by Virginia Elizabeth Hayes
“Well there,” my mother said as I opened her door, “look at that.”
Unable to draw a full breath, I moved sideways into her house, holding an empty shoebox under my left arm. I clung to a red attaché case and scuttled crablike, so nothing would bump against my latest surgical wound.
Mom put her hands out for the shoebox, the reason for my visit. “This is a difficult item to locate, one with a top.” She flapped the lid. “An endangered species.”
I nodded. I figured that was why she put me on the job. I didn’t have enough lung capacity to say no to her. I’d been off chemo for almost two months, but still couldn’t achieve much without needing a nap. The attaché case slipped from my numb fingers, plopping onto the floor.
Mom lifted a brow. “You’re staying?”
Even though I was done with chemo, I had almost no control over my body. “No. But, I’ve got a full change of clothes, meds, hankies, wipes, stain remover, gauze for my nosebleeds, and giant zipper bags for laundry transport if there’s an emergency during my lunch visit or my forty-four mile drive home.”
“You have a well packed kit.” Mom pointed at the bruising on my chest from my chest-port. “Oh, but that looks terrible.”
I nodded in agreement. Everything about the chest port was terrible.
I gasped a little because all the exertion left me winded. I hadn’t taken a full breath since my sixth chemo round, even though my tumor hadn’t resided in my lungs. My doctors couldn’t tell me why.
As I wheezed, Mom pointed at the empty shoebox. “Well, only half fill it, then.”
“Fill it? With what?”
Mom moved her hand in a semicircle, like an Empress indicating the entirety of her realm. “Your cards. Gather them. I haven’t done so for,” she turned, heading into the kitchen, “a while.”
I closed one eye. “How long is a while?”
When she didn’t answer, I shuffled into the living room. My mother was always interested in teaching me the difference between simple and easy.
In my thirties, a medication caused me hand tremors. I cried to my mother about it. Having no real knack for sympathy, she said, with no inflection: “Oh, dear, dear.” Then she gave me a book about Continuous-Line-Drawing, the practice of setting the pen tip down on the paper and not lifting it until the piece was done. While the process was simple, it was anything but easy.
Ten years after that, my mother fell, injuring her shoulder. During her recovery, I drew cards and mailed two of them a week to her. After twelve weeks, when she received the ‘all clear’ from her doctor, I stopped sending the cards. Eleven days later, she called, asking: “Where are my cards?”
So it began.
The request of two cards a week, every week, until one of us died, was simple, but nothing about it was easy. It required 104 drawings, art paper, card stock, envelopes, stamps, art supplies, addresses, return-addresses, stamps and walks to the mailbox, per year. I carried pens and blank cards everywhere. I stopped looking at things without a pen in my hand. I only saw things as I drew them out, without the complicated luxury of thought, doubt, or permission. The juggernaut never stopped.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I called my mother. The subject of the cards came up before the odds of my survival did. Somehow my sentence got reduced to one mailing a week. Because I had some cards in reserve that could last me a couple months, or until I died, I didn’t argue.
Now, weak, little, post-chemo me wandered through her house, plucking up cards. I found them squirreled under chairs, on pillows, in magazines and on top of coffee cups fallen behind shelves. I gathered them in the box and entered the kitchen with a count of a hundred and fifty.
Mom stood next to the table, looking down at a little red card.
It held a shaky watercolor of a spire and some trees visible from my front porch. I’d drawn it a few weeks back. My fingers were numb that day. Being outside felt like standing in front of blowtorches while covered in bees. It would have been less effort to go with one of the reserve cards, but all of those looked ugly. I couldn’t stand one more ugly thing that day. So, out I stepped, pen and paints in hand. It took me half an hour and I only got sick once. I mailed it off and thought no more about it.
When I saw it again in front of me, I reached for it.
Mom lifted the card between her finger and thumb, moving it out of my reach. “Not this.”
“This,” she said, studying it, “I find beautiful.”
The world paused. Dust motes sparkled like buoyant diamonds. Pain left my body. I took a full breath.
My mother thought I’d made something beautiful. She thought it so hard it came out of her New Englander’s mouth in the form of audible words. She’d said it out loud.
I’d waited 52 years, five blasts of radiation, two surgeries and eight rounds of chemotherapy to live long enough to hear these exact four words.
This I find beautiful.
I opened my mouth so we could talk endlessly about how darn wonderful I and my art were. But because my mother’s inner dialogue was always mysterious, she set the card back down and pointed, queenlike, to the cookie jar.
“Retrieve some fig bars.” She headed around the counter. “I’ll warm up my coffee.”
Then it was gone, the transcendent moment of grace. It vanished at the mere mention of cookies.
Later that day, after I’d driven home, changed clothes and mopped up after myself, I noticed something strange: it didn’t hurt to breathe.
I sat on the tub, put my hand on my chest and I breathed. In, out. In, out. Something occurred to me.
Maybe it was simple for Mom to see the hundreds and hundreds of cards I’d made for her just because she’d asked me to. The part that wasn’t easy came in finding words to tell me she knew how completely I loved her.
Maybe I wasn’t the one who needed half a century and a million medical horrors to be ready for those words. Maybe she needed the length and the breadth of my life to find them. Maybe that’s how it had to happen, because those words were what I needed.
This I find beautiful.
As I considered all those maybes, my lungs kept filling and emptying, like they felt strong, as if they were capable. I waited for another minute, then stood up, like being brave was something I did every day.
Maybe, I decided, easy was overrated. I didn’t have time to waste on anything so hollow as that. I took a step forward, in the simple pursuit of cookies.
About the author:
The ninth daughter of a surgeon who accidentally cut off the tip of his index finger, Virginia Elizabeth Hayes developed a keen eye for the absurd at an early age. She’s spent the last 6 years fighting with cancer, chemo, radiation and oncologists. All, so far, remain afraid of her. Her by-lines include: Chicken Soup for the Soul, Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse, Lunch Ticket, The Filling Station, Gravel Literary Magazine and Stoneboat Literary Journal. Her work is available at Amazon KDP. Don’t miss her memoir-cartoons: The Princeling Papers: or, How to Fight Cancer with Colored-Pencils and Kittens.