I’ve been trying to hold onto that perfect moment when you first wake up. In that moment nothing has substance. There is no conscious thought, just the bright light of a new day and you don’t remember anything at all. I’ve found if I hold my breath and don’t blink I can make that moment stretch for thirty or more seconds. Then it’s gone.
I lay in bed for a while. It’s Saturday. Saturday mornings, I used to wake to the sound of pots clanking together as Mom pulled the griddle out from underneath the rest of the pots and pans. When I was young, I’d leap out of bed to see if I could stir the batter or add the chocolate chips. As I got older, I’d cover my head with the quilt and snuggle in deeper until she finished, came to my room, and whispered into my ear, “Rise and shine, Porcupine. Breakfast is ready.” I miss those Saturdays.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed. The quilt slides to the floor where it will stay until I crawl back into bed. My homework—Sophomore English, Biology, and History—sits in undone piles on my desk. I don’t think any of my teachers actually expect me to do any of it. A dying mother for an excuse gets a lot of sympathy from. The Hello Kitty alarm clock I got for Christmas the year I was six says nine o’clock. Dad says it still works, so there’s no need for a new, less babyish clock.
She peeked at Mom’s room over her shoulder, like she expected the door to suddenly fly open and a ghost to grab her. She left after only a half hour and hasn’t been back.
I suppose it doesn’t matter. None of my friends come over anymore. They don’t know what to say or how to act. The last time Rachel was over, she didn’t speak above a whisper, like we were in a library. I had to keep asking her to repeat herself. She peeked at Mom’s room over her shoulder, like she expected the door to suddenly fly open and a ghost to grab her. She left after only a half hour and hasn’t been back.
I open the door. I hope I haven’t missed it. They told us at the family meeting in the hospital that most people die within twenty-four hours of going home for hospice care. Well, they didn’t say die, they said pass or something equally indirect, but they meant die. According to Hello Kitty, that leaves six hours. What if they’re off? Maybe it’s thirty-six or forty-eight hours and we’ll just be here waiting and waiting. I’m sure Dad didn’t sleep. He would have woken me if, well, just if, but my heart still races like I’m late for school as I head to the family room.
I stop in the doorway. Dad, eyes red-rimmed and glassy, wearing the same clothes he’s been in for two days, stares at the TV even though it isn’t on. Tommy—Thomas—he’s Thomas now that he’s in college. Thomas is on the other end of the couch holding his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. I can’t tell if his eyes are open under the mass of brown hair hanging in his face.
They don’t look at me, caught in their own heads, waiting. It hasn’t happened yet.
I join them on the couch, leaning back all the way and putting my hands between my legs. Like plucked chicken legs, Thomas always says, scrawny and white.
The morphine pump whirs. I wonder if the hospice nurse let her have more morphine. Mom can have as much as she wants. It’s only a matter of time, no need for her to feel any pain. I close my eyes. Her sigh breaks the silence and I picture her tiny body sink into the bed like I’ve seen so many times in the last few days and wonder if this will be the moment she relaxes forever.
I realize I’m holding my breath and let it out. The sound startles Dad. He shakes his head and pushes his thumb and first finger against the bridge of his nose.
I realize I’m holding my breath and let it out. The sound startles Dad. He shakes his head and pushes his thumb and first finger against the bridge of his nose. His lips press into a straight line. I imagine that’s as much of a smile as he can manage.
“Morning, Chelsea. Did you get any sleep?”
I shrug my shoulders. None of us sleeps anymore. “How is she?”
I nod. Dad goes back to staring at the TV. I stare at my knees, knobby with light stubble on them. I make a note to remember to shave them the next time I shower. I’ve always hated my legs, my knees especially. Mom says I’ll be grateful for skinny legs when I get older and I should be glad I didn’t get my dad’s athletic thighs. Athletic doesn’t age well. It becomes thick, tree trunk like. I will love my legs one day she says. I’ve been listening closely to what Mom says since she got sick the first time two years ago. Maybe it wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time I knew. When school let out that day, Mom wasn’t waiting. Rachel’s mom found me and told me Mom asked her to bring me home.
I heard the retching as soon as I walked through the door.
“Mom?” I asked, heading toward the noise in her bathroom.
I found her, kneeling in front of the toilet, puking. Water splashed back at her face and moistened her long hair. She vomited for a while. I stood in the doorway, turning away from the smell so I wouldn’t gag.
When she finished, she slumped to the floor, her back against the wall, eyes closed. She wiped her hand across her mouth, pulling her hair back over her shoulder. She sat for a moment before turning her head to look at me.
“Always have a friend to hold your hair back when you vomit,” she said.
She splashed water on her face at her the sink and grabbed her toothbrush. I went to my room. A few minutes later, she found me. We sat on my bed and she told me about the cancer for the first time. I blushed when she said breast, but I listened, really listened to her. I tried to soak in every word. I cried. She did too. I think I knew it was serious when she cried.
After that, I held her hair back for her until it started falling out in clumps in my hands and all over the house. We had a family day to shave her head. Dad, Thomas, and I crowded around her in the bathroom. Dad held the buzzing clippers over her head. Shaking his head, he set them down, wrapped his arms around Mom, and sobbed into her shoulders. Mom’s eyes welled with tears. She kissed Dad’s hand before grabbing the clippers and swiping them down the middle of her own head. My heart stopped for the seconds it took for the wispy blonde hair to float to the ground. We passed the clippers around. Dad, then Thomas, then me, each took a turn making Mom look like a cancer patient.
When it was completely shaved off, Mom pulled out a royal purple scarf and wrapped her head. She turned her head side to side, tucking in the scarf and looking in the mirror.
“I like the color. I think it brings out my eyes,” she said.
Thomas went to his room and closed the door. Dad put his hands on her shoulders.
“You look beautiful,” he said with a hint of a smile on his face.
No she doesn’t, I thought. I wanted to scream it. She looks horrible. She looks like she’s dying.
Instead, I offered to clean up. Kneeling on the ground amid the hair clumps, I spread the hair out. I picked some up, looking at the hair I always wished I had. Not wanting to just throw it away.
“Let it go, Chelsea,” Mom said. “It’s just hair.”
I found myself on the bathroom floor crying while my sick mother comforted me.
We never had to shave her hair again. The chemo kept her head smooth. We bought other scarves, black, brown, grey, white, thinking she might want a variety, but she mostly stuck with the purple. She said it made her feel good. It’s important to wear things that make you feel good, she told me.
It’s been a few weeks since she stopped the chemo, when it was clear it was doing nothing but making her sick. She has patchy, fuzzy hair now underneath the purple scarf.
My stomach growls and I grab it to try to muffle the noise. Dad’s not much of a cook, so we mostly eat cold cereal now. I consider getting off the couch to pour some. It just doesn’t seem like Saturday without pancakes somehow. I wonder if it will ever seem like Saturday again.
I stand. No one notices. I’m not sure if Thomas has moved at all since I entered the room. Dad’s still staring at the blank TV.
I stand. No one notices. I’m not sure if Thomas has moved at all since I entered the room. Dad’s still staring at the blank TV. He still hasn’t shaved, maybe three or four days now. There’s a lot of grey in his growing beard, more than I remember.
In the kitchen, I reach for the Cheerios. A box of Bisquik stands next to it. Pancakes are Mom’s thing. I’m not sure if I’m ready to take over Saturday morning pancakes.
But I am hungry for pancakes, so I take the box and dig in the cupboard for chocolate chips. Her apron hangs on the inside. I tie it around my waist.
I reach into the cupboard where pots and pans are neatly stacked. Mom liked nice pots and pans for cooking. Dad teased her that she didn’t even know what some of them were for. Now her collection is covered with a thin layer of dust. The griddle is under everything. I try to lift the whole pile at once. They shift, toppling and clanging to the ground around me. I glance into the living room to see if I disrupted the order of things enough for anyone to notice. Apparently not.
I slide the griddle out, heavier than I expect. I run my hand along its cool length then set it to warm on the stove while I make the batter.
The eggs crack neatly into the bowl. No shells to fish out like when I was six. I blend the dry with the wet then I stir in the chocolate chips.
I pour batter onto the sizzling griddle and watch for the bubbles to form. When I was eight, watching for the bubbles was my favorite part. I’d stand next to the stove and wait for them to push through the thick batter, then announce to Mom it was time to flip, amazed they’d stay in perfect circles.
Today, I don’t watch so closely. I pick the pots and pans off the floor and put dirty dishes in the dishwasher instead. One or two get a little overly brown, but not bad enough for me to toss. A little syrup and you’ll never know, Mom would say.
When the pancakes are finished, I put three on a plate, pour syrup over the stack, and carry them to the living room. Dad and Thomas look up with what I hope is a glimmer of their happier selves.
“I made pancakes. Help yourself,” I say as squeeze in between them.
I cut the pancakes and take a bite. Not bad. It feels a little like Saturday.
Jessica Huszar-Yoshimoto is a writer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three young daughters. When not driving children to and from preschool and play dates, she can be found gardening and enjoying the company of her backyard chickens. She is currently at work on her first novel.