Part I -The Decision
Tess stood in front of the mirror in the sterile grey bathroom, leaning against the white marble counter, willing herself not to sway. Keep it together, she thought. Tess had cleared her calendar, and John waited for her in the lobby. She looked into her own blue eyes and studied her tired face, which overnight seemed to age a hundred years.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d stopped and taken stock of her life. There was always too much to do. But if ever there was a time, it was now. She ran her hands under the water and patted her pale cheeks. Water dripped down the front of her blouse, but she barely noticed, not bothering to wipe it away. On the outside, she was the same woman in the business suit she had been the week before. But on the inside, her thoughts were beach balls, bouncing into every corner of her mind.
Tess was not a patient person. Always anxious to get on with it. But she was confused more than people knew, and sometimes it felt as though life was just a series of encounters where she wasn’t in on the joke.
She didn’t consider herself a great mother, even though she tried her best. But as a wife? Well, that was for John to judge.
She could be self-indulgent. She knew that. Drinking strange concoctions of vitamins and herbs, convinced it was the cure for almost anything. It seemed, now, none of that had worked.
Tess could be rough around the edges, and sometimes, she cut people in the process. But she hoped and prayed for forgiveness.
And she had breast cancer.
‘Penelope Elizabeth!’ Tess called down the hall for the third time, shaking her head, walking back into the kitchen where her husband waited. Her daughter never made things easy. Tess was sure Pen could be nice. But only when she wanted to be, and this was not going to be one of those times. Pen was 15. Eye-rolling was compulsory.
After meeting with her doctor, the day before, Tess asked to take a few days before deciding what course her treatment would take. There were drug therapies and surgery options, and she wanted to take a breath so she could weigh them. The one thing not up for negotiation was leaving her job. ‘I’m done.’ It was the first thought that popped into her head when her doctor uttered the word cancer. She and John decided to delay telling Pen about her illness until they had a plan. Their daughter didn’t do well with ambiguity.
The calm Star Trek-like voice of the home alarm sounded. ‘Door Open’ announcing that a door out to the pool had opened. John installed it for safety, but Pen was an excellent swimmer. She’d slipped out the back. Tess watched her husband make for the front door to head their daughter off at the gate. He wasn’t going to allow a delay in this conversation.
Tess closed her eyes and sighed. Pen tried her patience at the best of times, but usually, she got along with her Dad. John had always called her ‘Lucky Penny’ and kept a shiny copper coin minted in the year of her birth in his wallet. For Good Luck. Ever since she was little, they’d left pennies on her bedside table when each of them would travel for work. So she’d know they were thinking of her. Tess had recently seen the large jar filled with them, which her daughter kept on the desk in her room. Tess closed her eyes. This conversation was just the first of many, requiring all the luck they could get.
She heard John open the front door for their angry teenager, who marched in ahead of him carrying a backpack. Tess waited in the kitchen, still dressed in her work clothes. Louboutin’s, a black sleeveless dress. Her big Celine tote perched precariously on the stool by the counter. Her battle uniform, she called it—an appropriate sentiment for the occasion.
John took a deep breath and started them off.
‘We want to tell you some news. Your Mom has decided to quit her job and spend more time at home’ – skip a beat – ‘with us.’
Tess could almost hear the voice in Pen’s head. Tess didn’t do home. They had a cleaning service, a gardening service, and a pool service. They used Hello Fresh and Home Chef to cook dinner, or they ate out. Amazon delivered their groceries. Most nights, Tess wasn’t even home in time for dinner. When they were little, and someone complimented her kids on their manners in restaurants, Tess always bragged.
‘My children know how to behave in restaurants, and they know how to order.’
Over the years, she traveled a lot for work, sometimes at the last minute, and she knew her kids would find out she was in a city across the country when their Dad got home from work. He was an email contact on her corporate travel account. They would often laugh that he knew Tess would be getting on a plane before she did. And now she was suddenly staying home. Pen’s reaction wouldn’t be pretty.
‘Why?’ Pen’s question hung in the air, sounding more like an accusation.
Again, John stepped forward. ‘She wants to spend more time with us. You know she’s away a lot. She wants to make sure she doesn’t miss out.’
Pen’s face was unreadable. It was clear she was wondering why Tess wasn’t speaking. As though her Dad was her Mom’s publicist.
‘Time with us?’ Pen questioned sarcastically. ‘Now?’
Finally, Tess chimed in, hoping to smooth things over.
‘I have dreams too. There are many things on my list that I’ve never been able to do because I was working all the time. Now I’ll have a chance to do those, too.’ She said, smiling, not sounding quite as confident as she’d hoped.
Tess could feel the ice blue eyes boring into her.
‘Like what? What things have you wanted to do that you’ve never done? You do whatever you want.’
Pen wasn’t wrong.
‘That’s not true.’ John stepped in again. ‘Your Mom has been the main breadwinner for the lifestyle we’ve all enjoyed. She’s tired. It’s her turn to let us pick up the slack.’
Tess had never rested in her life.
‘Now, I can take you to school in the mornings and pick you up from soccer practice. I’ll be able to go to your games, too.’ Tess cringed at the sound of her overly cheerful voice. Like she was selling a used car, and she was the car.
Teenage eye roll. She saw it was just what Pen had been dreaming of – more parental involvement in the business of her life.
‘Yeah, well, you’ve made me walk home from soccer practice for years now. And I don’t remember the last time you went to one of my games, ‘Mom’’, using air quotes. ‘I don’t need you to do any of it. I got it. You always said your job was to raise independent kids. Well, you did. Now you can go back to work.’ Pen said flatly, crossing her arms.
John and Tess exchanged a look.
‘I’m staying home from now on.’ Said Tess, with as much patience as she could muster. ‘End of story.’
The discussion was over.
‘Great!’ Pen said with mock cheerfulness, ‘I need cupcakes for my team fundraiser tomorrow. You can get right on that, right?’ Pen grabbed her backpack and headed for her room. They both flinched at the sound of the door slamming.
‘Wine.’ Said Tess, letting out the breath she’d been holding. ‘Time for wine.’
‘I’ll pour’ John grabbed the glasses and the bottle, then headed outside to sit in the warm Arizona evening sun. Tess followed, still a little stung, although not that surprised. Pen was Pen.
John handed her a glass filled, unapologetically, to the top. He clicked his glass against her own, offering ‘Sláinte.’ The toast from their Irish honeymoon. A usual toast for an unusual day.
‘How do you feel?’ he asked, reaching over to grasp her hand. Knowing it was a loaded question.
‘I don’t know.’ She whispered. ‘A little adrift, I guess.’
‘To be expected. I don’t imagine they’re happy at work.’
‘No.’ she exhaled loudly. ‘Ken wasn’t smiling this morning. When I said I’d give him a 2-week transition period, he said he felt like I’d sucker-punched him.’ She took a long pull on her wine.
‘I get it,’ said John, squeezing her hand. ‘But he’ll just have to deal with it. You’ve made him a lot of money for a long time. He can take over for a while until he finds a replacement.’
‘I know. I’m not going to a competitor. Then he would have tried to throw money at me or walked me out. But when I told him I was staying home, he laughed. Ken says he gives me a month before I’m climbing the walls. He’s hoping I have a change of heart.’
John took a sip of wine. ‘Well, we both know that’s not going to happen.’
They sat contemplating the sunset over the pink desert and the unspoken truth behind her sudden departure from her job.
‘I couldn’t sleep last night. What’s coming. I feel like I’m trapped. There are so many things I want to do, and I always thought I would have plenty of time. We would have plenty of time. But I’m sick. And based on what they told me yesterday, I’m only going to get sicker. Even if this doesn’t kill me, I’ll be too ill from the treatment to contemplate going to Bali or hiking the Camino de Santiago. For a very long time. You know that’s always been at the top of my list.’
‘I know.’ He said quietly. Watching the sun dip below the horizon.
Later, Tess lay awake in the dark next to John’s softly snoring form. She generally believed life was math — just a series of equations that, when unbalanced, caused worry and difficulty. Solving for x was what she’d always done. But with cancer, there was no missing variable to quickly plug-in, and instantly balance the equation. She knew this was why sleep eluded her.
Just then, her cell phone lit up and repeatedly buzzed on the nightstand. Tess looked at the screen, surprised at the unfamiliar number.
‘Hello?’ she said softly, trying not to wake John.
‘Is this Pen’s Mom?’ said a frantic voice on the other end of the line.
Tess’s heartbeat went from groggy to marathon runner in an instant.
‘Yes.’ She said, confused. ‘What’s going on?’ Pen was in her room asleep. What could this be about at midnight on a Thursday night?
‘Um.’ Tess heard rustling and then a moan.
‘Who is this?’ Tess asked.
Silence. And then. ‘I’m a friend of Pen´s.’ Said the male voice Tess didn’t recognize. More rustling with muted voices in the background. He was covering the phone.
Tess shot up out of bed and ran barefoot down the hall, opening Pen’s bedroom door and switching on the light. The lump in the bed made Tess settle momentarily. When she shook her daughter, it was just a pile of pillows under the duvet.
‘Oh, my God.’ She said to no one in the room.
‘Ma’am?’ The voice on the phone shook her back to reality.
‘What’s going on?’ Tess asked with a dry mouth, still struggling to put this new reality together. ‘Who are you, and where’s my daughter?’
‘Pen’s here at my house. Um. My parents are out of town, and I had a party. She smoked some stuff, and she’s really sick. I think you need to come.’ He said he was texting her the address.
‘Is Pen OK?’ she asked him, worried out of her mind.
‘I don’t know. She’s throwing up. A lot. I didn’t know what else to do.'
‘OK, we’ll be right there.’ she said, running back to their bedroom. ‘Give us 10 minutes.’
Tess woke John and explained what was happening as they threw on some clothes. Racing to the address the boy had given them, John pounded on the double doors of a sizeable hacienda-style home she’d driven past a hundred times but never noticed. A blond boy answered it. He looked familiar.
‘She’s outback.’ He led them through a living room that looked like a war zone. Only a few party stragglers remained amongst the refuse of bottles, red Solo cups, and bongs as they made their way out the sliding door where Pen was leaning over a bucket throwing up.
Tess bent down, pulling the hair away from Pen’s face. She looked up at her Mom through dilated pupils and started crying as black mascara rivers ran down her cheeks. Pot didn’t cause this kind of vomiting. These were harder drugs. Tess wiped the tears from her daughter’s cheeks and hugged her too hard. Pen sobbed into her shoulder, then moved away and threw up again.
‘What kind of drugs?’ Tess asked, looking up at the boy.
‘Huh?’ said the kid.
‘Exactly what kind of drugs did my daughter do? I need to know right now.’ Said Tess, enunciating every word trying to break through this kid’s chemical fog.
‘I don’t know exactly. I mean, some people were doing coke. And smoking pot. But I know a few people who like to boost a joint with a little H.’
‘H?’ asked Tess.
‘Heroin.’ The kid whispered.
‘Jesus Christ.’ Said John, as he and Tess helped Pen to her feet, supporting her weight to keep her from falling. Tess looked at John over her daughter’s head. The anguish she saw on his face broke her heart.
Back at home, they took Pen to the bathroom so they could lose the bucket. Tess knelt on the floor near the toilet, holding back her hair as Pen continued to retch over the next hour.
‘What were you thinking?’ pleaded Tess. ‘How did you get out of the house without us knowing?’
‘I left a window up earlier so the alarm wouldn’t go off when I opened it.’ She slurred. ‘I knew you wouldn’t let me go to the party.’
Tess tried to keep her composure. ‘Have you done this before?’
Pen looked at her Mom for a long moment before nodding, almost unperceptively, and Tess closed her eyes, fighting her fear.
‘Are you glad you went now?’ she asked.
Pen shook her head and vomited again. Then she laid down on the cold slate floor and curled into a ball.
‘I’m going to get you some water to sip, or you’re getting dehydrated.’ Tess got up, stepping over John sleeping on the hallway floor outside the door, and went to the kitchen still in shock, barely able to find the cups. She poured the water from the pitcher, as her hand started to shake uncontrollably. Setting the glass on the counter, she slid to the floor, crying harder than when they told her she had cancer.
‘No, no, no, no, no.’ she whispered through her tears. ‘You can not have her. I won’t let you, fucking, have her.’
Tess wiped the tears from her cheeks.
‘I’ll make you a deal. You can have me instead. Me for Pen.’ She pleaded, ‘Me for her.’
Their daughter could have died tonight. Nothing else mattered. But Tess knew she needed to keep it together until Pen was out of the woods. She wiped her face on a dish towel and got up, taking the water glass back to the bathroom where Pen was still on the floor. Pale and unmoving.
For a moment, Tess thought she might be dead, and stood frozen to the spot, crying out from the pain of it. Pen moaned, and Tess knelt, lifting her daughter to a sitting position, holding her head. Hugging her tightly, she encouraged Pen to sip the water slowly.
The two of them sat on the floor of the bathroom until after the daybreak. Tess forced water into her, and Pen threw up. But slowly, she was able to keep the water down. And then some tiny bites of bread. The worst was over.
Later, John found them both asleep in front of the toilet. He got Tess up and put her to bed. Then, he lifted Pen and took her to the living room, covering her with a blanket on the sofa after checking her arms and legs for track marks or an injection site. John heard what the kid said about Pen smoking something. He prayed it wasn’t worse than that. It was his turn to be on duty.
Tess woke, barely knowing where she was. Suddenly, the events of last night hit her, and the anguish flooded back. Pushing aside the duvet, it took all her energy to pull on her robe. She found John sitting in the living room, nursing a coffee cup, watching their daughter asleep on the couch.
‘How is she?’ she asked anxiously.
‘She’s sleeping. I’ve checked her breathing, and I woke her up a while ago to get some Gatorade into her. She’ll be OK. I can’t imagine how, but she dodged this bullet.’ He squeezed Tess’s hand and got up. ‘Let me get you some coffee.’
Tess took the mug he offered.
‘I did a lot of thinking while I was sitting on the bathroom floor with Pen all night.’ She told him. ‘It’s easy to see the path forward when all the distractions are gone.’
John warily watched his wife.
‘I’ve decided I’m going to delay treatment, for just a few weeks.’ She put her hand up as the blood drained from John’s face. ‘No, hear me out. Last night made things abundantly clear to me. I’m taking Pen to Spain, and she and I are going to walk the Camino de Santiago this summer. Together.’