MORRILTON — I knew there was no way she would see Christmas though I hoped she at least could have another Thanksgiving. But no. The cancer, which had taken root in her lung before moving to her liver and from there to her spine — the cancer had its own agenda, its own timetable.
When I stopped by, only a few days ago, her husband met me on the front lawn, mostly to prepare me. Which is to say, to warn me: the disease had reduced her always slender frame to a fraction, her sweet face was now a confluence of angles, her once boundless energy was extremely limited. We were at the point of comfort care. Her face was sweet, still, and her smile warm and genuine, as always. But, yes, there was no denying where things stood.
She had struggled and suffered through the chemotherapy and finally declared “enough.” The outcome was, after all, never in doubt, and the pharmaceuticals that at best offered only to postpone it were more fearsome than the prospect of allowing nature to take its course. She wanted no more artificial reprieves, no more trips to the hospitals of Conway or Little Rock, the journeys themselves exhausting. She would remain at home — a last exercise of informed, free will, a prerogative her family could only accept.
Her husband moved a chair to her bedside and I took it. Then, for a moment, I took my cousin’s hand, her thin warm hand, still soft even though I could feel every bone through her skin. I did the talking, mostly, because she had so little strength for conversation. I don’t know how we came to the subject but I started remembering Christmases past, convivial Yule gatherings of extended families rendezvousing at Morrilton, or Houston (the one in Texas, not Perry County), or Louisiana — Many or Robeline, I couldn’t remember which because the mail there was postmarked at one of the two and the phone exchange was located in another. Parents and siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins, the kin of my mother’s side of the clan, led by the matriarch, widowed decades earlier but still vital. Presents for everybody.
We always had fireworks, didn’t she remember? Roman candles — did she remember the time we set fire to the vacant lot across the street from her Morrilton home, sending her father and our uncle scurrying to stamp out the flames, a couple of middle-aged guys doing a Mexican hat dance atop burning weeds in the cold cloudless December night?
Or another Christmas, this one in Louisiana, the afternoon when I held onto a firecracker a little too long and the pop split open my 10-year-old thumb and blackened it? Did she remember how everyone seemed to react as if I had got my just deserts, everyone but her; that she had put her 12-year-old arm around my shoulder, understanding how hard I was trying to keep from crying, and held my bruised hand until the pain became bearable?
Or that particular Texas Christmas, when our aunt, perhaps in a devilish humor, kept making deviled eggs and we kept eating them, we cousins stuffing ourselves and giggling until the giggles turned to moans and we needed over-the-counter medications to rescue what was left of the holiday — did she remember that?
Yes, she remembered all of that, all those Christmases. And some summer stuff, too — softball games and BB guns, matinees at the Rialto, sodas at the drugstore fountain. Often, she was my “date,” tasked by our elders to look after me. I can’t recall her ever saying “no” to whatever adventure I proposed, though opportunities for serious mischief in Morrilton in the mid-20th Century were not abundant.
When I sensed she was too tired for me to talk on I squeezed her hand and kissed her forehead and told her I would be back, not imagining that there would not be enough time, that the spiral would gain momentum and that all that remained to her were three days.
My sorrow pales against the agony of her husband, their children, their grandchildren and her surviving sister, the other having fallen to the same illness only a few years earlier. And my story, our story, is the same, probably, as yours; for practically everyone holds close someone taken captive by a disease we had hoped to vanquish, the disease an American president declared war on 40 years ago. There has been no Christmas truce.
Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.