Debra L. Freeberg
Lutherans are not supposed to panic in public. I was trying not to.
Maggie looked so good in February, I was sure she would stay in this holding pattern I’d concocted in my mind. She is so much worse. She ignores my discomfort.
“This is not a mug day. Get out the good china, we’re having a proper tea!”
During the past two years, every two or three months or so, I’d managed to drive across state and be with Maggie for the weekend. During those early visits, on good days, we would go out to a museum café wearing hats and gloves to show our elegance and refinement, or take in a movie or a play. When the chemo effects cancelled outings, Maggie established herself regally on the sofa, entertaining her friends with tales of traveling exploits with her late husband, Carl.
As her cancer progressed, we moved upstairs. Maggie and I spent weekends cozy in her bedroom talking and reading: sometimes silent, the air potent with affection.
“What are we waiting for?”
“Allow me to finish my tea first, please, Miss Bossy.” I take another sip of tea. We always had afternoon tea.
“Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.”
“I’m not playing Bible bingo with you.”
“Oh, but you will…”
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
Maggie sulks into her sheets.
I chip a saucer of her beloved grandmother’s china and hold my breath—but she pretends not to notice. I vow to find a replacement online. She tells me to pass the plate. We eat cucumber sandwiches and speak with mangled British accents.
“Paa-aass the shu-gar, if you please.” We are stupid silly.
Those were the days I believed absolutely that Maggie’s cancer would miraculously be frightened off by the drugs or the doctors or her own sheer stubbornness. We prayed earnest prayers. Aloud these were gentle petitions; silently we muttered our fears and made bargaining pleas.
Years ago Maggie and Carl had been my youth group leaders. I don’t know why Carl and Maggie loved me so. But they did and I clung to them. Like the rest of my peers, I was gangly and awkward and floundering. I was an only child; I had no idea who I was supposed to be, what I was to do with my life, or why I was stuck in a perpetual panic about the future. My parents weren’t terribly good at negotiating drama; they preferred to wait to see how I turned out.
Maggie and Carl became my older brother and sister; I adored them. Carl loved arcane facts of history, food, music, and Maggie—not in that order of course. Maggie walked the line between Princess Grace and a brash late-night talk-show host. She was funny, disarming, and sometimes outrageously frank.
She once asked me, “So when did you start to develop?”
Maggie and Carl didn’t have children or much extended family. They made up for the lack of kith and kin by being the center of social activity for their friends, their colleagues, and their church. Maggie and Carl opened their home to people with the kind of hospitality that was featured in fancy magazine layouts. The kind that brought you hot cocoa on a cold rainy day, tucked you in at night, and then dragged you out of bed in the morning to some new adventure. They joyfully attempted to engulf others in pleasure.
“Come in, come in. Tonight we are having an indoor picnic!” she’d say, and the placemats would be real grass mats minus the ants.
Or “Come in, take your shoes off. Welcome to our Korean wedding banquet!” he’d say.
And then one foggy morning three years ago, a car veered into Carl’s lane, hit his car head on. Maggie was left alone. I felt lost. I took to staying overnight with Maggie when she would let me. And somehow we muddled through the rest of the year, though I don’t remember details clearly. I surprised myself by graduating from college with honors. Months later came the cancer diagnosis. I had just started grad school three hundred miles away.
Now I am hanging onto Maggie. Hoping against hope that the cancer subsides and leaves her with me a while longer.
Today the table beside me is covered in books and tea mugs and tissues and a small alarm clock. A juice glass filled with water perches atop a volume of poetry and a tatty copy of a Dorothy Sayers mystery. I drain the water and pick up the poetry volume. She waves it away.
“Too exhausting. All those hormones.”
“Lord Peter, please.”
“Rightee-o.” I pick up the mystery.
“Carl got so frustrated with Sayers.”
“All the Latin and French . . . she never translated it. Drove him crazy.”
“Drove who crazy?”
“Carl thought Sayers was showing off. Showing how much smarter she was than her readers.”
“And you told him to take a hike?”
“In Latin of course.”
Twenty minutes later she’s dozing, draped forward over a mound of pillows, because it hurts to lie flat all the time. The bookmark is a hospital wristband. I tuck it in and tiptoe out of the room.
She finds me returned to the chair when she wakes. “What are you mumbling about over there?” she rasps. Climbing out of her mound of pillows and blankets she struggles to a semi-sitting position.
“Just writing in my journal.”
“It had better be about that handsome fiancé of yours.”
“Nah, I’m writing about the intricacies of welding.” She croaks a laugh then asks for water. I tilt the straw toward her mouth and she takes scarcely a swallow before she waves it away.
“I’m good. Let’s talk about that dress. I was right, wasn’t I?”
“Of course you were. When it comes back from the seamstress, I will model it for you. You will be stunned by my beauty.”
“Only if you do your hair too. I want pictures.”
“I want pictures with you.”
“The nurse will get me dressed.” She sighs and then laughs. “Top up, glamour; bottom down, sassy pants. I’m not getting out of my pajama bottoms for you.”
“I wish you could be there.”
Maggie cuts me off, “Yah, yah, yah. You’ll just have to get along without me. It will be dull . . .” She trails off and we giggle. My wedding will be duller indeed without Maggie, and a lot less fun.
Maggie loved nuptials. She read the New York Times wedding section every week and was a not-sosubtle fashion snob. She loved reading about what everyone was wearing, looking for veiled hints of disapproval from the reporter. I think Maggie was more invested in my wedding preparations than I was at times.
I remembered my past visits. On Sundays, her brightly scarved head boldly appeared at the front of the communion line, her arm firmly tucked under mine. After the service, she kindly accepted compliments on her wondrous appearance. “Maggie, dear, considering…” She did look great, “considering…”
Maggie hated to be pitied. At the first sign of a pity barrage, Maggie would tell a bawdy joke for the benefit of her well-wisher. Then Maggie asked “the concerned” if they knew any other naughty jokes she could tell her oncologist; Maggie had run out. “Sex” and “Lutherans” were never uttered in the same sentence, especially in the narthex, so they made excuses about their hearing, or some such nonsense—the heat in the fellowship hall and the inability of the sound crew to turn off the speakers after service and so on. The most sympathetic among them retreated, whispering to each other, “Act naturally. It’s the cancer talking, poor thing.”
Not a chance. It was pure Maggie, utterly charming one moment and a wicked imp the next.
During our weekends together, conversations veered from the ridiculous to sudden jolts of panic and concern. Maggie was a planner. Nothing was left to chance. She had the funeral service planned, paid for, and choreographed. Everyone knew their roles; she had printed them on note cards and handed them out.
New worries surfaced from time to time. “Promise me you’ll pluck my lip and chin hair!” She didn’t want anyone to see her with a mustache or any hint of a beard.
“Grandmother’s egg coffee pot goes to Mother’s cousin June. She won’t come to the funeral. You’ll need to mail it.”
This weekend, Maggie arranges for a cake testing. She tells me which one Rob will like the most, which one will hold up better, which one freezes better, and which one she knows I’ll pick. And she’s right, of course.
Maggie talks to my fiancé, Rob, on the phone and makes him promise in the future to let me tell as many Maggie stories as I want. And then tells him which ones are the most important to remember.
“And Rob,” she says, “You asked me what Carl and I said to one another. Our vows? First John 4:7. You read that to your bride. C’mon, practice. We have you on speaker.”
It takes him awhile to come back to the phone with his Bible. Maggie fidgets. She lies back and then struggles up. She leans forward and hugs a pillow; she can’t get comfortable.
I hear his voice. “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.”
“Now Karen, say verse 11 right back to Rob.” She pokes me.
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Maggie starts to cry. She waves her hands in frustration. “The damn chemo, I can’t seem to control…sorry, sorry.”
I start to cry too, and Rob lets us go. Maggie won’t let me hug her; she’s embarrassed. She makes me help her to the bathroom and closes the door. I can hear Maggie talking to herself, to Carl, to God. I hover in case she needs me.
No more falls please.
The crying kicks off a coughing spell that aggravates her bruised ribs. We have a rough night. Neither of us can sleep.
“Are you awake?”
“Mmm-mm-mmm.” Whatever that means.
“I can come back.”
This weekend isn’t cozy. She’s getting worse. The choking, the squeezing of her ribs, clearly visible when her shirt rides up. She needs my help to change her position and lean forward.
She finally tells me that the cancer has spread to her brain. Tumors are causing havoc. She is nauseous and dizzy, her skin loose and dull.
Maggie embraces the pillow mound, breathing hard, gasping in brief bursts, hands shaking as the tremors make her manicured nails beat a slight rhythm against the stainless steel bowl standing by. She retches again and again.
I take the small glass to her lips and gently tip the liquid into her mouth. Her cheeks churn and lips then spit the vomit-flavored water back into the bowl with the bits of phlegm and cake that float in the bottom.
“Thank you.” She lies against the pillows and looks up with chagrin and the trace of a smile. “Nothing left.”
I take the bowl to the bathroom and dump the vomit in the toilet. I rinse the bowl, grab a new washcloth, and run the cold tap. Back with Maggie, I give the cloth to her and she wets her lips, her cheek, and forehead.
She nods and closes her eyes.
“Sunday school time.” Maggie asks me to read Ecclesiastes again.
“I need to catch up,” she says.
“There is nothing new under heaven…”
“Vanity, vanity, vanity,” she mumbles.
I look up. Maggie waves her hands like shaking water from them, her face in the pillow. It’s hard to understand her, her voice is muffled. I only catch the last bit as her head rises a bit, “You know, it doesn’t really mean anything. The clothes, the house, all my toys.”
“It’s okay.” I’m unsure of the script.
“Really!” she insists.
“I miss him.”
She stares vacantly ahead, watching a kaleidoscope of images I can’t see.
“He had such a great ass.”
I sit in the wing-backed chair and stifle a giggle. Maggie grins wickedly.
When I need a break from reading, Maggie talks of heaven, Carl, her parents, and how delicious the air was in her favorite store, Saks Fifth Avenue: “It smelled like designers and desire!” she exclaims. I shake my head and she tries to throw a pillow at me. She’s so weak that the pillow seems to leak from her grasp and roll off the end of the bed.
Our tongues protrude and we are cast back to a kindergarten playground grinning like fools. A pain seizes her and she coughs spasmodically. She recovers.
Her hand languidly motions me back to my chair in the corner of the room. Grandly Maggie indicates that it is time to resume. “Love is made complete among us…there is no fear in love.”
“Perfect love drives out fear, kiddo,” she whispers. “I’m okay, don’t you worry.”
She thanks me for coming more than once. She is so sad this evening. She’s not afraid, just so, so sad and sick. She dozes and wakes fitfully.
I read until I have little voice.
“I’m worried about Carl.”
“What?” I’m unsure where this is going.
“I’m almost ready. I can give most of him up, but…” she whispers, “I can’t let go. I need him. I need him. Hang on a bit longer.”
I can’t bring myself to remind Maggie that Carl is gone.
And we move through the rhythm of the gasping breath and the heaving chest, the soft wet cloth on her mouth and brow and the sudden stillness of sleep.
Sunday morning, I help Maggie shower and we talk. Maggie is 93 pounds, her skin sagging like a deflated doll. The tumor at her brain stem unbalances her. Her nausea strikes repeatedly. She heaves as I gently wash her back, her legs. Taking the washcloth from me, she washes her face and front. Cancer in her lungs is making her wheeze. I grip harder so she doesn’t slip.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Making you see me in my saggy suit.”
I am so filled with feeling, I can’t speak. Maggie erupts in laughter.
“You should see your face.”
“You look constipated.”
“Get me out of here, I’m cold.”
As I towel her dry and help her into clean pajamas. I try to tell her how much I love her. She changes the subject. We’re back on the wedding.
“I want you to have that.”
She motions to her dresser. “Over there. Carl and me. Go get it.”
I cross to the dresser and look down at the photo. “I want what you had with Carl.”
“No, silly, pick it up. Yes, the picture.” The frame is silver and heavy. Carl and Maggie beam at me from behind the glass.
“We want to go to your wedding.”
It takes me a moment to understand her meaning.
“Maggie, this is your wedding photo.”
She reaches out and I try to give it to her. She refuses the photo; she was reaching for me.
“It’s for you.”
For several moments, neither of us have words worthy to voice.
“You didn’t think I was going to show up in my saggy suit, did you?”
She snaps us back to reality, “Now go pack. My minders will be here any minute.”
But I don’t go right away. We sit together for a while longer. Later, I drive home with Carl and Maggie cradled in my clothing.
It wasn’t my last weekend with her; Maggie rallied several times thereafter. She almost got to see the wedding pictures but slipped into a coma a few days after the wedding and died while we were on our honeymoon.
I miss her.
I miss her still.
Sometimes I sit in Maggie’s old bedroom chair, which is now nestled into a corner of my bedroom, and I read from her heavily scored Bible. “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” First John 5:4. It seems it was her confirmation verse; I find it written in her loopy eighth-grade hand, tucked into the chapter. Ecclesiastes is still marked with a hospital nametag. I find a picture of Carl in Song of Solomon. He gazes directly at the camera; his face and heart open wide looking at Maggie behind the camera.
Then, I look up. I regard the photo of the four of us, Rob and me and Carl and Maggie, framed within the frame on my dresser. I lift the china cup from the saucer and savor my tea. I think of Maggie and the weekends we had Sunday school.