Authors: Jennifer Weiner
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This is for my mother, Frances Frumin Weiner
“There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
er cell phone rang as they were on their way out of the movies. Jo let the crowd sweep her along, out of the dark theater and into the brighter lobby, smelling popcorn and the winter air on people’s coats, blinking in the late-afternoon sunshine. She pulled the phone out of her pocket. “Hello?”
“Jo?” Just from the sound of the doctor’s voice, just in that one word, Jo could hear her future. The Magic 8 Ball’s truth-telling triangle had flipped from
ASK AGAIN LATER
OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD
MY SOURCES SAY NO
. Her chest tightened, and her mouth felt dry. Her wife looked up at her, eyebrows raised in a question. Jo tried to keep her face expressionless as she held up one finger and turned away.
The first time, nine years ago, she’d found the lump while in the shower, a pebble-like hardness underneath her olive-hued skin, once drum-taut, now age-spotted and soft. This time, they’d caught it on one of the mammograms she endured every six months on the breast that remained.
the radiologist had said, tapping the tip of a pen against a shadow on the image. Jo
Yes. I see.
It was a tiny concentration of white in the cloudy gray dimness, barely bigger than the head of a pin, but Jo knew, in her bones, the truth of what she was seeing; she understood that she was looking at her doom.
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor. Jo caught a glimpse of herself in the movie theater’s windows, her face slack, her expression stunned.
Mom’s spacing out again!
she imagined Lila cackling.
Leave Mom alone
, her oldest daughter, Kim, would say, and Missy, the even-tempered middle child, would ignore them both and pull a book out of her bag.
The doctor was still talking, her voice sympathetic in Jo’s ear. “You should come in so that we can discuss your options,” she was saying, but Jo knew that there weren’t any options left, at least, not any good ones. The first time around, she’d done the surgeries, the radiation, the chemotherapy. She’d lost her hair, lost her appetite and her energy, lost her left breast and six months of her life. After five years cancer-free, she was allowed to say that she was cured—a
, in the pink-tinted parlance of the time, as if cancer were an invading army and she’d managed to beat back the hordes. But Jo had never felt like a true survivor. She never believed that the cancer was really gone. She’d always thought it was in temporary retreat, those bad cells huddled deep inside her bones, lurking and plotting and biding their time, and every minute she’d lived, every minute since her fingers had come upon that lump under her wet skin, was borrowed. For nine years she had lived with the sound of a clock in her ears, ticking, louder and louder, its sound underlining everything she did. Now the ticking had given way to the ringing of alarm bells.
Hurry up please, it’s time.
Jo shivered, even though she was wrapped in the puffy purple winter coat all three of her daughters made fun of. Underneath, she wore one of her loose cotton tops and a pair of elastic-waisted jeans that had to be at least fifteen years old and sneakers on her feet (“I guess those are her dressy sneakers,” Jo had overheard Lila say at the big seventieth birthday party Kim had thrown a
few years before). Her hair was short, the way she’d always worn it, pale gray, because she’d stopped coloring it years ago, and she never wore makeup, or much jewelry, except for her wedding ring. She wondered what would happen if she let the phone thump to the blue-and-red carpet, what would happen if she started to scream, and found herself remembering the one actual scene she’d made, years ago, in a Blockbuster Video store, when such places had still existed. All those years later, and she could still remember the exact sound she’d made, how her laughter had turned shrieky and wild, the smell of the teenage clerk’s spearmint gum, and the feel of the girl’s hand on her shoulder as the girl had said, “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” She remembered how Lila’s shoulders had hunched up high beside the pale, skinny stalk of her neck, and how Melissa’s voice had wobbled as she’d said, “We’re going, okay? We’re going right now.”
, she thought, as she gripped the phone in one numb hand. She needed time, as much as they could give her. Time to make sure that she’d done everything she could to make things right with her sister. Time to make Kim believe that she was a good mother. Time to convince Melissa that doing the right thing belatedly was better than never having done it at all. And Lila . . . well, eternity might not be long enough to solve Lila’s problems. But couldn’t God at least give Jo long enough to make a start?
She wanted to groan, she wanted to cry, she wanted to throw the phone at the colorful cardboard display of some superhero movie, and the teenagers posing in front of it, snapping selfies, laughing and making faces for the camera, as if they were all going to live forever. She felt her wife slip her small hand into Jo’s and squeeze. Jo blinked back tears and thought,
Please, God, or whoever’s up there, please just give me enough time to make it right.
he four Kaufmans stood at the curb in front of the new house on Alhambra Street, as if they were afraid to set foot on the lawn, even though Jo knew they could. The lawn belonged to them now, along with the house, with its red bricks and the white aluminum awning. Every part of it, the front door and the steps, the mailbox at the curb, the cherry tree in the backyard and the maple tree by the driveway, the carport and the basement and the attic you could reach by a flight of stairs that you pulled down from the ceiling, all of it belonged to the Kaufmans. They were moving out of the bad part of Detroit, which Jo’s parents said was crowded and unhealthy, full of bad germs and diseases and filling up with people who weren’t like them; they were moving up in the world, to this new neighborhood, to a house that would be all their own.
“Oh, Ken,” said Jo’s mother, as she squeezed his arm with her gloved hand. Her mother’s name was Sarah, and she was just over five feet tall, with white skin that always looked a little suntanned, shiny brown hair that fell in curls to her shoulders, and a
pursed, painted red mouth beneath a generous nose. Her round chin jutted forward, giving her a determined look, and there were grooves running from the corners of her nose to the edges of her lips, but that morning, her mouth was turned up at the corners, not scrunched up in a frown. She was happy, and as close to beautiful as Jo had ever seen.
Jo wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist, feeling the stiffness underneath the starch of Sarah’s best red dress, the one with a full skirt flaring out from her narrow waist and three big white buttons on either side of the bodice. A smart red hat with a black ribbon band sat on top of Sarah’s curls. Her mother put her arm around Jo’s shoulders and squeezed, and Jo felt like someone had pulled a blanket up to her chin, or like she was swimming in Lake Erie, where they went in the summertime, and had just paddled into a patch of warm water.
“So, girls? What do you think?” asked Jo’s daddy.
“It’s like a castle!” said Bethie, her little sister. Bethie was five years old, chubby and cute, with pale white skin, naturally curly hair, and blue-green eyes, and she always said exactly the right thing. Jo was six, almost seven, tall and gangly, and almost everything she did was wrong.
Jo smiled, dizzy with pleasure as her dad scooped her up in his arms. Ken Kaufman had thick dark hair that he wore combed straight back from his forehead. His nose, Jo thought, gave him a hawklike aspect. His eyes were blue underneath dark brows, and he smelled like the bay rum cologne he patted on his cheeks every morning after he shaved. He was only a few inches taller than his wife, but he was broad-shouldered and solid. Standing in front of the house he’d bought, he looked as tall as Superman from the comic books. He wore his good gray suit, a white shirt, a red tie to match Sarah’s dress, and black shoes that Jo had helped him shine that morning, setting the shoes onto yesterday’s
, working the polish into the leather with a tortoiseshell-handled brush. Jo and Bethie wore matching pink gingham dresses that their mother had sewn, with puffy sleeves, and patent-leather Mary
Janes. Bethie could hardly wait to try on the new dress. When Jo had asked to wear her dungarees, her mother had frowned. “Why would you want to wear pants? Today’s a special day. Don’t you want to look pretty?”