I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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You hang up the cellphone and think about how the surgeon cleared his throat again and again as he asked how you were, then said, “I have the best news of bad news,” and you think how you knew what he was going to say as soon as you heard his voice. You accepted his generous invitation to come over to his office right now, even though it’s seven in the evening, and talk about it. Your husband and you have just finished baby-sitting your granddaughters on this sunny day, in a park flooded with children racing from slide to swing to sandbox, and you think of how children enjoy the moment, the future merely an abstract concept. You think that you want to see your four grandchildren graduate from elementary school, high school, and college — and, if you’re lucky, maybe attend a wedding or two.
You took the call from the surgeon with the speakerphone on, and you think about how your husband’s face went pale, how his lips tightened.
In the surgeon’s office you examine detailed charts of the breast as he points out exactly where your cancer is located and explains that the chance of getting it all with one operation is good. You think how skilled the surgeon is at talking about possibly life-threatening illness, how he doesn’t minimize yet always expresses optimism. You think about how you can’t stop thinking long enough to listen, and you’re grateful that your husband asks questions, and that the surgeon tells you to call him anytime: you have his cellphone number. When he asks when you might be ready for surgery, you answer, “As soon as possible,” and he smiles and says, “I reserved an operating room for 8:15 tomorrow.” You think what a coincidence it is that you are soon giving a public reading of an essay about a friend dying of breast cancer, that ten days ago your youngest son’s mother-in-law had a double mastectomy, and you know that some friends will speak about this as fate, the confluence of astral events, the universe telling you to slow down. But you think this is random chance.
On the drive home you think about how you will tell your sons; you could be jokey — Hey, a funny thing happened on the way to dinner — or skip the bullshit and say, I have breast cancer, and we are operating in the morning. In reality you will be reassuring: “I have the best news I could give you about some bad news.” You are grateful to the surgeon for showing you how to do this. You think that you are not ready to think about mortality quite yet. But then, with your mother, your brother, your closest two friends, François Truffaut (a director you never met but always thought of as a friend), and other loved ones dead, it’s been simmering on the back burner for a while.
At home you look around your house and think about projects that have been on hold for too long. You pull out your sewing machine and finish making two pillowcases, mending a blouse, hemming a pair of pants, darning a quilt, and repairing a sleeve on your husband’s shirt. You finish your bookkeeping and make lists of everything your husband needs to know about your “literary finances.” You receive an encouraging e-mail from your agent about the chapters of a novel you’re writing. His suggestions are really good, and you think, I could stay up all night and finish the last 120 pages. Instead you will have that ice-cream sundae that you have been putting off until you lose the two pounds you gained visiting a friend in New York.
Now you are in bed, your husband sleeping restlessly beside you. The bureau and the old Navajo pot and the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the columns of books piled on the nightstands are shadows darker than the surrounding night. You think that it is never really dark. Even on an overcast night, when the stars are hidden behind flowing streams of gray, the clouds themselves are illuminated, reminding you of an old fresco you once saw on the wall of a church in Slovenia, bathed in the light from stained-glass windows. The night sky is a work of art so lovely no human artist’s canvas can compare.
You think that you will probably not sleep, and so you go downstairs and pour the last glass from a bottle of red wine some friends brought you last night. You sit on the porch and listen to the soft, plaintive cries of owls, thrushes, and warblers; the leathery swooping of bats; the incessant chorus of peepers. You feel a little like a child who has snuck out of bed to pilfer a forbidden treat, skillfully evading a parent. But that was decades ago, in a city tenement where junkies shot up in the hallways and gangs claimed the streets. You think about that parent, your mother, and how you have her compact body, her cynical gaze, her particular outlook on the world: equal parts suspicion and delight. You think about how she died of cancer at nearly the same age you are now, and how you might feel frightened at that thought, but you don’t, because of something that happened a few weeks after she was gone, something that informed your concept of death:
You are in your late thirties, your sons staying with a friend in Maine while you and another friend sort through your mother’s meager belongings in New York. You have pneumonia and a high fever and are a little delirious, your breathing raspy, but this long weekend away from work is the only time you’ve got to do what’s necessary. You hold your mother’s favorite towel in your hand, gold and turquoise and russet, and remember how she used it every day, washed it three or four times a week; how, although she never had much, she treasured everything she owned. You think you smell her Jean Naté powder on it, but actually you can’t smell anything; your sinuses are too clogged up. Then suddenly you choke, your lungs protesting the insult of the body’s own fluids, and something dense closes over you, and you know you are lying on the floor because you are looking at your prone self from above, and your friend is screaming, and you wonder why she’s so upset since you are no longer uncomfortable.
Then, out of the darkness surrounding you, the darkness in which you float as if in amniotic fluid, a light begins to shine somewhere just out of reach, and you think how tired you are of darkness, of your friend’s screams, of battles with your ex-husband, of figuring out how to support two children. The light is restful, a golden promise of peace. And just as you flow without effort toward it, your mother speaks to you in the Yiddish of her childhood. You cannot see her, but there is no doubt as to her presence.
“Not now,” she tells you. “Not now, maideleh,” she repeats, calling you by a Yiddish term of endearment.
“Ma,” you whisper, “I miss you.”
“Not now,” she says again. “A long time from now.”
And then the light is gone, and your friend is shaking you, and you are choking phlegm out of your lungs and throat and mouth, and your eyes are tearing, and she’s pulling you to a sitting position and crying, and there is the sound of an ambulance drawing closer, and you feel a wave of loneliness deeper than any you’ve ever felt before.
You take a sip of the wine — a rich red, more expensive than you would have bought — and you think you hear your mother’s faint whisper amid the other night voices: Not now. A long time from now. You look up at the glowing clouds and think how they appear lit from within; you think about all the miracles of the universe, known and unknown, and how you have charted your own particular cosmology: a Jewish atheist who believes in her mother’s voice. You finish your glass of wine and go upstairs and curl against your husband’s back, and just when you think you will be awake all night, you fall asleep.
In the early morning, when the clouds have drifted off leaving a hint of fading stars, you take a shower, think longingly of the coffee the surgeon told you not to have, then go outside and float in an ocean of lilac perfume. You think that the purple of the blossoms is so intense it makes everything around them seem two-dimensional. You catch the last of the sunrise, a flaring mystery of light and color, before the sky is taken over by the brilliant sun, and the world wakes up: hungry robins prowling the lawn; woodpeckers quickstepping up the gnarled oak; yellow and black bees poking impatiently at the few roses that have opened prematurely, their blossoms elegant knots of pink shivering in the breeze — and, rarest sight of all, the sleek red fox that lives somewhere in the woods, leaping through the old granite quarry behind your house, his tail a furry sail behind him.
You open your arms to the world, your world, and breathe deeply and think about the surgeon’s optimism and the novel you are working on and your mother’s voice, and you tell your husband that you think it’s time to go, that you think it’s time to get this matter over with.
I’m one faithful reader who thinks The Sun is too inclined toward dread and despair, but Michelle Cacho-Negrete hits the right note with her essay “What You Think About” [September 2009]. She writes about her cancer but doesn’t give us the gory details. She tells us about her fear but also her strength. She describes the love of her family and friends and her appreciation for the world. In the end I felt, as she did, at peace with it all.