Chimes

Wildfire
An excerpt from a senior comp: The Lake

Meghan Price
    The summer before my junior year of high school marked an important change in my life. I think I started to grow up that summer. My entire family was at my grandparent’s lake for a week, like we were every summer. One humid night, my father told me to get out of the cottage, because my mother was taking a nap. Indignant, I headed up to the big house in search of my cousins and siblings.  The evening was warm and the air felt thick. When I pushed open the front door of the big house, I saw they weren’t out on the porch, but someone was. It was starting to get dark but I could hear the rocker creaking against the porch and I could make out the form of my grandma.
    “Hey Grandma,” I said loudly and she jerked her head up. She hadn’t known I was there. “So, have you seen any of the other guys?” My grandmother hated it when we said “hey” to her or when we said “guys” when we were talking about a group that included girls.  I had said those words on purpose. We thought it was funny when she got frustrated at things like that, and I was still feeling resentful for being kicked out of the cottage. I waited for her reproach, but it didn’t come.
     “Oh, hello sweetie,” was all she said but, as I sat down on the chair beside her, I saw her pull out her embroidered handkerchief and dab her eyes. Even in the dim light, I could see that her eyes were red. I had never seen my grandma cry. I wasn’t sure if I had seen her sad before.  I had certainly seen her angry. Everyone in the family had seen her yell and scream. We had also heard her roar with laughter or loudly share a story.  But this was something very different. She was quiet. I didn’t know what to do or say. I considered getting up and pretending I hadn’t noticed.
    “Grandma,” I finally said, very slowly. “Are you okay?”
    My weight shifted when I heard her draw a short breath, in what could only have been a sob. I looked down at my feet; my toenails had been painted a bright pink a few weeks ago and half the paint had now been scratched off. 
    She spoke so quietly that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hear it.  “Mothers are not supposed to watch this happen to their child.”
    I stopped fidgeting. Watch what happen? I thought
    “What do you mean?” I said.
    “I was just thinking about your mom being sick. You know, I just wish she didn’t have to go through this.” 
    Her words filled me with a sudden flash of anger. All I knew was that I wanted her to stop talking. I was suddenly mad and confused and it made me feel small. My skin was hot. My mother was fighting breast cancer for the second time. She had been battling it for almost half of my life, and I hardly thought about it anymore.
     Why is she crying? It isn’t even her mom. And she has been sick for so long. It is not like we just found out.  There is no reason to be sad right now, is there?
    We sat on the porch for a little while. Every one of my muscles was tense. My hands gripped the edge of my seat. Before my grandma stood up to leave, the crickets where filling the summer evening with a soft hum. I was sure I had not moved the entire time. She patted my head.
    “Love you dear,” she said absently and she went inside.
    I shrank from her touch but she didn’t notice. She is just being stupid, I thought as she walked away. She is always being stupid. It is the second time we have been through this. Mom got through it the first time. There is no reason to cry. But I felt a lump growing in my throat and panic rising inside my chest.
    The signs of my mother’s sickness had been around for a long time, but I had avoided them and even been angry when forced to see them. Earlier that summer, I had gone to an intensive swim camp for a week. I had come back and my mother was bald. She had started a new chemo treatment a few months earlier and she told me that her hair had started to fall out when I was gone.
    “I didn’t want to just watch it all fall out, so Kaitlin and I got a razor and buzzed it all off!” she said happily, like she was telling a good joke. I had been angry then too. “It was fun, but we really wished that you were here! It was like a party! We were thinking how much you would have enjoyed it. You always love playing with hair.” My mother had said, smiling at me.
    I had loved it. I loved brushing hair and styling it. I had especially loved my mother’s thick, red hair. It had been the prettiest I had ever seen and I always thought of new ways to do it, while I sat behind her as she read aloud to the six of us kids. How could you think I would enjoy shaving it off? I had thought with resentment.
    But all I had said aloud was, “Ya, too bad,” I had managed a weak smile but I never knew if she could see through it. I was happy I missed it. I felt almost nauseous thinking about it and I was angry at her for making me think about it.
    Now, the idea that I had avoided realizing just how sick my mom was, made me even angrier. My legs felt weak as I stood up and my mind seemed to fight against my body, as my feet took me down to the cottage. But I had to see. The walk down the hill seemed longer than usual and the night seemed quieter. I saw the others sitting down at the beach, but I barley registered the information. My thoughts were completely blank but my chest felt heavy.
    I silently opened the back door of the cottage and I could see the back of my dad’s head. The TV show he was now watching flashed a dim light around the cottage. Without him noticing, I opened the door to my parent’s room and looked down on the sleeping form of my mother. Her hairless head was wrapped in a flowery handkerchief which she used when her wigs were uncomfortable. For perhaps the first time, I really looked at her. Her skin seemed to have an odd, yellow tint and it looked soft. Her chest rose and fell slowly, as if it took a great effort. She must have been sleeping for a long while. I thought about the mother I had known before. She had thought that sleeping, or even being inside during the day was a waste of the beauty of the outdoors. It must have been hard for her to be confined to her bed so often.
    A hardcover book was lying open on the bed. She had probably been trying to read before she had fallen asleep. Reading was even more important to her than being outside, but she was often too nauseous after chemo to do so. I wondered why she had never asked me to read to her, like she had done for me so many times. Why didn’t you offer? I asked myself. The same anger I had felt before was pulsing through me, but now there was something else too. I felt the heaviness of guilt in my stomach.
    I closed the door softly and joined my dad on the couch. When I sat next to him he started, surprised to see me, but he didn’t kick me out this time. Maybe he noticed something different in my attitude or maybe he was just lonely.
    Sitting there, I thought about when my mom first told me that the cancer was back. It was during the previous school year and we were on our way to meet the rest of the family at Olive Garden. I should have known something was wrong then. We never went out to eat. She had told me that the cancer was like a forest fire that they were trying to put out.
    “It keeps firing up in a new place and then we just have to put that new one out. We keep an eye on it, so that we can catch every new fire.” It had sounded so simple. Okay, I had thought we just have to watch it. I hadn’t known the term “metastatic breast cancer” then. I didn’t realize she was telling me that we could never completely stop the fires. I didn’t understand that the day would come when we couldn’t beat the fire back anymore. I didn’t realize she was trying to tell me that it had spread and it was now incurable. It was terminal.
    Seeing my grandma cry sparked a realization, or at least the beginning of a realization, which I had been fighting. I am not sure if that realization was even complete the next summer, when we came up without my mother and our family was no longer whole.
     I tucked my feet up under me on the couch. My dad looked tired. I had never noticed how many grey hairs he had.  “I am not sure what is going on,” my dad whispered. Then I noticed he was watching a reality show where everyone seemed to be competing in some kind of wilderness. My dad usually watched old, black and white movies and he never watched TV. He especially hated reality television. I curled into my father; it was something I hadn’t done in quiet a few years and I was surprised I still fit there, under his arm.
    “Hmm, me neither, daddy. I think someone is going to win money.” I forgot about finding my cousins. Telling ghost stories, exploring the woods, or even a bonfire didn’t sound very fun anymore. I spent the rest of the night watching TV with my head on my father’s shoulder.