The Big Brick Review 2016 Essay Contest: Honorable Mention ($50)

Building on the narrative of our brick at a time.


For Today I Can

by Karin Cole

“I DIDN'T THINK I was this afraid to die.” My nineteen year old son says to me. “What will we do? I’m serious Mom.  What if we find out its bad?”

I feel tears spring to my eyes and I cannot contain my own fear even though I’ve desperately tried over the last hour.

Two months ago, a few days before Thanksgiving, my six foot tall college student plopped down, belly up on my bed, while I was putting laundry away. “I don’t feel good Mom. It’s been a few days. Something’s wrong in my gut. I think it’s really bad. Like cancer.”

“Honey, why would you think that? It’s probably a virus. Or maybe you need to change your diet. You’ll be fine.” I couldn’t imagine why he was thinking it was a life threatening illness.

I work in hospice. I often hold and touch people dying of cancer. I know it well. There was no reason to think he has anything like that.

“I don’t know. I just feel like something’s very wrong.”

“Give it a few days. If you don’t feel better call the doctor. But you’ll be fine.” I look him reassuringly in the eye. “Really.”

At the time, I was getting ready to travel six hours to Philadelphia to bring his older sister home for the holiday. I had much to prepare for and couldn’t imagine having one more thing to do.

Throughout her visit, he continued to struggle both physically and emotionally. He called his doctor. He was well past the age of his mom accompanying him to an office visit. I did it anyway. At seventeen, he’d left his pediatrician for a new physician, a kind, young man just starting his practice.  We were reassured that there was no reason to worry. My son left the office with a prescription for fiber. Although he diligently followed the directions, he wasn’t feeling better.

A few weeks later, his sister came home again for Christmas. During her two week visit, he mustered the energy to spend time with her. They’ve always had a close relationship. They played video games from their years past, went shopping together, sought out childhood friends and even took their little sisters ice skating.

The night before my twenty-two year old daughter returned to school, she said, “Mom, he really doesn’t feel good. He’s just not himself.”

She’s right. I need to do something. I thought.

The day after the New Year I called his old pediatrician. I wanted someone with years of experience. She knew him well, was a mother and would understand my unspoken worry. He marched in through the waiting area filled with puzzles and toys, past a height measurement tool that almost couldn’t accommodate his stature, and into a room where he barely fit on the table. Memories of him sitting on my lap in this exact place flooded my mind. The woman who had known him from his first tender and vulnerable moments in life knocked briefly and walked in.

“I have to what?” he asked.

“Get some poop on these little cards. Do one each day for three days.” The pediatrician instructed. “After we get the results, we’ll go from there.” I was reassured by her confidence in his well-being.

A few days later, as I took ice cream from the freezer section of the grocery store and my eight year old sat in the large part of the cart, my cell phone rang.

“Mom, the doctor just called. There’s blood.”

My heart fell into my stomach and I repeated his words out loud, unaware of the presence of others. “Blood? Did you see anything red on the cards? Do you see anything red in the toilet? Or anything even kind of red?”

“No, I didn’t. But, she said I have to call the GI doctor and go see him. Mom, what are we going to do?”

A wave of fear washed over me and I felt like I was in a panic. I called my partner. She tried to soothe me and reminded me the more fear I show, the more frightened he’d be. I continued quickly through the store, picking up the last two items. I was oblivious to anyone else. I no longer cared to be polite or patient. The world around me seemed insignificant. I instantly wanted my old chaotic life to be as it felt before that phone call. Managing grocery lists, schedules, appointments, homework, four children and a career suddenly seemed easy compared to the worry of this.

On my way to the check out, Valentine treasures and clearance Christmas items lined the aisles.  Amidst my anxiousness, what seemed so normal just minutes ago, struck me as strange and unnecessary.  I was annoyed by the false sense of joy these things pretended to bring.

Once home, I dropped the unpacked bags of groceries in the middle of the kitchen, and found my son in his room.

Now, as I stand in my son’s room, he stares at me waiting for an answer. He just told me he’s afraid to die. I am afraid for him. He repeats his questions. “What if we find out its bad? What are we going to do?”
I want to say stop talking like that. We’re not even going to entertain this as a possibility. Tears spill onto my cheeks despite my calm exterior.

I’ve talked about death and the end of life with many people. I’ve held their hands, looked in their eyes, and sat with them through their fear. I begin to imagine what it would be like to become part of a club I never want to join.

“It would be awful and difficult.” I answer. “But we would talk about everything each step of the way. I wouldn’t leave your side. We’d do it together, the best way we could. But try not to worry. It could be so many other things.”

“I know,” he responds, appearing somewhat resigned to whatever is ahead.

Less than a week later, I walk onto the pediatric floor of the hospital and look at the list of kids I’ve been asked to see for massage therapy. Trevor, a nineteen year old young man, is going home on comfort care. Going home to die.  He has exhausted all treatment options for his cancer. As unyielding as a brick wall, death would come. I stop and take a deep breath, knock gently on the door and meet the eyes of his twenty-one year old sister. I tell her why I’m there and she smiles and takes his hand. “Hey, buddy. A nice lady is here to give you a massage.”

He is barely able to open his eyes. His tall frame extends the entire length of the bed. The light and wispy growth of his beard informs me that he hasn’t been shaving all that long.

As my hands move over his shoulder, lightly touching him, I notice pictures taped on the wall beside him…at the beach with his family… in a group with a bunch of other guys, his college logo in the background…making silly faces with his sister, while their mother looks on.  A large Sponge Bob Square Pants balloon looms in the air, no doubt a symbol of the childhood these two have shared.

I can barely maintain my composure. What could be my own reality is happening in living color before me. All of my knowledge and experience are not enough to be able to hold this moment. My face gets warm as I attempt to conceal the tears that are welling up. The only thing separating me from the mother of these two young people is fate, or chance, or just random bad luck.

Today is her hell, tomorrow might be mine. Honestly, we really just never know.

I arrive home to find my son at his computer desk immersed in school work. His fingers type furiously over the keys, his broad back is to me, and a picture of our two cats is tucked in a framed piece of art above him.

“Hey Mom.”

I sit down on his bed and kick off my shoes.

“How was your day?” he asks.

“Good.” I refrain from revealing any details. “How about yours?”

“Okay. I’m hungry. What can we eat?”

“Anything. I will get you anything you want.”

Because for today, I can.

"SpongeBob" photo © 2016 Gregory Gerard


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