One hour bled into the next until finally, around 4:00, Dr. Weissman came into the waiting room. Meghann was the first to see him. She tightened her hold on Ali and got to her feet. Bobby stood next; then Sam and Mama; then Joe, Gina, Karen, and Charlotte. In a silent group, they moved toward the doctor, who rubbed a hand through his thinning hair and managed a tired smile.
“The surgery went well.”
“Thank God,” they whispered together.
“But she’s a long way from out of the woods. The tumor was more invasive than we thought.” He looked up at Joe. “The next few hours will tell us more.”
CLAIRE WOKE UP IN RECOVERY FEELING GROGGY AND confused. A headache pounded behind her eyes. She was about to hit her call button and ask for an Advil when it struck her.
She was alive.
She tested her memory by counting to one hundred and trying to list all the towns she’d lived in as a child, but she’d only made it to Barstow when the first of the nurses came in. After that, she was poked and prodded and tested until she couldn’t think.
Her family took turns sitting with her. Two of her most vivid postsurgery memories were of Bobby, sitting by her bed, holding an ice pack to her head for hours at a time, and of her dad, feeding her ice chips when she got thirsty. Meghann had brought in Ali’s newest drawing; this one was three brightly colored stick figures standing by a river. In an uncertain scrawl across the bottom it read: I love you Momy.
By the second full postop day, Claire had become irritable. She hurt now; her body ached everywhere and the bruises on her forehead from the iron halo had begun to throb like hell. They wouldn’t give her much in the way of pain medication because they didn’t want to mask any surgical aftereffects.
“I feel like shit,” she said to Meghann, who sat in the chair by the window.
“You look like shit.”
Claire managed to smile. “Again with the bedside manner. Do you think they’ll come soon?”
Meghann looked up from her book, which Claire noticed was upside down. “I’ll check again.” Meg put the book down and stood up as the door opened.
Claire’s day-shift nurse, Dolores, walked into the room, smiling. She was pushing an empty wheelchair. “It’s time for your MRI.”
Claire panicked. Suddenly she didn’t want to go, didn’t want to know. She felt better. That was good enough—
Meghann came to her side, squeezed her hand. The touch was enough to get Claire over the hump. “Okay, Dolores. Take me away.”
When they rolled into the hallway, Bobby was there, waiting for them. “Is it time?”
It was Meghann who answered. “It is.”
Bobby held Claire’s hand all the way to Nuclear Medicine. It took an act of will to leave them behind and go down that familiar white hallway alone.
A few minutes later, as she lay once again in the jackhammer coffin of the MRI, she visualized a clean, clear scan of her brain, saw it so clearly that by the time it was over, her temples were wet with tears.
Bobby, Meghann, and Dolores were waiting for her when she was finished.
Dolores helped Claire into the wheelchair, then positioned her slippered feet on the footrests. Back to the room they went.
After that, the waiting was unbearable. Meghann paced the small hospital room; Bobby squeezed Claire’s hand so tightly she lost all feeling in her fingers. Sam came in every few minutes.
Finally, Dolores returned. “The docs are ready for you, Claire.”
Little things got Claire through the wheelchair ride without screaming—the warm pressure of Bobby’s hand on her shoulder, the easy patter of Dolores’s monologue, the way Meghann stayed close.
“Well. Here we are.” Dolores stopped at the office door and knocked.
Someone called out, “Come in.”
Dolores patted Claire’s shoulder. “We’re praying for you, sweetie.”
Meghann took control of the wheelchair and guided Claire into the office. There were several doctors in the room. Dr. Weissman was the first to speak. “Good morning, Claire.”
“Good morning,” she answered, trying not to tense up. The men waited for Meghann to sit down. Finally they realized that she wasn’t going to.
Dr. Weissman clicked on the viewbox. There were Claire’s films. Her brain. She grabbed the wheels and rolled forward.
She studied the film, then looked up at the men. “I don’t see any tumor.”
Dr. Weissman smiled. “I don’t, either. I think we got it all, Claire.”
“Oh my God.” She’d hoped for this, prayed for it. She’d even worked to believe it, but now she saw that her belief had stood on a shaky foundation.
“Initial lab reports indicate that it was a low-grade astrocytoma,” he said.
“Not a glioblastoma multiforme? Thank God.”
“Yes, that was good news. Also, it was benign,” Dr. Weissman said.
One of the other doctors stepped forward. “You are a very lucky woman, Mrs. Austin. Dr. Weissman did an incredible job. However, as you know, most brain tumors will regenerate. Twenty-eight percent of all—”
“Stop!” Claire didn’t realize that she’d yelled out the word until she saw the startled looks on the doctors’ faces. She glanced at Meg, who nodded encouragingly. “I don’t want to hear your statistics. It was benign, right?”
“Yes,” the doctor said, “but benign in the brain is a rather misleading term. All brain tumors can ultimately be fatal, benign or not.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Limited space in the head and all that,” Claire said. “But it’s not a cancer that’s going to spread through my body, right?”
“So it’s gone now and it was benign. That’s all I want to hear. You can talk to me about treatments from here on, but not about chances and survival rates. My sister immersed herself in your numbers.” She smiled at Meg. “She thought I wasn’t listening, but I was. She had a file that she kept on the kitchen counter—a file she labeled Hope. In it, there were dozens of personal accounts of people who’d been diagnosed with brain tumors more than seven years ago and were still alive. You know what they all had in common?”
Only Dr. Weissman was smiling.
“They’d all been told they’d live less than six months. You guys are like Seattle weathermen in June. All you ever predict is rain. But I’m not taking an umbrella with me. My future is sunny.”
Dr. Weissman’s smile grew. He crossed the room and bent down to her ear. “Good for you.”
She looked up at him. “There are no words to thank you.”
“Joe Wyatt is the man you should thank. Good luck to you, Claire.”
As soon as she was back in her room, Claire broke down and cried. She couldn’t seem to stop. Bobby held her tightly, kissing her bald head, until finally she looked up at him. “I love you, Bobby.”
He kissed her fiercely.
She clung to him, then whispered in his ear, “Go get our little girl. I want to tell her Mommy’s going to be okay.”
He hurried out.
“You were amazing in there,” Meg said when they were alone.
“My new motto is: Don’t screw with Baldie.”
“I won’t,” Meg grinned.
Claire reached for her sister’s hand, held it. “Thanks.”
Meg kissed Claire’s screw-marked forehead and whispered, “We’re sisters.” It was answer enough. “I’ll go get Mama now. She’ll probably bring a film crew.” With a smile, Meghann left the room.
“The tumor is gone,” Claire practiced saying aloud to the empty room.
Then she laughed.
Meghann found everyone in the cafeteria. Bobby was already there, talking to Sam. Mama was at the food line, signing autographs. The Bluesers and Alison were sitting in the corner, talking quietly among themselves. The only one missing was Joe.
“And there I was,” Mama was saying to a rapt audience, “all ready to take the stage in a dress that wouldn’t zip up. I am not,” she said, laughing prettily, “a flat-chested woman, so y’all can imagine—”
“Mama?” Meghann said, touching her arm.
Mama spun around. When she saw Meghann, her painted smile faded. For a moment, she looked smaller, vulnerable. Little Joanie Jojovitch from the wrong side of the tracks in Detroit. “Well?” she whispered.
“Go on up, Mama. It’s good news.”
Mama sighed heavily. “Of course it is. Y’all were so dramatic.” She turned back to her audience. “I hate to leave in the middle of a story, but it seems my daughter has made a miraculous recovery. I am reminded of a television movie I once did, where. . . .”
Meghann walked away.
“Auntie Meg!” Alison said, jumping up, throwing herself at Meg, who scooped her up and gave her a kiss. “My mommy is all better!”
At that, another whoop went up from the Bluesers. “Come on,” Gina said to her friends. “Let’s go see Claire.”
Bobby walked up to Meghann. “Come on, Ali Gator,” he said, pulling the little girl into his arms. “Let’s go kiss Mommy.” He started to walk away, then paused and turned back. Very gently, he kissed Meghann’s cheek, whispered, “Thank you.”
Meghann closed her eyes, surprised by the depth of her emotion. When she looked up again, through a blur of tears, Sam was coming toward her.
He moved slowly, as if he were afraid his legs would give out. He reached out, touched her cheek.
It was a long moment before he said softly, “I’ll expect you at the house this Thanksgiving. None of your lame-ass excuses. We’re family.”
Meg thought of all the years she’d declined Claire’s offer, and all the years one hadn’t been extended. Then she thought of last Thanksgiving, when she’d eaten Raisin Bran for dinner by herself. All that time, she’d pretended that she wasn’t lonely. No more pretending for her, and no more being alone when she had a family to be with. “Just try and keep me away.”
Sam nodded and kept walking. She saw that he looped over by the food line and grabbed Mama’s arm, dragging her away from the crowd. She blew air-kisses as she stumbled along beside him.
Meghann stood there a minute longer, uncertain of where she should go.
She ran through the hallways, smiling and giving thumbs-ups to the nurses and aides who had become more than friends in the past few weeks.
In the waiting room, she skidded to a stop.
It was empty. The magazine he’d been reading lay, still open, on the table.
She glanced back down the corridor, but Claire didn’t need her right now. There would be time for them later, when the excitement had dimmed and real life returned. There was a lifetime left for them. Right now, what Claire needed was clothes to wear home from the hospital.
Meghann went to the elevators and rode down to the lobby, then headed outside. She couldn’t wait to call Elizabeth with the news.
It was a glorious, sunny day. Everything about the city felt sharper, cleaner. The distant Sound shone silvery blue between the gray high-rises. She walked downhill, thinking about so many things—her life, her job, her family.