settee in the changing room to pick out something else for me to try on. She was moving slower and for the first time I noticed, she didn’t look well.
“It’s not a red dress, it’s ivory with a red sash. I am getting married on Christmas Eve Mama. Don’t you think there should be a little red in my dress?”
“Have the bridesmaids wear red then.”
I didn’t have enough friends to even out with the number of groomsmen Charlie wanted so I wound up with a bridal party made of up his sisters and a first cousin. Lasting friendships were the casualty of an adolescence spent in hospital waiting rooms. After trying on about ten more dresses, my Mother finally gave her blessing to the red dress. I was never sure whether she gave up because she liked it or because she was too tired to fight me on it.
We spent the remainder of that day tasting cake, picking flowers, and ordering invitations. By that evening, we were spent and instead of driving the hour back home, I decided to stay with her. The condo was smaller than I remembered it but that’s the problem with time, everything that once seemed large always gets smaller.
“You know I never planned on getting married,” I blurted out.
My Mother rolled over in the bed to face me as I stared up at the ceiling not really knowing why I said what I said or where this conversation was going. She said nothing and waited for me to continue.
“Why don’t we ever talk about it?” I asked. “I mean, we have this thing, this horrible thing that seems to be tearing our family apart and no one ever wants to even discuss it or try to fight it.”
“You can’t fight what’s in your blood. That’s why you have to live.”
“How can we live when we know we’re going to die?”
“Everyone is going to die at some point, my dear.”
“It just seems like we have an earlier expiration date.”
Four months later, my Mother would walk me down the aisle and give me away. I went on my honeymoon to Italy without even knowing that she was ill. While I flew over the ocean she had a double mastectomy with only Aunt Mary to keep her company. I never got angry with her for keeping it a secret from me. My Mother wanted me to enjoy that time in my life without illness overshadowing it. I know those four months from her diagnosis until her surgery had to be agonizing. I often wonder how many times she wanted to tell me but held it inside. She would walk the road ahead alone, leaving me to my newly wedded bliss until she could hide it no longer.
My Mother breezed through her treatment with Aunt Mary, Charlie, and I by her side. The day she told me she was cancer free lifted a weight from my chest. Somehow she knew, her crooked smile revealed what she would never say. It was going to come back.
There was a horrible chill to the air for a fall day, it felt more like we were in the throes of winter. I was warm on the inside because of the news I had to share. I drove the hour to my Mother’s apartment only to find her rummaging through her things and boxing stuff up.
I followed her through the apartment to the living room, bursting with what I had come to tell her.
“I have news,” I said waiting for her inquire about it but I could tell something was off. Something was distracting her. “I’m pregnant,” I blurted out holding my breath for her response.
She sat there like a statue, I figured it was just shock or maybe she didn’t hear me. I repeated my announcement, “Mom, I’m going to have a baby.”
“Congratulations,” she managed to stammer out before her body gave over to uncontrollable sobs.
I had watched my Mother cry before. I’ve watched her eyes get wet viewing a Lifetime movie. She’s shed tears at funerals where she only had to dab at her eyes to remove the evidence. I’ve observed her weeping after my father left. This was different, her body trembled so violently that someone who didn’t know her, would have thought she was having a seizure. But I knew different. These were tears of happiness, relief, and grief all rolled into one. The dam that was my Mother had finally broken and all of the emotions she never really allowed herself to feel spilled out.
I fetched her some tea and when she finally calmed down she said the words I didn’t want to hear, not that day, not any day.
“My cancer is back,” she whispered, her voice hoarse.
I sat there numb, instinctively holding my stomach as if I could somehow shield my child from its inheritance. I half listened as she explained that it was everywhere. That she would not pursue treatment. When I entered her apartment I was too busy thinking about myself and my news to really see what she was doing. She was going through her things while she still could. My Mother promised me once to never leave me holding the bag after she was gone. She was making good on her word. Now I saw what my brain wouldn’t let me see before. The boxes with my name on them, the ones labeled Mary and Goodwill. The end was coming.
“I promise you, I’ll see this baby come into the world,” my Mother said grasping my hand so tightly that our hands could have become one.
I wiped away the tear that was beginning to form lest she sees it and said, “I know you will.”
There are promises that people make that are more for themselves than for the individual on the receiving end. My Mother made me a promise she could only hope to keep. But that hope kept her alive two more months longer than it should have. She was in pain and barely coherent towards the end. I knew she was just hanging on to keep her promise to me. The last thing I said to my Mother was, “You can go home now, I’ll be fine.” I know she heard me because she smiled but her eyes remained closed. I held onto her hand until it no longer held onto mine.
I lied when I told my Mother I would be fine. Her death left a hole in my heart so wide it was cavernous. My life was now demarcated neatly down the middle into two chapters, life before my Mother’s death and life after. I was like a newborn having to learn to navigate the world that I didn’t want to be a part of at all.
After the funeral, I watched Aunt Mary sitting in my Mother’s favorite chair just staring out the window. I climbed onto her lap, big belly and all and just sat there. In all my grief, it had never occurred to me that Aunt Mary was alone too. All of her siblings were gone. I was the only tie she had to keep her tethered to a life that seemed to only exist in her memories. We stayed huddled together in silence, listening to our hearts beating.
Aunt Mary stayed by my side throughout the rest of my pregnancy. It seemed only fitting that when I gave birth to my daughter that I would name her Mary Joyce, Aunt Mary nicknamed her M.J. It took another six months before I had gathered enough strength to open the boxes my Mother set aside for me. There were toys from my childhood, my Christening gown, and things she bought for M.J. The most treasured items were her scarves, blankets, and an old gray sweater ratty with age.
I sat on the floor, M.J. napping in the bassinet next to me as I opened the box I pulled from the closet. It contained all of the many items I had gathered over the years from my great aunts, Grandma Alice, and my aunts and uncles. I couldn’t bring myself to place my Mother’s things in with theirs only to put it back into the closet. I yearned to be close to them again.
I grabbed the box, a pair of scissors, and sat down at my sewing machine. I started cutting and sewing. In between naptimes and playtime, I worked on it. By the time M.J. turned a year old it was finished, a quilt. It was a simple one made from everything everyone left behind. Great Aunt Esther and Aunt Cecelia’s wraps, Uncle Donald’s tweed jacket, Uncle Harry’s ties, Aunt Lori’s silk blouses and cashmere sweaters, my Mother’s old gray sweater, and my baby blanket. Aunt Mary even chipped in a sweater Grandma Alice had bought her when she was young that was her favorite. The colors didn’t match, the measurements were off and it mostly looked like a hot mess. But it was my hot mess, it was my family all together again.
Most days the quilt was displayed across the back of the living room sofa. It warmed my heart on Saturday mornings when M.J. would creep downstairs to watch cartoons. Often I would walk into the kitchen while Charlie made coffee and see her, sitting at the counter wrapped in it. Embraced by the family she would never know.
But Cancer is an insidious little devil. It lingers there within your cells, dormant just waiting for the right spark. Some unstoppable force that turns it on and then like dominoes everything begins to fall away. The spark for me was M.J.’s tenth birthday party and a massive nosebleed that would not stop. It sent me to the emergency room and several scans later revealed the ugly truth. The breast cancer I had was so aggressive that it had spread to my lymph nodes, liver, and brain. I thought that I would break, crumble into a million little pieces right then and there from the weight of it. But then M.J. walked into my room with Aunt Mary and said, “Momma I brought you your get stronger blanket.”
“She insisted,” Aunt Mary added before I could respond.
I let M.J. cover me with it. I couldn’t think of any other time in my life, other than the day she was born, that I wanted my Mother with me. M. J. was right, it was my strength blanket, it made me feel like my Mother was with me. It was the closest I was going to get.
Over the weeks and months that followed, I keep that blanket close to me. Many nights I fell asleep holding it, Charlie’s arm around my waist holding my hand and my other hand under my pillow holding onto to that blanket for dear life.
I spent two long arduous years fighting for every day I was given before I finally let go. The only thing of mine that Mary Joyce wanted was that blanket. Eventually, she would take it to college, her first home, and wrap it around each one of her babies. By the time M.J. reached old age the blanket was tattered and faded but the life force within it and the stories they contained were just as strong, if not stronger.
Mary Joyce was ninety-two when death finally spirited her away. Her four sons and two daughters, unable to decide on who would inherit the quilt, buried it with her. It became the shroud that would carry her home and take with it all the pain and fear that had encapsulated the lives of those that came before them. They had all survived, all well past the age of fifty-five. It was long enough to provide Mary Joyce with ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She held each and every one of them the moment they were born. Mary Joyce traveled the world and never wasted a single day of her life worrying about what was to come, that never came.