Smokehouse, the black and white cat we rescued a few weeks ago, is curled up on my bed, purring. Two owls hoot somewhere out in the soft, residential darkness and downstairs, the table is dotted with wine glasses and dinner napkins, the leftovers of a small celebration. As the last minutes of my birthday tick down to zero, my mind feels hyper-alive, jumping from one subject to another. It touches on the subject of dying–is it really the end or just another beginning?–then it ponders the irony that grief can chew a hole right through the heart without actually killing you. But mostly, my hands running over a kitten that has definitely cheated death, I wonder whether I have been foolish to believe my mom could do the same.
Cancer has taught me that perspective is in the eye of the beholder. The small cage that was Smokey’s home at the animal shelter expanded suddenly into a warm house bursting with love right around the same time the walls began closing in on Gabriele. When my mom was first diagnosed last June, the slightest suggestion that cancer might impose an early expiration date on her life infuriated me. ”Five years?” I fumed. “Fuck five years!” But when this estimate began to shimmer like the pot of fool’s gold at the end of the rainbow, I tried to adjust to the idea that two years might be more reasonable. Then, as the rounds of painful chemotherapy, which should have worked like a stun-gun to paralyze the cancer and give her time, proved increasingly ineffective, I began to hope for just one year–365 days to say goodbye to someone you’ve known for a lifetime. Finally, when the news came in mid-January that my mom’s cancer was on a rampage, I stopped thinking time-specific altogether. ”Don’t go, Mama!” I sobbed into her chest, the sharpening angles of her collarbone cutting into my face. ”Please… stay… here.” Just for a little while.
“I will,” she promised, soothing the awful grief by running long fingernails through my hair over and over. ”I’ll stay for as long as I can.” I howled then like a dog with its leg stuck in an iron trap–which is, after all, what cancer is: a trap from which few people break free.
It took a whole day to come back from the edge. My mom never cracked, staying serene in the storm, and my sisters reminded me gently that hope, in the words of Emily Dickinson,”is a thing with feathers” that can’t be stopped or lost. Simone insists she is not looking at this turn of events as our mom dying, but instead as the incredible opportunity to live the rest of her life by Gabriele’s side, whatever time there is left. And Stephanie, with an eternal optimism that keeps her glued to the computer searching for a way out of this trap, promises she won’t quit trying to make that time as good–and as long–as possible.
And so, my 48th birthday passed quietly, the way most of them do now, surrounded by loved ones and a new frisky cat, his purring innocence making me long to be a child again–a time when my mother seemed to me immortal. And though her physical strength is waning, Gabriele not only came to the party, but managed to be the life of it, her spirit simply refusing to give sadness a seat at the dinner table.
“I believe,” I whispered, sitting in front of a homemade birthday cake scattered with candles. ”I believe!” I said louder, like a grown-up Tinkerbell, and the children and adults took up the chant. ”I believe, I believe, I believe, I believe, I believe…
Then, with one collective breath, we blew on the candles–and every one of them went out.