I was seven the first time I learned about death. The cold finality of it all surrounded me like a blanket, keeping me company the remaining days of my life. I remember the coffin, light blue with brass handles. The flowers—lilies, evocative of death—covered every possible surface filling the church with their strong, honey-laced aroma. I watched as the adults stood in hushed groupings going over the details of her demise
“Cancer,” said my oldest aunt. Time erased her name from my memory. I saw her mostly at funerals and the occasional wedding.
“So sad…she was so young,” Maggie managed to choke out as she dabbed her eyes with the tissue she removed from the inside sleeve of her sweater. She was a longtime friend of my grandmother. She cried not only at funerals but also after viewing Folger’s coffee commercials.
Great-aunt Esther was young, at least too young to die of cancer. As a child, fifty-five seemed old. But that age so easily attained by some seemed elusive to my family. The number became the litmus test by which my family marked all occasions.
A week later, I went with my grandmother to help her clean out her sister’s belongings. I felt like an interloper to her grief, to this sacred space where I did not belong. Great-aunt Esther was only just passing through a week before, not knowing that it would all end. I often wondered if she regretted not knowing who shot J.R. Maybe it didn’t matter so much now.
“You should take something,” Grandma Alice said as she started emptying the closets.
Surrounded by boxes labeled Goodwill, she began the sorting process. Into them, she placed the best of Great-aunt Esther’s things. Eventually, they would wind up in the home of someone who needed them. That person would never know my great-aunt or the fact that she died too young.
I looked around; I didn’t know what to take. At one point in her life, she collected porcelain elephants, then tiny dolls, before moving on to painting to fill her childless hours. I felt no connection to them, and nothing said take me. Finally, I settled on a pale-blue wrap the same color as her coffin. I assumed it must have been her favorite color.
Grandma Alice and I spent the remainder of the afternoon sorting and boxing until the rooms were devoid of Great-aunt Esther’s personality. Now, they were just empty spaces where life had once been. Every so often, I caught sight of my grandmother stopping to dab her eyes as she took some small item that held a meaning only they shared. She chose a tiny, white, porcelain elephant; a small pair of gold-stork embroidery scissors; a few of her scarves; and a photo album. She gently placed them all in the small shopping bag she brought with her. It amazed me then, and still holds some wonder for me now, how an entire life can be winnowed down to the contents of an Acme shopping bag.
I marked the passage of my childhood into adolescence by the event of death. I broke my arm falling off my bicycle after Aunt Cecilia but before Uncle Harry. I had my first heartbreak sometime right after Grandma Alice died. At least my boyfriend had had the decency to wait until after the funeral to tell me.
“You’re just too sad all the time,” he said like it was something I could turn on and off like a TV.
I just lost my grandmother , I thought, knowing that it was only an excuse. There was nothing that I could say. I am who I am.
“I just want to be around someone who likes to have fun, like Ashley. It’s nothing personal.”
It was then I learned the horrible truth: life and love are both fleeting. I wasn’t a popular girl, and Ashley was a cheerleader whose constant perkiness always baffled me. I spent my teen years listening to melancholy music and debating whether or not Goth was a good look. I didn’t believe I was obsessed with death, but to be honest, it was my constant companion. When other families had reunions and picnics in the summer, we opted out. Our family reunions were the funerals that seemed to happen at a pretty regular pace.
I was a sophomore in high school when I gave up my after-school activities and started spending time in hospital waiting rooms with my mother. Aunt Cecilia, the oldest, was the first to go. Her diagnosis of liver cancer came six weeks before her death. My Uncle Harry, my mother’s youngest brother, followed a year later with a brain tumor that no one saw coming; he was only thirty-eight. Aunt Lori waged an epic war against three different types of cancers before her heart finally gave out the day after my college graduation. She had always been the fighter of the family.
After school, I used to sit with Aunt Lori at the hospital during her treatments, while I waited for my mother to meet me there after work. The hospital was on the way home and stopping there was much better than going back to an empty apartment. On her better days, Aunt Lori and I would talk about music, play cards, and watch General Hospital. She was obsessed with the love triangle between Sonny, Brenda, and Jax. I remember her telling her hospice nurse that she hoped heaven had General Hospital.
“Are you scared?” I asked. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the answer, but I asked anyway.
“Not anymore.” Aunt Lori gave up this revelation willingly. “When I first found out I had breast cancer, I was terrified. Then they cut them off and gave me these,” she said as she did a little shimmy for me.
Having been a member of the itty-bitty-titty committee her entire life, Aunt Lori was quite proud of her new breasts. A full C cup was the least that cancer could give her in return for the many months she hung her head over a toilet bowl, fearing she would give up the ghost at any moment.
I sat with her, holding her left hand as the nurse shoved the butterfly needle into her arm for the IV. It was the beginning of her third dance with cancer. It had moved from her breasts to her liver, and now it was in her bones. Cancer seemed hell-bent on claiming my Aunt Lori as much as she was determined to fight it. But finally, death pried her claim over her life out of her cold hands.
“I think I’m becoming numb to it,” Aunt Lori remarked when she saw me wince as the nurse stuck the needle in her arm.
I smiled as she squeezed my hand.
“I’m glad you’re here with me, but you really should be off doing whatever kids your age are doing these days.”
“I’m fine where I am. I’m not much for hanging out—don’t see the point.”
“Don’t see the point.” Aunt Lori laughed. “The point is to have fun with as much of your life as you have left to live.”
“But you’re not having fun sitting here getting that junk shoved up your arm.”
“That junk is giving me more time.” I rolled my eyes, but she continued. “This treatment might give me another six months, or if I’m lucky, maybe a year. Do you know what I could do with a year?”
I shook my head.
“I could see another Thanksgiving where maybe I won’t throw up all my dinner.” She laughed again. “I could see you graduate, feel the warmth of a summer day, watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day. There are so many little things you take for granted when you’re young, which age and wisdom kick you in the pants for later.”
I hung my head in shame. Aunt Lori was fighting so hard for another year just to see another sunrise. Sitting in the hospital with her took up the bulk of my college years, but I was the closest thing she would ever have to a child. The cancer had claimed her fertility along with too many years of her life.
I can hear my mother’s voice on the phone, so clearly, the call could have come yesterday. She debated whether or not to tell me while I was driving. Her better judgment won out because she didn’t want me walking into the house not knowing. It wasn’t a shock; we all knew the day would come. I just never thought it would be that particular one.
“I thought she’d make it,” my mother said, trying to help Uncle Bob decide on his late wife’s funeral clothes. “Why didn’t she make a plan? She had to have known this was coming even if she didn’t want to accept it.”
“I’ll leave it to you, Joyce,” Uncle Bob said as he shook his head and left the room to compose himself.
My mother turned to me. “I’ll never leave you holding the bag, that’s for sure.”
My Uncle Donald was the next of my mother’s siblings to die after Aunt Lori. He never quite got over the loss of his baby brother, but he pushed on for Lori. He took care of her as best he could, leaving her side only to go to work. The day of her funeral he sat beside the elm tree that shaded her grave. He just sat there, his eyes blank pages . You could see his heart was broken. A week later, he was dead; his heart had failed him at fifty-four. In my mind, he never got up from that tree; he just stayed there, guarding his favorite sister.
After every funeral, my mother and I would set about the task of packing up the short lives that ended so cruelly and brutally.
“Cancer is a nasty business,” my mother said as we boxed up Aunt Lori’s things, her husband too distraught to do it himself.
“Do you think you’ll get it too?” I asked. It was the first time we had ever spoken of what seemed to be our inevitable fate. We knew she would turn fifty that year even if she never spoke of it. I knew she could see the grains of sand in her hourglass slowly running out.
“I take care of myself the best I can, and I don’t borrow trouble. But don’t worry, I’ll never leave you holding the bag, I’ll have a plan.”
That was all she would say about the subject. It was almost an unspoken rule in our family. You don’t mention it. You whisper the word cancer like it’s there waiting for you, ready to strike at the sound of its name. I would never forget that moment my mother taught me everything I needed to know about life and how to handle the challenges ahead of me in a single sentence. It was our family motto: Hope for the best; plan for the worst.
My mother was never really that close to Aunt Mary, her youngest sister. She used to say it was because of the age difference—fifteen years—that they didn’t have all that much in common. My mother felt more like her mother and less her sister, which of course Aunt Mary hated. When Aunt Mary came to stay with us after Grandma Alice died, I gained an older sister instead of a live-in aunt.
We shared a bedroom, Aunt Mary and me until I went off to college. The best thing about it was our late-night conversations, which occurred long after my workaholic mother collapsed into bed.
“Mary,” I whispered into the blackness of our room.
“Yes, K.T.” That was Aunt Mary’s pet name for me because she hated Katherine and refused to call me Katie as everyone else did. At first, she called me Taylor Tot because I was little and my last name was Taylor. Once my father divorced my mom, I grew up and shed not only the “ tot” but the “Taylor” as well.
“Do you want to get married?” I asked.
“That’s random. I doubt it.”
“Why? Don’t you want to have kids?”
“I think it’s selfish to subject someone to the curse,” Aunt Mary whispered the word curse. She didn’t need to spell out what she was referring to, it was obvious. I’d never seen it as a curse before, but lying in the dark with Aunt Mary, we dared to talk about it that way.
Aunt Mary continued, “Would you want to bring a kid into the world knowing it’s going to get sick and die? Or fall in love with someone knowing that eventually you’re going to get sick, and they’re going to have to watch you die? Selfish if you ask me.”
“So we’re just supposed to stay alone the rest of our lives?” The prospect seemed depressing to me. I always saw myself with a family. I always wanted to have Thanksgivings surrounded by grandchildren. But our family was almost gone, and my dream was nothing but a fairy tale.
“I’m not saying stay alone. Have boyfriends, go out on dates, but don’t fall in love and don’t get married and have kids.”
Aunt Mary would eventually find a man who refused to live by her code of never settling down. In exchange for marriage, he honored her request, and they never had a child. I filled in that role as a surrogate daughter. I never knew if Aunt Mary regretted her decision not to have children; but if she did, she never showed it.
I lived by Aunt Mary’s motto until I met a man who refused to take no for an answer. Charlie gave me the courage to hope that what was the fate of so many people in my family, didn’t have to be mine. We met in a bookstore. I was perusing the Fiction section trying to find something new and interesting to read when he noticed me.
“Excuse me,” He said as he reached past me to grab a copy of Catch-22 off the shelf. I stepped back to give him room. “I know this is going to sound forward but can I buy you a cup of coffee?” I must have looked at him like he was crazy because he quickly added, “We don’t even have to leave the store, the coffee shop is upstairs.”
It was at that moment that I looked at him and not just that passing glance you give someone when they speak to you. He was so full of life that it oozed out of his pores. He stood there, looking down at me, waiting for an answer but I couldn’t speak. I was struck dumb and searching for words that I knew were in my vocabulary but refused to emerge from my mouth. Finally, I blurted out, “Sure” with such force that I must have sounded like I had a stutter.
He introduced himself as Charles, but he preferred Charlie. I asked him to tell me all about himself, and he responded with, “I like Pina Coladas and long walks in the rain.” He made me laugh to the point I had tears in my eyes, and I so needed to laugh. The feeling of uncontrollable laughter was intoxicating. He had me, and he knew it. We were inseparable for an entire year before he asked me to marry him.
When I asked my mother to help me prepare for a winter wedding, she couldn’t have been more thrilled.
“You’re not getting married in a red dress,” my mother remarked. I watched as she rose from the settee in the changing room to pick out something else for me to try on. She was moving slower, and for the first time, I noticed that she didn’t look well.
“It’s not a red dress; it’s ivory with a red sash. I am getting married on Christmas Eve, Mama. Don’t you think there should be a little red in my dress?”
“Have the bridesmaids wear red then.”
I didn’t even have enough friends to even out the number of groomsmen Charlie wanted, so I wound up with a bridal party made of up his sisters and a first cousin. Lasting friendships were the casualties of an adolescence spent in hospital waiting rooms. After trying on about ten more dresses, my mother finally gave her blessing to the “red dress.” I was never sure whether she gave up because she liked it, or because she was too tired to fight me on it.
We spent the remainder of that day tasting cake, picking flowers, and ordering invitations. By that evening, we were spent, and instead of driving the hour back home, I decided to stay with her. The condo was smaller than I’d remembered it, but that’s the problem with time: everything that once seemed large shrinks with the passage of it.
“You know I never planned on getting married,” I blurted out.
My mother rolled over in the bed to face me as I stared up at the ceiling, not knowing why I’d said what I said or where this conversation was going. She said nothing and waited for me to continue.
“Why don’t we ever talk about it?” I asked. “I mean, we have this thing, this horrible thing that seems to be tearing our family apart, and no one ever wants even to discuss it or try to fight it.”
“You can’t fight what’s in your blood. That’s why you have to live.”
“How can we live when we know we’re going to die?”
“Everyone is going to die at some point, my dear.”
“It just seems like we have an earlier expiration date.”
Four months later, my mother would walk me down the aisle and give me away. I went on my honeymoon to Italy without even knowing that she was ill. While I flew over the ocean, she had a double mastectomy with only Aunt Mary to keep her company. I never got angry with her for keeping it a secret from me. My mother wanted me to enjoy that time in my life without illness overshadowing it. I know those four months from her diagnosis until her surgery had to be agonizing. I often wonder how many times she wanted to tell me, but held it inside. She walked the road alone, leaving me to my newly wedded bliss until she could hide it no longer.
My mother breezed through her treatment with Aunt Mary, Charlie, and me by her side. The day she told me she was cancer free, a weight was lifted off my chest. Somehow she knew, and her crooked smile revealed what she would never say. It was going to come back.
Life seemed to move on normally, at least for a while. We were drunk on the normalcy of our lives. Sunday dinners with my mother, date nights and summer barbecues with Charlie’s family made my life feel normal for the first time.
“I think we should have a baby,” Charlie said over breakfast one morning.
I told him all about my Aunt Mary and the pact she had made with her husband.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. Charlie was never one to hide how he felt about something.
“You mean to tell me that he agreed not to have children just because at some random point the child may or may not get cancer. Do you hear how ridiculous that sounds?”
I mumbled, “It’s not ridiculous.”
He continued, “I could understand if we had some genetic abnormality that would affect the kid’s entire life, but we don’t.”
“Then there’s no reason for us not to have a child.”
I left the room, conceding the battle but not the war. But Charlie would not be deterred; he bombarded me with articles and statistics. It took him two years but eventually, I caved. He made a big deal about the day I threw away my pack of birth control pills. As I stood over the trash can, he saluted and hummed Taps, as I watched them sink slowly to the bottom of the can. We made our decision, and there was no going back now.
There was a horrible chill to the air for a fall day; it felt more like we were in the throes of winter. I was warm on the inside because of the news I had to share. I drove the hour to my mother’s condo, only to find her rummaging through her things and boxing stuff up.
I followed her through to the living room, bursting with what I had come to tell her.
“I have news,” I said waiting for her inquire about it, but I could tell something was off. Something was distracting her. “I’m pregnant,” I blurted out, holding my breath for her response.
She sat there like a statue—I figured it was just shock or maybe she didn’t hear me. I repeated my announcement. “Mom, I’m going to have a baby.”
“Congratulations,” she managed to stammer out before her body gave over to uncontrollable sobs.
I had watched my mother cry before. I’d watched her eyes get wet viewing a Lifetime movie. She’d shed tears at funerals where she had to only dab at her eyes to remove the evidence. I observed her weeping after my father left. This was different—her body trembled so violently that someone who didn’t know her would have thought she was having a seizure. But I knew different. These were tears of happiness, relief, and grief all rolled into one. The dam that was my mother had finally broken, and all of the emotions she never really allowed herself to feel spilled out.
I fetched her some tea, and when she finally calmed down, she said the words I didn’t want to hear, not that day, not any day.
“My cancer is back,” she whispered, her voice hoarse.
I sat there numb, instinctively holding my stomach as if I could somehow shield my child from its inheritance. I half-listened as she explained that it was everywhere, t hat she would not pursue treatment. When I’d entered her apartment, I had been too busy thinking about myself and my news to see what she was doing. She was going through her things while she still could. My mother once promised me she would never leave me holding the bag after she was gone. She was making good on her word. Now I saw what my brain wouldn’t let me see before. The boxes with my name on them, and the ones labeled “Mary” and “Goodwill.” The end was coming.
“I promise you, I’ll see this baby come into the world,” my mother said, grasping my hand so tightly that our hands could have become one.
I wiped away the tear that was beginning to form out of fear she would see it, and said, “I know you will.”
There are promises that people make that are more for themselves than for the individual on the receiving end. My mother made me a promise she could only hope to keep. But that hope kept her alive two months longer than it should have. She was in pain and barely coherent toward the end. I knew she was just hanging on to keep her promise to me. The last thing I said to my mother was, “You can go home now—I’ll be fine.” I know she heard me because she smiled, but her eyes remained closed. I held onto her hand until it no longer held onto mine.
I’d lied when I told my mother I would be fine. Her death left a hole in my heart so wide it was cavernous. My life was now demarcated into two chapters, life before my mother’s death and life after. I had to learn to navigate a world that I didn’t want to be a part of at all.
After the funeral, I watched Aunt Mary sitting in my mother’s favorite chair, just staring out the window. I climbed onto her lap, big belly and all, and just sat there. In all my grief, it had never occurred to me that Aunt Mary was alone, too. All of her siblings were gone. I was her only tether to a life that now seemed to exist in memories alone. We stayed huddled together in silence, listening to our hearts beating.
Aunt Mary stayed by my side throughout the rest of my pregnancy. It seemed only fitting that when I gave birth to my daughter, I would name her Mary Joyce. Aunt Mary nicknamed her M.J. It took another six months before I had gathered enough strength to open the boxes my mother set aside for me. There were toys from my childhood, my christening gown, and things she bought for M.J. The most treasured items were her scarves, blankets, and a gray sweater ratty with age.
I sat on the floor, M.J. napping in the bassinet next to me, as I opened the box I pulled from the closet. It contained all of the many items I had gathered over the years from my great-aunts, Grandma Alice, and my aunts and uncles. I couldn’t bring myself to place my mother’s things in with theirs, only to put it back into the closet. I yearned to be close to them again.
I grabbed the box, a pair of scissors, and sat down at my sewing machine. I started cutting and sewing. In between naptimes and playtime, I worked on it. By the time M.J. turned a year old, it was finished—a quilt. It was a simple one made from everything everyone left behind. Great-aunt Esther and Aunt Cecelia’s wraps, Uncle Donald’s tweed jacket, Uncle Harry’s ties, Aunt Lori’s silk blouses and cashmere sweaters, my mother’s gray sweater, and my baby blanket. Aunt Mary even chipped in a sweater Grandma Alice had bought her when she was young. It was her favorite. The colors didn’t match, the measurements were off, and it mostly looked like a hot mess. But it was my hot mess; it was my family all together again.
Most days the quilt was displayed across the back of the living-room sofa. It warmed my heart on Saturday mornings when M.J. would creep downstairs to watch cartoons. Often I would walk into the kitchen while Charlie made coffee and see her, sitting at the counter wrapped in it. Embraced by the family, she would never know.
But cancer is an insidious little devil. It lingers there within your cells, dormant, just waiting for the right spark. A bunch of cells becomes an unstoppable force that turns it on and then like dominoes everything begins to fall away. My walk with cancer began the day of M.J.’s tenth birthday party and a massive nosebleed that would not stop. It sent me to the emergency room, and several scans later revealed the ugly truth. The breast cancer I had was so aggressive that it had spread to my lymph nodes, liver, and brain. I thought that I would break, crumble into a million little pieces right then and there from the weight of it.
“You always knew this day would come,” Charlie said holding my hand, trying his best to be strong for me.
“This was the one thing I was looking forward to you one day being able to say I told you so on,” I laughed a little. It was all I could do to hold back the tears. It was then I saw a little head pacing back and forth in front of the window to the hallway. “Let her in.”
Charlie went to the door to open it for M.J. who walked into my room with Aunt Mary and said, “Momma I brought you your blanket.”
“She insisted,” Aunt Mary added before I could respond.
I let M.J. cover me with it. I couldn’t think of any other time in my life, other than the day she was born, that I wanted my mother with me. M.J. was right, I need that blanket, and it made me feel like my mother was with me. It was the closest I was going to get.
Over the weeks and months that followed, I keep that blanket close to me. Many nights I fell asleep holding it, Charlie’s arm around my waist holding my hand, and my other hand under my pillow holding onto that blanket for dear life.
I spent two long, arduous years fighting for every day I was given before I finally let go. The only thing of mine that Mary Joyce wanted was that blanket. Eventually, she would take it to college, to her first home, and wrap it around each one of her babies. By the time M.J. reached old age, the blanket was tattered and faded, but the life force within it and the stories they contained were just as strong, if not stronger.
Mary Joyce was ninety-two when death finally spirited her away. Her four sons and two daughters, unable to decide who would inherit the quilt, buried it with her. It became the shroud that would carry her home to me and take with it all the pain and fear that had surrounded the lives of those that came before them. They had all survived, all well past the age of fifty-five. It was long enough to provide Mary Joyce with ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She held every one of them the moment they were born. Mary Joyce traveled the world and never worried about what was to come, about what never came.
In the end, it seemed that the curse was broken not by science but by a life so well lived that it refused to yield.