“You working? I so proud of you.” Sticky palms move from my cheeks to lock around my neck. I still marvel at how much strength is in those tiny arms and how much hug that two year-old body can muster.
It is all childhood trust and wonder. Her words outweigh her in an awesome way. Of course, she is mimicking a phrase my husband and I have offered her and her sister a thousand times in a thousand ways. But in this moment, she is so much more than a sweet-faced parrot. She is offering up the gift I needed right then. She is injecting meaning into yet another morning spent tapping keys and pushing against the digital tide.
At the same moment, Terry Gross’s familiar voice introduced the day’s Fresh Air guest. A man - Charles Bock - had written a novel inspired by his wife’s two year bout with leukemia. Soon, the author was talking about what it was like to throw a birthday party for their three year-old just days after her mother’s death.
I’m making lunch and sipping “tea” poured from a tin pot into a plastic cup. I miss every other sentence of the interview, but I promise myself I will catch the podcast later. But I know I won’t. I know I do not have the time or the strength to listen again. All I can do is spare some splintered attention to entertain one of my darkest fears - that lurking cancer demon that might be destroying this perfect life this very minute.
Even though this story hurts a heart that already feels too sodden and tender today, I do not change the station. After all, there’s nothing special about my pain. My family cancer stories are not so close as to make this conversation unendurable. It’s my childhood friend’s mother who died before 60 and a brilliant woman (who I long to support with more than prayers) who is in the brutal thick of it right now - these are the women I think of as the fear seizes my chest.
Listening began to feel like some sort of test of honor and endurance. Can I hold the exquisite tenderness of my toddler and the terror that we might not always be counted amongst the lucky ones, the healthy ones, the “touch wood all is well” ones?
No amount of prayer or gratitude or pride will guarantee any of our stories have a quiet ending at the conclusion of a one hundred year journey. Switching off NPR and singing along to a forgettable song will not weaken the monsters of accident and disease that might lurk around the next corner.
There’s no way to assure the safety of everyone I love. I cannot force my own cells to behave themselves. But what I can do is make sure that my fear doesn’t steal the sweetness of the next giggle or grown up pronouncement from that little girl’s lips.
All any of us can do is control whether we lose today wondering about an unknown tomorrow.