“How many times do I have to tell you to put on a sweater,” mom sternly asks as she plops a thick, hand-knitted, blue sweater over me. “You’re going to catch cold.”
“And what? I’m going to die?” I’m sorry, but I had to give voice to the irony of that last thing she said. I just had to, especially given the fact that the room wasn’t terribly cold. Not terribly warm, but not terribly cold either. We sat facing each other on the floor. The room, with its four white walls and single doorway and window made it seem like something out of an asylum. Not that I’ve ever been in one. Although I wouldn’t mind being somewhere else at this particular moment. I wanted to be far away from here right now.
The sadness washing over her face at that instant may have hurt me more than it hurt her, probably because I caused it. I was just trying to keep a sense of humor about the whole thing. I guess hers was still work-in-progress.
“It’s going to happen,” I say.
“I don’t want it to happen,” she whispers, desperately seeking to not let this be the thousand-and-eleventh time she cries over my impending fate.
“I do,” I respond, forcing her to close her eyes and draw in a breath. I’ve said this same thing before.
She never wanted to know what it meant, why I would want to die. It wasn’t because of the pain I go through every single day, fighting as if I have a chance of winning. I know I don’t. I accept it, even if she doesn’t; maybe because she doesn’t. One of us has to be strong about this after all.
She opens her eyes and continues fidgeting with the sweater to smooth out the wrinkles; you know, ‘cause the dying kid has to look good while dying. I put my hands on her face as a signal for her to stop. I do that sometimes. Not often, but on a rare occasion when I wanted her to be in the moment with me. I lean forward to plant a gentle kiss on her forehead. A soft scent of vanilla and honey shampoo emanates from her wavy auburn hair. Sitting back, I notice that I am now at the center of the thousand-and-eleventh time.
Wiping her eyes with my thumbs, I say what I probably should have just said in the first place, “Thank you for the sweater. It’s lovely.”
“Your favorite color,” she says.
Blue wasn’t my favorite color, but I let her say it anyway. She seemed to like saying that no matter what color the sweater was. She enjoyed knitting them for me, in a variety of colors. So far I had red, green, orange, and now blue. Each time she put a sweater on me, after admonishing me for not wearing one, she would say that it was my favorite color. And I wouldn’t disagree. I never wanted to break the mood.
I guess she keeps saying that thinking she’ll eventually get it right. I’ve never told her what my favorite color is. Before knitting that first sweater, she did ask. “I’m going to knit a sweater for you,” she began. “What’s your favorite color?”
Half-distracted by my Sudoku, I simply responded, “It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter to you or it doesn’t matter because it’s generally not important?”
“That’s two of the same thing,” I replied, paying attention to my Sudoku.
She leaned forward with eyebrows raised in that pay-close-attention-to-what-I’m-saying sort of way and slowly responded, “You know what I’m saying.” And yes, I knew exactly what she meant. She had a thing for calling me on my intellectual bullshit and the way I used it to evade her questions. Actually, I think that’s something she enjoyed, something she’ll miss.
“Whatever color it is,” I said, paying full attention to her, “I’m sure I’ll like it.”
“Then a red sweater it will be,” she said as she smiled her beautiful smile and tried her hardest to dam her watery eyes.
When she did bring me that red sweater, placed it on me, and fidgeted with it to smooth out the wrinkles, she tacked a smile on her face – a smile we both knew didn’t belong there at the moment – and commented, “Your favorite color.” I simply smiled, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
I think she took the non-response as a no because, before I knew it, she brought me that green sweater. “Your favorite color,” she said as she fidgeted with it to smooth out the wrinkles. Again I said nothing, just smiled. I think the non-response came purposely. I had a feeling she was going to take it the same way as before and knit another sweater for me. And that was exactly what I wanted.
Not that I needed a bigger wardrobe. I guess I just wanted her to keep knitting sweaters for me. Figured it was good for her; maybe even just slightly distracting. I never wanted her to focus on what was killing me.
She enjoyed knitting, loved the hell out of it. I just wanted her to exercise and express that love with me, rather than sitting helplessly by my bedside. I wanted her to feel like she could do something to help. I mean, when the fate of someone you love is clear, the thought of not being able to do anything only adds to the heartbreak.
Knitting sweaters gave her something to do and, more importantly to the both of us, became a way for her to say “I love you” to me without having to choke back more tears. I thought it was better that way. I didn’t want to spend my last days in this world seeing her consistently sad. I didn’t want to feel like I was the cause of that sadness. I wanted to see people happy and enjoying life, not taking for granted every moment they have, every moment they get to spend with their loved ones.
It’s funny how people think life is short when, in fact, it’s pretty darn long. It’s only when you can see death coming, when your mortality is at the forefront of your mind each and every day, that life suddenly becomes short. Only when you are able to see the end can you really appreciate what you have and have had all this time.
That’s likely how mom feels right now. We have that in common. We both have an inexplicable obsession with Sudoku. We both love spaghetti with a garlic and basil mushroom sauce, with parmesan cheese generously sprinkled on top; and a side of garlic bread, of course. We both enjoy the consoling sound of rain softly pattering on the ground outside, as well as the occasional muted roar of distant thunder. Sometimes we would sit, completely silent, trying to distinguish the sound of each and every drop. And we both have a love for books. In all our lives together, we’ve never come across a movie that was better than the book. Not a single one. Not even Children of Men.
Actually, and I don’t dare say this out loud for fear of hurting her, but I’m glad we only have one difference between us. I’m glad there’s only one thing that separates us; or will separate us.
“Are you scared,” she asks from out of nowhere.
“I’ve had a good while to get used to the idea of it.”
“But are you scared?”
I slide the Sudoku book out from between us, clearing a space for me to lean into her gentle, secure embrace. My arms wrapped around her, I rest my head on her shoulder so she can’t see this moment of weakness. “All the time.”
There’s no telling how many minutes were passing while I was in her arms. It doesn’t matter. Not when you feel like time has stopped, like nothing can hurt you, like the inevitable is not inevitable. Days could pass and we wouldn’t notice.
Of course the dreadful moment eventually comes, when she has to push me away, push me just far enough to study my eyes. She does this when she’s about to get sentimental.
“You have always been a gift to me.”
I can only smile. And look for the lighter side of the moment. “Even that time I pranked you by putting hot sauce in your milkshake?”
She lets out a sobbing burst of laughter. “Even that time.”
I allow a brief moment of silence to interrupt us before I lean back and fold my arms as if still victorious. “I don’t remember; how did you say that tasted?”
“Disgusting.” She leans back and folds her arms, wearing a playfully menacing stare. “Absolutely disgusting.”
“I’m glad you didn’t disown me after that.”
“Oh, I damn well nearly did.”
I can’t help but to laugh. She can’t help but to laugh with me.
When the laughter subsides I say, “It’s funny how we got here.”
“Well,” she responds, shifting her legs, most likely to prevent her thin butt from falling asleep, if it hasn’t already. “It was funny. I loved every second of it.”
“I had a blast too.”
Our talks always come down to this now. Always looking back. Always laughing at ourselves. Always saying goodbye in the past tense without actually saying goodbye. It’s become something we both need to do, especially as the days pass, leaving us wondering how many more of these moments we have left. How many more chances we have to say what we want to say. How many more opportunities we have to create memories. How many more times we’ll be able to lose ourselves in one another.
Of course, we inevitably come back around to the subject of the inevitable. There’s nothing that can stop it.
“Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. It should be me who… goes first.” Her mouth thins. I can tell she is trying her hardest to be strong, to keep from crying for the thousand-and-thirteenth time.
When we inevitably come back around to the inevitable, she tends to say this. Maybe she says it in a different way every so often, but it’s always the same thought, a thought that makes me wonder if part of what drives her anguish is the fact that she can’t pull rank on me. Not on this one.
“What if you went first?” I answer with a question. “Do you think that would make me feel any better?” I hope that doesn’t sound harsh. I don’t mean for it to.
“I’ve lived longer.” She pauses. “It should be me.” She sounds like she’s arguing with God, but I know that neither of us truly believes in this moment that there is anyone in this room but us.
“That’s not how I would want it,” I say, knowing it won’t make her feel any better. Knowing it won’t stop the rain. Sometimes I absolutely hate those tears, no matter how much a sign of caring they are. There should be a law against tears.
“Things are exactly the way they should be,” I say, breaking the quiet.
Her mouth thins again. “I wish that were so.”
For both of us.
She sniffles. “I’ll start knitting a yellow sweater for you tonight.” She raises a brow in a devious arch. “Your favorite color.”
I arch a brow deviously back at her. I think she’s on to me.
A slight sound of pattering interrupts our exchange of gazes as we wipe our faces the same way we always do. Mom stands and walks over to the window and stares out for a fleeting moment. “It’s raining,” she says softly, turning back to me.
I can’t help but to smile. She can’t help but to smile with me.