I took my mother’s voice for this piece, and wrote from memory. It’s as true as it can be.
I knew something was up when my dad offered to drive me. I’d been home for a week on summer break and headed to my boyfriend John’s house. I didn’t need him to drive me, he never drove me, so that was the first thing. Then he asked my younger brother, Frank, to come along. We left my 12-year-old sister at home with my mother.
I sat in the passenger seat, Frank in back. He sulked into his madras shirt, a sixteen-year-old on a drive with his dad and sister on a Friday evening. We drove down the two-lane road, headed away from the suburbs to the country estates of Barrington in my dad’s new ’66 Chevy. I watched him drive, noticed that his hair was thinning just a bit on top, making his sideburns look bushy. He smoked with purpose, as if that were the only thing to do at this moment.
I rolled down my window and turned my face to the wind. Tall oaks hung over the road, silhouettes against a darkening sky. Dad pulled onto the gravel shoulder and turned off the car. He took two white pills out of his pocket and asked us each to take one. And we did. Somehow, we just did what our father told us.
He looked at us for a long while, waiting, and finally said, “Your mother has pancreatic cancer, and she will die.”
And for some reason, I thought of my maternal grandmother. She lost another daughter, a stillborn, many years ago. And I remembered that my grandmother once told me that after the delivery, when she held the dead baby in her arms, all she could think was, “Look at those little fingernails. She has fingernails.”
And now my grandmother would lose another daughter, and how different, how similar, would it be?
“The doctor said not to tell your sister. She’s too young.” He stared ahead, not at us, in quiet tears on the side of the road. “It’ll happen sometime this summer, probably.”
(It did happen that summer, six weeks later, and then we told my sister her mother had died.)
And then he dropped me off at my boyfriend’s house, and he and my brother drove away. I waved, lazily, wet cheeks drying, and headed into John’s house. Because that’s what we do, right? We go on?