I have no idea how many families are in the Ron McD House. Either the House isn’t very full or people keep to their rooms. Supplied with a TV and phone there is no need to come out and mingle unless you want to cook. The lights in this kitchen don’t do much to brighten the room. It’s clean and functional but as I stand at the stove I miss the Vancouver kitchen with its windows looking out into the gardens, the tree branches loaded with soft green leaves and casting a leprechaun hue into the room. I’m cooking supper for Frankie and myself. FH is at the hospital with Nick.
The refrigerator door opens. I turn around and watch a woman pull out a container and set it in on the counter.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello.” Lanky medium brown hair hangs as she pours from the container into a glass.
“I’m Michelle.” She faces me. Her skin is pale. Her hair needs a wash. Dark circles ring her eyes. She’s shapeless inside clothes too big for her body. She doesn’t smile.
I’m a smiler. It’s what I do when I’m nervous, or irritated or anytime I deem it socially unacceptable to show my true feelings. There have been people in my life who didn’t like me for that one reason because they said they never really knew what I was honestly thinking.
“I’ve seen you,” Michelle says, “in the cancer pod. Your room is across from ours on the other side of the nursing station.”
She is leaning against the counter holding the glass with both hands, her fingers entwined. I turn my smiling face away, switch off the stove and move the pan from the burner. The seconds tick by. I glance at her and see the lids have dropped over her eyes. She’s propped her small body against the counter. A breeze might knock her over. I’m getting a terrible sensation of such deep sadness that my heart skips a beat and I have to look away. Too late. I’m aware of the smothering weight of my own grief settling onto my shoulders and it’s more than I can bear. In a burst of movement I swing open a cupboard and grab at two plates making a clatter. The smile has slipped from my face.
“You have a boy or girl? How old?” I ask.
“His name is Thomas and he’s 14. You have a boy, right? And another son? I’ve seen you and a man, he’s your husband?”
“Yes. I’m married to FH. My oldest is Frankie and he will turn 15 in a few days. Nicholas is our youngest. He’s 12.”
She tells me, “I’m here by myself. My husband farms and it’s harvest.”
I used to push FH away believing I would do better on my own. Frankie should be at home going to school, and FH working but our beautiful community made it financially possible for us to be together, and since BC’s Childrens Hospital’s verdict we need to be together as a family. I can’t imagine doing this alone.
“Nicholas has leukemia.”
“Thomas has a brain tumor.”
We stare at each other. Her eyes suddenly shining wet in the fluorescent lights.
She makes a decision and shows more courage than I have, maybe with a hope that I’ll be real with her. “They say my boy will die.”
I could tell her I’ve heard the same words. I could tell the truth because she is alone, and she isn’t hiding that she is lonely and afraid. Instead, I’m back here behind my amiable facade because I’m a coward, and I’m utterly terrified. My mouth is clamped shut. I just slowly shake my head. And I’m not smiling.
15 years ago today Nicholas died. The anticipation of each anniversary was always worse than the actual day. In the days building up to the anniversary of his death the grief was astounding, building and refocusing, growing into a monster that would cripple me.
I’m daily living without him and the anniversary is really just another day. I don’t miss Nicholas any more today than I did yesterday.
In the early years when the grief was new, the wound was raw and I was looking for my new normal, a moving target, the anniversary knocked my feet out from under me. It was so difficult to get back up, so I stayed down.
It was then that I was quiet, still and listening. I could hear his voice.
Don’t quit. I’m here with you. Get up, Mom!
Christmas can be wicked tough.
How was it for you? Are you down?
Be still. Be quiet. Listen.
Can you hear that voice inside your heart?
Get up! Don’t quit! I’m here with you.
You’re never alone.