“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,
my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
April 8, 2003
Everything my mother knew about life she learned from Mister Rogers.
She called him the greatest teacher of life lessons, and she swore up and down that he’d saved her life countless times. Whenever she was upset, she worked through her problems using her words. Whenever she was happy, she embraced it fully. Whenever she was hurt, she studied what led to her aching.
I’d never met a woman so in control of her own energy. Her awareness of self was something to be applauded. She never raised her voice, and she had the calmest demeanor of anyone in the whole world. You couldn’t be around my mother and be angry. I truly thought it was impossible.
It was because of her that we had Tuesdays with Rogers.
Only on Tuesday nights would we eat away from the dining room table, and pull out the TV trays. There was never a Tuesday that passed where she, my father, and I weren’t watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was an odd tradition, yet it was something Mom had been doing since she was a kid. She’d watch the show every week with Grandma, and when she met Dad, she made him promise he’d keep the tradition going if they ever had kids.
I loved it, too. There probably weren’t many sixteen-year-old kids who knew, let alone loved, Mr. Rogers, but honestly, they were missing out. Even though it was an older show, its life lessons were still pretty relevant.
That Tuesday afternoon was no different to me. We ate meatloaf and mashed potatoes, we talked about music, we laughed at Dad’s bad jokes, and we chatted about Mr. Rogers’s cardigan collection that looked very similar to mine, seeing how Mom made me a new one every year for my birthday.
Everything was fine and dandy until three words rocked everything sideways.
“I have cancer.”
My body reacted in a way I didn’t know was possible. I slumped back against the couch cushion as if someone had slammed a fist straight into my gut, forcing all air to evaporate from my body.
I turned to my mother, confused, stunned, aching. My palms grew clammy, my stomach knotted up, and I felt like I was going to vomit.
“What?” I whispered, the word hardly falling from my lips.
It was just three words. Three words that changed my mood. Three words that cracked my heart. Three words that I never wanted to hear.
I have cancer.
My eyes fell to Mom’s lips as she spoke to me. At least I thought she spoke to me. Did she say anything at all? Did I make it up? Was I hearing things? Were the echoes of my past haunting me?
Grandpa had cancer.
He struggled with cancer.
He died from cancer.
There was nothing good that came from that word.
I shook my head back and forth, confusion swirling as tears began to slowly fall down Mom’s cheeks. I looked to Dad to see him on the verge of crying, too.
That’s all I could say.
That’s all that came to mind.
I shook my head. “No. No, that’s not true.”
Dad pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s true.”
“No,” I repeated. “It’s not.”
There was no way Mom had cancer.
People like her didn’t get cancer. She was the healthiest woman in the world. I mean, heck, her idea of a crazy snack was juicing carrots, apples, and a cucumber. If you cut her, she’d probably bleed out broccoli. Healthy people like Mom didn’t get sick. They only got healthier. There was no way…
Now Dad was crying, too.
Dad didn’t cry. I could count on one hand how many times I’d ever seen him shed a tear.
“Eleanor…” He called me Eleanor when things were serious, and my father was hardly ever a serious man. He sniffled and shut his eyes. “This is hard for us all. We wanted to tell you when we found out, but we didn’t know how. Plus, there were more tests to do and—”
“How bad?” I asked.
They both answered with silence.
That couldn’t have been good.
My heart felt as if it was being ripped piece by piece from my chest.
Mom’s hand flew over her mouth as the tears kept falling.
Dad spoke again. Saying my full name—again. “Eleanor…please understand. We’ll have to all stand together to get through this.”
“We’re going to fight it,” Mom promised, her voice shaky and scared and unsure and fragmented. “We’re going to fight this, Ellie, I swear. You, your father, and me. We’re going to fight back.”
I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to run. I wanted to stand up and dash out of the room, out of the house, out of that reality. But, the way Mom’s eyes stared into mine. The way I could see how she was hurting. The way every inch of her body shook from fear and pain.
I couldn’t leave her.
Not like that.
I leaned toward her on the couch and wrapped her with my arms. I burrowed myself into her, placing my head against her chest, hearing her heart beat wildly. “I’m sorry,” I whispered as tears burst from my eyes and sadness overtook me. I didn’t know what more I could do, so I just held her tighter and kept repeating the words. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
She pulled me tighter, and held on as if she wouldn’t ever let go. Then, Dad’s arms wrapped around the two of us, and we all held on for dear life.
Our tears fell in sync, and we stayed locked together as one unit.
As the hurt kept hurting, Mom placed her lips against my forehead and softly spoke words that made me cry even harder. “I’m so sorry, Ellie.”
But everything would be okay, because we were going to fight it.
We were going to fight it together.
And we were going to win.
June 21, 2003
Everything I knew about life, I learned from Harry Potter.
I called him the greatest teacher of life lessons, and I swore up and down that he’d saved my life countless times. When I was upset, I wrote spells to turn people into rats, slugs, or toads.
Needless to say, my people skills were lacking, which was fine, because I was really great at avoiding humans—well, at least until I was forced to interact with them.
“You’re grounded from your room,” Mom stated as she stood in my bedroom doorway rubbing her palms against her face. She’d tossed her brown hair up in a messy bun, and her painting apron was tied around her waist, hiding her Pink Floyd T-shirt. Her neon-green Chucks were covered in paint, and her pink thick-framed glasses sat on top of her head as she gave me the brightest smile.
She’d been painting all day in the garage, because the weekends were when she could let loose and dive into her love for art. During the week, she was just your everyday friendly nanny, saving kids from lives of dullness. On the weekends, though? She let her hair down.
It had been two months since her cancer diagnosis, and I loved whenever she was painting. As long as she was painting, I felt like things were okay. As long as she was still herself, every day was easier.
And for the most part, she was herself. Sometimes she was tired, but still, she was Mom. She just took a few more naps than normal.
I narrowed my eyes, looking up from my novel. “You can’t ground people from their bedroom.”
“Yes, you actually can. Your father and I talked it over, and we are grounding you from these four walls. It’s summer vacation! You need to hang out with your friends.”
My eyes darted from her to the book then back to her. “What exactly do you think I’m doing?” I loved my mother to death. Out of all mothers, she was top of the line, but that afternoon she was being completely inconsiderate. It wasn’t just any summer day, after all. It was June 21, 2003, the day I’d been counting down to for the past three years.
Three. Long. Painful. Years.
She was truly acting as if she didn’t recall that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had released that day. The fact that she even had the nerve to speak about anything other than Harry, Ron, and Hermione was mind-blowing.
“Eleanor, it’s your summer vacation and you haven’t even left your bedroom yet.”
“That’s because I had to reread the first four Harry Potter books in order to prepare for this one.” Truly, she should’ve understood. It was like back in her day if a new Black Sabbath album came out and, instead of letting her listen to it, Grandma told her to go pick up milk from the corner store.
Black Sabbath > milk.
Harry Potter > social life.
“Shay said there’s a party happening tonight,” Mom commented, plopping down on my bed. “There will probably be pot and alcohol,” she joked, nudging my arm.
“Oh, joy,” I mocked. “How could I pass up such a grand time?”
“Okay, I know you’re not the party animal yours truly was as a teenager, but I feel like every sixteen-year-old should go to an unsupervised party at least once in their life.”
“Why would I want to do that? Why would you want me to do that?”
“We haven’t had sex since summer break began,” Dad said matter-of-factly, joining the conversation.
“Daddd,” I groaned, covering my ears. “Come on!”
He walked into the room, sat down on the bed behind Mom, and wrapped his arms around her. “Ah, come on, Ellie. We all know sexual intercourse is a beautiful, natural act, one we should all celebrate when it is had in a consensual, respectable fashion.”
“Oh, my gosh, please stop talking. Seriously. Stop.” I tightened my grip on my ears, and they laughed.
“He’s just teasing you, but we were hoping to have a horror movie marathon, and I know how you hate horror movies,” Mom said, and I was actually thankful for the heads-up.
One time when I was a kid, I’d walked in on them watching Chucky, and for weeks I was convinced my dolls were out to get me. I got rid of every stuffed animal I owned. You never really notice how creepy Cabbage Patch Kids are until you envision them with butcher knives in their hands.