Every day during my planning period, I walk to the cafeteria, make my husband a huge tumbler of tea, then deliver it to his classroom. Today, his co-teacher asked if I was okay, saying that he had seen me earlier and I looked lost and confused, standing there in the hub of the school in a daze.
“Oh,” I said, “My leg is giving me a fit–do you know about my broken leg? I broke it in two places five years ago, missed a semester of school. I was in a hospital bed in our den for three months–Greg got cancer at the same time. It was a mess.“
He stood there, open-mouthed, then said, “Y’all need to quit getting God mad . . . or maybe He’s using you to inspire people–y’all have nothin’ but turmoil and adversity.“
I told him that one of my good friends, a football coach, says that Greg and I are winning just by getting out of bed. By showing up at work. That most people would have quit by now, wouldn’t even attempt to go on.
I guess those people have sick days.
We are 63 days out from Greg’s surgery for Cancer Number Three. His neck wound finally quit seeping last Saturday–eight weeks of slow, oozy healing, some of the longest weeks of my life.
We are now in the post-trauma phase where you try to regain normalcy–but we are each trying to regain it in front of classrooms full of teenagers, themselves in the throes of Spring Fever. Teaching in the spring requires stamina that we barely possess, and we are quick to collapse the instant we get home. There’s not a lot of chit-chat–it’s all logistics: mission-driven chore division; to-do list negotiation.
Today, as he left to buy cat food, Greg said, “If you think of anything you need, don’t text me. I don’t want to get it . . . and I’m only half joking.”
Because I was too tired to cook, Abby ate cold pizza before heading to bed at 7:30, exhausted, while Greg and I watched a couple of episodes of The Tonight Show (Kevin James won the pratfall contest). We were surprised afterward to find Abby still up.
“In fact,” she explained, “I am about to die of heartburn.”
While Greg went on a Tums run, Abby, miserable, said, “Can you come sit with me for ten minutes, Mom?”
She has new majestic lights from Target in her bedroom–against the grey drapes, they look like stars, truly. She was piled under the mountain of her comforter. “I’m sorry I’m not much help to you these days,” I remarked as I lay down beside her, her face close in the false twilight.
“I don’t need much help right now,” she replied, absolving me. “Isn’t this nice?”
“It’s like being outside on the trampoline under the stars,” I agreed.
She had her phone out. I asked her if she had read the Poem of the Day, Danez Smith’s “say it with your whole black mouth,” a hot-poker of a poem, She said she had read half illegally on her phone in the hall, that it had made her late to class, but that the teacher had “turned her head hard” to allow her to sneak in.
She asked if I’d read, “If All My Relationships Fail and I Have No Children Do I Even Know What Love Is,” and I said no, so she read it to me after assuring me it wouldn’t make me sad.
She read me “God Letter” next–a poem about a sister’s death, anger at God, complexity–her quiet voice telling me of the poet’s story and sorrow. She finished, saying, “I think those last two and a half lines sum up my whole life, you know? ‘I was a mess then/ goodbye goodbye we left there to clean/the house for mourners to come.'”
I could not argue.
She swiped over to Snapchat and said, “Oh, there’s a story by Cosmopolitan about a girl who hid her pregnancy and gave birth at prom.” She shushed me as she read.
When she was through, she said, “The girl must not have had parents. No one knew she was pregnant; she had the baby herself, and it was stillborn, and she buried it in the backyard, and now she’s charged with homicide.”
My child, open-eyed to the realities of life in South Georgia, looked at me and said fiercely, “I want to buy condoms. I want to pass them out. Sure, I’ll say, “Abstinence is better.” But you know what I care about more than if you have sex? The babies who are born dead or born hurt or born and nobody takes care of them. I care about the babies.“
She told me of her summer camp friend who gives out condoms. “Her parents know. She has, like, an industrial drum of condoms.”
She asked me if I knew what ————- thinks about Adam and Eve: that there were more people around at the start of the Bible, but that the Bible just talked about Adam and Eve. (This explanation keeps the brothers and sisters from inbreeding.) She is taking world religions this semester and remarks, “Did you know some people think the Bible is an allegory? The whole thing?”
I said, “Please don’t believe that. It’s very important that you believe the Bible, you keep Jesus and God.”
“I’m more something than you, Mom, but I’m not weird.” She was reassuring.
“It’s just that life is so bad, so hard with Jesus–I just can’t imagine life without Jesus, what that would be.” My girls both know I can promise them nothing beyond God’s presence: not happy marriages, not healthy kids, not finances, not personal health. They have endured what we have. With us, they have seen and felt and walked.
They have no blinders. This is no fairy-God.
I had been sneaking touches of Abby’s cheek–when she is tired, there is no touching her. I knew this night, this homework-less, boyfriend-less night, was a rarity, that I have perhaps a dozen more before she is gone.
I know she will go away for good. Even if the cancer comes back, she will stay at college. (We are a family that lists hypotheticals, having found them all too real.)
She always promises me: the far future consists of an apartment near hers. A garden. And cats.