There’s an unfinished plastered-over patch of wall in the girls’ bedroom that mocks me. It’s from some work we had done last year where I breezily said to the wanting-to-go-home contractor, “Oh sure, I can take care of that!”
It’s still there.
Every time I see it, I hate myself a little more. For the first few months, when I walked by there, my inner voice would unleash a scathing monologue on my inadequacies as a housekeeper and mother and general human being. Eventually, even my inner voice got tired, and now it just tsk-tsks at me daily when I pass, head hung in defeat.
But then I took a week off from work, and everything was going to change. Usually I would be full of time-off dreams and resolutions: I will clean! I will exercise! I will cook! I will wear pants most days! But not this vacation. This vacation I only had one.
I will fix the wall.
Instead, I got sick.
It started with the flu ― or so I thought: fever and body aches and a sense of impending doom so bad that I sat on the couch wrapped in blankets and wept at what I discerned to be three especially emotionally wrenching episodes of Criminal Minds in a row. (”That serial killer who wants to make puppets out of dead people is somebody’s baby too!” my inner voice said, delirious.)
This went on for days and days, to the point where no one found sick-me cute anymore, including the voice, which had devolved into the TPS reports-seeking boss from Office Space. “Yeah. I’m gonna need you to get that wall fixed,” it said.
“WE’VE GOT TIME!” I yelled back.
It became my mantra. We’ve got time.
But time went by, and I stayed sick, so much that I started to pray a little, asking God/Mary/Mom (this is how I pray these days, a spiritual catch-all offered up to God, Mary, and my recently-deceased mother) to give me a sign that everything would be okay. God/Mary/Mom responded by making a dead monarch butterfly fall out of the sky in front of us as I finally walked into a doctor’s office.
“This is not good,” said the voice.
On the way home, after tests and no answers, the radio played Glenn Frye’s “The Heat Is On,” and my fever pulsed along to the beat. We followed a company van with a skull and crossbones painted on the back. “That’s enough with the signs, you guys,” I told God/Mary/Mom, and when we got home I laid on the floor. The baby asked for milk, and I said, “In a minute, baby. We’ve got time.”
But we didn’t. My doctor called shortly after. My white blood cell count was too low, she said. “You need to go to the hospital right now.” And I burst into tears in front of God/Mary/Mom and all of my kids.
At the hospital, there are perks to having a low white blood cell count and being highly infect-able (not a word, but should be). They don’t make you wait in the waiting room with all the sickos (not sickos like on Criminal Minds, just regular sickos who are sick), and you are pretty much guaranteed a private room. I sat in my private room while doctors and nurses paraded in and out, running more and more tests and becoming more and more agitated.
“I have this terrible pain in my feet,” I said to one doctor, who was getting kind of desperate.
“Let me see them,” he answered, and I warned him that it had been a while since my last pedicure and they were kind of gross.
“I’ve seen it all,” he reassured me, and I took my socks off.
“You’re right. They ARE gross.”
The voice, which had been quiet for a while, laughed. I did too.
Later he poked me so hard in the belly that I grimaced, so he declared I must have an abdominal infection and sent me off for a CAT scan. There was no abdominal infection.
My chest X-rays were suspicious and needed to be redone because the radiologist was convinced I had a foreign body implanted into my rib. It was the snap from my hospital gown.
When I’d had enough radiation to emit a soft glow and we still had no answers, I was admitted. They pumped me full of IV antibiotics and fluids, and when I was comfy and beeping from places I didn’t know could beep, they sent her in.
She was a hematologist/oncologist (blood/cancer doc, she said, when I looked at her wide-eyed and uncomprehending) and young and cute, right down to her high heeled shoes, which made me feel extra ugly in my ratty gown and two-days-old makeup.
She talked for a while, but I stopped listening after she said cancer, the breath stuck in my throat. This wasn’t an answer or a diagnosis, I heard her say. Just a conversation that needed to happen, because the more things we ruled out the better chance it was cancer.
I stared at her heels. “So that just happens?” I asked her, when she finished. “People just get leukemia? At 36?”
She nodded slow. “It happens.”
When she left I started to Google “survival rates of blood cancers,” on my phone but I couldn’t really see well because my eyes were tear-y and I had left the overhead lights off all day because MY SELF-ESTEEM CAN ONLY TAKE SO MUCH. I put my phone down and laughed at how stupid I was just a few days before when my husband had tried to talk to me about the life insurance we finally got around to getting, which led to talking about death, and I had handed him the baby and a fresh diaper and told him we’d talk later, when we had more time.
Oh God/Mary/Mom, I thought.
What if I was wrong?
What if there wasn’t time?
Would the baby even remember me?
“I’m pretty familiar with how much it sucks to not have a mom,” I prayed out loud, side-eyeing all three of them. “Let’s not do that to these guys. Not now.”
Later, cancer/blood doc came back with her boss. He made eye contact and was wearing sensible shoes and I loved him instantly. He told me that we were going to not talk anymore about cancer.
“This is Lyme disease,” he said.
“Are we sure?” I asked.
“Nope. But to talk about anything else right now is silly.”
And so I left the next day, arms bruised in all the places they stuck me with needles, a prescription for Lyme-treating antibiotics in my purse.
“Can I drive myself home?” I asked my nurse Desiree.
She didn’t know, she said. No one had ever done that before.
“Well then I’m gonna be your first,” I told her, and she wheeled me to the door and I got up and walked to my car and drove away. The world outside seemed to glow in technicolor, and I sang too loud along with the radio and cried a little when I realized that was me that had the glow.
Thinking you might die and then realizing you were probably not gonna will do that to a person, I suppose. Or maybe it was the radiation.
For those of you keeping track, the plaster spot is still there. I went right up to it that day, the day I came home from the hospital, when the house was still empty and the kids were still at school. I put my hand against the plaster, closed my eyes, and felt the hard edges that I hadn’t sanded yet.
It’s kind of grown on me, I thought. Maybe I’ll just leave it there.
I waited, bristling, for a scolding from my inner voice.
“Eh,” she said softly. “We’ve got time.”