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I could hear the doctor’s deep voice, even through my music. My clammy hands laid on my restless, shaking thighs, and the overwhelming smell of anesthesia and cleaning solutions that carried themselves throughout the hospital burned my nose. I sneezed. The doctor knocked twice; one as a warning, I guess you could say, and the other as he stepped into the room. The black and white MRI pictures shook in his unstable hands, and something about him seemed off. As he walked over to my glassy-eyed mother, he sighed.
“My team and I have reviewed all the tests we took of Mrs. Briggins here, studied your family history, and well, the diagnosis is very bleak.” As he rubbed his right elbow, he no longer seemed like the optimistic man that he was only less than six hours ago. He waited for a response from my mother, but she didn’t say anything. Her worried eyes said enough. “The tests are very clear, and unfortunately Mrs. Briggins,” he turned his attention to the weak old woman, “you have liver cancer.”
An eerie silence fell in the room, except for the tick tock of the cheap clock on the wall.
My mother gasped. She propped her right elbow on the window sill and rested her chin in her hand. “Liver cancer?” she asked. “Just a few months ago, she was told that she has cirr- cirr-”
“Cirrhosis,” the doctor said. “Well yes, that may have been the case. However, early stages of liver cancer are commonly mistaken for cirrhosis, which I’m sure you know by now, is deterioration of the liver.”
“But wait, is it treatable? Is there something we can do? Uhhh, like a transplant or something?” Her voice was shaky and cracking, she almost sounded like she was choking on her words.
“As of now, we can start chemotherapy to relieve some of the pain Mrs. Briggins is feeling. But a transplant, that may take a while. There’s an extensive waiting list for organ transplants, the liver especially.”
I sunk down into my chair a little bit farther and turned my music up more, but not so much that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The tapping of my foot against the linoleum floor became louder and the shaking of my thigh became more violent. Any good doctor would’ve expected me to be having a muscle spasm.
Dr. Lancer turned toward the sickly woman on the bed. She didn’t say a word, just stared. Her jaw was tight and she was holding her abdomen. “Mrs. Briggins, “ he said. “Your cancer is already in the advanced stage and is quickly spreading to your right lung. We will try our hardest to slow the progression of the deterioration of your lung, but there’s only so much we can do. Chemotherapy will start as soon as possible. Until then, just hold on.” His eyes traveled around the room; at the balloons and teddy bears, the cheese and crackers, the walker, and the muted TV.
“Mrs. Briggins, do you have any questions?” He turned and looked at my mother, “Do you? Please, don’t be afraid to ask. And again, we will do everything we can.” He looked down at the silent woman. The sunlight was pouring through the window and was reflecting on her silver hair. She didn’t utter a word. Dr. Lancer gave her a comforting look and held her small hand in his. Then, he got up towards the door, and as he walked past, the smell of strong antibacterial soap and cologne lingered in front of me. I sneezed.
I got up, and suddenly, I was nauseas.
* * *
Within seconds of the preacher’s last prayer, everyone is already out of their seats. The church has separated into two halves; the half that wants to say their last goodbyes, and the half that is too devastated to stand another minute in the church and wants to get out of there as fast as they can. I happen to be a part of the first half.
I stand up out of the pew, leaving my mother and little brother behind. Isaiah fell asleep during the first thirty-minutes of service, and she’s trying to wake him up. My butt is sore from sitting on the hard, wooden pew for two hours, so I figure I’m walking funny. I push my way through the sea of people: the old florist who lives down the street from me, the little kids that are so confused to the point of being scared, and the over-emotional, over-sensitive women who constantly dab their eyes and nose with dirty Kleenex‘s that they pull out of their purse. I tangle myself up in a group of old people, and trip over at least five canes and walkers during my rush to the front of the church. As I escape the crowd of liver spots and saggy skin, I get caught in between a million different voices, all whispering in both ears at the same time. “Are you ok?”, “She was a wonderful woman”, “You’re really blessed to have had her in your life”, “I hope you and your family are doing well”. I nod, I smile, I nod, and another smile. That’s all that’s needed.
She’s placed directly under the stain-glass window on the ceiling, about thirty-feet above. The sunlight is perfectly shining through, creating a natural spotlight. The casket is cherry-wood on the outside with a pink satin lining in the inside, just like she wanted it. She was a girly-girl. She’s dressed in her favorite sundress, which is kind of ironic, I guess. And they’ve turned her once yellow skin into an even, brown tone. Her face isn’t twisted in pain anymore, and if you look closely, it almost looks like she’s smiling— peacefully.
My throat becomes tight and I clench my jaw. The pastor walks over, grins, and puts his arm around me. And as the first tear falls, no words are spoken.
* * *
“Look, Grandma!” I held up the picture I was drawing. “It’s a sun. See?”
She nodded. “Very nice,” she said. She repositioned her glasses and looked back down at the crossword puzzle she was doing in the newspaper.
“Grandma,” I said looking up from the flowers I was drawing. “How old are you?”
“Not a day past thirty,” she said laughing.
“So, you’re thirty?”
“Yes, I sure am,” she said smiling. She leaned up out of her chair and walked towards the kitchen. I followed her.
“Guess what, Grandma?” I said eagerly.
“Yes, honey?” she said. She widened her eyes just as she always did when she was asking a question.
“Mommy’s thirty, too. Did you know that? I buyed her a flower for her birthday, Grandma.”
“No, you bought it, you mean.”
I twisted my face up in confusion and cocked my head to the side. “Uh-uh. I buyed it. Well, actually, I got it out the playground. At school. We have monkey bars and slides,” I said grinning.
“You like school?” she asked while spreading mayonnaise on my turkey sandwich.
“Mhmm. But I don’t like my teacher, Grandma,” I said as I scrunched up my face and shook my head.
“And why not?”
“’Cause she’s fat, like this.” I spread my arms out wide in a huge circle.
She smirked. “Now is that very nice to say?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “And when she walks her belly shakes.” I rubbed my belly like Santa and started to laugh at myself.
Grandma sat down at the table, setting her soup down in front of her. I stood with my hand on my hip and stared at her.
“Yes?” she asked.
I smiled. “Why is your skin like that?” I asked with the curiosity of a five-year-old.
“Like what?” she asked.
“It’s saggy,” I laughed. “And it goes down like this.” I demonstrated by pulling my cheeks down.
She looked at me, kind of appalled, as if what I said was unbelievable. She watched the clock and then said, “Come on,” ignoring the remark I just made. “My show’s on.”
I followed her back into the living room, making a game out of jumping over the imaginary alligators that were trying to catch me.
“Grandma, watch out! The alligator will eat you!” I yelled as I pointed to the floor.
She screamed a phony scream and said, “C’mon! Get to the couch before they get us!”
I ran to the couch as fast as I could, and yelled, “I won!”
“You sure did,” she said smiling. She reached over to the coffee table, got the remote, and turned up the volume on the already blaring TV. When Bob Barker’s face appeared on the screen, she leaned back and pulled me closer.
* * *
“Excuse me, ‘scuse me, ma’am. Sorry,” I say as I walk through the crowd towards the front of the church, bumping into people on the way. Everyone¾ family and friends, friends and family, are all congregated in the church lobby, making it a lot harder than it should be to get to the front. Sharing of memories, over-exaggerated crying, and laughter (in an attempt to lighten the mood), fill the room around me.
“Isaiah, come on!” I say as I spot my little brother flirting with some little girl. He gives me this death glare, as if I interrupted something, which I probably did, and sleepily walks toward me.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
“I- I was talking to, umm…” he rubs his eyes.
“Shut up. That’s probably your second-cousin, or something like that. We don’t do that in this family.” He looks at me, confused. I didn’t expect him to understand what I was saying, anyway. “Let’s go.”
I grab his left arm and pull him out of the church, completely ignoring the constant “Ouch” and “Let go!” that I keep hearing. As I open the glass door, a rush of heat comes toward us. The yellow cardigan I’m wearing over my strapless dress has obviously become too much for the afternoon weather.
“God, it’s hot out here,” I say as I put my hand over my eyes in an attempt to not be blinded by the sun.
“I know,” Isaiah says as he pulls his arm out of my grip. “Where’s Mommy?”
I shrug. And tug at my cardigan.
“It’s only the three of us, Mom,” I say.
She gives me a weak smile. Well, more like a fake smile. Her makeup is smudged and streaks of black eyeliner run down her face. I don’t know how, but she must’ve escaped to the car fast enough for Isaiah and I not to notice, so she could cry in silence.
“How long’s the drive?” I ask.
“Hmm, about an hour or so,” she says.
“Which car is Grandma in?” Isaiah asks.
“The one at the very, very front,” my mother says.
“Is she going there, too?”
“No. They’re gonna drive her around town and bring her back here,” I say sarcastically. My mother gives me a look, telling me to shut up. “Ok,” I say, leaning my head against the window.
I step out of the car and stretch my long legs, which aren’t meant to be stuffed up in the front seat of a tiny Subaru for an hour-and-a-half. The graveyard is large, one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen. Marble statues of Jesus and angels stand almost everywhere you look. Tall willow trees wave in the breeze, brushing the tops of roses and tulips as they sit in plastic vases around the tombstones, and the grass is well-kept. I open the door for Isaiah and follow Mom to wherever she’s going. Of course, as usual, she’s twenty steps ahead of us. What’s up with her just walking away without saying anything?
The walk is rough. Pacing up and down paved hills in hard sandals, in ninety-five degree weather under the June sun, was not what I’d choose to be doing right now. Everyone, about two-hundred people, is tightly packed under this small, green tent. Women’s sun dresses are flowing in the breeze, almost making a cape effect. A summery, pastel-colored, flowery, cape. “I don’t like black. Its too…too overdone, depressing,” she said. “Everyone wears black to funerals. Don’t do that. It’s ugly. Make me happy. Matter fact, make yourselves happy. So no black.” Even on her deathbed, talking through her last breaths, she was still lively.
After the pastor’s last prayers, we place pink and yellow roses on the top of the casket. I put my right hand on it. “I love you,” I say.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as I stood over my mother. She was sitting by the window in the kitchen. Half of her body was one huge shadow, and the other half was being shone on by the setting sun.
“Your grandmother,” she said.
“Is she ok?” I sat down beside her.
“No, honey. She hasn’t been ok for the past month.” I looked down. She pulled a tissue from her pocket, and dabbed her eyes. “She couldn’t do it anymore.”
“What are you saying?”
“She’s gone. Dr. Lancer said her liver failed completely, and the cancer spread to both lungs and some other organs within a couple of hours. A couple of hours! Can you believe it?” she shook her head and sighed.
“Does Isaiah know?” I asked.
“No. No, not yet.”
“When are you gonna tell him?”
“Sooner or later, like, tonight,” she said through sniffling.
I silently got up. My eyes started to well, and I could feel my thigh starting to shake.
The weather is just as it was two weeks ago. The relentless sun has carried itself over the fourteen days with a hint of a breeze, officially marking the beginning of summer. Mom wanted to come back to the site to place more flowers around the tombstone.
She’s buried in the far left of the cemetery, the newest part. As I walk to her grave, I read the other headstones: Robert Watkins; 1953-2008, William Levi; 1964-2009, Rachael Roberts; 1975-2010, all relatively young. And then, there’s hers:
“In Loving Memory Of
The burial is rather isolated, with only the bushes and tiny sprouts of grass poking through the soft dirt for company. Grass hasn’t even fully grown on or around it, making the site look like one large mound of dirt with a granite stone poking from the top.
“Looks nice, huh?” Mom says as she places the flowers in the vase. I nod. “Your grandmother would’ve loved these. Pink was her signature color,” she says smiling as she positions the flowers. “You ok?” she asks.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” The breeze picks up making my hair swing all around my face. The willow trees, the flowers, and the grass all wave wildly.
“Your grandmother loved you,” she says. “She loved you all, but she always said she saw something in you, especially.”
“Yeah.” I wipe a tear out of my eye.
“She wraps her arms around me and holds me tight. “Don’t worry,” she says. “You’ll see her again.”
I look back down at her grave. “I love you, Grandma.” The wind picks up and begins to whistle, and in between the whistling, I here her say, “I love you, too,” just as she’s always done.
Mom grabs my hand. “Let’s go,” she says smiling. And we walk back to the car, the cool breeze chasing us into the sunset.