“Hey, beautiful,” she said.
“So…yesterday was tough.”
“You should be in bed,” I told her. “You need rest.”
I sat up a bit. “Sorry about that. I—”
She shook her head. “It’s fine, really. I just want to make sure you’re okay. I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“You shouldn’t be worried about me.”
“I’m a mother, sweetheart. Worrying about my child is all I ever do.”
I lowered my head. “I’m scared, Mom.”
“I know.” She moved into the room and sat on the edge of the bed beside me. She wrapped an arm around me and I rested my head against her shoulder.
“I just need you to be okay, alright? Can you do that?”
She combed her fingers through my hair but didn’t reply.
Mom was never one to make promises she couldn’t keep.
“Your dad went out to clear his head and will probably be out for a while. You want to drive over to Laurie Lake?”
“Are you okay enough to travel?” I asked warily.
“I promise, Ellie. I’m okay.”
We headed to the lake and walked out to our secluded area. It was hot that late morning. The high was supposed to be around ninety-five degrees, but it already felt like it was triple digits.
We sat under the sun, melting and drinking from the water bottles we’d brought. It was quiet for a while. I wondered if we were quiet because we didn’t have anything to say or because we didn’t know how to say it.
Mom tilted her head up to the sky with her eyes closed and felt the sun beating against her skin. “I was thirty-three the first time I found out I had cancer. You were two years old.”
I turned to face her, stunned. “You’ve had cancer before?”
“Yes. You were so young, and I remember crying with you in my arms, because the idea of leaving this world was too hard to face. You were so new to me, and your father and I had fought so hard to have you in our lives. You were just becoming your own person. I was watching you grow into this beautiful little girl with her own personality. I thought about all the things I’d miss, all the firsts you hadn’t even discovered. Your first day at school, your first dance…your first boyfriend, your first kiss. Your first heartbreak. I remember getting so mad at the world, at my own body for bringing you to me only to take me away. It felt unfair. I felt as if I’d betrayed myself. One day when my worries were so loud and my heart was breaking, do you know what your father said to me?”
“‘You’re still here, Paige. You’re still here.’ That changed everything for me. I just need you to know that, too, okay?” She took my hand into hers and patted it gently. “I’m still here, Ellie.”
“I can’t stop thinking about if you weren’t, though. I thought yesterday was…” I shut my eyes and inhaled hard. “I thought you were gone…”
“I know, but even if a day comes when you can’t physically see me, I’m still here. Always.”
I took a breath.
That was a difficult concept.
“I’m really scared, Mom,” I confessed.
“Fear’s okay, as long as you don’t let it drown you.” She looked down at her hands. “Do you know the story behind the dragonflies?” she asked. “Do you know what they stand for?”
“No. You’ve never told me.”
“In almost all parts of the world, the dragonfly stands for change and transformation. They live most of their life as a nymph. Do you know what that means?”
“Like a fairy?”
She smiled. “Well, that’s one of the meanings, but in this case it means an insect with incomplete metamorphosis. It’s the stage before it gets its wings. Dragonflies only actually fly for a small fraction of their lives.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Crazy, right? When you see dragonflies, you would believe they fly all their lives, but you don’t take into account the number of flightless days that came before. The dragonfly never gets down on itself for not having wings, though. It never overthinks when they will come. It just lives fully in the moment. That’s what they mean to me: living in the moment. They live each day moment by moment, not overthinking the future.”
I knew what she was getting at. “I’m not a dragonfly, Mom. I can’t help but overthink everything.”
“I know. I’ve been overthinking things, too, but I also want to find the good moments. I don’t want the next however-many days to be filled with sad times, Ellie. I want to know the good things. I like to think you can find a reason to smile every single day if you look hard enough. So, can you do that for me? For us? Can you find a reason every single day to smile?”
“Yes,” I promised, even though I didn’t know if it were true. For her, I’d try. I fiddled with my fingers as dragonflies buzzed around in the distance. “You didn’t miss one of the firsts,” I told her. “Greyson kissed me two nights ago.”
Mom’s eyes lit up, and for the first time in the past twenty-four hours, she smiled, a real smile filled with happiness. “Oh, my gosh.” She placed her hands on top of mine. “Tell me everything.”
As I told her, she kept smiling ear to ear, and I realized I was smiling too, not because Greyson had kissed me, but because she was it for me that day. Seeing her glow felt so amazing. Seeing her not crying was what made my lips curve upward.
She was my reason to smile.
After Mom blacked out, things became harder.
She made me stop going to chemotherapy treatments with her, even though I fought her tooth and nail about it.
At first, we were all doing okay. We found our daily reasons to smile.
Then, things progressed.
She stopped painting in the garage.
Her hair thinned.
Her movements were becoming slower.
One night after Mom’s chemo, she became extremely sick. It woke me up in the middle of the night, and there was no way I was going back to sleep. While Dad helped her in the bathroom downstairs, I sat at the top of the staircase, listening. She was crying, telling him she was tired.
I didn’t know if she meant physically or mentally.
Maybe a little bit of both.
I hugged the railing as Dad helped walk Mom back to their bedroom. Afterward, he came back into the space and stood still in the middle of living room. He stared forward, looking at the blank television screen, and then he covered his mouth and began to sob uncontrollably. He muffled his tears with his hands, trying his best to keep his hurting contained in order to not worry Mom or me.
My father was the master of putting on a brave face. He’d always take care of Mom and then check in on me to make sure I was okay. Yet, if I asked how he was, he’d always reply, “Great,” even though I knew that was a lie. My father was heartbroken. He refused to admit it to anyone, but I could see it even before he’d begun to cry.
The next day, we could hardly find a reason to smile. Then the following one, it became even harder. Our reasons for joy were decreasing day in and day out. We all knew it, but we tried to hide from each other the fact that we were all cracking more each day. Our reasons for smiling were so very few, yet we were all too tired and too stubborn to admit it.
“Hi, Ellie,” Greyson said while standing on my porch one Saturday afternoon. He was holding some canvas in his hands and smiling brightly. I was confused about why he was there. Truth was, ever since everything with Mom worsened, I’d been a bit antisocial. I didn’t have a clue why he’d still want to be my friend, or whatever it was that we were. We hadn’t even had a chance to really talk about anything between us after our first kiss.
He never brought it up, and neither did I.
If we were hanging out together, I was quiet on the outside while my insides screamed.
He hadn’t signed up for a sad friend, but still, he kept showing up.
Something should be said about the people who show up for the depressed souls. They never receive enough credit for being brave enough to stay.
“Hey. What are you doing here?” I asked him.
“I just thought I could stop by to officially meet your mom. I wanted to see if she’d like to teach me some of her art skills.”
“That’s really nice, but she’s not feeling too great today.”
“Oh. Well, maybe…”
“I’m feeling good enough for that,” Mom interrupted.
I turned around to see her standing in the foyer, looking skinnier than I liked.
“Are you sure?” I asked. She had bags under her eyes, her hair was wrapped up in a bandana, and she looked nothing like herself.
“Of course. Come on in, Greyson.”
He walked past me and followed Mom into the living room. He set his materials on the table, and then sat beside Mom on the couch. “I’m sorry we haven’t officially met yet, Mrs. Gable, but I’m Greyson. I just wanted to stop by and see if you could give me some art tips. I’m not an artist at all, but Ellie has told me you’re the best artist in the world, and I’d love to pick your brain about techniques and stuff.”
Then, for the first time in days, Mom smiled.
More of that.
For a moment in time, Greyson took her mind off of her illness and accompanied her back into the world she loved more than anything. She spoke about curves and lines, pastels and chalks, paper drawings versus canvas.
She had him paint and then she critiqued his work, but with a gentleness Mom always maintained. She didn’t give critiques without offering solutions. Her eyes lit up when she talked about art.
After a while, they headed to Mom’s studio in the garage, and they stayed there for hours. I didn’t join them, because everything they were talking about pretty much just went over my head.
Mom needed it—she needed to feel inspired.