Part 11. Holiday of Secrets
I’ve never been very good at keeping secrets, but now I carried a big one.
It was hard to go home that day — the day of the appointment with Doctor Martinez — and not say anything to the kids. Later that week, even though the meeting with Doctor Corwin left me a little more upbeat, I still figured it was best to keep the news of my cancer on a need-to-know basis.
Bill and Nicole need to know, that is.
I’ve always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. If something’s on my mind, I talk about it. I’m an easy read: my emotions show on my face.
So keeping this stuff a secret was a bitch.
Christmas was upon us and it was already headed toward Suckville. I didn’t want to make it worse for the kids.
This was going to be the first Christmas without Nicole’s mother, the kids’ beloved Momo. Nicole and her sisters were extremely close to their mother; Nicole slept with her up through age 14. Savannah and her cousin Andrea nearly smothered Momo — literally and figuratively — whenever they were together. We’d be sitting in the family room in the evening and the girls were so draped over Momo that we saw only a tangle of limbs with her face rising above. It didn’t matter that the girls were in their late teens; they still had to hang on Momo.
The year before, 2013, we’d been with her at her home near Chester, New Jersey. She and her husband leased a nice-sized estate and for a time their across-the-road neighbor was the late actor James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos.” Alas, they never met him.
The house was huge and warm and quiet. I loved visiting there. The town itself was charming, like a preview of New England.
It was during a visit to Chester a few Christmases before that first made Nicole and I flirt with the idea of blasting ourselves out of our Florida cocoon and moving north. We had a five-acre horse farm in North Florida, near the crossroads village of Wacahoota. We both had comfortable jobs at the University of Florida and at our farm we had so much space we could have added a graveyard in one of the paddocks and created a one-stop life and death center.
But then, in 2010, a good friend told me he wanted to nominate me for the Boston University job. It was Nicole who first looked at MapQuest and started pushing me to get serious about the job. Boston was only a five-hour drive to her mother’s house. And then there’s the whole thing about change being good. I bought into it.
Nicole and her mother were close, as I say. Extraordinarily close. I think they spoke most every day of our marriage.
So that last Christmas, the Christmas of 2013, Nicole and I brought our kids to New Jersey. Nicole’s two sisters, Melinda and Marianne, and Marianne’s daughter Andrea, all descended on Momo’s house as well. Momo’s husband, Robert, made his usual Christmas trip to Denver, where he celebrated with his daughter and her children.
That last Christmas was subdued. Momo — her adult name was Victoria; I called her Wilma for reasons that we need not go into here — was sick from the double assault of lung and brain cancer. Her spirits, however, were remarkably high.
One of the reasons I admired her was her ability to accept life’s incongruities and consequences. She’d just spent two years nursing — and she had been a nurse — Robert through cancer. Things were looking good for him but then she was diagnosed.
The symptoms presented themselves during the previous year’s Christmas visit to our house. She awoke one morning and had difficulty speaking. After that holiday, she saw a specialist and realized she had lung cancer. She told the kids when we all met at Whitney’s Inn during a February ski vacation in New Hampshire. We dreaded, in particular, Savannah’s reaction. She cried, of course, and — despite being of driving age — curled up in Momo’s lap.
Momo never let herself lose her emotional footing. She’d been a great partner to Robert, taking charge and managing his cancer care. Just as she was shepherding Robert toward recovery, she was diagnosed.
Now we saw the blessing in our move to the north. Nicole was knee-deep in her three-year midwifery program and that required occasional residencies at the school in Bridgton, Maine, and intense internships with practicing midwives. Nicole was working with a well-established practice in Braintree, about a twenty-minute drive from our home, so she lucked out by not getting a far-flung posting.
But now, with her mother ill, Nicole had little time for herself and wanted to make sure her mother was well taken care of. Robert was still recovering and not capable of helping Momo, so Nicole took up two-week residencies in New Jersey, to watch over her mother.
That was around the time that I began to notice the beginnings of my ass weirdness, but I was in full Aunt Edna denial. After all, I was in single-parent mode and there was no time to brood or investigate the dysfunctions of my body. I made a lot of unimaginative dinners. At least the kids did not starve.
Now, in Massachusetts, my hour-long commute complicated things and I was at the mercy of public-transit schedules. Fortunately, Savannah was a capable if somewhat messy cook. If my schedule rendered me too late to make dinner, then she’d make mac and cheese or sandwiches.
So that was our life. In addition to working to complete her midwife training, Nicole looked after her mother and monitored her treatment, taking her to doctor’s appointments, sometimes railing against the physicians and their protocol care. She complained that so many physicians were robots who regarded all patients as the same. They treated the disease, not the patient. She wanted the best care she could get for her mother.
That last Christmas in New Jersey had been subdued. Momo had lost much of her hair because of her treatments, but she battled on, made fun of the wisps remaining, and was, in short, a role model of how a cancer patient should be: strong for the family gathered ‘round.
Three months later, she was dead.
And now, a year later, we faced our first Christmas without her. That would be enough of a struggle for the children, and now there was this other thing — that problem with my ass that might kill me.
It was time to drink the egg nog, hand out the gifts, and keep my illness a secret.