Ask Again Later
Soon after I turned 13, my mom convinced my dad to have a swimming pool installed in our backyard. Not a squatty, aboveground pool, but an honest-to-goodness sunken pool with a diving board. We lived in Ohio, so it wasn't a practical purchase, and Dad only agreed to the pool in lieu of vacation that year. "It's your choice," he'd said, fancying himself head of a democratic household. My brother Doug, my mom and I all chose the pool.
Dad took a week off work to oversee the pool's installation, hovering by the backhoe, monitoring the pouring of cement, scheduling the water delivery. It was all going fine until the tanker truck of water struck our poodle, Pierre. It was 20 years ago, but I still remember three sounds from that moment: Pierre's high-pitched yelp; the metallic screech of brakes; and my mother's low whimper. It's the same sound she makes now when the doctor says the "C" word. She sits in the hospital bed, shoulders sagging. The sinking feeling I get is the same as when Pierre lifted his head up once before it dropped to the pavement.
The oncologist explains small cell lung cancer, and I try to concentrate on his words, but it's as if I'm underwater, like when Doug and I used to talk to one another with snorkeling tubes in our mouths. The doctor leans against the wall, a clipboard under one arm. Mom's face is pale, but no paler than it's been for the past week, since bruises appeared on her legs, and she was so weak she agreed to go to the hospital. Dad and I flank her bed, his gaze fixed on the doctor. I grab my mom's hand. It's cold, and I want to hold on tight, but I'm afraid I might break her.
The doctor tells us that chemo is an option, but there are no guarantees. He does not offer a prognosis. Or an amount of time. Mom doesn't ask, nor does Dad. I want to, but I don't. My mind swims back two decades to the day Pierre died. I picture his limp body lying next to the mailbox. "How can he be dead if there's no blood?" I asked.
I think the doctor is telling us that my mom's dying, and all I can think about is my dead childhood dog. All I can think about is how quickly things change.
Chemo is our friend. As are blood transfusions, like the one that saved my mom's life the night of her diagnosis. But chemo, oh, revered chemo, it's you we pin our hopes on. We bow down at your liquid-filled IV altar. We praise your ruthless perseverance, your ability to kill the deviant cells, to chase down the disobedient interlopers. We forgive you your sloppiness, your indiscriminate taste for good cells as well as bad. At this point, you're all we've got.
Of course Mom also has her faith. "Katie," she says, "I just have to give it up to God." I twist my arm behind my back, say, "OK, God, I give," and I get a small smile from her. Silently, I pray, "Please..." But I can't seem to add specifics. I figure He can fill in the blank.
The transfusion gave her some strength back, only to be zapped away by a straight week of chemo. Some of her levels—what they measure to know whether she's doing better or worse—are up a little. Others are down. Now they've suspended treatment until she stabilizes again.
I'm visiting her in the hospital, as has become my daily routine. Tonight, only the low lights are on in her room, and she's asleep. I sit next to her bed with my laptop. One of the orderlies brought in an extra tray table for me the first night, and I've left a few folders on the table, a legal pad, a short paperclip chain. It's comforting to picture my things near her even when I'm not here. A tenuous connection constructed of office supplies.
I have a report to finish that was due yesterday, although my boss has been lenient. I might as well sit with my mom and work, even if she's sleeping, as opposed to by myself at home after eating a frozen dinner and refilling Groucho's Meow Mix.
I stand up, stretch, look out the window. The hospital sits next to the university, and I see a white house down the street where my college boyfriend used to live.
"You're still here?" Mom says, and I turn to face her, stifling a yawn.
She reaches for the Styrofoam cup on her bedside tray, and I move closer to help her with the straw, hold it to her lips. Her neck muscles strain. She exhales and lowers her head back to the pillow.
"I was just thinking about Jason," I say. "Remember him from college?"
She glances at my laptop, then at me. "I hope you're filling out that online dating application we discussed."
"How do you still have the energy to play matchmaker?" I smooth the blanket over her legs, regretting the words that point to how sick she is. I want to tell her to use her energy to fight to get well, not on my love life or lack thereof, but she's staring at me, expecting a real answer about the online dating thing. I could tell her that Eric from work asked me to have coffee with him. It's true. He asked twice and I said no twice, even though he makes me laugh. But dating a co-worker is a bad idea.
"I've been too busy with work," I say, and it's a real excuse, albeit a flimsy one, especially since it's been my go-to for years.
She regains her strength for a minute, fueled perhaps by her exasperation that I'm not on track to find a husband any time soon. "You're not going to meet someone sitting here every night," she says.
"Au contraire," I say. "The janitor on duty tonight is pretty cute."
She rewards me with a smirk, and then she closes her eyes, her breathing becoming slow and steady.
I decide to stay another half hour, which will put me home in time to shower and catch one of the late-night talk shows, so I sit back down at my makeshift desk, but I can't concentrate. I asked Dad earlier today when Mom can go home, wanting to ask if but not daring. No one has asked these questions that I'm aware of, although I haven't been privy to all of the conversations with the doctors.
I speak with Doug in Chicago on the phone late at night. We compare notes, but we can't find a hole in Mom and Dad's stories. I wish Doug were here, though, so he could see their faces. He's better than me at reading them. He told me last night to take Mom and Dad at their word, but I retorted that it's easy for him to say from two states away. Of course it's not his fault that I chose to stay in Cleveland, only a ten-minute drive from Mom and Dad, who both continue to tell us they're hoping for the best. They feel lucky to have the support they have. Family. Friends. I'm tempted to add chicken-shit children who fear the truth, but I refrain.
Lately, I'm surprised to find myself leaning on the faith I was raised in, and I'm sure this would shock Mom. Growing up, we went to church as a family—Missouri-Synod Lutheran. To this day when I eat a glazed doughnut it takes me back to those Sundays in the social hall after services where Doug and I gorged on sugary dough.
I know Mom's disappointed that I haven't attended church in years, although she hasn't come right out and said so. But God and I are on the up and up. I still talk to Him, although I'm not sure Mom would think it counts unless I also worship in His house. She's not a God-freak, just traditional.
One of the only times we skipped church when I was younger was when Pierre died, and we buried him beneath the sycamore in the backyard, just outside the pool fence. Mom said a prayer, the four of us with heads bowed. She said something about "Pierre giving his life so we could have this pool," and Doug and I laughed. Dad glared at us, but Mom continued as if she hadn't heard. By "Amen," my giggles had turned to tears and she put her arm around my shoulders. We stood there for a long time looking at the homemade wooden cross that marked Pierre's grave.
I watch her sleep now, and I play with my paperclip chain—loop together, twist apart. It's mindless, but it provides a purpose of sorts. Sandy, the night shift nurse, comes in to check on Mom. "I know where to come if I need a paperclip," she says, smiling.
"Yep, I've got the goods," I say.
Mom wakes and looks at Sandy.
"I'll just be a minute," she says, checking her watch and recording something in tiny script on the chart.
"You don't have to stay and watch me sleep," Mom says to me.
Sandy calls "Sweet dreams" and slides Mom's chart into the pocket file on the wall by the door. I fantasize about reading it cover to cover, about an inch-thick stack of papers, sure I'll find the answers I'm looking for. Not sure I want to know.
I stand up and grab Mom's water cup, hold it toward her, but she shakes her head. I pull it back and the straw flips from one side of the cup to the other, flinging a few drops of water onto her forehead. Her eyes widen.
"Sorry," I say, "runaway straw." I use a tissue to wipe the drops from her brow. It's strange to be performing this task that she should be able to do herself. I dab the water, words from church entering my mind: in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
She looks directly at me, and I wonder if I've said the words aloud without realizing, but then her blinks slow, and she's dozing off again.
"I've been thinking a lot about Pierre lately," I say.
"Of course you have, honey," she murmurs. Her wispy brunette curls are thinning, turning silver at the roots.
"Mom," I whisper, "I'm still a believer." And I want to believe it.
The amount I pay at the hospital parking garage has become my devotion gauge. If it's eight dollars, I've achieved good daughter status because I've reached the maximum daily charge for four hours or more. Less than that, I've failed. When I handed the cashier two quarters one day last week, I felt obliged to explain. On my lunch break. Need to get back.
One day I stayed past the hour that an attendant is on duty. I pulled up to the booth and the gate was open, inviting me to drive right through. Still, I paused by the window, yearning for validation.
I pull out of the parking lot on this Saturday morning, paying my one dollar for one hour, which was the plan. But driving away in broad daylight, most of the day ahead of me, feels wrong. Doug flew in last night from Chicago so I can have a break. When Mom saw Doug she brightened more than I've seen her in the month since she's been in the hospital. After he fawned over her, he hugged me, picking me up and swinging me around in a circle. I felt lighter knowing that at least for three days he would be the center of attention, a spot that suits him.
It reminds me of the splash contests we had as kids, taking turns doing cannonballs off the diving board, Mom judging. I knew that by sheer volume Doug triumphed every time, but she'd chock a win up to me now and then. I'd protest, but Doug would insist that I won, too. It seems like the more he doesn't care about the win, the more he wins, a trait I'm sure serves him well as an attorney.
And he has a beautiful wife and a baby on the way. I have a life, too—career, cat, condo, although with my free weekend looming, I haven't made plans with friends. No dates, either, although it's not for lack of trying by Eric, who's continued to ask me out despite my nepotism excuse.
Mom asked me again to consider online dating, but I changed the subject. She probably wonders if she'll live to see me date again and the possible reality of this hits me hard. It prompts me to tick off my growing list of things Mom may never do: see Doug's baby; attend my wedding; rock my children; see them baptized. Despite what she thinks, I do believe these things will happen for me someday, although I can almost hear her asking how?
I drive away from the hospital and remind myself that this is my day, so I stop to pick up a few groceries, deciding to make a decent meal for myself. I also buy Rocky Road ice cream. At home after putting away the groceries, I cuddle with Groucho on the couch, match my breathing to his purring. I try to remember the last time I had a date. Was it when my neighbor set me up with her brother, five months ago?
"Groucho," I say, nudging him off my lap. "Maybe Mom's got a point."
I grab my laptop. I've already done research on online dating sites based on Mom's insistence. Now I click on one of the sites and hit "open an account." At first it seems as easy as declaring I'm a woman looking for a man and inputting my zip code, but as I get further along, questions probe for personal information. I reach down to pet Groucho, who's now curled at my feet.
I imagine typical first date chitchat, knowing I can't be trusted not to ask the poor guy if we could speed things up, maybe even get married that day to fulfill a dying mother's wish, so I can show her that I'll be fine, even without her, I'll be fine.
I close my laptop, resisting the urge to grab my keys and drive back to the hospital. I check my phone. No messages from Doug or Dad, but there's a text from Eric asking if I'd like to get a milkshake. There r many other beverage options if coffee's not ur thing. I consider calling him, but instead I get the Rocky Road from the freezer and plop back on the couch. I eat the entire pint, leaving a trace on the spoon and holding it down to Groucho for him to lick. I wonder if, after Groucho dies, I'll still be thinking about his death 20 years in the future.
I compose a text to Eric, tell him he's getting closer with the milkshake suggestion based on my ice cream binge, but it sounds simultaneously like I'm interested in going out and like I'm pathetic, so I delete it, then I delete the start of the dating site application. If I could delete most things happening in my life right now, I would. Number one on the list: cancer. Delete. Delete. Delete.
When I'm not at the hospital, I live in fear that something will happen and I won't be there. I think of Pierre, of how we were all there, mere feet from him, and still we couldn't stop it. Cancer has undermined my glass-half-full philosophy. Who knows how long it was lingering under the surface? No indication until it had already worked its way into the blood stream, wreaking havoc on other parts of the body besides the lungs, finally deciding to show itself. I question God as to why He allows something this evil to exist. I tell Him it's not fair. I make faces at Him when I think He's not looking.
When I'm at the hospital, I sometimes need to get outside for fresh air. One of these moments has caused me to flee to the courtyard, where I also find Dad, sitting on a bench. Before she fell asleep, Mom said he'd gone to the cafeteria for coffee, so I'm surprised to see him here, no coffee cup in hand.
"Hi," I say, sitting down beside him.
"Hi." He squeezes my arm.
"Nice day," I say, tilting my face up to the sun. I want to add, "If you don't have cancer," but I'm sure it would come across as crass instead of clever.
"Kate," he says.
My breath catches, and I raise my eyebrows in an interested expression because I can't spit out the word "What?"
"The doctor said we can bring your mom home." He drapes his arm around my shoulders, and the weight of it cements me in place.
I blink. Bring her home. What does that mean?
"Even though she's a little stronger, she can't have chemo again, not unless her levels come back up. No sense in her being here when she can be home."
Hearing Dad talk about levels reminds me of the meticulous care he takes of the pool—always checking the pH, the chlorine. Skimming the surface for leaves and bugs and debris. It amazes me that he still keeps up on it so diligently even though it's mostly Mom and him that use it now, and only a handful of times each summer.
An ant crawls up the leg of the bench; I reach my hand out to flick it, but it pauses and stretches its head up and sideways, as if trying to decide which way to go. I place my hand back in my lap, not wanting to be the one to decide its fate.
"So that's good about Mom, right?"
"Not sure, kiddo," Dad says, standing up. "But we need to go tell her. And I need to clean the house up before she gets home or she'll have my hide."
I stand up, too. My phone vibrates and I pull it out of my pocket and look at it, see Dad look over, too. It's another text from Eric and I quickly hit hide without reading it and stuff the phone back in my pocket, using the moment to blink back tears.
Dad and I hold hands on the way to Mom's room, something we haven't done in years. I sit on the edge of her hospital bed and she opens her eyes. She used to sit with me at bedtime when I was young, and we'd say prayers together. The covers create a tight cocoon around her now from my weight, the same cocoon she used to spin around me.
Doug's back home in Chicago, so it's my job to go to the medical supply store to pick up a walker, portable potty, shower chair. I told Dad not to worry about the house—that I'd clean it up when I was there dropping everything off.
I haul the medical appliances inside and set them in the kitchen. I go to the den, where we've decided it will be best to set up camp for my mom since she's too weak to climb the stairs to the bedrooms.
The adjustable hospital bed won't be delivered for two days, but the sofa bed in the den will work until then. Doug slept there when he visited, so the sofa's still unfolded, but he stripped the sheets before he left. I make a mental note to get the dirty laundry and take it home with me. One less thing for Dad to worry about.
The window in the den looks over the pool. It's dusk, and Pierre's cross casts a wavering shadow on the water as the sun sets behind it. I glance into the hallway, still able to picture exactly where Pierre's dishes sat, just inside the back door. Two blue ceramic bowls on a multi-colored rag rug. For a long time after Pierre died, we didn't remove them from that spot, or empty the food and water. I finally washed the bowls out when I noticed the food was attracting ants. I placed them under the kitchen sink, behind the cleaning supplies, and no one ever mentioned it. We also left his red leather leash hanging on the hook in the hallway for a long time, and I don't know who finally took it down.
I walk to the kitchen and wonder what things of my mom's would be left behind if she weren't coming home. Her summer purse, a tan sailcloth tote, is perched on the corner desk. In the living room, there's a John Grisham novel on the coffee table. A bookmark peeks out midway through its pages. Her reading glasses lie on top. I can almost hear her questioning Doug about the book like she does with all the legal thrillers she devours.
I place the shower chair in the bathroom and notice her hairbrush, the old-fashioned kind, with soft bristles—the only one that can tame her wavy hair. I'm surprised that she hasn't asked for it, although it's the unfinished book that unnerves me most. I know why it's not at the hospital. She's too tired to read and when she tries she has trouble concentrating, a side effect of the chemo.
I force myself to stop playing the "things left behind" game. She is coming home, at least this time (the nurses—not the doctors—have hinted that there might not be a next time), and I need to get the house ready.
Back in the den, Sunday's paper sits on the end table, folded open to the crossword puzzle, half of the squares filled in with blue letters. It was a ritual for all of us to do the puzzle when Doug and I lived at home. We'd leave it on the kitchen table and take turns working it, each of us using different writing utensils—the three of them with different colored inks, and me in pencil, which Doug joked meant I had commitment issues.
The blue ink in the puzzle—Doug's color—irks me because it means he took time to do the puzzle when he was home, time he obviously wasn't spending with Mom.
I pull sheets from the armoire where Mom keeps them ready for guests. The cabinet also holds our childhood games. I grab my old Magic 8 Ball, which I consulted to make most major decisions during my teenage years. I sit on the edge of the bed and shake the ball, knowing how silly I'm being. I offer God a brief apology before I ask, "Will Mom get better?" I turn the ball's window toward me. "Ask again later" is the answer I get. I've always felt cheated by that one, but I resist a do-over and instead speed dial Doug on my cell.
"Sis," he says, answering on the first ring, "what's up?"
"I just asked the Magic 8 Ball if Mom will be OK and it told me to 'Ask again later'."
A brief pause. "So everything's fine?"
"I guess so." I only now realize that a call from me must scare him, just like Dad's calls alarm me. If I'm not there when something happens, this will be the chain of communication. Dad will call me. I will call Doug.
"Where are you?" he asks.
"I'm at Mom and Dad's. Getting the house ready." Out the window, the landscape lights around the pool switch on. Dad must have them on a timer.
"I see. And are you going to consult the Ouija Board next?"
"Funny." I put the phone on speaker so I can talk and dress the bed. "Do you know what happened to Pierre's leash?"
"Katie, you've got to stop this trip down memory lane about Pierre."
"I know." I grab a pillowcase. "Do you remember how many books Mom used to read every summer?"
He laughs. "I know she beat us. Are you sure you're OK? Do you want me to come back this weekend?"
"I'm fine." I hesitate. "Even if you come, you'll probably just sit around doing the crossword puzzle anyway," I say, my tone sharper than I intend.
He's quiet, and I'm not sure he's heard me. I want to say Sorry, but my throat seems to have closed.
"I took the puzzle to the hospital," he says, a waver in his voice. "I thought Mom and I could do it together. But she couldn't answer anything. So I worked on it that night when I couldn't sleep."
I almost laugh at him, thinking Mom could do the puzzle in her state, but he really must not have known how bad it was until he saw her.
"I know," I say.
"I do wish I could be there more. I know it's a lot on you."
"It's fine. Really." I take a deep breath. "I need to go get this stuff done. And if you're still at the office, which I know you are, you need to go home to your pregnant wife."
Before we hang up, I say love you, and he says it back, which we hardly ever do, but lately it seems silly not to say it. I walk through the house picking up a few things, but Dad exaggerated about it being a mess. There are a few dishes in the sink, which I wash and stack in the drainer to dry. I pick up a stack of newspapers from the kitchen table and carry them to the recycling bin in the backyard.
On the way back to the house, the night air wafts the scent of chlorine and I breathe it in. I grope under the rug by the backdoor for the pool fence key and unlock the gate. The evening's cooling off, but I slip off my sandals and test the water with my toes. It's warm. I look toward the neighbors, but I don't see anyone. No one in the other direction, either. I pull my t-shirt over my head and drape it on a lounge chair by the shallow end. Next, my shorts, then bra and panties.
I set my phone on the plastic table next to the chair, and just as I set it down, it vibrates. Another text from Eric. This time he's asking if I'd like to share some coconut water with him. It's all the rage, he says, and I smile. I've ignored his texts suggesting a variety of drinks, including tea, hot chocolate, iced coffee—just in case ur one of those people who don't like coffee hot, as God intended. He can't see me standing here naked but reading his text in this condition makes me feel exposed. I resist the urge to put my clothes on and force myself to stand still. A slight breeze grazes my skin and creates a ripple on the surface of the pool. Before I can change my mind, I type yes and hit send.
The landscape lights show a faint outline of Pierre's cross, and I study it, hugging my arms to fend off a chill. I miss our nightly ritual from when I was young—Mom coming into my room to tuck me in, Pierre trailing her, his metal tags jingling against the hardwood floor as he settled at the foot of my bed. The feeling that everything was fine. That everything would always be fine.
I walk, slowly, toward the deep end. The concrete scrapes the soles of my feet, the calluses from a barefooted childhood long gone. After Pierre died, I refused to swim at first, telling Mom I didn't want the pool, I just wanted Pierre back. She handed me a towel and gave me a nudge toward the door, told me the only reason I hurt so much was because I'd loved so much.
I quicken my pace as I approach the diving board and I'm close to running as I reach it, my muscles tensing from the chilly air and exertion. My legs are strong and sturdy, and I easily climb the three metal steps, but I pull up at the end of the board. A picture flashes through my mind of a summer day long ago, the four of us here together. I'm poised to jump, just as I am now. Doug practices his butterfly stroke, his arms in perfect winged position. Mom stands next to the shallow end, one hand on her hip, the other hanging at her side, gripping a paperback. Dad's next to her, lightly touching her elbow, as if to guide her through a crowd and not be separated from her.
The breeze picks up and my skin prickles. I suck my breath in, air expanding my lungs. I grip the board with my toes for balance. I bounce, three times, and push off as hard as I can with both feet and curl myself into a tightly wound ball. It's so familiar, my body operating from muscle memory alone. I hug my knees, tuck my head. I will make the biggest splash. A splash that will wash over all of us. A splash big enough to save us all.