I would see the tumor later. Dad kept it.
“Yuck! He’s sick,” the kids on the bus would say in disgust when I would say he still had it. But no, he wasn’t sick. Mom was.
She lay on the couch every day, that was it. Sometimes she pulled a blanket up. Sometimes two. Sometimes she took them off. But I never touched her blankets because she was sick and even moving the blankets hurt. Hugging her hurt the worst.
I could understand that because I was nine years old, right? I was the big girl. Couldn’t I remember to leave Mommy alone so she could sleep? Ryan didn’t know any better. He was only three.
And I would wonder: How can something hurt you so much that you can’t even hold your baby boy?
And I would think: Surgery was supposed to make you better.
And I don’t know what Mom thought because she never cried or complained. She lay on the couch, death-pale, and she ate what she was told to eat and threw it up afterwards. We all did what we were told because there wasn’t anything else we could do.
My Mimi and Papalelo came to take care of their daughter. Mimi was a registered nurse and Papalelo would come to have an entire hospital wing named after him for saving so many babies’ lives. All the way from Florida to Ohio, they brought gum and gifts and videogames and books and their stethoscopes and medical licenses and prescription pads.
They came to do all the things Mom couldn’t anymore. Wake me up, pack my lunch, put me on the school bus each morning. All dancing around Mom’s sleeping-dying figure on the couch.
And I thought: How can there be something so painful that even your own mommy and daddy can’t make you feel better?
Little by little, they helped her to stand up and walk around the living room. She was determined, they said, and after several months she could eat on her own and sleep without painkillers. This was good. Mimi and Papalelo booked tickets to go back home. Papalelo left us at the end of August. Mimi would stay for two more weeks to help Mom transition back into her life. She had a flight booked for September eleventh.
Life dragged me into September eleventh like a rollercoaster pulling me towards a drop. Mimi would leave while I was at school. This was the last day I would eat Toaster Strudels with her in the morning. This was the last day she would watch me walk to the bus stop. This was the last day her sweet lavender perfume would cover the too-clean, over-sanitized smell of the machines and medicines scattered around Mom’s couch. After this day, it would just be me, Dad, my baby brother, and the strongest woman I’d ever seen reduced to a near-ghost in the living room.
I hugged Mimi as long as I could before she sent me off to school on the morning of the eleventh. Even Fairfield East Elementary seemed agitated that day. Mrs. Wiggins didn’t care that I could hardly pay attention to her lessons. She kept glancing at her computer and talking to other teachers as I scribbled through worksheet after worksheet, thanking goodness she was not going to make me read or answer questions today. All day, she repeated the same unusual pattern of behavior: present an activity, help us begin, check her computer. And all day I waited to go home and discover how to interact with my broken-down mom.
At 3:00 I finally slunk off the cold yellow bus to walk up the hill to my house, where I would be alone with my mom and my brother and the tumor. I opened the door and tip-toed down the long front hallway towards the living room and kitchen. I had learned that this was one of the many times I should expect Mom to be napping on the living room couch. I was to quietly walk over to the kitchen table, set down my bookbag – delicately!, eat a snack, complete my homework, and go to the basement to play. As Mom’s sleep patterns repeated, so my patterns of habits would repeat.
But as I walked down the hallway, I heard the soft sound of the television for the first time in weeks. It was on. As I turned the corner to see if this meant Mom might be awake, Mimi rose from a plush green chair next to Mom’s sofa.
“Let’s get a snack for you,” she said, spinning me around and steering me toward the kitchen. I hadn’t even noticed there was no snack ready for me on the table. What I had noticed were words like “bomber” and “suicide” flashing across the television screen.
“I decided to stay for a little while longer to help your mom,” Mimi explained, her brow furrowed. Suddenly realizing Mimi hadn’t smiled once since I walked in the door, I ran over to the couch to see my mother. Mimi hurried over to distract me, but she wasn’t fast enough to stop me from seeing an airplane crash into a tall tower on the tv screen.
“Was that supposed to be your plane?” I worried. Breaths came quicker and quicker. All this time I had been worrying about my mother dying, and I had never so much given any thought to the possibility that anyone else I loved could be moments from dying, too.
“Shh, sweetie, no, no,” Mimi consoled, folding me into her arms, “I am staying to help your mom. We need to be quiet and let her rest now.”
Mom’s eyes fluttered open. “It’s ok,” she whispered. She rolled to her side, and for the first time in months, I could clamber up onto the couch to be with her. As I settled into the couch with my too-fragile mother, she reached around me, and together we watched buildings topple over on the television screen. While everything else was crumbling, my mom was putting herself back together. “It takes time and it takes effort and it takes a lot of love,” she told me, “but people are good, and they will always want to help make things right again.”