*contains a scene with self-harm and centers around a family facing a cancer diagnosis.
“We’re running out of time,” Mom says, and deep down, I worry she’s right.
Her face, eerie blue tinged, is oddly but unmistakably happy. Her weighted blanket keeps her restlessness at bay.
“Wow, these deals are just too good. Disney World seems like the obvious choice, but a cruise could be fun, too, huh?” she asks, beaming.
“Mom, I’m not interested in being stuck at sea with strangers, and you know I hate Mickey Mouse. Plus, wasn’t Walt Disney basically a Nazi-sympathizer? Can we just NOT? Besides, I love it here. Period.”
I wave my hands to indicate the glorious view I have from Dad’s side of the bed–stacks of fixer upper magazines, an empty box of Kleenex, tons of unopened mail, laundry baskets piled with clean but wrinkled clothes. A pill box the size of a suitcase on the nightstand sits too close to a collection of wine bottles—maybe empty? Maybe full? My sister sits criss-cross applesauce on the window seat, curtains closed, shoulders slumped, tongue out, thick thumbs furiously trying to jump or dodge or shoot something on that tablet.
“It’s our dysfunctional girls’ club.” I wink.
“Just think of the experiences we’ll have as a family. Ones you can keep forever. Your Dad and I always wished we could swing a trip to the Magic Kingdom for you and Ruthie, and we’ve finally been given the chance.”
“Please, I don’t want charity from some Holy Rollers, and you guys shouldn’t either,” I say.
“Vera, honey, our church loves us, and they’re trying to create memories for me, for us, and honestly, I think it will be fun. Plus, we’ll get a FastPass.” She gives me a pursed lipped smile.
I roll my eyes. “They’ve done enough: sent over tons of lasagna plates, green bean casseroles, and a Dolly Parton style wig. That’s gotta count for something, but I don’t know why you can’t see through it all. Those people just want a reason to convince others how good they are, to assure their spots in Heaven.``
“The wig is lovely, and I’m thankful for it. You know what I think, Vera? You’re much too young to be so jaded with life,” she says, her voice sinking into a sigh.
“Who are you kidding? You don’t even wear the stupid thing. That purple scarf is your go-to.”
Mom pats the sides of her head, primping the scarf stacked royally upon her head. She lifts her eyebrows.
“Would you rather sail the Caribbean or soar through the sky?” It’s her best Rod Roddy voice. Her eyes are aglow, but they lie: it’s a screen’s reflection disguised as a twinkle in her eye.
“I vote we skip any chance for motion sickness and just stay home. Air-popped popcorn, Dad’s famous blanket forts, doggie snuggles and bad movie marathons for the win. We don’t need their money, and we don’t need to go anywhere to spend quality time together. I bet Ruthie will even put her tablet aside for a day or two.”
I glance at Ruthie hopefully, but she’s transfixed.
“Maybe we can just combine the ideas and do a Disney Cruise?”
“Mom, are you deaf?” I ask and instantly regret it.
Mom’s jawline tightens. The doctor’s warning about Cisplatin is suddenly too real for us.
I gulp down the acid rising in my throat and turn off the TV. My mind is washed clean for just a moment. Goodbye Price-is-Right reruns. Peace out, plastic smiles. Ciao for now, Dian and Janice. There’s a pronounced middle finger in my head.
For a long moment, I let the ceiling fan dry the tears welling in my eyes. It’s not fair.
I jump up, snatching one, two, three nail polish bottles from off of the dresser, snag a bottle of remover, and pluck wads of used and unused cotton swabs, shove them back in the tote, and huff my way to the bathroom.
“I’ll change your toe color tomorrow, Mom,” I say.
Locking the door behind me, I shove the tote on the counter, turn the sink on full blast, and press my back against the door. “IF there is a tomorrow,” I say to myself.
Sounds I don't quite recognize escape my throat, and I slide to the floor, hoping my sobs are muffled by the water.
“The clock is ticking, Vera,” Mom calls after me, and my heart is in my stomach. I study the hexagonal pattern of the floor tile as if it’s got something interesting to add. Maybe the water can soothe me.
“We’re running out of time,” I say to the bathroom floor, squeezing my eyes shut. Inhaling. Exhaling.
The grandfather clock of my childhood–tall, ornate, towering–is ticking, singing, haunting me, and all I can do is watch my memories swing like a pendulum.
I’m eight, and it’s bedtime, and I smell berry shower fresh. I’m in my My Little Ponies nightgown, and I want wavy hair for picture day at school. Mom is humming a made up tune and combing detangler through my damp hair. She’s braiding, braiding, braiding so that tomorrow I can reveal my kinky curls.
I’m maybe ten, relaxed on Dad’s recliner, covered up in an afghan, dreaming of having my own Plinko board and winning a trip to Spain. Mom’s rage-cleaning, her long red locks tied back. She shrieks, discovering clumps of Barbie hair stuffed away in the candy dish, then hisses when she puts some pens in the coffee table drawer and discovers more faux hair. Banished to my room, I go.
Home sick, I’m about six, and Mom is placing a cool, wet washcloth upon my forehead. She serves my favorite sandwich–peanut butter and honey on super soft Italian bread, crusts cut off. I lay on the scratchy couch from Nana binging The Game Show Network. Joining me in her favorite chair, Mom knits socks for no one, bragging that her purse contents would win her cash on Let’s Make a Deal.
Suck-snot crying, my kindergarten self has just flooded the church pew with pee, soaking my best sundress because my Sunday school teacher had mean eyes and a mustache I didn’t trust. He’s the gatekeeper to the bathroom, and thinks children should be seen and not heard, so I only ask him questions in my head. Mom soaks up the puddle with a spare diaper in her purse. No harm, no foul. She’s resourceful.
It’s freshman year, just a half a year before the news, less than a year ago, and I’m chucking my Converse at the wall, sending family frames flying, tearing my Harry Styles poster, splitting him half down right between his green eyes. I’m unfairly accusing Mom of snooping through my stuff and asking her to be more like Amber’s mother, begging to have my phone in my room with me at night, telling her to let go of her trust issues. I’m screaming, “You’re the worst! I hate it here.”
I’d do anything to rewind the clock, take those words back.
I pull myself up from the floor, slow down the tap and splash my face. Meeting myself in the mirror, I see a pink-faced, puffy ghost of a girl. I turn the water to all cold and splash some more, trying to wash away the truth.
Homemade Halloween costumes for the ages, Wheel of Fortune challenges each night, not-so-nice nicknames for the ladies at the bank, and dreams about no longer living paycheck to paycheck. English gardens in the backyard and cereal for dinner…because? why not.
The hospital-like lighting of the bathroom illuminates my sorrow. Somehow I’m now tweezing the stray eyebrow hairs I spy–even the blonde ones, especially those ones because they are a challenge. One, two, three, four, fooooouuuuurrrrr, OWWWWWW! Was that skin? Must be. That’s blood.
I will continue. The pain is welcome. The blood makes it real.
Now, I’m scrubbing at my neck with a washcloth, rubbing furiously at what looks and feels like grime. If I can just wash this all away.
The clock in my head is dinging, dinging, dinging. Jenga towers are crashing. Mom’s scrubbing Sharpie tattoos off my skin, swearing like a sailor. DING. We’re building fairy gardens in terracotta pots in the backyard, hand-stamping Valentine’s cards for elementary parties. DING. She’s letting free the lightning bugs I’ve captured in Ball jars–air holes pathetically punctured into tin-like lids. DING. She grounds me for weeks after I sold her clothes to my friends and used the money to pierce my nose. DING. Mom's rocking me back to sleep after I’m convinced the monster under my bed has taken over my mind. DING. She’s dragging me along to flea markets all over the state looking for steals and deals, and I’m sick of smelling mothballs and breathing in secondhand smoke. DING. She’s calling my name.
She’s calling my name. Actually.
Breathless and blotchy from the tears and tweezing, I gasp. My strawberry blonde strands hang limp and lifeless. No more ringlets. No more braids. No more volume, no more waves. No more Mom to the rescue. It’s my turn.
A tap at the door: “Are you okay in there?”
I reach in the drawer for a brush and hair tie, but I’m compelled to pull out something cool and smooth instead.
Snip, snip, slice.
I’m laughing now. Flashback to self-service bang trims and baby doll hair salon .
I unlock the door, but don’t turn the knob. I will let her do that.
“Honey?” She chokes, looking at the clumps of my hair on the counter, in the sink, on the floor. I can feel it down my shirt, already making my bra itchy.
She has no words, pulling me in close for a hug, her hand rubbing my head, gently pulling tufts out with each stroke. I sob into the sleeve of her soft chenille robe, gnawing on her slight shoulder blade. She hums an impromptu tune in my ear.
I am a deflated balloon. She is my air.
Mom turns to face the mirror, reaches up for her scarf, and makes me the queen of the moment. As she always has.
“I can get you an appointment with my stylist in the morning,” she offers.
“Can you just shave it for me?” I plead with my tired eyes.
“Twins?” she asks, fighting a smile.
“You got it,” I say, exhaling. “Oh, and I’ll go visit Mickey as long as I don’t have to wear a Musketeer hat,” I laugh. “And as long as that’s what you want, Mom.”
She reaches under the sink, pulling out Dad’s clippers.
“Let’s do this,” she says, “We’re running out of time.”