Part 14. The Big Tell
We always had wonderful Christmases. I suppose my favorite memory is of the farm in Florida, when Jack was six or seven. He came downstairs and saw a new bicycle under the tree. He beamed, ran his fingers over the handlebars, then — without saying a word; he’d been quiet the whole time — he opened the kitchen door and stepped outside and yelled to the heavens, “I love you, Santa Claus!”
Now he had achieved a more skeptical age, but like all good big brothers, he protected the beliefs of the little ones. There was still talk of Santa and the Elf on the Shelf and the need to be nice, not naughty.
My mother always came for Christmas until travel became too difficult for her. She loved Nicole’s parents and Danny, Nicole’s father, was always so kind and solicitous of her. We could all benefit from gentlemen lessons from Dan Cisneros. And, of course, Victoria — the kids’ beloved Momo — was always there.
But now Momo was gone and my mother was bedridden. Dan came for that first post-Momo holiday so that there would be some connection to the glories of Christmases past. He also annually prepared a magnificent Christmas dinner. Cuban pork was his specialty. It took two days to prepare and mere moments to consume.
Savannah was brave, going forward without her beloved grandmother. The boys were still a little murky on the concept of life and death.
We were there most of a week, with a wake nightly. Nicole’s family has turned partying into an art. The boys stumbled through it all, saw their cousins, and attended the funeral. This was their first encounter with death and at that age, you wonder what they really understand. Did they expect Momo to return someday? Was this just an intermission or a break in their narrative?
I was ten when my grandmother Frances died. That was my first encounter with death. She was a Norman Rockwell picture brought to life. She and my grandfather William farmed in Indiana and looked remarkably like the matriarch / patriarch figures in Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting. I had been born on her birthday and was said to have inherited her eyes and wavy hair. In tribute, my first-born has Frances as her middle name.
But I was not allowed to go to the funeral for my grandmother, which made it all less real to me. My mother thought I was too young to make the trip, and also too young to face a death.
My first real encounter with death came when I was twenty. My father died at fifty-three. When you’re twenty, you have a better understanding of how the whole life-and-death thing works. I knew my father would not be coming back.
But the boys were young. Jack was twelve, Travis was eleven and Charley was nine. Did they comprehend death’s finality? The boys had gone to Momo’s services. What did they know or understand? What would it be like to lose a parent so young? It had been devastating for me at twenty. But to be nine, or eleven, or twelve . . . . That was my greatest concern. Sarah, Graham and Mary were grown, settled into their lives and careers. Savannah was on the precipice, planning a move to Florida the next year to start college.
But then there were these little guys, louder than war, still amused by the powers and principalities of their bodily functions. They were so far away from where they needed to be. I needed to help them get there. That was my job. That was my joy.
They knew their mother was changed. She cried a lot and bemoaned, feeling too young to live the rest of her life without a mother. She had not planned to accept her midwifery residency in the Philippines because she intended to care for her mother. But her mother’s sudden death changed her plans and so she was gone that summer, and grieved by working with enormous intensity in an understaffed clinic.
When school let out, Savannah went to Key West, Jack went to his prison-like boarding school, Travis and Charley stayed with their nearly mute au pair (shy or disinterested — I could never figure her out) and I began secretly bleeding.
That winter, when Nicole’s father arrived for Christmas, she told him about my cancer and the three of us steeled ourselves, determined to give the children a good Christmas, cancer be damned. I was occupied by the thought that this could be my last Christmas.
After the holiday, we finally had to tell them.
They were aware of my bladder surgery (which was in-and-out outpatient stuff) and that I was having an awful lot of doctor’s appointments. Savannah monitored the mail and gave me the stink eye when she tossed the Dana Farber envelopes on the counter before me. The boys probably sensed that something was up.
Savannah had been stoic and mature in dealing with the devastating loss of her grandmother, so I wasn’t as worried about her. I told my older children in a group text — a coward’s way out, I know — because I knew that I would not be able to hold it together in conversation. They are magnificent human beings, those three, so they sent me messages of love and support and all promised to visit soon, and help with the boys if need be.
But the boys were still at an age when they found bodily functions hilarious. I’ve never particularly liked that four-letter word for flatulence. It seemed so crude and low-rent. When I’d met Nicole, she had banned that word so Savannah was told to use the word froggie. Nicole tried to enforce that rule when the boys came along. But they were their own tribe with their own rules and language. The three of them would huddle, laugh, making fun of everything. Jack would say that word — the fart word — and the others would collapse in delirious laughter. Then he’d say poop and butt and their delirious laughing rituals were repeated.
So their interest in the scatalogical provided the language to explain my illness to the kids. The important part was to make light of it, so they wouldn’t be scared.
We were having dinner at the big round table — seating for twelve — that Nicole had taken from the family home in Key West when the estate was sold.
“Kids, we have something to tell you,” Nicole announced. “We want you to know what’s going on.”
“I knew it,” Savannah said. She gave me a steely look, and I shrugged.
“I’m sick,” I said and followed my pronouncement quickly: “But I’m all right. I’m going to be fine. But I’m going to be around the house a lot, because I have to take off from work.”
“What is it?” Savannah asked. I think she knew the answer.
I looked at the boys to see how they were taking it. For once, they were quiet. I think they were actually listening.
“I’ve got cancer,” I said. Then I leaned forward, conspiratorially, and smiled one of those just-between-us smiles. “I’ve got” — pause to raise eyebrows — “cancer of the pooper.”
“Cancer of the pooper?” Travis said.
“Yep, but it’s going to be okay,” I said. “There’s a tumor right there, you know. Right in the butthole. So the doctors are going to cut it out and make me a new butthole.”
“So you’ll have a bionic butthole?” Jack asked.
“I guess you could call it that, but it won’t give me any super powers.”
“Will you be able to poop like a normal person?” he asked.
“It will take a while,” I said. “All of this is going to take some time. So I won’t go back to work after Christmas. I’ll be home and I’ll get to see you more. I’ll be here every day when you come home from school.”
Again: they were uncharacteristically quiet, taking it all in — the illness and the gravity and importance of the bionic butthole.
“But, I’m going to be fine,” I said. I was speaking to the children, but mostly to myself. “Cancer doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Lots of people get cancer and they get treated and they’re all right.”
Quiet. So unusual in our home.
“I know it’s kind of funny, ” I said. “Cancer of the butt.” I emphasized butt, perhapsthe boys’ favorite word, one of those words that had never failed to trigger those explosions of laughter. “But sometimes, that’s where people get cancer.”
“Will you have to do chemo like Momo?” Savannah asked.
“Yes. And just imagine if it makes me lose my hair.” I looked at the boys, wide-open, eyebrows raised, grinning. “Can you imagine this big old head with no hair? It’s going to be pretty goofy.”
“So you have cancer,” Jack said in confirmation.
“I do,” I said. I reached across the table and put my hand on his. “But it’s going to be all right. I’m going to be all right.”
That’s how we got through it. Memories are cloudy, but that’s how I remember it.
But what I remember with microscopic clarity is this: In bed, Nicole beside me. It was that night, the night of The Big Tell. A few hours later. We were watching television. The boys were settling into sleep, but then the door opens and there’s Jack, his eyes glazed with tears. He walks across the room, eyes locked with me the whole time, all the way to the far side of the bed, my side. By the time he gets to me, tears have erupted. He crawls under the covers and hugs me. He says nothing, but he says a lot.