Something For Everyone
“How long have you been here?”
Keith looked up from the steering wheel to see his sister’s smiling face.
“I just got here,” he lied. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting in the car, looking at his parent’s home. He hadn’t noticed her pulling up, seeing her car now in the driveway.
“Well, what great timing we’ve got,” Jessica replied.
He rolled the window up and she stepped back as he opened the car door. As it closed, she hugged him tightly. He returned the hug, resting his chin on her head. After a moment, she pulled away and he was shocked to see tears welling in her eyes.
“It’s been a moment, stupid,” she said, smacking him on the shoulder.
His eyes welled up, but not from being hit. “Yeah, I know.”
It had actually been a year. If not for Christmas, it would probably have been even longer.
Jessica rubbed the spot where she had hit him.
“Come on. We’ll surprise Mom and Dad showing up together.” She wrapped one arm around his and they moved toward the house. “We’ll get Dad to move his car so you can park in the driveway too.” The front door appeared to loom, a formidable barrier. He let her knock.
Dogs barking erupted inside and Jessica grinned up at him. They could hear their father chastising the noisemakers. The door had barely opened before Jessica moved to hug him.
“You didn’t have to knock,” Dad said.
“We wanted to surprise you,” Jessica replied.
Eileen, the labrador, and Riley, a miniature pinscher mix, vied for attention, shoving past his Dad’s legs. Keith was glad for the distraction, leaning down to pet both exuberant dogs. His Dad’s appearance had jolted him. He looked far older than when he had last seen him. He had lost weight and the lines in his face spoke of a decade passing, not a year.
“Look who’s here,” his father called out.
Keith steeled himself and stood up. The age was in his Dad’s eyes as well and he moved in quickly to hug him so as not to look too closely into them. He tried to be gentle, feeling the sharpness of his bones, and thinking his Dad had been taller.
When they moved apart, Keith looked past his father’s shoulder and said, “It sure smells good.”
They all filed in. The dogs romped toward the kitchen to announce their arrival. He could feel his Dad’s hand on his back. Jessica closed the front door behind them.
He had been away for so long, the house felt foreign to him, more like entering a hotel room. Everything was where he expected it to be, as he remembered, but he felt detached from it.
His mother had always gone all out for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinner. The combined smells of turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, and stuffing wrapped around him, a memory of home, helping to ground him a little. They had not done this last Christmas and he had given pretexts to not come to Thanksgiving this year; poor excuses of work and school made him feel bad for offering but made him feel worse when accepted. It had become a habit to avoid making the three-hour drive from college. His being here now was, in part, out of guilt for his previous absences. Her back was toward him when he entered the kitchen. She was washing her hands in the sink.
“Look at this stray I found out on the street,” his father called out.
His mother turned, drying her hands on a towel. He was surprised, for he had expected her to have been in the same time machine as his father, but she looked the same. She looked happy, which caught him off-guard even more.
“Can we keep him?” Jessica laughed.
Tears bunched up in his mother’s eyes as she got closer, though she smiled. She placed one hand on his chest, looking up.
Then they hugged. It was a longer, deeper embrace than the one with his father. Yet he still felt slightly removed, as if observing from the outside. They parted.
“Leave it to you, both of you,” turning to include Jessica, who was leaning on the counter, grinning, “to show up after all the work is done.”
“What can we do to help?” Jessica asked.
“Nothing, nothing. Go occupy your father. He’s more underfoot than these dogs.”
She turned to look in the oven and their Dad ushered them to the living room. The tree was lit, an astonishing number of gifts under it. Using the remote, his father set Christmas music streaming softly from the television. Keith was starting to feel more at ease. Their Mom and Dad had a tradition of buying one special ornament each year. Those, combined with the ones created by their children over so many years, made the tree heavy with decorations.
“We’re going to need two trees soon to hold them all,” Dad said, as he had done for years.
Here was a popsicle star with his first-grade picture in the middle. There was Jessica’s third-grade decoration he had dubbed the “alien egg”, one pocket of a styrofoam egg container with random beads and glitter spilling from it soaked in glue. Sam’s clay Santa sat astride a branch, arms held high as if on a rollercoaster. The Christmas lights shimmered.
Kneeling, he flicked randomly at the name tags on the presents. He looked up at his Dad sitting on the couch. The colored lights sparkled in his glasses, but their eyes met. His Dad made an almost imperceptible nod, his mouth grim.
Keith cleared his throat, standing up.
Curled up on Dad’s recliner, she raised her eyebrows.
“Don’t you have stuff to bring in? I can help you. I have a few things too.”
She flung her head back, closing her eyes, body going limp. He grabbed her by one lifeless arm.
“Come on, slacker.”
He pulled her halfway into a sitting position before she relinquished her act. Then she bounded ahead of him, jingling her keys over her head. The dogs, excited, abandoned their kitchen sentry positions and became obstacles to getting out the front door. The cool afternoon breeze felt good against his forehead. He hadn’t realized how hot the house had seemed with all the cooking.
“Oh my god, I’m so hungry,” Jessica said as he pulled a suitcase from her trunk.
“Well, you know it’s still going to be awhile until we sit down and eat. Mom’s got her schedule. You should have eaten a little something.”
“No way. There will be no competition to stuffing myself today.”
She grabbed two duffels and foisted two more grocery bags into his arms. He saw plastic bags full of clothes.
“That’s just laundry. Those can stay for now.”
“Hey,” he said to get her attention.
She shut the trunk and looked at him.
He didn’t say anything.
“There are presents under the tree. For Sam.”
Her smile dropped out of sight. She looked toward the house, then down. Silence grew between them.
“Okay. Well, I don’t know what that’s about. I guess we’ll have to see. Should we say something?”
“I think it’s Mom. I think Dad’s just going along.”
Jessica nodded. Her eyes were moist. She inhaled and breathed heavily out through her nose a couple of times.
“Okay, okay, okay.”
He wanted to reach out to her but was burdened by what he carried.
“Let’s get your stuff inside.”
She followed behind him. Inside, the dogs snuffled at the packages as they set them down in her room. Jessica had graduated high school this year. She was in her first semester and in a dorm, but her college was closer than his. Therefore, she visited more. Her room was the same, what he called Modern Disarray. She started unzipping her suitcase.
“Do you need help with your stuff?”
There was something in her voice.
“No, no. I don’t have much. I can get it,” he said to her back. He saw her head nod.
He ended up getting his luggage and the gifts for everyone into what used to be his room. Much of his belongings he either had with him up at college or were in boxes stored in the garage. What had been his room was now considered the “guest room”. This was the first year he thought that might be accurate.
Across a short hall was another room, its door closed. A sign, a piece of wood found on a beach, washed smooth by its time in the ocean, hung akilter from a thick, rough rope. It read Sam’s Korner, painted in thick letters with the “K” backward on purpose. It was a reference to Milne’s second book, The House At Pooh Corner, which Sam had loved.
He hesitated a moment before turning the doorknob, opening the door slowly so the sign wouldn’t knock against the surface. Flicking the switch turned on a lamp next to a small, unwrinkled bed. The room smelled fresh, returned to a state before the invasion of illness. Everything was unnaturally neat and orderly. Plastic stars and planets, that would glow when the light was off, covered the ceiling. A poster, pinned at a carefree angle over the bed, was of an Australian cartoon character Keith remembered seeing a lot on the television when he visited. Clear plastic containers of crayons, toys, coloring books, arts and craft material filled cubbyholes against one wall. A plastic table splattered with the aftermath of many projects was in the middle of the room. When in use, it had been accompanied by a large sheet of plastic underneath, but not now. A white, waist-high bookshelf contained many children’s books. Comic books were set in two straight stacks on top, guarded by a well-worn stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh. Plastic dinosaurs roamed the top of the dresser. Its mirror had pictures tucked all along its borders. He didn’t look closely at those.
Riley, the min pin, came around the corner, looking up at him with curiosity, stub tail wagging.
She peered into Sam’s room then trotted across the threshold.
“Riley,” Keith whispered. He was alarmed, not sure if the dogs were allowed in the room. “Riley. Riley,” he called with a hushed sharpness.
She leaped onto the bed and curled up, putting her head on the pillow.
“Come here,” he tried again, keeping his voice low. Hand gestures only earned him a side-eyed glance.
“It’s okay,” Keith’s Dad said, suddenly next to him.
Riley sighed, closing her eyes, having won.
“Just leave the door cracked open.” He smiled in reassurance.
Keith looked at his Dad more fully now. He wanted to ask but was unsure how.
“The presents are from last year,” Dad said. “I didn’t even know we still had them. Your Mom brought them out as soon as we put up the tree.” He frowned. “She didn’t say anything. Just put them out. I didn’t have the heart to say anything.”
They put family gifts under the tree as they came in. Sometimes one would be held back as a surprise. They had continued the tradition for Sam that they had done with Keith and Jessica of bringing the gifts from Santa out only after being put assuredly to bed. Keith hadn’t even thought about what happened to the gifts from Christmas last year.
“Is she okay?”
Dad shrugged. “She seems to be.” He paused. “Perhaps a bit more…‘up’? than I would expect? I guess that’s better than where we have been.”
“What about you?”
Dad looked away, his body shrinking. Shrugged again.
“Let’s get some coffee,” Dad said.
Returning to the kitchen, he saw his Mom was concentrating, running her fingers down a list.
“Did you get everything situated? There are some empty drawers in the dresser,” his Mom said.
“Pretty much,” he answered. He hadn’t unpacked anything. Certainly hadn’t thought of putting anything into drawers. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
She waved her hands at him like he was a fly. Having made the obligatory offer, they poured themselves coffee and sat down at the table, where Keith noted five chairs were placed.
“Is your sister joining us?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. They had seen that her door was closed when they passed. “I think she has to move some piles around to make room for the other stuff she brought.”
His Dad chuckled. They watched his Mom bustle about the kitchen. Eileen stood nearby, watching every move. It was like watching a wizard concocting a complicated spell. From the outside, it looked like just a lot of motion, but any moment, the broomsticks would start dancing. With his Dad’s comments in mind, he could see a tension to her shoulders, a forced air of distraction, an agitated nature to her constant movement.
Jessica walked into the kitchen, red eyes over a brave smile. She brought a milk carton out from the refrigerator. Reaching past her Mom, she pulled a glass from the cupboard. She kissed her Mom lightly on the cheek. From where he sat, Keith couldn’t see the look they exchanged.
“How much longer is it going to be?” Jessica asked, sounding very put-upon, as she joined them at the table.
Mom looked up at the clock, then around at the kitchen.
“Should be about an hour.”
Jessica moaned, laying her head face-down on the table, arms out, amusing everyone.
Mom waved a hand in their direction. “Go watch tv or something. It’ll take your mind off it.”
“Well, what do you think? Rudolph? Or Charlie Brown?” Dad asked as they went back to the living room.
“Rudolph,” Jessica yelled. “Charlie Brown,” Keith said at the same time.
“Right,” Dad answered. “The Grinch it is.”
They both mock-groaned. As Dad got the DVD ready, Keith whispered to Jessica what he had been told. She nodded and squeezed his hand.
Dad put his recliner back. They had taken up their usual positions on the couch.
“Turn it up so I can hear,” Mom called from the kitchen as the story started.
Sam would have been in the middle of the floor, neck craned back to watch. Riley would have been curled next to him, head in lap, being softly petted.
Becoming pregnant with Sam had come as a surprise, so long after Jessica. There had been multiple worries because of the increase in problems with later-age pregnancies. Yet, none of those had surfaced. Ten fingers. Ten toes. And a lot of references to how much he was like his big brother. Jessica had helped Mom out a lot. Being a teenager, Keith had had his friends, baseball practice, and school to occupy him. His home had felt invaded, especially with the night-time crying. He was put out by how much space and energy such a little person could take up.
As Sam became more mobile and his personality started to show, Keith spent more time playing with him. It had been his idea to get Riley for Sam on his third birthday, a neighbor dog having a litter. They became inseparable. It was soon after that, Keith graduated high school. That summer, while anticipating heading off to college, was when the problems started. Sam started to have increasingly bad headaches, then crippling migraines that would lead to vomiting. He lost his appetite. There were times that he would zone out, staring, unresponsive, but only for moments. The time Keith had witnessed this, he had panicked, yelling for Mom. Sam would come out of these episodes with no recollection.
The summer was occupied with doctor’s appointments, the mounting frustration of pursuing answers, and further testing. Then they found the brain tumor. Keith had tried to argue against heading off to college. It didn’t feel right to him. His parents insisted right back that he go. There wasn’t anything he could do by staying and they would keep him informed. Thus, began a three-year rollercoaster of progress and setbacks, surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and hospital stays. When school permitted, Keith would make the long drive back and forth, especially when they would allow visitors after a surgery. He had come home each summer, working part-time jobs locally. Though he kept busy, he had never felt so helpless and useless.
The last time he had seen Sam healthy was at last year’s Thanksgiving. He was six years old. He had been responding well and appeared to be thriving. That’s why when his symptoms accelerated, it caught everyone by surprise. The seizures became progressively worse. Sam lost the ability to speak and recognized his family only sporadically, his personality smothered by drugs and the tumor’s cruelty. It had grown back, more aggressive, less operable. He went into a coma. They were all present around his bed when he died in the hospital the week before Christmas.
The year since had been one long, numb gauntlet. After the funeral, Keith fled back to college. He called home now and then, shallow conversations coming nowhere near the undertow of guilt and remorse that threatened with every word. He threw himself into his studies, though retained little. It was all so unimportant and insubstantial. He took a summer internship that he had no interest in and talked it up as an excellent addition to his medical school application. That and a part-time campus job kept him unavailable for returning home.
His parents always expressed understanding, making him feel wretched. Jessica was the one who yelled at him once when missing Thanksgiving. It hadn’t helped that Keith had missed her high school graduation due to legitimate food poisoning, which had him “driving the porcelain bus”, as his Dad would say, that knocked him down for three days. He took her anger. When her storm of recrimination had finally abated, there had been silence on the phone.
“I can’t,” he finally said. Tired words.
He clutched the phone, desperate, listening to the stillness on the other end of the line. He pictured her curled up on her bed, the phone to her ear.
“That may be. But, I can’t, either, you know. But I’ve still had to.” A long pause. “I’ve already lost one brother.” More silence. “You get it together.”
He was nodding to himself. Then he said the only thing he could.
“I love you.”
“I love you too,” she whispered back.
The Grinch had ended, his redemptive arc falling flat. Sam kept intruding into his thoughts. How much Sam had liked Max, the Grinch’s dog. How he had tied a lumpy papier-mache antler to an unamused Riley one year. Dad put in the Rudolph DVD, but he must have been having the same thoughts, as only a few minutes into it, he turned it off to no one’s objection. When Sam was five, he had taken to imitating Hermie the Elf, declaring, “I want to be a dentist.”
“Why don’t we get the table set up? That way, we’ll be ready as soon as the food is,” he said.
It wasn’t that much longer until Mom declared, “Let’s eat.”
They lined up with their plates, letting Mom go first, though she resisted every year. Just as Dad would say every year, “We need to get bigger plates.” The dogs waited for the gravity gods to bestow blessings on them. There was a lot of food to be had and they all ate, with only the sounds of utensils scraping on plates and murmurs of appreciation. Mom and Dad sat at the ends of the table, Jessica and Keith on either side. The empty chair sat between Keith and his Mom.
“Are you going to see Seth while you’re here?” Mom asked, looking at Jessica.
Jessica swallowed what she had just stuffed into her mouth. Washed it down with milk.
“Maybe. We haven’t really talked in a while.” She shrugged, not looking up from her plate.
“I’ve always liked him. So polite. He’s going to community college, right?”
Jessica nodded, scooping more potatoes into her mouth.
“We should have him over before you have to go back to school.”
“I think I have a good shot at getting into medical school at UF,” Keith said.
Mom and Dad turned to him. Jessica threw him a look of thanks.
“Oh, yeah? That’s great,” Dad replied.
They talked about their classes, Dad’s job, Mom’s work, and if Keith’s car would last until he graduated, Jessica’s non-commitment to a major. Everyone except Mom filled their plates again. The dogs ushered people to and from the table, ever hopeful. Keith scratched Eileen’s head under the table, where she laid it firmly in his lap. It almost felt normal. Everyone seemed to be trying to fill the space that remained empty.
Conversation continued with Mom and Dad sitting at the kitchen table as tradition dictated the kids clean up, which was a chore, as Mom left no surface unsullied, no dish unused. At some point, she tried to insinuate herself into helping put the food away and they shooed her back to the table. Then she started getting in the way, placing the apple and pumpkin pies in for baking. Once order was returned to the kitchen, they all retired to the living room. This was when Dad would slowly succumb to drowsiness, laid back in his recliner.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Mom asked.
Jessica turned fully toward him on the couch.
“Yeah…are you seeing anyone, Keith?”
He regretted bailing her out earlier but smiled, shaking his head.
“No, no. I’m not.”
There had been a few short-term relationships while in college. The last year, however, none.
“Whatever happened to…Sandra?” Mom asked though he knew full well she remembered the name.
Sandra had been the closest he had come to a potential long-term relationship. However, they had only talked a couple of times after returning from Winter break, after Sam’s passing. He didn’t even remember what they had talked about. He had to do some required make-up work for some of the Fall classes and the new semester work. The college had been accommodating with his circumstances. Summer passed without leaving an impression, and Sandra slipped away.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We just stopped seeing each other.”
“I would have liked to have met her. She seemed very nice from everything you told me.” She breathed out, exasperated. “What am I to do with you two? You need to work harder on your relationships.”
They shared a look between them, eyes wide, mouths agape.
They pointed exaggerated, accusing fingers at each other. Jessica poked him in the shoulder and he jabbed her right back. Back and forth, they did this until he went under her defenses and got her in the ribs, causing her to laugh.
Mom kept shushing them, waving her hands, but Dad slumbered, undisturbed. Keith relented. Mom pretended to be vexed.
They spoke in low tones for a while, Mom and Jessica sharing stories about friends and the neighborhood. Keith just listened.
“Let’s get the rest of the presents out. Go get what you brought,” Mom finally said.
As they arranged the gifts with the others under the tree, the sound of crinkling paper roused Dad.
“All I need to know is which ones are mine,” he said. They all chuckled at the expected comment.
Jessica said, “You get nothing, sir.”
She flopped onto him.
“Oof, my stomach,” he exclaimed.
He wrapped his arms around her.
“I have everything I need,” he said.
Keith tensed. He looked at Mom. She just smiled at the two in the recliner. Dad seemed to realize what he had said but simply hugged Jessica tighter, kissing her on the shoulder. She leaned into him, brightness a little dimmed.
“You better have saved room. I think the pies are ready. Keith, go get the ice cream from the outside freezer.”
As Keith moved to his Mom’s instructions, Dad said, “There’s always room for dessert. There’s a special little compartment connected to the stomach just for it.”
They ate slower, enjoying each other’s company. Usually, now that night had fallen, they would pile into the car and drive around looking at Christmas lights. They had done that every year of Keith’s memory, except for last year. As they rinsed and piled the dessert bowls and plates into the sink to be added to the dishwasher’s next load, he noticed nobody brought it up. He and Jessica looked at each other, the same question in their eyes. She shrugged.
As a teenager, he had started to find it boring, only grudgingly joining. When Sam had come along, however, he had rediscovered the wonder through his eyes. They were bundled against the cold air coming through the open windows as they drove slowly by the elaborate displays of bright color, lawn decorations, and piped music. He would perch on the seat, trying to see everything at once.
They had done their part, decorating the outside modestly, the trim of the house, nets of lights in the bushes. It was only now that Keith realized he hadn’t seen any decorations outside when he had walked in and out from the cars. Just the inside with the tree. Five empty stockings hung from a display shelf that currently held a wooden Santa including a sleigh and reindeer. Santa would always fill the stockings after children were put to bed, even their parents’.
“I think it’s time to do the gifts,” Mom announced.
Everyone was allowed to open one family gift on Christmas Eve. All the rest, including additional Santa gifts, would be opened early Christmas morning. Even the dogs each got a gift. Theirs could not be put under the tree early, however, because somehow, no matter how well wrapped, they would sniff them out and tear them open.
Eileen used to wait, intently watching Sam open his presents. He would ball up the wrapping, throw it, and she would catch it, excitedly ripping it into shreds, ignoring Mom’s protestations at the mess.
Usually, one of the kids would dispense the gifts but Mom was assuming that role this year.
“Okay, there’s something for everyone,” she declared. “Here’s something for you, Keith, from Dad. And here’s something to Jessica from Mom and Dad.”
They each took their gifts, Jessica whispering, “Mine’s bigger.”
“Here’s one for you,” Mom said, handing a flat box to Dad.
Looking over the pile of presents for a moment, she picked up a square box. She placed a finger up to her lip, thinking.
“You know, I don’t remember what we put in this one.”
She shrugged, then laid it down where Sam would usually sit. She turned back to the tree. The three of them looked at each other, then at the gift on the floor. Mom took another present and sat down in her chair.
“There. Now, everyone has one. Who wants to open first?”
No one answered right away. They were all looking down into their laps. Keith looked up at his Mom, not knowing what to say. She smiled at him. Her eyes shone with Christmas lights.
Then, all of the lights went out. Keith heard an exclamation from his Dad. It was total blackness, their eyes not adjusted by the suddenness of it.
Keith was sitting next to Sam’s plastic project table, his legs spread awkwardly. Sam was focused on attaching limbs to his clay figure. It was the week of Thanksgiving and he was working on his annual Christmas ornament. Winnie-the-Pooh sat on the other side of the table with a benign smile. Riley had scootched under and laid her head on Sam’s feet.
“That is the skinniest Santa I have ever seen. Give that Santa a cheeseburger.”
Sam stopped, considering.
“He’ll live longer if he’s skinny,” he declared.
Keith was struck by the comment, looking at the soft fuzz that had started growing back finally on Sam’s head from his last round of chemotherapy. He rubbed his hand over it.
“You’re like a chia pet,” Keith said.
Sam smiled, still distracted by his task.
“So, do you know what you want for Christmas?”
Without stopping what he was doing, Sam replied, “I want Mom and Dad to be happy.”
Keith’s heart hurt and it took him a minute to process.
“Hey, Sam, they’re happy. Trust me.” He put his hand on his back.
Sam shrugged one shoulder.
“We’re all happy for you. I know it’s been rough, but you’re getting better.”
He did look better. There were still some smudges of purple under his eyes, but he had put on weight and was more alert, his movements not so languid.
“There. He’s done.”
“He looks good,” Keith agreed. “We’ll take him to Mom to bake him.”
He felt Sam’s hand on his arm, drawing his attention. He looked Keith in the eyes, all seriousness.
“I also want you to know that everything is going to be okay,” Sam said.
There was a gravity to his gaze. Keith felt that ache in his heart again, thinking, as the big brother, he was supposed to be the one offering comfort. He pulled Sam into a hug.
“I know, buddy. I know.”
Jessica had always been able to make Sam laugh. Even when he was feeling his worst, she would make a face or exaggerate an adult’s behavior, either their parents or one of his doctors, and he would reward her with that laugh. That laugh said that everything was alright in the universe.
He was riding her like a horse, his grip on her collar almost choking her, but she didn’t mind. He was four and had his sutures from his first surgery out the week before. Everyone was going through the paces of the day. Keith was away at school and there was a listlessness to the house. She had gotten down on all fours and sidled up next to Sam, pawing at the ground like a horse. At first, he had just put his Pooh on her back, giggling.
“You need to get up on this here horse, pardner.”
She had lowered herself and waited for him to secure his grip. Then she started out moving slow.
“Oh, no! She seems like an ornery one.”
Jessica shifted side to side, moving up and down as if to throw him. He clinched his legs tighter, and when she was sure of his grip, she reared up a little, making a neighing sound. He let out a belly laugh. Mom and Dad had entered the room to watch. Mom was torn between telling Jessica to be careful and just enjoying the sight of her sick child being happy.
They trotted around the room a few times. Each time Jessica reared up a little higher, bucked a little harder, and Sam would erupt with laughter.
Being a parent means not admitting to having a favorite child. There were things about each of his kids that he loved, Jessica’s humor, Keith’s tenaciousness. Sam had a special talent. When he was about two, he crawled up onto the recliner and settled gently into the crook of his Dad’s arm, no elbows or knees poking as he did so. He was almost cat-like in the way he curled up and puddled into place. Even as he grew, he would do this without a word, unobtrusive. Sometimes Sam would fall asleep. Sometimes they would watch whatever was on tv. During the fight with cancer, he could feel the fluctuations in his son’s weight, knowing, without a doctor’s opinion, how Sam was doing. During these times, he would doze more often in his Dad’s arms. When this happened, he would leave whatever kid’s show was on tv should Sam wake up. He found great comfort in feeling his son nestled up close to him. In those moments, nothing could hurt them.
Sam had been such a happy child. While cursing the cancer, she had taken strength from him. There were times she had felt he helped her more than she was doing for him. Feelings of helplessness, rage, terror, and guilt took their turns lashing her. And there her son was, gaunt, bald, dark circles under his eyes, and smiling.
From the moment he had been born, even having had two other children, she had not felt up for the challenge. She thought only grandparent status was ahead of her. Then life had thrown even more challenges their way. So many times, she had felt she was failing him. Through even the worst, however, he persevered. His cheerfulness brushed aside the realities more than any of the medicines did. She had been in awe of his ability to keep going, even convincing herself they were going to win.
There was one particular moment when they had visited him at the hospital. It was the third day after surgery. The other two days, he had simply lain there, dwarfed by the hospital bed. Hope was a fragile thing, a butterfly’s wing. She had barely been able to restrain the fear and summon the courage to return to the hospital on that third day. When she had, though, he was sitting up, head bandaged, nasal oxygen in place, holding his stuffed Pooh, watching cartoons on tv. He had turned to her, reaching out with one hand and smiling as if nothing was wrong. He took hold of her index finger, just as he had as a baby, and pulled her into sitting on the bed. It had felt like being pulled out of a stormy sea into a life-raft.
The lights came back on.
Keith squinted. He wasn’t sure how long the darkness had lasted. It could have been a moment or an hour. He could still feel Sam in his arms. At some point, Riley had come up on the couch and settled her head on his leg. He was absently stroking her fur.
He looked at the rest of his family, who all had stunned expressions on their faces. Silent tears fell from their eyes. Mom’s right hand cradled her left as if she held a tiny bird, her left index finger extended.
They each looked at one another. Eileen was gleefully shredding a ball of wrapping paper to the right side of Dad’s chair.
Then they all looked toward the middle of the floor where the small, now-unwrapped box lay empty on its side.