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By Heather Bell Adams
My mother was almost always in motion. She organized closets, making neat stacks of hangers, clothes, towels, and sheets as she assessed what could stay and what needed to go. In a sink full of hot water she soaked the labels off used peanut butter jars in case the jars were needed for a future project. She dusted the books in the living room with a feather duster, bringing in a step stool to reach the top shelves.
Sometimes my sister, Melissa, and I went with her to run errands, especially in the summer when school was out. We had skinned knees and sunburned arms and our straight hair was pulled up off our necks in ponytails. Our mother had short hair and long legs and she walked quickly everywhere she went. If our dad was with us, he would tease her and ask, “Where’s the fire?” Depending on her mood, Mom might laugh and shake her head, or she might press her lips together and walk faster and Melissa and I would slip out of our flip flops trying to keep up.
“Come on girls, don’t lollygag,” Mom would say, looking back to make sure we were coming.
“Lollygag,” we would whisper to each other, giggling. “Lollygag, lollipop.”
Occasionally, we went with her to Dr. Sacco’s office, where she worked part-time. She worked through her break, eating apple slices with one hand and writing notes in a chart with the other. We sat in the break room eating sour cream and onion potato chips and watching her. On her way out, she’d remind us to wash our hands when we were finished.
One day when I was sixteen and Melissa was fourteen, our mother slept late. It was the first time we could remember her staying in bed. When she finally came into the kitchen, she was still wearing her robe and she looked like a faded version of herself. She was breathing differently, like all of a sudden it was something hard to do.
Later that morning, Melissa and I went with her to see Dr. Sacco. Along the front sidewalk to the office entrance, there was the smell of freshly-laid pine straw and we walked slowly, all of us. They took our mother back right away, muttering about how they’d never heard of her being sick before. Since everyone there knew us, Melissa and I got to wait in the lab instead of in the waiting room. We watched the nurses put little glass tubes in a machine that twirled around and when it was still, they pushed orange rubber tops into the tubes with their fingers covered in thin gloves.
“Do you think that’s blood in there?” Melissa asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t even want to know.”
When Dr. Sacco called us into the exam room, he was winding his stethoscope around his hand over and over again. Usually when we saw him, he would say “You girls are getting so big. I remember when you were this high,” holding his tan, spotted hand in the air. We looked at each other, waiting for him to say “Such pretty, pretty girls,” like he always did. But he didn’t even say hello. He said he thought it was pneumonia and that we would know for sure when the blood work came back. He asked me if I was old enough to drive us home or if he needed to call our dad at work. I didn’t understand. Our mother had driven us there. Why couldn’t she drive us home?
“She needs to rest. I don’t want her driving,” Dr. Sacco said, answering the question I hadn’t asked out loud. She was still lying down on the table on top of the tissue paper. Her pink short-sleeved shirt was tucked in and she was wearing a thin white belt through the loops of her gray pants. Her arms were crossed over her stomach and her eyes were halfway closed.
“Only with an adult. I only have my learner’s permit,” I told him.
“That’ll be fine then,” he said and he patted my shoulder as he left the room.
She came home with us that day, but sometime later she went to the hospital in Asheville. I don’t know how many days later or how she got there. What I remember is being at our grandparents’ house, sitting on the scratchy couch in front of the living room window and waiting on our dad to get back from the hospital. The TV was on, but we weren’t really watching it. We wanted the sound and that was all. On any other weekday, we would’ve been at home finishing up homework and our dad would’ve come in from work, calling out a hello that was full and loud and that meant everything was going to be okay.
When he walked into our grandparents’ house that day, he knelt down on his knees in front of me and Melissa. He smelled like sweat and his shoulders were shaking.
“It’s cancer, girls.” He bowed his head like he was praying. “Leukemia.”
Later, when Mom went to a larger hospital in Winston-Salem, our aunt took us to visit. Her skin was a different color, less pink and more yellow, and almost shiny. She was very slow and mostly still. And what she said was different too. The truth is I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, not the specific words. But I know she said smaller things. She might have said “I’m thirsty.” I’m not sure. She pressed her fingers on my wrist. I’m sure she did that.
Back at home, Melissa and I waited to hear how she was doing. We ate meals that our grandmothers prepared for us. We talked to our dad on the phone. The night of my senior prom, I wore a red dress that she would’ve said was too short and early the next morning, there was my Aunt Mary on the phone saying that it was over and that she was so, so sorry. It wasn’t long before our house was full of grandparents and aunts and uncles and the sun was barely up. Our dad was still hours away, driving home from the hospital. I stood in the hallway outside Melissa’s room, unable to move until someone in the living room started crying and I worried that she might hear them. I knocked on her door and went in. She was already awake, standing by her bed and holding onto the bedpost like it would keep her from falling. When she saw me, somehow she seemed to know and something in her broke, but I said the words anyway because I had to.
Now I’m thirty-eight years old. A wife, a mother, a lawyer. This morning, like most mornings, I got up earlier than my husband and our son, Davis. I walked the dog and cooked breakfast for Davis who is nine years old and started asking for bacon soon after he woke up, like he does most days. I’m responding to work emails while packing his lunch. He wants to show me the video that he made on his iPod but there isn’t time. Not this morning, not before work.
I’ve never been back to my mother’s gravesite, mostly because I don’t think she’s there, not any important part of her anyway. But maybe it’s her voice that I hear sometimes. She doesn’t say, “Let’s go, come on.” Instead, I hear “Slow down.” Time goes by so fast anyway, she might say. Like rushing water through your fingers. And one day something may happen that you can’t get out in front of, no matter how fast you try to run. Or maybe nothing like that will happen after all and you’ll call yourself lucky, she says in a whisper so soft that I almost miss it.
“Let’s watch your video,” I tell my son. “I can’t wait to see.”