65: The Absence of Fear

65: The Absence of Fear

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

The Absence of Fear

I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.

~William Allen White

My elbow hit the call button. Again. Oops. It was the second time I’d accidentally summoned the nurse to my mother’s room. Her hospital bed was not designed for two people, but I snuggled my thirty-three-year-old self beside her anyway. We lay in her bed and giggled like schoolgirls waiting to be admonished.

Soon the door swung open and Trevor, the night nurse, filled the doorway. His thick tattooed arm held open the door and he peered at me from behind his black-framed glasses.

“Yes?” he asked, with arched eyebrows.

“Sorry.” I winced. It wasn’t my first apology for the evening.

He crossed his arms dramatically and leaned against the door. A smile tugged at his lips. We’d built a strong rapport over the past four months and he was one of my favorite nurses.

“You do know the story about the little boy who cried wolf, right?” he asked.

“Really, I am very sorry. I’ll be more careful.”

“Mm-hmm,” he replied, clearly unconvinced. He gave me a wink before his eyes traveled to my mother.

“Do you need anything, Mrs. Stiving?” he asked.

“No, Trevor. I’m fine.” She smiled. “How are your exams going?”

Trevor worked nights so he could attend classes during the day. He groaned at the question and closed his eyes.

“Torture, pure torture.”

It was an odd word choice considering our situation. Tubes and wires snaked out of my mother’s arms while dark ugly bruises covered her veins. The skin around the port in her chest was red and swollen. This was where the chemo was administered—the poison designed to kill the cancer that was trying to kill her.

“I know you will do great,” she said with a smile. “Your skills and talents are a blessing to those you care for.”

Trevor’s face softened and his arms dropped to his side. I lay there quietly while my mother’s words reached his heart.

“Thank you,” he said in a voice much smaller than before.

I was accustomed to my mother having this effect on people. Though her situation was dire she found joy in those around her and believed in the power of encouraging words. While my family and I were guilty of seeing her caregivers as service providers, she saw them as people with their own hopes, dreams and disappointments. She knew the name of the cleaning lady that mopped the floors at night and asked her often about the grandchildren she was raising. She listened intently to the morning nurse Angie who was struggling with a troubled teen. She held the young orderly with the broken heart in her arms. Her compassion brought relief to the weary soldiers of medicine, and like a beacon of light, they were drawn to her.

Trevor recovered and cleared his throat.

“You call me if you need anything,” he said to her, then turned to me with mock annoyance. “That doesn’t mean you.”

“It won’t happen again.” I made an apologetic face. “Cross my heart…” I used two fingers to draw an invisible X across my heart but stopped before completing the rest of the phrase. And hope to die.

The silence fell heavy and I wondered if my mother finished the thought. We had been told the chemotherapy was not working. Her body had rejected it violently, resulting in fluid around her heart that required emergency surgery. Afterwards, the doctor gently told us that she had ATRA syndrome, meaning she was severely allergic to the only treatment that could save her. He said the decision to try it again would be up to her but he warned us that if the cancer didn’t kill her, the ATRA might.

Trevor closed the door, leaving us alone. We lay there quietly listening to the rhythmic beeps of the machines beside her.

“Mom,” I finally whispered. “Are you afraid…” I paused, unable to complete the question. The words I left unspoken lurked like shadows in the room but she saw them.

“To die?” she asked.

I nodded, our heads closely touching on her pillow. We stared at the ceiling while I waited for her reply.

“Well,” she sighed, “I figure if I know how to live then I know how to die.”

It took a moment to absorb the words. I had never thought about knowing how to do either. She squeezed my hand and continued.

“So no, I am not afraid. And I don’t want you to be either.”

And for the first time, I wasn’t. Her steadiness strengthened me. Perhaps it was the absence of fear that gave her peace. With peace there is no room for despair. I reached to wipe away the renegade tear that slipped down my cheek and my elbow hit the call button. Again.

Oops.

~Brenda Watterson

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