Morning Glories / Heather McTear

 

“I’m sorry I look like shit,” she says, as I walk into her home, quickly take her into my arms, and feel her mother’s hand touching my back, silently telling me, thank you for coming.  “I haven’t had a shower today and my hair is a mess,” she goes on. 

 

“Don’t say that,” I tell her.  “You’re beautiful.  Please, don’t say that.” 

 

I stop and touch her hair, what is left of it.  It feels soft, like touching feathers, light with the air of loss.  I touch her back then and pat it.  I feel the bones beneath skin and hold my hand there, wanting to feel the memory of me at that weight, with that hair, and the disease carrying on a life of its own inside of me.

 

Her cheeks are too prominent.  The structure too pronounced.  Going far beyond thin at 98 pounds, her face only resembles the one I remember.  Her weight gone, her head nearly bare, I stand there and touch her, as if touching her like that will give me back all that I have gained and all that I have lost, when my own body struggled for life.

 

I take my hands away--to give her space, because I can feel every single thought in that place.  I can hear everyone’s voice—talking silent talk, telling one another, we are all here, we are all here, still here.  And I can feel her telling me that she needs a minute.  A second will do. 

 

She begins showing me her new home; walking me through; holding her hand on one hip to support the weight of pain I know is passing through her with each step.  Proudly, she shows me the guest bedroom.  I can’t think.  “Nice,” I say.  “It’s incredible.”

 

She walks me into the second guest bedroom and tells me that this is the room she described to me over the phone.  All antiques, she had said.  “I’ve had this bedroom set since I was a little girl,” she tells me and begins to talk about how her father brought it home for her when she was just eight-years old. 

 

“That’s right,” I tell her, remembering.  “I really like this.”   Touching the smooth varnish on one of the bedposts, I search the room and feel her behind me.  I’m staring at the walls, the space, thinking, God, help me.  I turn around to follow her out of the room.

 

She leads me into the bathroom.  “It’s very cute,” I say, as she tells me what changes she has to make to get it to its present state. 

 

She leads me into her bedroom.  I stop and place my hand upon the bed—deluxe, raised, plush.  “This is so beautiful,” I say.  And she trails off into the master bathroom talking about how she received the bed from her fiancé for her last birthday.

 

She tells me that she hates the master bathroom and has to get this room done next, and I think that there is nothing in the world I can say at that moment, standing there, behind her in the small bathroom, watching her as she keeps her hand in place on her hip and lifts her hand to touch the wall.  I see the shoulder blades taking over her back, the rest of it sinking in deep between them, and my God, I can only think that I want to fall down on my knees and beg Him to give her life.

 

She turns and walks through with me trailing behind.  She says, “Now, let me show you the outside.  This is my favorite part.”  She walks me outside, shows off her swimming pool, and points to a Jacaranda tree.  “We’re having that cut down next week,” she tells me.  “It’s going to ruin the pool.  See how its bringing up the concrete?” 

 

““I just planted one of those in my front yard,” I tell her, finally distracted. “I hope it doesn’t take over like that.” 

 

She reassures me that it should be fine.  “It’s only a problem because it’s around the pool structure.” 

We go on like this for the next ten minutes.  Walking through her backyard, going over each tree and plant; discussing names and I-love-this or that, or how incredible those morning glories, full-blooming now in the sunlight, have taken over the entire trellis that stands near the edge of the pool and leads us into a small clearing of land.

 

She stops and says, “Here, we are going to plant fruit trees.  Make it like a little orchard.” 

 

“That will be perfect,” I say, and I mean it.  The space is ideal for it.  As we walk back through, beneath those morning glories, I feel my time of distraction is fading away.  I can feel it leave just as we pass beneath them.  I hold my hand out to the side and touch their leaves, framing her place, making her life more beautiful.  She starts pointing out another plant that will die in the heat.  The words hit me and I try to keep my mind focused.  I can do this, I tell myself.

 

We sit down and she begins to ask me questions about my own kind.  “What is Hodgkin’s Disease?” She asks, squinting as she speaks.  “It has to do with the lymph glands,” I say.  “There’s Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s.  I have Hodgkin’s.  It’s more predictable.  They have a better idea of where it’s going next.  Luckily, mine didn’t go beneath my chest or into my bones, but it was close.”

 

She looks and listens, and it is so different telling her all of this.  As many times over the past six years as I have said the same words—or variations of them to infinite degrees—it feels as if I am telling someone something that she already knows.  Just a different name or stage.

 

We walk back inside.  The 107 degrees is too much for her.  She tells me that she is dreading the next few months of this desert heat we have ahead of us.  “Oh, I know,” I reply.  But what do I know?  My mind is absent of anything other than the same thought:  Can I handle this?  Can I do this?

 

She rests into her sofa and points out a chair for me.  It’s plush, too.  Everything around her feels soft.  The carpet is perfectly clean, newly vacuumed.  The house is immaculate. 

 

I put my feet up on the table in front of me and then suddenly ask if that’s okay.  “Oh sure, absolutely, hon,” she tells me.  “I sit like that all day.”  I don’t believe her.  I can see how she keeps moving. How she keeps cleaning and working and moving, as if the moment she stops, she is giving in to her pain. 

 

She has moments in the next hour of quiet listening, during which I am talking from someplace unknown, telling her that I believe everything happens for a reason.  Everything.  I wouldn’t give it back, not for anything.  It made me who I am, I say.  “I look like myself again,” I tell her.  “But I’m not the same.”

 

She opens up and tells me more details—maybe more than I can handle.  She tells me about tumors growing and shrinking, disappearing and returning, just six months after her first remission point three years ago.  I have six years of remission behind me, and I suddenly feel a nagging in my left breast.  I try not to think about it.  I try to clear my mind.  I’m okay, I tell myself, in the midst of this talk about how everything, even nothing, happens for a reason. 

We’re just months apart in age and 26-years old.  We sit like this and I see us there, much older than we are in years, counting blessings together.  Speaking of prophetic dreams and wish fulfillment.  She tells me that she has had dreams that she is alive—that she is going to live.  I tell her that I have had dreams of my daughter, now almost three-years old, but in these dreams she is probably fifteen--tall and beautiful.  “She looks like a doe,” I say, and then I add that these are the dreams I hold onto whenever I start fearing for my life.

 

She shifts into a moment of anger, a burst of frustration. Such moments come out of this place I still feel and remember.  A place that is telling you, listen to the two of you.  Are you out of your minds?  You think you can control what I am doing to you right now?  You think that anything of importance can’t leave you tonight, tomorrow, or right now, as you sit and discuss the meaning of life?

 

In this moment, her language is more specific, more focused, and she lists names of medications, names of the nurses—of one who accidentally gave her the wrong chemotherapy, which made her hair fall out that night.  “My chemo doesn’t make me lose my hair,” she tells me with a passion.  “I had the most beautiful hair, and then it was just gone.”

 

 

My mind trails off to the subject of hair, and I can see then why my friend conveys so much emotion over a nurse’s mistake and losing hair.  More emotion expressed over hair than the unseen cancer is remarkable, perhaps, and I remember I used to think it was so trivial.  For people to obsess over hair seemed meaningless anytime, especially at a time like this.

 

But then I remember a story I heard, of a surgeon who shaved his head bald when a patient yelled at him as he entered her hospital room, threw his cancer patients’ self-help book at him and asked him how he could even begin to understand what we go through when everyday he looks in the mirror and sees his hair—a sign of life.  He went home that day and shaved it all off.  Never allowed it to grow back.  Never wanted to forget each time he looked in the mirror what he may never understand.

 

I take my energy back and tell myself that I can do this.  I pull myself back.  I look directly into her eyes and tell her that I believe, along with my faith in doctors and those who heal us, that we all know exactly what we need to know, exactly when we need to know it.  “The same way that we were brought together, again,” I say. 

 

“I know,” She tells me.  And she relaxes her back against the cushioned sofa and begins to talk about her dreams, for when she gets well again.  She will waitress at the same place where she worked when she was diagnosed.  “They were so good to me,” she says.  “Like a family.”

 

I know I have to leave.  “You have to get to class,” she says before I say anything.  I remember having my visitors and watching them leave, in a hurry and on the way to wherever or whatever, as I remained there, in another world, a life-death place. 

 

She walks me out to my car. Stands barefoot in the street.  We pass back and forth all of the things people say when there is nothing either one can say.  I’ll call you.  Love you.  Love you too.  Maybe this weekend we can get together. 

 

I get into my car, look away and down the street.  I look back at her.  “I have missed you,” I say.  And she smiles.  “I’ve missed you too,” she says. “I miss you already,” I add.

 

I want to take her with me.  I want to let her stay where she is.  I want to keep my hand on her delicate hair and heal her.  I look into her eyes and smile.  No more words.  She’s standing still, smiling, and I drive away. 

 

In class I am distracted. Five minutes late and I keep looking at the clock for some reason.  I turn around to a classmate and briefly stare.  Words won’t come. I can’t explain where I have just been.  I try to whisper and ask an offhanded question – an attempt to bring myself back.  The professor’s staccato is frenetically lecturing.  He turns and notices me, stops and says, “What’s the problem?  If you have a question, just ask me.  Okay?”

 

And as I watch him speak, pretending to pay attention at last, I am thinking how amazing it is what the human spirit is capable of.  Amazing what a person will suffer to feel only one more day, or night, touch, kiss -- escaped laughter. 

 

I look back at the clock. Two minutes have passed.  Two minutes.

 

I want to tell him–lecturing history, war, devastation, and economics--but I know I can tell him nothing.   I want to tell him why I was five minutes late.  I want to say, I’ve just spent two hours with my friend who has ovarian cancer, and she can hardly stand.  I want to say, a year ago, when I met her in our cancer clinic, I was there for a routine check-up, and she was there hoping for a cure.  She looked healthy.  No way you could have guessed.  No way you could have known.

 

I want to say, if you could only reach inside of my skin right now and feel my heart, breaking at the sight of her – if you could only taste the taste in my mouth, the memory of IV drugs, if you could smell the smell of that place, clinging, onto my clothes . . .but you can’t.  And that’s okay.

 

If only I could have healed her with my hands.  Touched her hair and back and filled her only with life.  I would have given her the longest life in history.  I would have given her weight, mass, temperature, locks of hair that would never touch ground.  I would have taken her hollow cheeks in my hands and added face—her face, the one I knew and had seen only months before.  And my hands would have meaning, purpose, a world revealed completely.  And Tina would night-swim in her desert pool, as the morning glories slept, finally taking leave of their labored beauty.