What screws us up the most in life is the picture we have in our heads of how things are supposed to be. It’s an alternate reality, one a bit more nostalgically-foggy and sepia-toned, blurred around the edges and flicker-fluttering the way old canister movies used to play. Lately, I find myself wondering how I’ll remember this year of my life.
I have this picture in my head of my little brother laying across my lap one night in August right before school starts. He’s seventeen in this picture, but he could be that same four year old boy or seven year old boy or thirteen year old boy. I’m running my fingers through his hair as he calls love names and begs me to make it stop hurting. Love is lying and tricking, he says. Love is hard work. Love is suffocating and using and heart-warming and not worth it and so very worth it. It has ruined everything, he sobs, like any boy suffering from his first heartbreak. And while he cries himself to sleep, I’m whispering promises into the top of his head because love is loyal, I tell him, and our love—like any love between a brother and a sister should be—is never ending.
My brother calls on my way to work this morning. I’m cussing morning rush hour traffic and running late and attempting to put on mascara without a mirror, and he’s catching me up on the weather in Vermont and his latest projects. He has to run, he says. He’ll see me soon, he promises. I’ll look back on this day sometime and realize how many months it had been since I’d seen him.
I have this picture in my head of an August afternoon with my best friend. She is sitting at her make-up-and-magazine-covered desk, her knees pulled up under her chin, chipping at the black polish on her toes. She’s in her pajamas and her hair looks shampoo-thirsty but she jumps up and insists we brave the summer heat at the pool and she is so many kinds of 14-year-old beautiful. And we don’t know that we’ll be the last to play in the street, the first who played video games and sent text messages and discovered the world on a 56 KB modem. We’ll record songs from the radio onto cassettes and pioneer Walkmans and chatrooms. We’ll never figure out boys.
Today, my best friend and I will talk all day on Gchat while we’re both at work and sing karaoke and drink $2 beers tonight with her first husband. Her black nail polish is still chipped, her head is still in the clouds and she is so many kinds of 27-year-old beautiful. I’ll look back on this day sometime and realize how close we were to her moving across the country, and I’ll wish I clung more tightly to her.
I have this picture in my head of a late August evening at the house where I grew up. My dad and I are barefoot chasing fireflies through the back yard. My mother brushes the clovers out of my hair, tisking my grass stains and reminding me about piano lessons. My dad sets the lighting bugs free because their light won’t last if they can’t fly, he says. I’ll never really know if that’s true. I do cartwheels across the grass, running in circles and swearing that if I do this long enough that I too, like the fireflies, will glow. The pictures shakes a little—Mom is laughing. Can a child be any more loved than in this moment?
Today I take my mom her prescriptions on my lunch break. She’s lying on the couch on the screened in porch when I get there, relaxing like a cat stretched out in the sun. She sleeps, all of the worry lines and wrinkles absent from her face for the moment and for just a breath I try to remember what things were like before the cancer, what she was like. Her wig hangs up by the mirror in her bedroom so when I reach out to run my fingers across her forehead, my palm glides effortlessly across her smooth scalp. I don’t admit it out loud, but I barely recognize her. My mother—the woman whose shoes always matched her cardigan, whose jewelry always matched her dress, whose flawless blonde hair was always perfectly combed. The only sign of that woman is Mom’s perfectly manicured fingernails. “At least I can have this one thing,” she had said.
In every way that my father is an off-the-cuff free spirit, my mother is perfectly tailored, polite, and ever-mindful of decorum and etiquette. My absentmindedness may come from my father but I get my manners straight from my mother. She won’t let anyone see her like this.
When she wakes, she wants to talk about the wedding planning. I don’t. How do I focus on flowers for the bridesmaids bouquets when I really just want to ask Mom if she’s measured her magnesium level today? How do I tell her that the guest list has nearly doubled so we’ll need more chairs and more tables and more food and more drinks and more money, when my wedding fund is now going toward medical bills? “We can handle anything,” she says. I only sometimes believe her.
I’ll look back on this day sometime and acknowledge how close we came to losing her. I’ll grasp the absurdity of planning a catering menu while the nurse switched out my mother’s chemo IV bags. I’ll feel ashamed of the hours I spent agonizing over flower arrangements and music choices on days my mother couldn’t get out of bed.
My father used to have a saying for moments like this—moments when things didn’t turn out the way we’d expected. “That’s just the way it worked out.” God I hated that phrase. It seemed so flippant, so detached. Like he was telling me that my pain was irrelevant. But while a massive understatement in this case, I find myself repeating the phrase over and over again in my head these days. This is simply how things worked out. This is the hand we were dealt.
I’ll look back on all of this sometime and realize how it changed me. Hopefully the edges will be softer, the image more nostalgic. Hopefully I’ll still be chasing fireflies.