Tree houses & Butterflies

She sits across from me on our white sofa, the large picture window behind her alluding to a gorgeous fall morning. With coffee in hand, her focus is on me, not the paintings we’ve collected, the blue and white pottery that sprinkles our home with wedding memories. None of it interrupts her singular focus. She takes a brief sip, then leans forward slightly, her small frame pointing right at me.

“Okay,” she says, “go.”

I take a breath and wonder how to start. But she knows it all, has seen it all. I dive in and as the words tumble out of me, fast and breathless, she nods, her red ponytail bobbing to the beat of her understanding. She understands these words of “no control”, “anxiety”, “never knowing”, “what if”, “clinical trial”, “cancer”. She has built her own understanding of these words through her experience with this wretched disease. She receives my monologue sitting tall and strong, unaffected, waiting. Then it is her turn, my mentor, to tell me that she and her husband have suffered the same, that they’ve left some trials, been kicked off others, didn’t qualify for others. They’d made plans and then watched those plans crumble at their feet. They’d seen cancer disappear and reappear like a magic trick in her husband’s body. But they remain together. This woman sitting in front of me is living, breathing proof that it is possible: life beyond this darkness is possible.

“I can’t believe he’s still alive, frankly,” she admits, leaning back into the sofa. “We’ve buried so many friends who’ve lost their lives after joining this cancer club–” she pauses for the briefest moment, as if in tribute to them all, then continues–”and we always wonder why he hasn’t been one of them.”

My heart stops for a minute and my stomach turns; we’ve entered a portion of the conversation I wish to exit. Instability, suspended trials, uncertain future; all concepts that keep me awake at night. But death–of my husband; I am too weak to return to that place of fear, relentless anxiety, that I lived in for months after first learning of his diagnosis. I have no strength left. I avert my eyes, unconsciously signaling that I don’t want to be here, don’t want to discuss this. I feel a wave of exhaustion engulf my body. I am so tired, I think to myself as I cup my latte, now cold, between my hands. I look back to my mentor, my friend. She is a constant reminder that there will be life after this moment of uncertainty but also a reminder that it never leaves, that there will never again exist a life without cancer, a life without knowing it can always, always, come back.

My toddler enters the room and his attention falls squarely on our visitor. Without hesitation, he scoots beside her on the couch and presents his favorite book–an illustrated Spanish/English dictionary–and asks her to read it. I take advantage of the lull to change the baby, and as I climb the stairs with my heavy, squirming baby in arms, I smile listening to the conversation bubbling over between the two, as if two old friends catching up after years apart. Moments later I return, slowly descending down the steps, enjoying what I see: my toddler’s small feet dangling just off the edge of the white microfiber cushions, my friend leaning toward him, nodding as he tells her about the planets he’s discovered within the pages of his picture dictionary, reminding her that Pluto is no longer part of the club. I wish we were Pluto, I think to myself, perched on the bottom step, my baby resting contentedly on my hip. I wish we’d wake up one morning to a phone call with our doctor on the other end who’d proclaim, “Wait! Did we say cancer? No, no, it’s not cancer! So sorry for the confusion!” And then-poof!-back to life as we knew it. I don’t want this lifetime membership.

My baby squirms out of my arms and my attention turns back to my son and my mentor; they have moved on to tree houses.

“Wow, I’d really like to see that,” my toddler says dreamily, imagining the tree house in our friends’s backyard, already daydreaming about playing there. “Mommy!” he says as he finally notices me again, “did you know they have a tree house?!”

I shake my head, I did not know that!, and usher the boys to the kitchen for lunch. For all that her family has been through–cancer, trials, countless question marks, just like us–they also have tree houses, kids on the cusp of adulthood, a normal life. I stop as I pass through to the kitchen, my eye catching on bright colors in the backyard as I stop at the window: miniature golf clubs strewn about the grass, the top of the turtle sandbox askew, the soccer ball my boys had been searching for this morning hidden in the back corner. In spite of cancer, there is normal life here. Remember to tell the boys where the soccer ball is, I tell myself. Don’t forget.

***

I hear his small, confident voice as he reads Hop on Pop to his brother. The room is just beginning to brighten with early morning sun and I know it is early.

My husband didn’t sleep well last night, his sleeplessness having long been an indicator of his internal distress, and his tossing and turning last night gave him away. It is five days after the news of his trial’s suspension, and it is now physically evident that he is just as unsettled as I about the news. The unknowns aren’t just eating me alive, they’re manifesting in stress dreams, sleep talking; they steal his peaceful sleep.

“Sad dad bad had. Dad is sad, he had a bad day, what a day dad had!” my toddler’s voice wafts into our room and my eyes flutter open and set their gaze upon my husband’s face. He is facing me, one arm under his pillow, eyes closed. I notice the crease marks on his cheek. In the morning light of our bedroom, the dark circles beneath his eyes betray his exhaustion. I want to take away his anxiety and replace it with peace, with rest, because he deserves nothing less. Instead I close my eyes again and listen to my toddler recite the rest of the book to our baby and imagine the two of them as I find them every morning: sitting up in the baby’s crib, matching jammies, golden strands of hair catching the light of the first rays of morning sun, surrounded by books that my toddler has hoarded into the crib like a squirrel with acorns in the fall. I hear them giggle. My husband stirs. I wish for their biggest problem in life to be not enough books in the crib.

***

Walking back from our neighbor’s house, I shuffle my feet through the deep pile of autumn leaves that has gathered along the side of the road. I look at my feet, clad in flip flops, feel the sweat rolling down my back under my tank top on this 88 degree day on this first weekend of October, and think what a strange feeling it is to be this hot in the fall. Flip-flops and fall leaves, it feels wrong. It all feels wrong. I reflect on my need to go see my neighbors, to commiserate with people who know just how wrong life can be. I knew today was the day they’d receive an obscene amount of flowers in an effort to bring cheer, but I also knew with the grand surprise there would be tears, grief, that feeling of it all being wrong. And, selfishly, in my own sense of grief, I am drawn to them. Our neighbors, living in their own darkness with brief periods of light, ride their emotions in tandem with ours. I barge in–knock, knock–and note the two-dozen empty delivery boxes and as they asked me, in spite of their pain, how I am doing, I begin to cry. I don’t even try to hold back–they know better. Tears of embarrassment–how could I possibly think my pain was comparable?–and tears of relief–these people understand deep-seated pain.

I kick a big pile of leaves before entering our backyard, feeling the sharp, dry leaves on my toes. No, I think, not like this. The extreme heat in the fall. It’s wrong. Life made a mistake. Mothers should hold their babies; fathers should see their children grow. Wives should fall asleep with their husbands by their side. This isn’t how life is supposed to go. Underneath my overwhelming sadness, I am angry.

“Misery loves company,” I recall my neighbor shouting over his shoulder as I leave them arranging their flowers into vases that littered their kitchen table, “come over anytime. We’ll return the favor.”

I feel exhausted as I walk up the stairs of our small townhouse in this small neighborhood. I feel lost, and as I enter the house and am greeted by the brisk smack of air-conditioned air on my hot skin, I crash into another reminder of how backward it all seems. This scorching heat in October, the piles of crunchy leaves in heat that belongs in summer. And yet knowing I can walk next door and find people who understand how painful life can be, people who embrace it simply because they have to, who can smile as they arrange flowers, finding the beauty in the wrong, finding friends in the darkness, brings me a bit of peace.

I pick up my half-drunk cup of tea; it is cold by now, abandoned in my quest for companionship, but I drink anyway. I grab a sweater—the air-conditioning is too cold–and I smile at the gorgeous bouquet of basil, waiting to be made into pesto, from our neighbor’s garden. Small successes in dark moments. I remember the butterfly in their backyard two days ago, remember the surprise and the joy I felt at spotting this beautiful reminder. I stare at the basil and realize this is how life goes: these small moments of flowers, fresh herbs on counter tops, butterflies in backyards, they are our light through the dark.

I hear car tires roll through dry leaves and realize my husband is home after a morning of errands with the two boys. I remove my sweater and head outside with my flip-flops and tank top to help with the boys and the goods. My husband holds a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other.

“I thought you might like these,” he says, handing me the autumn-inspired arrangement, its blazing fall colors looking out of place in the summer-like sun. Light in the dark, I think. I grab a hold of him and hug him fiercely. I don’t let go. I feel my eyes burn with tears trying to escape, I hear the boys crunch through leaves as they scramble into the backyard seeking out their toys. I allow myself to feel all of this moment–where heat scorches in October, where wives wonder if husbands will be well tomorrow, where parents weep for babies–and where life moves on in spite of the wrongs.

I don’t want this lifetime membership to the cancer club. But we have one anyway. And in spite of it, we will find tree houses and soccer balls, treasure butterflies, fill cribs with books, share basil and send flowers. Screw the cancer club, I think, holding my husband’s hand in mine and watching my boys run through the backyard, cradling my flowers in the crook of my arm.

“Go find the soccer ball!” I shout to them, “it won’t be this warm much longer!”

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