I hear her whispering in the middle of the night, her breath tickling the back of my neck.
“Mommy,” she says with a catch in her voice. “Turn around and cuddle me.” I do, of course, and her giant forehead slides into that space beneath my chin. I smooth back her hair and let out a quiet shush, just like I did when she was a baby.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“I had a bad, scary dream.” she says. I feel her tears on my neck.
“Tell me about it,” I whisper in the dark, pulling her close against my chest.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” she yawns, little fingers reaching for my earlobe. “I just want to go back to sleep.”
She does, and I shift my pelvis again and again, trying to find a comfortable position. But comfort has been elusive to me for most of my life so I do what I always do: find the least painful position and pretend it is good enough.
I finally settle into near-painlessness and inhale her rosemary shampoo when she burrows into me again, jostling my right thigh. The muscles spasm and electric jolts race through my entire foot. I pull her to me anyway, wanting so much to keep her nightmares at bay.
I ask him to stay. I ask them both, of course, but it’s Dad I really want. He fills almost my entire field of vision and I know this means he can protect me from the monsters in my closet.
“It’s time for bed,” Mom says again. She’s always saying things like that. Time for bed. Time for school. Time to put your laundry away even though it’s right in the middle of the big chase scene in Magnum, P.I. and I could just as well do it during the commercial. But, no. Mom is all about doing things on time, whatever that means.
Dad might stay. I see the softness around his eyes, the way he smiles at me like he wishes there were more day for us to have. If I could just convince him.
“I need somebody to stay with me,” I say, refusing to let go of his outstretched arm.
“What is your sister,” he quips. “Chopped liver?
From her bunk, my sister laughs. And laughs. She laughs and Dad laughs and even Mom laughs even though this is serious and not even a little bit funny. I need Dad to stay. I need him. I can’t even say how much I need him, but it’s a lot. More than anything.
“Goodnight, Bessie,” he says, kissing me on the forehead. I try to think that his kiss is a seal, a source of magic capable of keeping the monsters away. But the warmth of his lips fades so quickly and I feel utterly alone.
In the morning she rolls over and yawns her horrid sleep-breath into my face.
“Mommy?” she asks, her voice not at all thick with sleep.
“Good morning, beautiful,” I tell her. I want to ask about her nightmare but I don’t want to remind her about it if she’s already forgotten.
“Last night,” she says brightly, making the decision for me, ” I dreamed the doctor couldn’t do anything about your pain.”
I pull her tight against my body, twisting my aching right leg so she doesn’t kick me right on my sore spot.
“And then,” she continues, “the doctor had to cut off your head and they pulled out one big black circle, one medium dark blue circle, and one small light blue circle. And then they put your head back on but you had a Band-Aid on the back of your neck and that was scary.”
“Getting my head cut off sounds pretty scary,” I agree.
“No,” she tells me. “The Band-Aid was scary.”
“Oh,” I answer. “Well, I’m glad it was just a dream and you’re awake now.”
“Me too,” she says. “Can I have toast with jam for breakfast?
Dad is sitting on a dining room chair, telling us about the tumors on his spine. We already know, of course. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know about Dad’s pain, or the ropes of Frankenstein scars that run down his back.
But he tells us anyway, explaining the pictures they’ve taken of his back and how there’s nothing they can do to keep the tumors from growing. All they can do is open up his back again and take them out. Give him new scars. Hope for the best.
We know a lot. We know Dad is slower and slower these days. We know he’s unsteady. We know he is dying.
But there he is anyway, telling us his tissues attack his nerves. That his spine blossoms with tumors. This is why his eyelid droops and why he sometimes crashes suddenly into a wall, trying very much not to fall down. Again.
We don’t want Dad to die. We’ve been to enough funerals to know exactly what that means. We want Dad to tell us that he won’t die. Instead, he tells us the tumors will never stop until he does.
We cuddle in her bed for the first time in days. She’s got one of those IKEA reversible beds and we finally had the brilliant realization that we can flip it to the low side so I can get in there with her. We laugh about how silly we were for not realizing this sooner. Weeks of me lamenting my inability to get up there with her, all for nothing. But Ian flips the bed and I sing to her beneath her big blue tent.
We haven’t told her yet that the painful spot in my right thigh is a schwannoma. She doesn’t know that I might have the same disease that took my father’s mobility before it took his life. She knows something, though. How could she not?
In that moment right before drifting off to sleep, she begins to cry. I pull her to me and smooth her hair from her face. I whisper a long string of shushes into her hair, rub small circles on her back.
“Mommy,” she whimpers, wrapping her lanky arms around my neck.
“What’s the matter, love?” I ask, though I already know.
She buries her face into my neck.
“Are you scared?” I ask.
“What are you scared of,” I ask.
She pushes back from me so that we are looking each other straight in the face. Unable to say the words, she jabs her finger into my chest and makes a sweeping motion until she is pointing out the window. She does this again and again.
“Are you afraid of Mommy going away?” I ask quietly. She clings to me again, her body shaking with sobs. Then, a nod.
I am gripped by a sense of freefall, of knowing, of completely understanding that for her the monster looms not in her closet, but in my body.
“Oh baby,” I tell her. “I’m here, I’m here.” I squeeze her as hard as I can without hurting her. I shush against her forehead and push her hair back from her face. I keep telling her that I’m here, and I’m with her, and I love her so, so much.
Finally, she sleeps, her breath shuddering in the aftermath of sobbing. I lie with her, my leg spasming and electric nerve-jolting. My neck pinching. But it’s worth it. Over and over again, this moment of clinging to one another amid the terrifying unknown, is the only thing that makes any of this okay.