Our tuck-in time remains mostly the same. I walk into my daughters’ bedroom, and the two bigger ones are lost in books, and the littlest is either listening to an audiobook or quietly playing with her stuffed animals. They reluctantly close their books and snuggle into pillows, and I get close to each girl, one at a time. I put my hand on her head or shoulder and press my cheek up against the side of her face and quietly say the same blessing, every night. May the God of hope give you joy and peace, not just tonight, but tomorrow, and all the days of your life.
There are tight hugs, kisses, the smoothing of blankets, and a bedtime prayer before I close the door on a dark room and venture back downstairs. I am not sure about too many things, but I am sure as I can be that I will weep bitterly in thirteen years when I am an empty nester and there are no tiny sweet faces under my roof to kiss goodnight.
Early in the morning, while three girls are pulling on socks and shoveling breakfast into their mouths, their dad is packing lunches and I’m sitting at my desk jotting down a quick note for the day. The littlest is still learning to read, so I draw a penguin or a cat or a carrot with a smiley face, and I write her name with hearts around it. I tuck notes into their lunch boxes, and sometimes I find them weeks later, crumpled – but saved, sort of – under a book or in a desk. Most mornings, even in the midst of the bustle, there’s a hot cup of tea for me in the counter, and I try to take a quiet moment to sip it. Some mornings the tea sloshes against the sides of my mug while I carry it out to the car, checking my watch and calculating whether or not we’ll make it to school by 8:20.
My tea drinking days go back to when I was small, pulling the same paper-covered tea bag out of the same yellow Lipton box I buy now. There are a lot of fancier teas out there, but this kind tastes like nostalgia and reminds me of Sunday afternoons on the couch with my mother, us drinking our respective teas, large blanket on our laps, and an episode of Golden Girls on the television. Even now when she visits, the kettle immediately gets filled, and it’s an unspoken rule that we both want a cup. Two-cents-a-bag Lipton tea has been a daily ritual instilled in me by my mom, and to her I owe my mild disappointment in coffee and complete disdain of restaurants that do not carry honey.
I received a call with news I didn’t like, and I found myself absentmindedly filling the kettle. Rituals can be a salve and a friend and a pair of lucky socks.
It’s been a year since my dad passed. A year since I saw him, a year since I talked to him, a year of my inbox being devoid of his emails, a year without hearing about any of his latest hijinks. And a year, to the day, almost, of my dad passing, my mother calls me from work and, in hushed tones, tells me that she has cancer.
I’m transported back to my 18-year-old self, watching my mom, all frail 80 pounds of her, reclining in her bed. Her wig is itchy, so she doesn’t wear it at home, and the lack of jet black hair combined with the shirt three sizes too big make for a memorable silhouette. The cancer diagnosis had been dire, and then changed, and then changed again, adding procedures and treatments to a laundry list of procedures and treatments. I lean against the doorway and ask what I can get her. I don’t want to enter her bedroom without a mask over my face. I wear one when I have any hint of a cold as I drive her to daily radiation. She’s lost so much weight that the last time she had a cold, she had a coughing fit and broke three ribs. When she has surgeries, I stay at the hospital and feed her ice chips and help her to the bathroom. I’m wearing braces and a choker and a v-neck tank top from the Gap. She sleeps and I try to get comfortable in the chair next to her. I have a stack of books, a stuffed animal, and a blanket. I live off hospital cafeteria grilled cheeses.
Like years ago, I’m calm as she explains the diagnosis. I ask questions about next steps, about meeting with a surgeon, about schedules and logistics. She matter-of-factly tells me everything she knows, and everything she doesn’t yet. She tells me the name of the doctor and she knows I’m googling his background. We tick off the mental checklists and I finally ask if she’s ok.
“Oh, sure,” she replies quietly. “I’ve done this before.”
And she has. The doctor meetings and the second opinions and the chemotherapy and the radiation and the surgeries and the phone calls and the ice chips and the cans of Ensure.
I’ve disappeared into a quiet corner of the house to mull this all over, but I roll off my bed because the clock reminds me of my nightly ritual. I’ll go tuck in my daughters and whisper the same blessing I do every night, and thank the good Lord for the gifts that they are and the love they give me every day.
I’ve done this before, too, but I’ve got extra hands to squeeze this time around.