Chapter 1: The End of Possibility
My mother prepared my favorite dinner; stuffed shells with a heavy garlic marinara. I couldn't help feeling like the feast was a last dinner, like the ones inmates on death row receive before an execution.
I forced a fork full into my mouth though the food was flavorless, even with the persistent taste of garlic. There was no taste left in the world, nothing to savor.
I looked up into my mother's eyes, sad yet hopeful. She couldn't lose hope; she wouldn't. She cooked my favorite meal, like somehow magically it would make everything better.
"Yeah?" I swallowed, forcing the food down my throat and into my barren stomach.
"How is it?" My mom asked; her voice was almost a whisper.
"Good, like always, Mom," I responded with a closed smile.
"It's wonderful, Genie," my uncle Pat said, who sat next to my mother at the dinner table.
I looked toward the right at end of the table where my father sat. He dangled his fork in his right hand; his plate nearly untouched. When our eyes met he slightly smiled and I thought he might start crying. He knew, unlike my mother who hoped.
I took another bite then dropped my fork; the sound of the stainless steel utensil hitting the china rang across the dining room. I let out a small grunt, trying to keep my whimpering inside. I swallowed and let out a long breath.
"Are you okay, Courtney?" my grandmother asked.
My grandfather stared at me as if he didn't know what to say. His gray eyes shimmered with tears. He sat his fork down, wiped his mouth, and leaned forward in case he would need to help me.
I hurried and adjusted myself. "I'm fine." I smiled.
"Are you sure, Court, I could call the doctor?" my mother said, her voice rising with concern.
I shook my head.
"Don't be afraid to let us call the doctor, Court; you're not bothering anyone," my dad asserted almost sternly.
"I'm fine, really," I said.
"I just don't want you in pain. I hate seeing you in pain," my mother mumbled over her emotions.
I gritted my teeth. I could feel my heart start to hammer as the pain continued to climb. I wanted to throw up the food I'd just eaten.
"Courtney?" my grandma said.
I let out a breath. "I think I'm going to go up to my room," I said, standing, my hands clutching tight to the edge of the glossy wood table.
"Here, I'll help you." My mother stood.
"No, I'll be okay, Mom, I promise."
I didn't allow my family to help me to my room; I was frail but I wasn't crippled. I climbed the tall stairs to the second story of my house and hurried toward my bedroom.
I wanted to be alone; needed to be alone. My family had been swarming me like flies on a dead cat; but I was not dead, not yet. I shut my bedroom door behind me, letting the quiet darkness enclose around my body like a temporary protective shield. I stood motionless for a moment, breathing deep, attempting to hush the pounding beat of my heart.
When my heart slowed to an undaunted rhythm I allowed myself to pretend the darkness was death, stealing me away from life. Perhaps imagining mortality could prepare me for its certainty, yet envisioning death did nothing to save me from its horror. Even my family's doting promises of hope did nothing to alleviate my anguish. The fact of the matter was I was dying.
I switched on my bedside lamp. The dim light cascaded down over the table and several pill bottles that gathered like a mass crowd next to my alarm clock. I stared at the ginger colored bottles for a moment, thinking they were pointless. What were they doing for me but leaving a disgusting taste in mouth? The medicines did nothing but merely ease my suffering; nothing could change my fate now.
I rested at the edge of my bed and began to unbutton my blouse, accidentally allowing my eyes to glance into the oval mirror hung above my dresser. I planned to take the mirror down, but at one point I believed I was going to get better. I had in the past, why not this time?
My appearance was still difficult for me to stomach. My blonde hair was short, maybe an inch longer than a man's military cut. My eyes looked like they were descending into my head like a sinking ship and my skin lacked any warmth. I had dropped twenty pounds and my bones prominently protruded against my thin gray skin, making me appear anorexic. Watching your body deteriorate before your own eyes was somewhat psychologically damaging. I looked away, pretending the image in the mirror was not mine.
A sharp pain shot from my left thigh; cringing, I squeezed my eyes shut as the pain stole my breath away. I reached and grabbed hold of my thigh, trying to rub the pain away. I had not taken my pain medicine in hours; I was tired of pills, IV's and hospital beds. A small part of me was glad it was going to be over. I had opted to halt the chemo. This was the third time the cancer returned and this time the disease spread faster, harvesting itself into my bloodstream. It was my fault really. I had gone four years without being sick and I was truly living my life for the first time. I didn't want life to end; I knew in my heart the cancer had returned but I pretended it hadn't. I was first diagnosed with stomach cancer at seveenteen, then again at twenty. When I hit the four year mark of cancer free I thought, yes, it's finally over. I'm free! Then I felt it; I knew exactly what it felt like; like a woman who knows she is pregnant because she has been pregnant before.
I closed my eyes for a moment, attempting to obtain a grip on myself. I shuddered. I hated thinking of the inevitable. The idea of planning my death, like some morbid wedding, made my belly ache. I was twenty-four and I didn't have much time left.
Another sharp pain cut through my body, this time so shrill I muffled my own scream. I didn't want my family, who still resided downstairs, to hear me cry out. My eyes swelled with tears and spilled down over my face. I was dying! I could feel it and it hurt! I reached for my bottle of pain meds. I took in a deep breath and tried to stop my hands from trembling so I could unscrew the top. I finally flipped the top off, popped two pills into my mouth and washed them back with bottled water.
I relaxed back into my bed and tried to focus through the climbing pain and my racing heart. I waited with gripping patience to feel better as I clutched hold of my bed sheets. I took another med, but this time for my anxiety. It was too much for me to handle. I didn't want to die, no matter how much I tried to prepare myself. An innate human instinct, or some chemical in my brain, made me want to live, to survive this. But it was too late now, the cancer had eaten away too much of my body.
A soft rap on the door tore me from the pain-induced haze. I lifted my head from my pillow. The meds were beginning to kick in and the pain and anxiety were starting to cease. I could be strong again, or pretend to be strong again. I cleared my throat and made sure my face was wiped free of tears.
"Yes?" My voice still cracked.
My mother opened the door. She stood in the threshold for a moment, staring at me. I wanted to say, what, but I knew. I knew she held a fear and sadness any mother would dread. It could be seen in the depth of her tired eyes, the way her shoulders slightly rolled forward and the way her hand squeezed tight around the door knob.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Uh huh," I managed. "I'm just really tired."
"Did you want to come down and say goodbye to your grandma and grandpa and Uncle Pat? They are getting ready to leave."
I tried to lift myself up, but I couldn't. I wasn't sure if my lack of strength came from the pain or the meds; probably both.
"No, you just rest, Courtney. I will tell them goodbye for you. First let me help you get into some pajamas," my mom said, going over to my top drawer. She pulled out a pink flannel nightgown.
I had forgotten I was still dressed with my blouse half unbuttoned.
"Here, let me help you sit up," my mom said, sinking herself into my bed.
"What's Dad doing?" I asked as my mother pulled my nightgown over my head.
"He's cleaning up the kitchen from dinner."
"There, now get some rest," my mom voiced, pulling the covers over me.
I tried not to cry as I realized my mother was tucking me in at twenty-four.
"I love you so much, Court," my mom said. Her eyes glistened with tears.
I didn't cry. I wanted to, but I didn't. I didn't have the strength. "I love you too, Mom."
"Do you want this light off?" she asked, standing from the bed.
"I'll see you in the morning," my mom said, turning away. She eased the door shut behind her, letting it linger cracked open for a moment. She didn't want to let me go.
Once again I was glad to be in the dark. The meds began to take hold, softening every nerve fiber in my body, and easing the pain and anxiety to a level of zilch. The feeling of euphoria felt good, but I had to remind myself the feeling was synthetic. If not for the meds I would be in utter anguish. But for now I would elate in the painlessness and the feeling that nothing mattered anymore; until morning.