“I’ll rent a car for Bobby. That way you guys can drive back and forth.”
“I’m not going to tell Bobby . . . yet.”
Meghann frowned. “What?”
“I am not going to call my brand-new husband and tell him I have a brain tumor. He’ll come home, and I couldn’t stand that.” Claire looked at her. “He’s waited his whole life for this break. I don’t want to ruin it for him.”
“But if he loves you—”
“He does love me,” she answered fiercely. “That’s the point. And I love him. I want him to have his chance. Besides, there’s nothing he can do but hold my hand.”
“I thought the point of love was holding each other up through the hard times.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“Really? It sounds to me like you’re afraid he won’t want to come.”
Meghann went to her sister then, sat down beside her. “I know you’re scared, Claire. And I know Mama and I left you a long time ago. I know . . . we hurt you. But you have to give Bobby the chance to—”
“This isn’t about the past.”
“My shrink says everything is about our past, and I’m beginning to agree with her. The point is—”
“Do not tell me the point of my own life. Please.” Claire’s voice cracked. “I’m the one who has a tumor. Me. You don’t get to organize or critique my choices, okay? I love Bobby and I am not going to ask him to sacrifice everything for me.” Claire stood up. “We better get going. I need to tell Dad what’s going on.”
“What about Mama?”
“What about her?”
“You want to call her?”
“And hear her say she’s too busy picking out sofa fabrics to visit her sick daughter? No, thanks. I’ll call her if I get worse. You know how she hates unnecessary scenes. Now let’s go.”
Two hours later, Meg turned onto River Road and they were there. Late-afternoon sunlight drizzled down the yellow clapboard sides, caught the blooming pink roses and turned them orange. The garden was a riot of color. A small bicycle with training wheels lay on its side in the overgrown grass.
Claire whispered, “Oh, man . . .”
“You can do it,” Meg said. “Radiation can save you. Just like we talked about. I’ll help you.”
Claire’s smile was wobbly. “I need to do this alone.”
Meg understood. This was Claire’s family, not hers. “Okay.”
Claire got out of the car and walked haltingly up the path. Meg fell in step beside her, offering a solid arm for support.
At the front door, Claire paused, drew in a deep breath. “I can do this. Mommy’s sick.”
“And the doctors are going to make her better.”
She looked helplessly at Meghann. “How do I promise that? What if—”
“We talked about this, Claire. You promise it. We’ll worry about what if later.”
Claire nodded. “You’re right.” Forcing a smile, she opened the door.
Sam sat on the sofa, wearing a pair of faded overalls and a smile. “Hey, you two, you’re late. How was the spa week?” Halfway through the sentence, his smile faded. He looked to Claire, then to Meghann. Slowly, he got to his feet. “What’s going on?”
Alison was on the floor, playing with a Fisher-Price barnyard set. “Mommy!” she said, scrambling to her feet and running for them.
Claire dropped to her knees and scooped Alison into her arms.
Meghann saw the way her sister was trembling, and she longed to reach out to her, to hold her as she had when they were kids. She felt a fresh surge of rage. How could this happen to Claire? How could her sister possibly look into her daughter’s eyes and say I’m sick without breaking like finely spun sugar?
“Mommy,” Alison said at last, “you’re squishing me.” She wiggled out of her mother’s arms. “Did you bring me home a present? Can we all go to Hawaii for Christmas? Grandpa says—”
Claire stood up. She glanced nervously back at Meghann. “Pick me up at six, okay?” Then, smiling, Claire faced her father and daughter. “I need to talk to you two.”
Meghann had never seen such bravery.
I need to do this alone.
She backed out of the door, ran for the safety of her car, and drove away.
She didn’t even know where she was going until she was there.
The cabin looked dark, unoccupied.
She parked out front and killed the engine. Leaving her purse in the car, she headed across the street and walked up to the front door.
He opened the door. “You have got to be kidding me.”
That was when she remembered their date. Last Friday. She was supposed to bring the wine and dessert. It felt like decades ago. She looked past him, saw a dying bouquet of flowers on the coffee table, and hoped he hadn’t bought them for their date. But of course he had. How long had he waited, she wondered, before he ate his dinner alone? “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“Give me one good reason not to slam the door in your face.”
She looked up at him, feeling so fragile she could barely breathe. “My sister has a brain tumor.”
His expression changed slowly. A look came into his eyes, a kind of harrowing understanding that made her wonder at the dark roads that had traversed his life. “Oh, Jesus.”
He opened his arms and she walked into his embrace. For the first time, she let herself really cry.
Joe stood on the porch, staring out at the falling night. At the park across the street, a baseball game was being played. An occasional roar of the crowd erupted through the silence. Otherwise, there was only the sound of a cool breeze rustling the honeysuckle leaves.
It had been better, he now understood, to be angry at Meghann, to write her off for standing him up. When she stepped into his arms and looked up at him with tears in her eyes, he’d wanted desperately to help her.
My sister has a brain tumor.
He closed his eyes, not wanting to remember, not wanting to feel the way he did.
He’d held Meghann for almost an hour. She’d cried until there were no tears left inside her, and then she’d fallen into a troubled sleep. He imagined that it was her first sleep in days.
He knew. After a diagnosis like that, sleep either came to a person too much or not at all.
They hadn’t spoken of anything that mattered. He’d simply stroked her hair and kissed her forehead and let her cry in his arms.
He couldn’t think of it without shame.
Behind him, the screen door screeched open and banged shut. He stiffened, unable to turn around and face her. When he did, he saw that she was embarrassed.
Her cheeks were pink, and that gorgeous hair of hers was a fuzzy mess. She tried to smile, and the attempt tore at him. “I’ll put you in for a Purple Heart.”
He wanted to take her in his arms again, but he didn’t dare. Things were different between them now, though she didn’t know it. Hospitals. Tumors. Death and dying and disease.
He couldn’t be a part of all that again. He had only just begun to survive his last round of it. “There’s nothing wrong with crying.”
“I suppose not. It doesn’t help much, though.” She moved toward him; he wondered if she knew that she was wringing her hands.
He got the sense that the time in his arms had both soothed and upset her. As if maybe she hated to admit a need. He’d been alone long enough to understand.
“I want to thank you for . . . I don’t know. Being there. I shouldn’t have busted in on you.”
He knew she was waiting for an argument, waiting for him to say I’m glad you’re here.
At his silence, she stepped back, frowning. “Too much too soon, I guess. I completely understand. I hate needy people, too. Well. I better go. Claire starts radiation tomorrow.”
He couldn’t help himself. “Where?”
She paused, turned back toward him. “Swedish Hospital.”
“Did you get second opinions?”
“Are you kidding? We got opinions from the best people in the country. They didn’t agree on everything, but inoperable was a favorite.”
“There’s a guy. A neurosurgeon at UCLA. Stu Weissman. He’s good.”
Meghann was watching him. “They’re all good. And they all agree. How do you know Weissman?”
“I went to school with him.”
“Don’t sound so surprised. Just because I live like this now doesn’t mean I always did. I have a degree in American lit.”
“We know nothing about each other.”
“Maybe it’s better that way.”
“Normally I’d have a funny comeback to that. But I’m a little slow today. Having a sister with a brain tumor will do that to a girl. Pretend I was witty.” Her voice cracked a little. She turned and walked away.
With every step she took, he wanted to go after her, apologize and tell her the truth, who he was and what he’d been through. Then, perhaps, she’d understand why there were places he couldn’t go. But he didn’t move.
When he went back inside the house, he saw the last remaining picture of Diana staring at him from the mantel. For the first time he noticed the accusing glint in her eyes.
“What?” he said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Alison listened carefully to Claire’s explanation of a golf-ball-size “owie” in her brain.
“A golf ball is little,” she said at last.
Claire nodded, smiling. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“And a special gun is gonna shoot magic rays at it until it disappears? Like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp?”
“Exactly like that.”
“How come you hafta live with Aunt Meg?”
“It’s a long drive to the hospital. I can’t go back and forth every day.”
Finally, Ali said, “Okay.” Then she got to her feet and ran upstairs. “I’ll be right back, Mommy!” she yelled down.
“You haven’t looked at me,” Dad said when Ali was gone.
He got up and crossed the room, then sat down beside her. She felt the comforting, familiar heat of him as he put an arm around her, pulled her close. She rested her head on the hard ledge of his shoulder. She felt a splash of tears on her face and knew he was crying.
“I’d drive you back and forth, you know,” he said softly, and she loved him for it. But she didn’t want to grow weak in front of him. She and Meghann had read about radiation; when it was focused on the brain it could really make a person sick. It would take everything she had to stay strong through the treatments. She couldn’t come home every night and see herself through her dad’s eyes. “I know that. You’ve always been there for me.”
He sighed heavily, wiping his eyes. “Have you told Bobby?”
“But you will?”
“Of course. As soon as he’s finished in Nashville—”