It is a summer of broken things. Lightning hits our house and zaps two phones, an answering machine, and a computer hard drive. Thieves throw a brick through the truck window and steal my briefcase. My father falls on a steep gravel driveway and fractures his ankle in three places. Maybe I should understand these signs, but all I see are the inconveniences and smaller worries of the moment. I don’t understand that these are hints, preludes, anterooms to a darker place. So it comes as a complete surprise when my mother is diagnosed in late July with stage four lung cancer.
My husband and I are traveling with our nine-year-old, Ian, when we get the news. That day we drive from my in-laws’ cabin in Montana to Yellowstone, which I have never seen before. The landscape is still marked by the forest fire of 1988. Charred and broken lodgepole trunks cover the ground of the mountainsides. They write an ancient story I struggle to comprehend, a story about death and new growth and time. My mother doesn’t want the grandchildren to be told the diagnosis until a treatment plan is decided on, so the remaining days with my husband’s family are spotted with hushed phone calls back east when Ian is somehow occupied. By the end of the trip, my son and I are moving in two parallel but separate weather systems: he in the warmth and special light of a child’s vacation with cousins, I in the shadows of confronting what has always frightened me most, the loss of my mother.
Back in Virginia, Ian and I visit a favorite coffee shop with high-speed wireless, and I rush to reconnect myself to my support system. After I check e-mail, it is his turn on the computer and I step outside to phone a friend beyond his hearing. I turn to check on him through the glass door, then turn away so he won’t see my face as I talk. Minutes later Ian comes out and holds up a bleeding finger for inspection. He has somehow scraped it pounding the table after he missed a move in his video game. Now he won’t have enough points for a new chair for his penguin’s igloo. But the pressing problem, as he tells me several times, is that his injured finger really hurts.
I give the slightly grubby hand a good look and tell my son to go to the bathroom and run cold water on his finger. I have been a mother for over nine years now, and I know this scrape will be forgotten by tomorrow, maybe by tonight. I have been a daughter for over 47 years, and I know I’m at the beginning of something that will change me for the rest of my life. I turn back to finishing my phone call. I reenter the café and surf the internet for an essay on cancer by Stephen Jay Gould. I read it and blink back tears. I take a deep breath. I send the essay to my brothers with a note, then to my mother with a different note. I drink what is left of my coffee. I look around for Ian.
The café is nearly empty, as it has been all morning. Because I can’t see him, I decide that Ian is in the men’s room, so I go and listen at the door. I wait when I hear running water, then I knock when the water doesn’t stop. He opens the door with one hand still under the faucet, tears streaming down his face. “Where were you?” he asks angrily. “Why didn’t you help me?” He has been standing in front of the sink for at least fifteen minutes.
Guiltily, gently, I check his finger, pat it dry, and guide him back to our table. I wonder how many times my mother addressed herself to my cuts and scrapes. Those childhood accidents and their scars are now faded, but they must be woven into my larger sense that my mother should be there to care for me, to shield me from harm, to tell me not to worry. I think about the protective fabric I try to weave into my son’s life each day. I hope it will be enough to keep him safe.
But it is a time of broken things, and Ian is not finished telling me about how I have betrayed him. “I can’t believe you left me there!” he hisses. “I can’t believe you weren’t there when I needed you. Why weren’t you there to help me?” His eyes are filled with tears and disbelief. While I apologize, I feel him growing up, just a little, as he sees — not for the first time, and not for the last — that his mother is fallible, not 100 percent trustworthy. This, I know, is one step on the path to realizing his mother is mortal.
It is a summer of broken things. I don’t know what will happen in the weeks to come. I don’t know how or when my mother’s battle with cancer will end. I don’t know how this story might be repeated, with what twists or turns, when it is my time to die. But right now, while I try to comfort him, accusation hangs in the air like the smell of a burned thing. “How could you leave me there?” he asks again.
“Just wait,” I think but do not say to him as I brush back his hair. I think of my mother, who may not have been there for me every single time I wanted her, but who was there more often than not. One day, perhaps soon, she won’t be there at all. I locate a band-aid in my purse and carefully apply it to his finger. Trying not to let him see the shadow that is growing inside of me, I think, “Just you wait.”