Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Sookie pulled the bags from the car trunk. The rooms she and her mother were renting were a little over a block away, and the only parking was in back of the stores on the main street. The weather was still fine, but Sookie could feel the nip of winter in the air. She hoped the car would behave once winter kicked in. Her mother had been so proud when Sookie had handed her the keys. It had taken summer jobs and odd jobs after school, too, but Sookie earned it all herself. It had hardly any rust and when the weather was good, it ran pretty well. The problems came when it was wet or cold. “Your car is like me,” her Mother laughed. “It’s a delicate flower!”
When they still had the little house west of Worcester, the one with the garage underneath, the car started easily. Now, the house was gone, sold to help pay Michele’s medical bills. Corbett, Sookie’s Father, died six years ago. He left his family with few debts but no will, and a bewildering stack of papers and term life policies. They had enough to bury him, but it left little else.
Michele decided they should move from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. She told her children she had an aging Aunt living there who needed her help, and so the family packed and moved again. This time they found themselves crowded into a small set of rooms in the home of an old, unwell woman. It could have been terrible, but it wasn’t. Sookie’s Great Aunt was kind, if somewhat absent, and Sookie could see that the activity required to care for her Aunt kept her Mother from slipping further into depression.
Since her Father’s death, anyone could see that Michele was fading. It seemed a strange word to use, but there seemed no other way to express it. Even when her Father had been living, Michele had been more interested in rotating within Corbett Stackhouse’s orbit than taking care of her children, or even herself. From the time she was little, it was Sookie who often filled that gap. She became efficient at running the house and arranging the things her Mother needed to do from day to day to make their lives work.
Now, her Mother seemed to have found new purpose, and it was a godsend. Massachusetts gave them the breathing space they needed to figure things out, and slowly, things started to feel normal again.
Sookie had always bounced back strong after each move. She would take a deep breath and launch into the business of making a place for herself. In a rare compliment, her Mother observed, “You never let anything get you down.”
Jason did not deal as well with moves. For some time, each move seemed to diminish Sookie’s older brother. He graduated high school in Pennsylvania, but he seemed to get stuck. He worked in the supermarket, but didn’t even glance at the college material Sookie brought home for him. When they moved to Massachusetts, Jason found a job in a local factory making cardboard boxes and resisted any suggestion that he could do more. Sookie, on the other hand, scoured the Internet and library. She emailed her former teachers, soliciting recommendation letters, and soon she had scholarship offers to state colleges. While she could have gone to the larger school farther away, instead she chose the local branch for that college there in town. Everything seemed to be going well. Michele was more present and Sookie got along better with her Mother than she ever had before. Although her Mother had never said anything directly, Sookie had long suspected that her Mother resented her for being so close to her Father, but now, those resentments seemed long gone. If Sookie missed the secrets and games she only played with her Father, she took care to make sure she didn’t show it.
Sookie’s Great Aunt passed in her sleep one night. Sookie was finishing her freshman year in college and while she missed the older woman, she mostly worried that the lack of daily work would set her Mother back again. But that didn’t happen. Michele just moved them into the rest of the house, which was now theirs, and their lives seemed to be in a better place. Then Jason walked in one night and announced he was done. “I’ll be stuck here in this small town going nowhere for the rest of my life!” he yelled. He was angry, and Sookie knew that of the two of them, he had suffered the most from their rootlessness. “I want a future that’s my own, where I can belong to something!” and Jason told them how he intended to get that dream for himself. He had joined the Navy. He was leaving first thing in the morning, and then he said things that broke their family. “I blame you,” he told their Mother. “You could have put your foot down and made Dad stay in one place. You could have left him, but you didn’t. You just dragged us all over hell and creation, and now look where we are!”
Sookie and Jason had never been particularly close. Her brother was only a year and half older than Sookie, but the years of enforced togetherness hadn’t made them inseparable. It had the opposite effect. “You always favored Dad,” he accused his Mother, and then turning to Sookie said, “And you did, too! You both let him do whatever he wanted. You never cared about me!” It was a bitter thing to say, and more so because Sookie felt the kernel of truth in it. Jason packed his bags and the next morning, he was gone.
That night Sookie lay in her bed and stared at her Father’s picture. She thought about how sad all of this would have made him. Her Mother had not fought with Jason. She hadn’t tried to hold her son and tell him he was wrong. As soon as he accused her of putting Corbett Stackhouse first, any fight had drained from her and Sookie knew it was because her Mother knew Jason’s words were true.
Summer came, and then Fall. Sookie returned to school and while the house seemed almost too big now, things settled into another new normal but, in retrospect, Sookie realized it wasn’t. Her Mother’s disease had been coming on for some time, but Sookie hadn’t recognized the signs. There were unexpected bursts of anger. Sookie would drop something, or not immediately move to do something her Mother asked of her, and her Mother would turn on her with a fury that left Sookie dazed. There were other things, too.
Her Mother became prone to an odd forgetfulness. One time she started to back up out of the garage, but forgot to put the garage door up first. Another time, she baked a chicken in the black, speckled roasting pan, but set the bird on the lid that she left inverted, then complained that she had to use foil over the bird because the lid was ‘missing.’
Sookie wrote all those things off to stress and what she thought of as a general fading since Daddy’s death. There were days her Mother was just who she had always been. She laughed and pointed out the sunny side of any situation. The lawn mower died? Well, it was late in the season anyway, and they should probably let the grass get a little longer before winter came in. The oil tank was empty? Thank goodness it happened now and not in the middle of winter! Besides, a little cold water was good for a person, and they’d have the money to fill it in just a week.
But, one day, when Sookie came home, she found her Mother sitting at the kitchen table. She was in her bathrobe staring at the wall in a fixed way. She didn’t respond to Sookie and, finally, in a panic, Sookie called 911. On the way to the hospital, her Mother went into seizures and their new life began.
It was a long first night. Sookie followed the ambulance, and by the time she parked and ran into the emergency room, her mother was already being taken to Intensive Care. When she told the nurse they had no insurance, there was a great deal of lip-pursing and tut-tutting. Sookie knew this hospital was one of the ones required to provide services ‘to the indigent,’ as the brochure she was handed proclaimed. It stung. They weren’t poor, just too poor to pay the high cost of medical insurance.
Sookie had to speak with another couple people, including a social worker, before she could follow her mother to the ICU. There were other people there and Sookie was sure that the strained, drained looks she saw on their faces was the same one she wore now. Every time a doctor or nurse came through the locked door, their faces all turned and looked at the same time. ‘Pavlov’s dog,’ Sookie thought and she almost laughed. Four hours turned into five with no word. Finally, around midnight, a frazzled doctor pushed through the locked door and called her name. He sat beside her and asked, “You are her daughter?”
“Yes,” Sookie nodded. “How is she?”
“We’re not sure,” he told her. “She’s running a fever and we have her in quarantine. With the seizures, we’re pretty sure she has brain swelling, but we’re working so hard on controlling her fever that we haven’t been able to get any decent scans.” He scowled a little before looking her in the eye, and asking, “Are you in college?”
“I am,” Sookie told him, “Sophomore year.”
“Which school?” he asked, and when Sookie told him, he wrote down the name. Then he said, “I’d like you to go with one of the nurses and have some blood drawn. It’s possible your mother had meningitis. There have been a couple cases reported, mostly college students.”
“You think I could have given it to her?” Sookie felt her throat closing.
“If you had, you would already be really sick,” the doctor told her. “No, I’m worried that if she has it, you may already be on your way. I’d just like to eliminate that possibility.”
“Sure,” Sookie sighed, “May I see her?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but there’s just too much going on right now. It wouldn’t be good for either of you.” The doctor’s belt buzzed and he grabbed his phone and read a message. “I’m sorry, I have to go. I’ll send a nurse out in just a minute. Thank you for cooperating,” and he took a quick look around at the other people sitting near her.
‘He was worried I may have infected everyone,’ Sookie thought as the nurse came through the door dressed in protective clothing. She handed Sookie a mask and gestured toward the hall. Sookie felt the eyes of the other people in the waiting area pressing against her and it made her hurry a little faster as she followed the nurse.
Within half an hour, Sookie was cleared and sitting back in the waiting area. It was nearly morning when a nurse came out to tell her she should head home. “It will be touch and go for a while. We have a lot of tests to run and she’s still in pretty bad shape.” Sookie suddenly felt very afraid. If her mother didn’t recover, she’d really be alone, and the thought was overwhelming. The nurse leaned over and placed her hand over Sookie’s clasped fists, “Go home. Get a shower and something to eat. Get some sleep. Call around lunch. We’ll let you know if anything changes, but we still don’t really know what’s going on with her. Do you live far away?”
“Twenty minutes,” Sookie mumbled.
“Plenty of time to get back here,” the nurse told her. As Sookie stumbled toward the door, it struck her that the nurse was telling her that twenty minutes would be enough time to get back to tell her mother goodbye. When she got in her car, Sookie leaned against the steering wheel and cried, wiping her face on her sleeve, and not caring who saw her.
The house was just the way she’d left it. There were lights on and the front door was unlocked. Sookie walked through the house, turning off the lamps, and straightening things that had fallen on the floor while the ambulance crew maneuvered the stretcher into the house. Sookie poured herself a glass of water and then headed to the bathroom. She stood under the shower and let the hot water run over her as she screamed her frustration. When she walked into her room, she was sure she was too stressed to sleep.
Sookie lay on her bed watching the shadows her light threw on the ceiling. Turning, her eyes landed on her Father’s picture and watching his silent eyes, she held out her hand and for the first time since he’d been killed, she summoned the light from around her, forming the whirling column to sit on her hand. She stared at it for a minute before she called the colors to weave into the little dervish, adding dimension and warmth to what she had created. “I miss you,” Sookie told the dervish, wondering if somewhere her Father could hear her. With a quick breath, Sookie blew the small, twirling column to take a place on the table beside her bed. Sookie turned off the light and watched the sparks of phosphorescence allow her the column even in the dark. It comforted her, and slowly, her eyes closed and then closed again.
The next time her eyes opened, it was three in the afternoon. Sookie called the hospital in a panic, certain her Mother was sitting up, wondering why she was in a hospital all alone. The receptionist switched her to Intensive Care, though, and the nurse who answered assured Sookie that there had been no improvement. “She won’t be able to see you,” the nurse told her, and Sookie felt terrible for feeling so relieved.
Sookie was almost finished with her sophomore year and she spent time texting her professors. She was living at home to save money and she commuted with her temperamental car. Sookie’s plan had been to become a teacher. She liked working with children and she had dreams of spending her summers traveling to distant lands. It seemed odd, but having moved so often, Sookie found the idea of staying in one place forever wasn’t comfortable. If she taught, Sookie told her Mother, she could have the best of both worlds, a home for always and travel three months a year. They laughed, and although Sookie was pretty sure that on a teacher’s pay she wouldn’t be traveling far, it made her happy.
While her Mother’s income and Sookie’s hard work had qualified her for scholarships, there were still bills for books and fees. Like she always did, Sookie found a way to make up the difference by waiting tables at a local restaurant. After texting her professors and asking for homework, Sookie called her boss.
“I’m sorry,” he told her when she explained what happened. Sookie felt grateful until he said, “So, how long do you think it will be before I can get you back on the schedule?” The way he said it made clear that if she didn’t have an answer soon, she wouldn’t be back on the schedule at all.
“I should know in the next couple days,” Sookie told him, even though she had no way of knowing that.
Sitting at the kitchen table, for the first time Sookie considered the possibility that her problems might not have an answer, and that thought was overwhelming. Sookie, who had always found a way to make things work, could feel a wild panic beginning to take root and, taking a deep breath, she laid her hands palm-down on the table and said out loud, “Stop it! Think! What do you need to handle right now?” She looked around at the bills on the counter and the fruit that was going bad in the bowl. When she felt the panic begin edging at her again, she would make herself get up and do some little piece of housework. She emptied the dishwasher. She loaded the washing machine. She focused on the job and, when she finished, she took advantage of her temporarily clearer mind to consider her next move.
About an hour passed when she found herself staring at an old photograph of her Mother and her Aunt Linda. Sookie hadn’t seen her Aunt Linda in over ten years. She knew her Mother called her sister from time to time, but her Aunt lived in Minnesota and there wasn’t any money in the family to be traveling. Sookie knew she had cousins, but she hadn’t seen any of them since she was a little girl. She wasn’t sure she’d recognize if she walked past them on the street and, for a moment, Sookie thought of Jason, and his longing for a family and a stable place he could call home. She hoped her brother was happy and she looked at Linda’s picture again.
Sookie located her Mother’s address book on the counter near the house phone her Mother insisted on keeping. Neither of them received many calls on this line anymore, just sales calls and political advertisements, but Sookie picked it up now and called the number next to her Aunt Linda’s name.
Linda flew in two nights later. Sookie drove into the city and was surprised when she recognized her Aunt so easily. When Sookie closed the trunk on her Aunt’s suitcase, she was surprised again by her Aunt pulling her into a hug. It was awkward, being this close to a stranger, but then it was comforting. Sookie found herself really hugging this woman she had only known as a picture and a name like the long-lost relative she was.
“Have you been able to see her?” her Aunt asked.
Sookie nodded, “This morning. It wasn’t long. They’ve been keeping her in a coma because of the swelling. She wasn’t awake, but I was able to stand next to her and talk to her a little.” Her mother had barely looked like herself. She was stretched out on a bed surrounded by machines and lights. Her hands were tied to the sides of the bed, so she wouldn’t pull out the tube that was breathing for her. There was a bottle collecting urine that was set on the floor and the tube snaked up under the blanket. Sookie had stood beside her Mom, telling her about the teachers who were helpful and the ones who weren’t. She stroked her Mother’s bruised arm around the lines feeding her fluids and medicines. Never once did her Mother’s eyes flicker, but the nurse told her that she was convinced that, even in comas, people could hear what you said. It made Sookie feel better.
“The doctor said they’ll be taking her in for scans tonight. They’ve ruled out all kinds of things, so I guess that’s good.”
“What’s left?” Aunt Linda asked.
“I don’t know,” Sookie confessed. “Guess they either don’t want to get my hopes up or scare me to death, but they just say they don’t want to speculate.”
Aunt Linda turned to watch the traffic and Sookie saw the firm set of her lip, “Well, I like speculation!” her Aunt declared, and Sookie found herself looking at this woman with new eyes. She assumed anyone related to her Mom would be mild and polite, but the woman sitting next to her didn’t look like either of those things, and she confirmed Sookie’s growing suspicion after she added, “Fucking doctors and their insurance games! They just don’t want to tell you something and then find out they’re wrong. You leave it to me. They’ll push you around because you’re a young, pretty girl, but I’ve been around this before. I know how it goes and we’ll get you some answers!”
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Sookie asked.
“No, Sweetie,” her Aunt replied, and when she turned toward her niece, the mild-mannered, kind woman who reminded Sookie of her Mom was back. “Let’s go home and I’ll see about making us a nice dinner. I’ll bet you haven’t had a home-cooked meal since this whole thing began.”
Sookie bit her lips and tears started to crowd her vision. She gripped the steering wheel tighter and willed her emotions to go away, but she couldn’t stop the slow, steady flow down her cheeks. Her nose started running, and Aunt Linda handed her a Kleenex. Sookie grabbed it and used it.
“You need me to drive, Honey?” Aunt Linda asked.
“No,” Sookie stuttered, and then feeling her old strength return, said, “No, it’s just so good to have you here,” and Sookie knew that was true.
Sookie found that life with Aunt Linda meant a lot of structure. There was a time to get up and a time to make the bed. There were rules about when to eat and what was considered proper food at every meal. The same fierce look Linda wore when she talked with the nurses and doctors at the hospital could be turned Sookie’s way, if, for instance, Sookie lingered in bed past what was considered polite. Mostly, what Sookie felt was grateful.
Aunt Linda would get up and start coffee. She drank it strong and black, and Sookie wondered if that was part of her secret. Next, she’d get Sookie up. She insisted that Sookie go to school (“You only have two months left until the end of the year. Don’t be silly! Your mother would be heartbroken if you didn’t finish.”). When it was time to leave the house, Sookie would go one way, and Aunt Linda would head over to the hospital.
Sookie would finish her morning classes and then check in with her Aunt. Linda found out that rounds were between ten and eleven o’clock every morning, and she made sure she was there, insisting on speaking with everyone; the nurses who were there the day before, the doctors who’d seen Sookie’s Mother, and the social worker. Linda was fierce about getting detailed, minute information about the costs; what would be considered forgiven and what would still be owed. As the days crept by, the relatively small amount of what would be owed by the family grew.
Scans had been done, and Linda found out there was a suspicious spot. The doctors didn’t want to speculate, but Linda was having none of it. A short list of possible diagnoses was provided, and Linda had to promise she wouldn’t hold the doctors to any of them. Taking that list, Linda worked with the social worker to see if there were any agencies that might have other money, maybe even grant money available to help offset bills.
Linda had gone through something similar with her mother and then with her brother. Sookie vaguely remembered her Grandmother, but the woman had died when Sookie was very young, and she’d only seen her the once. Sookie had no recollection of her Uncle Joe at all, but both had long, lingering illnesses with extended hospital stays and it taught Linda things.
Today, when Sookie called in, her Aunt Linda asked, “Do you have many afternoon classes?”
“No,” Sookie told her, “Only French at two.”
“Good, then you should plan to come here right after. They are going to try to wake your Mother up, and I’ll ask them to wait until this afternoon.”
“I should come now,” Sookie felt such a longing to see her Mother’s eyes smiling at her again, and the thought of having to concentrate on nouns and verb conjugation was unimaginable.
“Don’t be silly!” Linda scolded, not hiding the sharp edge from her voice. “It will be the first thing your Mother asks, whether you are going to school. You don’t want to worry her!”
Somehow Sookie thought there might be other things on her Mother’s mind, but she was also pretty sure there would be no arguing with her Aunt. Still, she rushed through her class, making obvious mistakes, and drove too fast on the way to the hospital. Aunt Linda was sitting outside the ICU unit having an animated discussion with a woman Sookie recognized as another person with a family member in ICU from their many shared hours in the visitors’ lounge.
Linda stood up, hugged Sookie, and then walked over to pick up the phone that called the nurse’s desk behind the locked door. She spoke briefly, then hung up, and turned back, “There! They’ll call us in a couple minutes.” Linda gave Sookie a once over in a way that made Sookie feel five all over again, and then said, “You look good.”
It seemed forever, although it was less than an hour when the nurse came out and gestured. Sookie walked into the brightly lit area, following the nurse to where her Mother was resting. It wasn’t always the same place. There seemed to be some hierarchy of patients, and as the days passed and her Mother became more stable, her bed was moved to places a little further from the busy nurse’s station.
A nurse was injecting something into one of the lines that was hooked into her Mother’s arm. When the nurse finished, she patted her Mother’s shoulder, smiled briefly at Linda, and then at Sookie before she walked away. The nurse who brought them into the unit stayed. “Try speaking to her,” she suggested.
Sookie walked up to the head of the bed. She placed her hand on her Mother’s dirty hair and leaning over, called, “Mother? Mom? It’s Sookie.” For the first time, her Mother’s eyelids flickered. She moaned a little, and Sookie said, “Don’t try to talk. There’s a tube in your mouth to help you breathe, but we’re here, me and Aunt Linda.”
Aunt Linda stepped forward and took one of her Mother’s hands, “Hi, Michele. You sure have a way of pulling folks off the farm.”
Her Mother’s eyes closed as if she was sensitive to the light, and perhaps she was. “We won’t keep her awake too long,” the nurse told them. “She’ll start to notice the tube more and most patients become agitated when they realized they’re restrained, but this is a very good sign. We may be able to install a smaller tube tomorrow, and then she can stay awake.”
“Did you hear that, Mom?” Sookie couldn’t stop her tears, she was so grateful. Her Mother was getting better and once more, their lives would work out. Somehow things would be okay. “We can maybe talk tomorrow.”
“She squeezed my hand,” Linda was smiling through tears, too, and Sookie reached over to take her Aunt’s hand in her own, a circle of touch from woman to woman in a bright and scary place.
The nurse with the injections came back and emptied another syringe into one of the lines that snaked into Sookie’s Mother’s body, and Sookie’s mother seemed to drop back to sleep. As they walked out, the nurse said, “Why don’t you both go home and get some rest? We won’t have an answer about the breathing tube until after rounds tomorrow, but everything’s looking good.”
“When will they be running the follow-up tests?” Aunt Linda quizzed.
“We’ll know tomorrow,” the nurse repeated as she escorted them out of the ward.
“I think you should be here for rounds tomorrow,” Linda told Sookie, surprising her as they walked to the garage. “You have any tests at school, anything you can’t miss?”
“No,” Sookie told her. “Just some homework I can drop off tonight in the teacher’s mailbox. Tests start in two weeks.”
“Then you should be here,” Linda nodded.
“What do you think it is?” Sookie asked, afraid of the answer, yet more afraid now of not knowing.
“I think it’s cancer,” her Aunt told her. “All the other options are too far-fetched. There’s no way your Mother was exposed to half the things or places she’d need to be to have the stuff they were dishing out! Nope,” and she pulled the keys to her rental car from her purse, “I think it’s plain old cancer, and folks know what to do about that!”
There was something in how she said it that made Sookie feel better, although there was nothing comforting about the thought of cancer.
The next morning, Sookie watched Aunt Linda grill each of the medical professionals who came through the door with a mixture of charm and persistence. They were familiar with her Aunt by now, and there was a kind of comradery as they answered her questions and gave more information than Sookie had received in past. They intended on taking her Mother into a more definitive scanning machine later this morning and thought they’d have confirmation of her diagnosis later today. “When she’s awake?” Sookie asked.
“Oh,” the doctor who was with them looked surprised, “They’re planning on waking her up?”
When the doctor left, Aunt Linda just shook her head. “He’s the pathologist,” she said. “These specialists don’t know what the other is doing. That’s how I spend half my time. Once I talk to all of them, I head over to the nurse’s station and make sure whoever is running the floor knows what each of those folks is planning to do and when.”
“That’s crazy!” Sookie told her.
“Makes me feel sorry for those folks here who don’t have family to advocate for them,” Linda said grimly.
Later that morning, a nurse came out to confirm that Michele had been taken for the scan. “Good news,” Linda nodded. “Let’s head out for some lunch and how about a little shopping? I could use a change of scenery!”
Together, they spent the next few hours wandering around the city and eventually ended up sitting in a little park. The air was still sharp in the way April can be, but the willow trees had that suppler look that said Spring was coming. “Once we have a diagnosis, we may be able to find some help, grants or special research that will make all of this easier,” Linda told her.
“How bad is it?” Sookie asked.
“More money already than I have in the bank,” Linda told her. “Somehow I don’t think your waitress job will cover it.” When Sookie looked away, Linda said, “Of course, it’s not your debt. It’s your Mother’s and they can’t come after you.”
“But they can go after the house,” Sookie said.
“Put a lien on it, maybe,” Linda acknowledged. “I don’t think they can force you to sell, and it’s not like the old days when they threw you in debtor’s prison. Could be your Mother can file bankruptcy, but I’m not sure the law protects her against these vultures.”
‘Better off dead.’ The thought raced across Sookie’s brain and she felt her whole face flush in shame.
Linda must have seen it, and probably knew what it meant, because she said, “Everyone who goes through this with someone they love thinks that at some point. Nothing to be ashamed of, not at all. It’s human and what else are we?”
That afternoon, Sookie and Linda sat beside her Mother’s bed. Her Mother was still groggy, but she recognized them both. While her hands were still tied to the sides of the bed, she could squeeze both their fingers and she smiled around the tube. She tried to talk, but her throat was too sore. “It’s okay, Mom,” Sookie assured her. “They are going to test things out and, if you’re okay, they’ll be taking the tube out tomorrow. Just don’t fight it,” and Sookie stood up and leaned back over her Mother to kiss her forehead. “You look so much better!” and Michele’s eyes looked warmly at her daughter. It left Sookie feeling pleased.
The nurse told them the doctor wanted to speak with them before they left, and together they waited in the family area until the doctor answered his page.
“Well, we know what it is.” He wasn’t someone they’d met before, but Linda told Sookie later that it was because they didn’t usually talk to the doctors on night shift.
“Cancer,” Linda said, and the doctor looked surprised.
“Well, yes,” he acknowledged. “It looks like a small, but definite tumor.” The doctor had a film in his hand and he held it up to the light. He pointed to an area just over his left ear, “Located right around here. Now, the good news is that it’s in an area that isn’t involved in any motor functions. Best we can tell, this particular area isn’t used much at all, so that’s good. And the tumor is well-defined, which is also good.” Sookie knew that the doctor saying ‘good’ so often should have made her feel good, but it didn’t. “We should be able to remove it and your mother should recover with almost no deficit.”
“Really?” Sookie started to feel excited. “And then she can go home?”
“There will be after-care,” the doctor was frowning a little.
“Like what?” Sookie was feeling lighter with each passing moment. They would take it out and all would be well.
“Will she need chemo?” Aunt Linda asked, and Sookie felt the first pinprick, releasing air from the bubble of happiness she’d been feeling.
“And radiation after that, most likely,” the doctor answered Linda. “Of course, that will be up to her oncologist.”
“Of course,” Linda nodded, her mouth tight-lipped. “And when would you be thinking to do this surgery?”
“Soon,” the doctor replied. “She’s stable now, but if the tumor continues to grow, it’s likely she’ll have another episode and we might not be able to bring her back next time,” and with those words all the joy Sookie had been feeling was gone.
“Oh,” Sookie said, and found she had no more words.
“It’s almost the weekend. I’d suggest you meet with our social worker to get all the paperwork in place, power of attorney, her resuscitation order…” and his words dropped off as he looked at Sookie’s paling face. “Not that she’ll need those things,” he stuttered.
“Just a precaution,” Linda said, saving him. “That’s okay. I understand.”
The doctor ducked his head quickly and, within less than a minute, he was gone. Sookie didn’t say anything and Linda let her sit. After a while, Linda covered Sookie’s hand and said, “I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day. Let’s head home,” but as they were driving, Linda asked, “Do you have an attorney?”
“We have a neighbor who is one,” Sookie answered, thinking of the couple that lived two houses down. She had no idea what kind of law her neighbor practiced, just that he’d told she and her Mother that he was an attorney at a neighborhood barbecue last Fall.
Surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday. That left Friday, the weekend, and then Monday before things would change again. Michele, Sookie’s mother, was moved out of Intensive Care and into a different ward. She was upgraded to an air tube that was snaked up her nose and she was most wonderfully and completely awake. Sookie and Linda spent the better part of every day with her. The attorney had been able to help them. “I’m so sorry,” he told Sookie, and refused to take any money for pulling together paperwork he downloaded from a database he had at home.
Sookie was worried about broaching the subject with her mother. She was so happy at the new closeness she felt with her Mother and she didn’t want to damage that by being the bearer of bad news, but Linda wasn’t shy. “Michele, you know you’re headed for surgery,” she’d waded right in.
To Sookie’s relief, Michele’s eyes lit up when she saw the paperwork. “Oh, thank goodness, you pulled this together! I was so worried I’d leave Sookie in some kind of snarl!” Michele exclaimed. Her Mother’s eyes wandered a bit, and then she looked at Sookie as she said, “Corbett would have known what to do,” and her eyes became less focused again, the way they always did when Michele spoke of Sookie’s Father.
“Your husband was a good man,” Linda nodded, “He couldn’t have foreseen what would happen and I know he would be mortified, knowing you were left needing money,” and the two sisters sat side by side, using the hospital table to fill out the forms. Aunt Linda loaned Sookie’s Mother her reading glasses and the two of them laughed and started telling stories from their youth, stories Sookie had never heard.
When they finished, Linda looked around, “You want to play cards?”
In all the years Sookie had lived with her Mother, they had never played cards, but her Mother looked excited. “Hearts?” she asked. “You have a deck?”
“When don’t I?” Linda winked, and then said, “Come on, Sookie. Pull up a chair!”
“I don’t know the rules,” Sookie confessed, and Aunt Linda gave her Mother a scowl.
“Corbett didn’t like me teaching the children games of chance,” her Mother explained. “Besides, you were the worst cheat in the world! I wasn’t going to teach either of my young children enough to be taken by you, or any of my cutthroat family!”
“Well, you never came around enough for us to rob you blind,” Aunt Linda snarked, and she dealt out the hands and they played a couple rounds cards up, so Sookie could catch on.
The rest of the evening, the two sisters talked of relatives and what it had been like growing up in rural Minnesota. They talked about using an outhouse when the snow was higher than they were tall, and the summer the neighbor’s bull got loose and their mother was trapped in the outhouse for hours. They talked about teasing each other and picking on their brother who had been the oldest. They talked about uncles and aunts, cousins and second cousins Sookie had never met. Visiting hours were over, but the nurses just shut their door and no one asked them to leave. Finally, Sookie’s Mother talked of her Father, and when she told Linda that she felt in some ways that she was just waiting to join him, Linda shushed her. “The things you say!” Linda exclaimed, and then announced it was time for them to head home.
“Anything I can bring you from home?” Sookie asked.
“My bathrobe,” her Mother replied. The bathrobe was worn, but it was one of the last things her Father had bought Michele, and she cherished it.
Saturday morning passed the same way. Sookie brought a board game and Aunt Linda brought Scrabble and insisted they play Dirty Word Scrabble, and then won. “It’s better when you drink!” she proclaimed, and Sookie’s Mother laughed like a young girl.
For lunch they smuggled in hamburgers and French fries from Michele’s favorite place and cheesecake, too. They stayed up until late, but Sunday, Michele started to cry, telling her sister how much she missed Corbett. Linda tried to remind Michele that her daughter needed her, too, but Michele was unfazed.
“It’s nothing,” Sookie told Linda later. “She’s always been that way. Mama’s world was Daddy. She loved him so much there just wasn’t a lot left over for the rest of us.” For Sookie, it was the way it had always been, so she didn’t see Linda’s disapproving stare.
When Monday rolled around, the doctors returned and last minute testing started. The social worker set up a meeting for Sookie and Linda for tomorrow while Michele would be in surgery. If all went well, Michele would be headed home after a week, and then chemotherapy would need to be set up as soon as her surgeon released her. The social worker was trying to find a facility nearby that would provide the service Michele needed without her having to travel hours. It wasn’t looking promising, but Aunt Linda leaned over, squeeze Sookie’s knee, and said, “Don’t worry. Things always seem to work out for you! This will too!”
Michele Stackhouse was taken from the room to wait her turn with the surgeon early Tuesday morning. By ten o’clock she still hadn’t gone into surgery. By noon she was in surgery and they didn’t think it would take more than a couple hours. She wasn’t out of surgery until past dinner time.
Aunt Linda and Sookie sat in the family area outside the same Intensive Care Unit, waiting for word. The doctor’s face when he headed for them wasn’t promising.
“It wasn’t what we thought,” he told them. “There were several tumors, not just one. They were interconnected and one was quite deep.”
“What does that mean?” Linda asked, and she squeezed Sookie’s hand, both of them leaning forward, like women braving a strong wind.
“Well, it took longer than we thought,” the surgeon started, “and there’s a possibility we missed something. That probably means more chemotherapy.”
“But, she’ll be okay…” and Sookie couldn’t quite make it a question.
“I don’t think there will be any major changes,” the surgeon told them.
Sookie took it as good news, but Linda’s eyes narrowed. “When will we be able to see her?” she asked.
“Probably not until sometime tomorrow,” the surgeon was looking at his hands.
Linda stood, “Thank you for letting us know. I’d imagine the social worker will be able to help us set up after-care…”
“Yes,” the surgeon stood, too, “Of course. Call before you come,” and with a nod, he walked away.
“That sounded hopeful,” Sookie said, but Linda remained silent as they drove home.
“We’re figuring it out,” Sookie was holding her Mother’s hands.
“Oh,” Michele answered, “That’s good. What?”
It was a full day before Michele truly woke up, and then another day before she was responding somewhat normally. She was more forgetful. Sookie would tell her something, but would have to repeat it less than an hour later. When Linda left the room and didn’t immediately walk back in, Michele would be surprised to see her. “Linda! When did you arrive?” she’d ask each time.
The tests were back. The tumor that was removed revealed itself to be a rare strain of cancer, one that was of interest to researchers. The people at Dana Farber would treat Michele and they were willing to forgo most of their costs in exchange for the freedom to publish their results. In view of what would be necessary to finish the ‘cure,’ it seemed almost too good to be true.
The social worker informed Sookie and Linda that Michele would need to be as close to the Center as they could manage. Treatments would be difficult, and if they were within a five mile radius, there would be transportation provided free of charge both there and back.
“How long?” Linda asked.
“Probably close to a year, between the chemo and the radiation,” the nurse informed them.
“It’s fine,” Sookie nodded. “I can take a year off school. It’s not a big deal. That way I can be home and help out. If everything goes well, I can get a job and put some money away for books and things.”
Linda didn’t tell her otherwise, but Sookie could see the end of her college days reflected in her Aunt’s eyes. ‘I won’t give it up!’ Sookie promised herself, ‘Even if I have to wait until I’m a hundred! I’ll finish!’
They spent the afternoon searching apartment listings in Brighton near the Cancer Research Center. It was sobering. Rent, even in places that made Sookie’s skin crawl, would cost more than the current mortgage payment on the house. “I think we’ll have to sell the house,” Sookie told her Aunt.
“You always said you were willing to consider it,” Linda nodded.
Sookie called the real estate agent and arrangements were made to have the house appraised. “She says it’s a seller’s market,” Sookie said when she hung up. “She said she didn’t think we’d even have to show the place.”
“Guess that’s Boston for you,” Linda sighed. Sookie didn’t tell her that their house wasn’t in Boston, not even close, but even Sookie could see that their small town was developing. Houses just a few streets over were being snatched up and ripped down to be replaced by much bigger houses. Sookie looked out the window and thought of Jason. What if he decided to come find them one day? There would be strangers living in their house, but then Sookie couldn’t think of that. ‘There’s Google,’ she promised herself, ‘and Facebook. If he wants to find us, he can.’
“You seem like such nice people,” one of the nurses walked over to where they were sitting. “I may have a suggestion.” She was a woman who had been taking care of Michele during the night shift, and she and Linda had become friendly. “There’s a man I met through here, a former patient. He lives close to where you’re looking, not a mile or more away from Dana Farber. His eyesight is poor, so he works out of his home. He lives on the first floor and he rents the second floor apartment. I’m pretty sure he’s between tenants.”
“What does he do for a living?” Linda asked, her sharp voice making its appearance. “My niece is an attractive, young woman and my sister won’t be in any shape to defend herself. I don’t want them living upstairs from some masher.”
“Oh, no!” the nurse protested, “I never would have suggested it if Sam was like that. He’s not at all! He writes books, mostly fiction. He’s not exactly famous, but he makes a decent living, and he owns the house. He’s quiet, and like I mentioned, his sight is… Well, he’s almost blind, so he’s pretty particular about who he rents to. I guess you could say he’s worried that he’d be the victim.”
“Any idea what he’d charge for rent?” Sookie asked.
“Last I heard it was less than a thousand a month,” the nurse replied, and Sookie turned to look at her Aunt. Every other place they’d seen on the Internet today had charged twice that.
“We’d have to meet him,” Linda said in her strong voice.
The nurse laughed a little, “Well, Sam would have to meet you, too, but I suspect you’ll work out fine.”