That whole week was hot, the kind of sticky heat that lingers on your skin
even after you’ve gotten out of it. We’d walk outside for a bit, then come
back in and drink water bottle after water bottle. Beyond the heat, the
water helped replenish the tears we’d lost and fill our empty bellies. None
of us had been able to eat.
Ever cried in an unbearable heat? It’s strange. Somehow the sun licks away
the saltiness before it ever reaches your mouth.
I’d made my husband take us to the store to buy new dress clothes. We
smiled or barely shook our heads as our daughters twirled from the fitting
rooms in summer dresses, as if we were choosing something to buy for a
school dance instead of a funeral.
She isn’t even gone yet. But she will be. And when it happens, I don’t
want to have to think. I want everything to be ready.
At the house, the motions of everyday chores took on an overly loud
quality. Mom spent hours each day making my sister’s favorite foods. Mashed
potatoes. Macaroni salad. Summer cake with fruit and vanilla pudding.
My sister couldn’t eat much, really. End stage cancer does that to a
person. But that’s what mothers do, you know? They feed their children.
There were minutes, sometimes hours, when her lucidity left us vying for
attention, and we’d take reluctant turns talking with her or holding her
hand. None of us wanted to lose a moment of recognition or shared smiles,
but there were what, eighteen of us? At least. We had to be fair.
Outside, the sky was perfect summer blue, the clouds fat and white.
Inside, my sister was sweating, though her skin was cold.
We’d been at Mom’s for five days. Friday, my sister was awake and somewhat
jovial, joking with my daughters about trashy TV shows. A calm vibe hung in
the air. We could’ve remained in that limbo forever, I think. Cautious but
We left for just a little while, running necessary errands. We weren’t far
or gone long, but a heavy sickness sat in my gut. “We have to go back,” I
urged my husband. “Something’s wrong. I feel it.”
The temperature was rising. Heat distorted the air, the way it does when
you look through campfire smoke and everything seems just a little off.
I sat with my sister. She was sleeping, but I held her hand. Through the
window, I saw shadows of summers past: Wet drops from the sprinkler.
Melting popsicles and red rings around our lips. Splashing in the clear
blue water of the pool.
It was the part of the night when one day quietly melds into the next. I’d
dozed off on the couch, and my husband was shaking my shoulder. Wake up.
Her breathing was short and shallow, with long, frightening pauses in
My nephew rubbed her arm and sang, “Rock me Mama, like a wagon wheel….”
My daughter rushed from the room, and came back carrying my sister’s two small dogs, arranging them on the
bed near her feet.
My mother said, over and over, “I love you. I love you.”
My little boy rubbed circles on my back and said, “Keep breathing, Mama.
In your nose and out your mouth. We’ll be okay if we just keep breathing.”
Wailing stuttered in my ears, prickling my skin.
We fell asleep on the living room floor after it was over, because of course it had all been just a
When we woke, the heat wave had broken.
Then came the summer rain.