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Prom Dress Shopping With Two Months to Live

05/01/2015 10:57 am ET | Updated May 01, 2016
Marisa Bardach Ramel

It would be maroon, my favorite color. Maroon with spaghetti straps and a cowl neckline that made it look like I had cleavage. Maybe a bow... No, not a bow. A ruffle. Crap, I messed up. I scribbled over my drawing with blue pen and sketched a new dress. This one had a ruffle.

"Your paper on The Awakening is due on Friday," Mr. Minor announced. Everyone began to put their books in their bags. "Hey! The bell hasn't rung yet. You still have five full minutes. Don't pack up."

I added strappy platform sandals and a necklace to go with my dress. Writing that paper was going to suck. I'd only read half the book, even though AP English was my favorite subject and I loved flamboyant Mr. Minor. But lately, with all the stuff with my mom, it had been hard to focus on some feminist novel from a million years ago.

Then again, it was hard to focus on anything that day. I was going prom dress shopping after school.

Mom had suggested it over the weekend. I was running out the door to my best friend Laura's house when she said it: "Daddy and I want to take you prom dress shopping."

I looked down at my car keys, swinging from their red lanyard. It was February. No one goes prom dress shopping in February. But when everyone went in March and April, she'd be dead.

"OK," I said slowly. Then, for her sake, "Sounds good."

"Oh, good!" she chirped. "I'm so excited. I think we should try Ask Alice first, since that's where we found such pretty dresses last --"

"OK, Mom," I said, suddenly unable to fake it anymore. "I gotta go."

"Oh, all right sweetheart," I heard her say, a bit bewildered, as I slammed the door behind me and drove off.

The bell rang, and I stirred from the memory. Everyone grabbed their bags and rushed from the classroom, but I packed up slowly. My mom has cancer. Could I say that to Mr. Minor? None of my teachers knew.

"Have you heard from any schools yet?" he asked.

"Just Binghamton and Penn State so far."

"You won't have any problem," he reassured me, so proud that I wanted to study writing. "Keep me updated."

On the drive home I blasted my new favorite band, At the Drive-In, and sang so loud that it sounded like a sob: March 23rd hushed the wind, the music died. If you can't get the best of us now, it's 'cause this is forever. "This is forever"—those words stabbed straight through my heart. Denial can only distract you to a certain degree. Underneath it all, you know exactly what's going on, and that it's not going away.

When I was a block away from my house I lowered the music. It somehow seemed disrespectful to my mom, who'd been home all day instead of teaching. Guilt twisted my guts that I'd been able to escape to school while she'd been forced to retire from hers.

A Baby Story was on TV and the kitchen smelled like toast and jelly when I walked in. Instead of her usual pajamas, Mom was dressed in Gap overalls and a striped thermal shirt. Lilac eye shadow made her green eyes dance. She looked pretty. When she came over, I didn't flinch, like I'd been doing lately. Still wearing my coat and my messenger bag, I just hugged her and let my eyes well up with tears. I blinked quickly before she noticed.

"How was your day, honey?" She sat at the kitchen table, waiting for me to join her. I could tell she hoped that we'd chit-chat until Dad got home and we left to go dress shopping. That's what we would have done before all this.

"Good." I said, hanging back near the fridge. "What did you do all day?"

"Oh, I read my book and watched some TV. A Wedding Story was on before this. It was a good one. The guy was a pilot and the girl was a stewardess and he proposed while they were almost in a plane crash."

"Wow," I said half-heartedly, worried she'd change the topic and talk about being sick. I inched backwards toward the staircase that led to my bedroom. "I'm gonna do some homework before we go."

When Dad came home from work, I tied my sneakers quickly, worried that if I was late that would give him yet another reason to be mad at me -- the way he had been ever since Mom got sick. He wanted me to be there for her, and I just... couldn't. But when I rushed downstairs, he greeted me playfully: "Monkey!" I was relieved. Especially on prom dress shopping day, I just wanted the three of us to get along, like old times. Even if we were pretending.

In the car, Mom complained that the seat hurt her back while Dad tried to steer with one hand and massage her neck with the other. I gazed out the window, telling myself it wasn't really February. The fact that we were going prom dress shopping so early didn't mean anything, right?

We parked and went inside. Racks of dresses filled the tiny store.

"Ooh, Missy! Look at this one." Mom pointed at a steel gray gown with iridescent sequins. It wasn't maroon.

"I'll try it on," I started to say as she shoved the dress into my arms. She scoped out the sales rack while I browsed by myself, choosing a Betsey Johnson ruffled party dress, a glamorous red satin sheath, and a maroon and black lace gown. The hangers began to bruise my knuckles, and I headed for the fitting room.

I tried on the gray dress first. She'd be hurt if I didn't. Stepping into it, I watched the bottom swirl out like a Cinderella gown. When I emerged, Mom and Dad's faces lit up. "Oh, Missy, you look beautiful," Mom gushed. "Very pretty," Dad agreed. I looked in the mirror. Fluorescent light bounced off the sequins, making the dress sparkle as I turned. It was pretty, in a fairytale kind of way.

I slipped on the other dresses, but even the maroon and black lace dress didn't quite match the dress I'd drawn in my notebook.

"So?" Mom asked, bright-eyed. "What do you think?"

I put on the gray gown again. The saleswoman brought over matching earrings and necklaces and a pair of heels. I pictured myself stepping out of the limo, reaching for my boyfriend's hand. Mom wasn't there, but I was wearing the dress she picked out, and that mattered.

"OK," I said. "I'm gonna get it."

Mom and Dad took the dress to the register while I pulled on my jeans and hoodie. I knew if we had longer, we would have searched every store until I found the perfect dress like the one I'd envisioned. We'd shop at Jessica McClintock, Macy's, Bloomingdale's...

I shook myself from the daydream. It couldn't be that way, and it was stupid to wish. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

At home, I headed straight to my room and called Laura.

"Ohmygod, how was it? Did you get a dress? Is it maroon?"

* * *

More than a decade later, Laura will accompany me to dozens of bridal stores as we shop for my wedding dress. And it will only be on those trips, as my heart breaks with longing for my mother, that I will truly understand my mom's sacrifice. That despite her illness, she made something as minuscule and monumental as a prom dress into a revered mother-daughter rite of passage. And with that, she taught me how to march on, even when the situation isn't what you had planned. How to make it beautiful anyway.

Essay by Marisa Bardach Ramel excerpted with permission from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom (Chicken Soup for the Soul, March 2015).