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TOWARDS THE end there was one day like no other. It was late October when the shortened days and lengthening shadows brought bright, intense sunlight. The sky was clear and cloudless. Something else was very different that day.
“I feel pretty good today. I think I’d like a Tim’s, double /double.”
“You sure? You were sick yesterday.”
“Yeah. I feel O.K. Where’s Tanya?”
“She left early today. She’s got a home game. Remember?”
Tanya was 17 going on 30 as she tried to make sense of her life. Co-captain of the field hockey team at school, helping look after Joy, her sick mom, as best she could, and wanting to do both at the same time.
“Are you going to watch the game?”
“Let me get the coffee, get you settled and see how the day goes.”
Bathing, laundry, meal preparation, and the nurse’s daily visit made up the grim routine. I returned with the coffee, one double/double, one black, mine.
As I handed Joy her coffee, I said “At least your hair’s coming back. You have more than me now.” She laughed at this, a sound I hadn’t heard in a long time.
I watched as she enjoyed her coffee in the sunroom, now warm. She was dressed, in her chair, wrapped in a blanket, with a funky wool hat perched on her head.
“Is that cap to keep you warm or cover your hair?”
“Maybe neither. Maybe I just like the hat. Too bad it’s not a Jays hat.”
Some more idle talk that I so wish I could remember followed, and soon it was noon.
“When does her game start?”
“You should go. I’ll be all right here for a few hours.”
“If I go at all it’ll be for the second half. This is the last home game of the season, so I’m sure there’s an event after.”
“Who are they playing?”
“Not sure. Maybe King City? Do you want to get back into bed for a while? It’s time.”
Medication time. It always made her drowsy, but it kept the pain down. Giving medication on a schedule dictated by the clock not the emergence of pain kept her mostly ahead of it. From experience we’d learned waiting for the pain to come calling only made that monster stronger and more dosage was needed to force it back down.
I prepared the syringe and passed it to Joy. She was a nurse and always inspected my work.
“This is fine. You’re getting good at this.”
A large hospital bed dominated the room. A stool beside the bed made it easier for her to get in. The bed controls were taped to a rail so she could control the height and angle of the bed. She got in slowly, carefully and un-aided, though not un-watched. Once I had taken her arm to assist her. She jerked her arm away and glared at me, saying “Not yet. I can still do this much on my own.”
The medication took effect almost immediately and she slept. Forty-five minutes later she woke, quite unusual lately as she often slept two hours at a time.
“Brian, I feel pretty good today. What time is her game?”
“It starts in about an hour or so. Why?”
“It looks like it’s pretty warm outside. I’d like to go and see her play.”
If she’d asked that a month earlier my response would have been “Are you nuts? You could get a secondary infection and be back in the hospital.” She taught me that when you’re losing your health, you want to be sure you don’t lose even more important things, like time, precious time with your kids. I grudgingly acknowledged she was right. Again.
“OK. I’ll get a lawn chair and blanket. It could get windy.”
“If it is I’ll sit in the car. Let’s go. Please.”
Lately she was more irritable, even explosive. Today she was tender, vulnerable and scared. A tear raced down her cheek, moving fast because no eyelashes were left to slow it down.
“OK. Give me a minute to get the stuff in the car, then I’ll help you in.”
A regular, fixed schedule was the only way I knew to get through the week. The doctor on Monday, the nurse every day, visitors as scheduled, I needed to control as much as possible in a universe that spun with “no rhythm, no meter, no rhyme.” A Tim’s double/double was not on the schedule, neither was Tanya’s game. None of that mattered. Joy was determined to go and nothing on earth would stop her.
Joy hadn’t been outside for several weeks, yet that day she walked out the front door, down the stairs and into the car, unassisted. She was cold at first but the car spit out heat as we drove to the school. The game was well under way when we arrived, with a crowd of spectators on one sideline. Joy made her way down that sideline, un-noticed by most of the fans. I set up the chair, wrapped her in a blanket and watched. I was edgy. Too many things could go wrong. My fragile sense of control was slipping.
Field hockey is a game I don’t understand. What I saw was a group of girls in skirts, shin pads, helmets and gloves chasing each other with large curved sticks. A ball was struck and the chase would resume in a different direction. Tanya was long legged and her hair was either blondish red or reddish blond depending on the light she was in. Her focus was on the game. She was not aware I was present and certainly not with her mom.
A loud whistle signaled half time. The team assembled in a semi-circle around the coach, slurping water and chattering to each other. The coach signaled for silence and began to talk to the team. I walked down the sideline towards them. When the coach was finished, I made eye contact with Tanya. Strands of hair stuck to her forehead, glued there by her sweat. Her knees were grass stained green and line-marker white.
She stepped away from the team.
“Hi dad. When did you get here? How’s mom?”
“Just before the half. She’s having a pretty good day.”
“I should get back.” She said, gesturing towards the team.
“Someone special came to watch the game today. You’d best go and say hello.”
Tanya looked down the sideline and saw her mom. She ran back to her coach, said a few words and then raced down the sideline to Joy, dropping her stick as she ran. I’m sure I ran too, and I remember picking up Tanya’s stick along the way. Tanya stopped in front of Joy and without a word, buried her head in her mom’s lap. There were a few tears, of course, then hugs, more tears and a few comments about how Tanya looked. The whistle sounded the start of the second half. Tanya ignored it.
Joy said, “You’d better get going, they’re starting to play.”
“I told the coach you were here. I’m second shift this half.”
“You’re still part of the team. You’d better get down there with them. I’ll be right here.”
Tanya took her stick and jogged back to her team. Several teammates came over to her and either patted her back or hugged her. At the next stoppage of play she went onto the field.
I would like to tell you that Tanya stepped up her game, worked her way down the field and scored the winning goal right in front of her mom. The truth is I don’t recall much about the game anymore and neither does Tanya. She didn’t score, and I’m pretty sure they lost the game, but none of that matters. The rest of the day is a blur to me now. All I remember, and with astonishing clarity, is that late fall afternoon, those special few hours watching one of our kids play, and the simple pleasure of a shared coffee that transformed that day into a day of grace.
Like all days, this one ended, and like all good days, it ended too soon. The few days left with Joy were increasingly spent managing pain, sickness and sadness, hers and ours. Less than a month later, the cancer took Joy. That day of grace was Joy’s last gift to us. It sustained us as the days grew even shorter. It sustains us even now.
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