March 4, 2012
By Anonymous

I am an oil painting. A blank canvas, smudged with charcoal, I rest uncertainly on a wooden easel. As the paintbrush glides across my coarse white cloth, it leaves streaks of watery pigment. The colors are pale, diluted with linseed oil. The Russian art teacher squints her beady eyes. Vhy does it look like a poh-tatoe. Faster and faster the brush flutters across my surface, coaxing the shapes from their outlines. The owl appears. A bird of prey, it clutches a limp mouse in its talons. Its yellow eyes glow like streetlamps in dark mist. Eyes that are hollow, empty—yet full of longing. For what, I don’t know. I am only a painting.

It was a crisp autumn day. I remember everything. The wind gently rustled the oak leaves as I walked home from school, scattering the sidewalk with gold and burnt orange. My muddied, black high-top Converse pounded furiously into the pavement. How could she “forget” to invite me to her birthday party? Best friends didn’t do that. They couldn’t. Slamming the front door, I marched determinedly up the spiral staircase. Mom would wrap her arms around my shoulders and whisper that the storm always passes. She would conjure up a soothing mug of milk with a touch of cinnamon—just how you like it, and squeeze my hand. When you squeeze someone’s hand for three seconds, it means I Love You. She taught me that.

The moment I crossed the threshold of my parent’s bedroom, I knew. It was the air. The tension was tangible, and I wanted to bottle it up and place it on a dusty shelf alongside other forgotten trinkets. Elementary school soccer trophies, old sketchbooks, the broken lamp that nobody had bothered to fix. My father’s deep voice echoed in the bathroom, his words muffled behind the closed door. "But a mammogram would have detected it." My father had never—not once—come home before six o’clock sharp. Every night he strolled through the front door, briefcase swinging by his side, to a candlelit dinner and a beer bottle sitting loyally at his paisley placemat. "The doctor called me an hour ago. It’s stage 2B. 3.7-centimeter tumor. Already spread to one lymph node." I reached for the crystal doorknob, but my outstretched fingers refused to move.

Mom still cooked dinner that night. She hovered over the stove in a red-checkered apron, quickly chopping garlic cloves with the same meticulous attention. Shrimp and scallop spaghetti with a dusting of parmesan. Our Wednesday night special. My father still sat at the end of the table, half-heartedly cracking jokes that my brothers found amusing. There was a lull in the conversation, a moment of content silence, the clinking of silverware against the china like bells. Then ten-year-old Henry curiously fixated his gaze on Mom’s swollen eyes. “Why is your face so red?”

“Allergies,” she answered automatically, a tight smile plastered on her face. It faded when my father steered the conservation into safer territory. Little League, piano recitals, the weather. She absently looked through the foggy windowpanes, a wine glass teetering precariously on her long fingers. I stared at my untouched spaghetti. The room again fell silent, until I asked to be excused and trudged slowly upstairs. To think that an hour ago I had climbed these same stairs, infuriated by the glaringly empty mailbox. Now I couldn’t care less about that damn invitation. I stood on my bedroom deck, my body trembling from the piercing cold. I waited. It was a beautiful autumn evening—the velvet sky studded with diamonds, the faint chirping of the crickets. The trees shuddered with the gusts of wind, leaves clinging determinedly to the thin branches of the oaks. I waited for an answer. Why her? Cancer infected strangers. Cancer was the obituaries of faceless people in the local newspaper, prayer requests at church, statistics taught in health class. I stood on the deck for a very, very long time. When I finally decided to return, my brothers were fast asleep. Muffled voices drifted from my parent’s bedroom like a terrible odor.

The paintbrush trips, falls. The owl’s wing is tarred with a thick black stain. In a fleeting second the bristles move in the wrong direction, gracelessly splaying against my surface, and the colors are ruined. I was supposed to be olive-green, glistening in the moonlight, but instead I am an ugly blotch of darkness. All that careful layering for nothing. I fade into the backdrop of the night sky as the paper towel hurries to recover the damage.

The next months were hazy and blurred, like wandering through a thick blanket of fog. Ultrasounds, MRIs, surgeons, bilateral mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy—words I didn’t quite understand and didn’t want to understand. Words that I carefully used when four-year-old James tugged on my flannel shirt and asked "Where’s mommy?" Words that crinkled his eyebrows in confusion, because they could not wheel her out of the white walls of the hospital and into the home where she belonged. Words that explained why Mom’s skin was pale and sallow when we visited, spidery blue veins crawling up her neck. Why her balding head shone in the fluorescent light.

I remember curling up with James on the couch and absently flipping through the colorful pages of Curious George. Thumb in his mouth, he tightly grasped his blankie. There were permanent nail marks in the lavender fabric. We walked to the park hand-in-hand in the pouring rain, played fetch with the dog, baked chocolate chip cookies, made a fort out of pillows—anything to suppress Where’s Mommy. After his tee-ball game one Saturday afternoon, he looked up at me with pools of tears gathering in deep blue eyes. “I wanted Mama to see me play. She’s never coming back from sur-jer-ee, is she?” I sat him down on a bench and assured him that the storm always passes, squeezing his hand for three seconds. When we got home, I would even conjure up a mug of soothing warm milk. With a touch of cinnamon—just how you like it.

I am an oil painting displayed prominently in the front hall, appreciated and admired. Passers-by observe the brilliant cadmium of the owl’s eyes, the anatomical accuracy of the outstretched wings, and the smooth blending of the night sky. “Pretty picture,” they smile, and keep walking. They forget but I will always remember. Strip away the feathers’ thick layer of mahogany and there is a black splotch that a paper towel failed to erase. It scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed but the stubborn stain refused to acquiesce. In a strange way, I like knowing it’s there.

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