I creep into her room before we leave this morning, my hand hovering over her back. I have to leave her with my sister again. It’s only the first time this week, but it’s the fifth time this month that I won’t be home when she wakes up, that I won’t be home to put her to bed. I want to cry because I miss the days when I don’t kiss her sleepy face or when I’m not there to listen to her early morning chatter. I miss her when I’m gone. I know she loves her aunt, but I also know there’s no substitute for mommy.
“I’m sorry I won’t be here today, baby. I’m sorry your daddy is sick and we keep missing things. We love you so much,” I breathe the words over her, praying she understands, hoping she forgives us.
* * * * *
Casey can’t hold her today. He had a scan with contrast this morning and is possibly radioactive so he isn’t allowed to be close to her for 24 hours. She runs to him when we get home, arms out, calling “Dada!” He gently pushes her away.
“I can’t hold her, Michelle. The radiation…” He stops talking and turns away. He looks sad. He looks sad more than he knows we realize, both Zoey and I. She starts to fuss, hurt by his rejection, not understanding the difference between can’t and won’t. So I scoop her up, kiss her cheeks, and tickle her until she laughs. I put her down in front of her toys to make dinner as Casey lies on the couch.
“Book, Dada! Book!” I hear her from the living room and look over to see her climbing on him. I take a deep breath and walk over to them, pulling her into my lap.
“Daddy can’t hold you right now, baby. Mommy will read you a book.” I smile at her, aware that my smile is different, stilted, and false, but I read and I hold her until it relaxes into something natural, until I feel the smile in my eyes, in my heart.
* * * * *
After her bath, I wake Casey from his nap so we can play with Zoey before bedtime. He still looks tired, but he grins as he takes her from me.
“Hugs for Daddy!” He says as he squeezes her. She squeals then slips from his grasp and drags her blocks over to him. We build a tower and cheer as she smashes it up. She laughs and we clap for her, our queen of destruction.
“Do you need me to get anything ready for you before chemo tomorrow?” I ask him.
“Nope. It’s just chemo – I’ll be fine!” He responds with false cheeriness and high-fives Zoey. She loves high-fives so she brings him more blocks to build more towers for smashing, knowing that we’ll cheer each time, real happiness bubbling from us.
We play a little bit longer, until it’s time to brush Zoey’s teeth. We have a routine: I hold her and Casey dances next to her, singing a song about brushing our toofers. But tonight he has to sit down as the pain and the anxiety overwhelm him. So I brush her teeth, then sing her a song, and lay her in the crib by myself. Then, just like I do every night, I kiss her and say, “Goodnight, baby. I love you.”
As I walk out of her room, I hear a small voice. “Nigh-nigh! I yuh you!” I smile and my eyes fill with tears as think about how even in the midst of all the awful, I am so lucky.
* * * * *
We pull up to the house, bursting with excitement. After almost a year, we needed some good news. Casey’s parents are in town visiting and what could have easily been a week of sadness, of constant consolation, is now a week of celebration. His dad asks us again what the doctor said, still in disbelief, needing to hear the good news once more.
“He said there’s a tiny, active spot in my lung and it’s probably just inflammation from the radiation so he wants to do a biopsy but it’s not a big deal.” His mom looks at me for confirmation and I nod. Relief fills her face. I want to feel that but something holds me back, something keeps me cautious. Zoey starts to whine, hungry as usual.
“Daddy’s going to be fine,” I whisper into her ear as I strap her into the highchair. “He has to be.”
* * * * *
We continue our celebration at the brewery. Mid-sentence, he stops talking and I know – something’s wrong.
“I have this weird spot in my eye. No matter where I look, I can’t see out of it.” I feel the panic rising as he experiments, looking up and down, side to side. He tries to reassure us, “It’s happened before, I’m sure it’s nothing.”
I chase Zoey around, tossing goldfish at her to keep her happy, ignoring the fear that’s nestled deep in my belly. She falls and scrapes her knee and reaches back for me, crying. I pick her up and hold her, soothing her, soothing myself.
“Shh, you’re okay. We’re okay. Everything’s okay.” I murmur the words until they feel like truth.
* * * * *
I can’t stop crying. He was supposed to be better. We fight on the way back from the hospital, our emotions high, the news too much to process. He leaves me sobbing in the car and stomps into the house on his own. Even though it hurts, I know he needs some time to think, to deal with the news on his own, and frankly, I’m in no place to be of any consolation. My mom and sister walk out of the house, but I pretend not to see them. I cover my face and whisper, “Please don’t come talk to me,” over and over again, willing them to leave me alone.
When I calm down, I walk inside and take the spoon and yogurt from my mom, hoping that doing something normal like feeding Zoey, will keep me grounded.
“Did he say anything?” I ask.
“Just that they found a brain tumor,” my mom answers me, her voice gentle, so gentle I feel my heart break. I put my head in my arms and start to cry again and feel two pairs of arms wrap around me.
But all I can focus on is the tiny hand that pats my head and the sweet, raspy voice that says, “Hi, Momma!”
* * * * *
“Everything hurts,” he tells me as coughs wrack his body. I tell him to go lie down and rest, Zoey and I will play on our own tonight. He doesn’t want to miss it so he sits on the recliner, pretending the pain isn’t nearly as bad as I see etched in his face.
She doesn’t like to feel ignored so she walks over to him and touches her nose. “Nose. Nose, Dada.”
He smiles at her. “Yes, nose.” She holds out her arms, waiting to be picked up but he can’t do it. He wants to but he can’t.
“Tomorrow, baby. I’ll pick you up tomorrow. I’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Somehow she understands. She walks to her shelf and carefully picks a book and brings it to me. She sits in my lap and I start to read quietly, “In the great green house…” And we all hope tomorrow doesn’t take too long.
Note: I originally submitted this piece to a contest (with fake names instead of our own) in December. Obviously, I didn’t win, which is why i’m able to post it here now. I do, however, consider it a personal win since I still get to publish and share it with all of you. Since then, Casey’s tumor has been treated and is shrinking and he’s started a new round of medicine for the tumors in his lungs.