99: Two in the Morning

99: Two in the Morning

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Two in the Morning

Tears are words that need to be written.

~Paulo Coelho

I woke drenched in sweat, the kind only abject fear or chemotherapy could cause. I looked at the clock: 2:13 a.m. I sat up.

Or, well, half sat up. The radiation site throbbed, my skin felt brittle, and my muscles stabbed me when I moved. Slumping to the side, I sighed, squinting down at a package my friend Jeff sent. It sat on top of three other packages, and beside five more stacked near the bed. Therein nestled the fear.

Yes, I had stage three cancer. Yes, my tumor was the size of a mouse. Not a single doctor told me I might live through this. But that wasn’t what woke me up and drenched me with sweat. It was my mother.

My ninety-four-year-old mother knew only the basics of my diagnosis. She didn’t live with me and didn’t own a spy satellite. Yet somehow, I felt she knew I’d received all these packages, but I hadn’t written one thank-you card. Not one. In her book, that was inexcusable.

I needed to make some thank-you notes, but my imagination had died on the day of my diagnosis. Radiation, chemo and the constant threat of death crushed my tiny natural courage. I’d not drawn, written or painted. I’d done nothing creative for two and a half months. It felt like being held underwater for ten and a half weeks.

With the death of both my imagination and courage, I felt my body would soon follow. Without the energy to move much, I sat still and waited to die.

My friends sent presents, but absent my usual tools, I could not thank them. According to my mother and etiquette guidelines, thank-you notes, like sushi, were best served fresh.

I’d saved a few reserve cards for my mother’s weekly mail, but if I used them as thank-yous, then I would have nothing for her since I lacked the ability to move. That would be unforgivable.

That dilemma left me in a sweat at two in the morning.

Maybe, I thought, if I just draw something, anything, I could make copies. I could color them later, between naps. I opened the bedroom door to get pen and paper.

Two gingery cats greeted me, meowing, prancing and somersaulting. Collectively, I referred to them as “The Princelings.” They loved to see me in the middle of the night when I hobbled between the bedroom and the bathroom, sometimes collapsing on the floor in between. They always snuggled in, finding it fun.

Now, they attacked my slippers. I sighed, wishing I had their energy, courage and joie de vivre.

“Okay,” I said, shuffling over to the chair. I picked up a pen and a notebook. “How do we write a thank-you note that explains my chemo and keeps your Grandma from disowning me?”

Exhausted from walking ten feet, I rested. They jumped into my lap. One sat on the notebook. The other sat on the hand that held the pen.

“As much as I’d love to,” I grumbled, trying to retrieve my notebook from under a kitty, “I can’t send you along to explain.”

The Princelings stared up at me with their bright eyes, as if to ask, “Why not?”

And then, in that cold, silent February nighttime, a long absent sensation scratched deep in the back of my head. An imaginative thought began to hatch.

“Okay,” I said, wriggling my pen free from a set of paws. “Okay, we’ll try it your way.”

Then, at 2:58, I started something I’d never attempted: I drew a comic-book page. I drew it in four panels and gave the cats all the dialogue bubbles. The squiggly line that was supposed to be me lay with her back to the readers, too weak to move. The cats did the talking for me. They explained, said “thank you,” made jokes, and then went back to napping. In short, my cartoon Princelings did all the things I wished I could.

I kept drawing.

At 4:59, I heard my alarm go off in the other room. Time to eat before I took my morning chemo dose. Usually, I dreaded the eating as much as the horse pills, but this morning, after all that bravery, I felt the glimmering of an appetite. I ate twice my usual breakfast amount: two crackers, instead of one.

A few hours later, when I felt strong enough to think, I continued to sketch. Two days later, I had a first draft. Two days after that, I got dressed, put a seat cover and a bucket in the car, and drove six blocks to the copy shop. The round-trip drive took forty minutes. Exhausted, I napped until I could manage to color in my cartoons.

Within a week, I’d drawn three more. By the next round of chemo, I was up to ten, although not all of them were funny. Some made fun of the boredom of being sick, but some demonstrated the terror of not knowing the ultimate outcome.

Finally, on the last day allowed by etiquette to mail a thank-you note, I sent all ten cartoons to Jeff. If he hated them, I could blame the psychosis on chemo.

Two days later, he messaged me. He said he loved the cartoons. They touched his heart. They helped him understand what I felt.

They did? I stared at the screen. That was a weird thing to say. It helped him?

The weeks slowly passed, day by day. The more cartoons I made, the less I felt like I was drowning. The cartoon Princelings could say things on paper that I could never say in real life.

I showed the cartoons to more people. Like Jeff, they also said weird things, like: “These taught me something.”

Finally, knowing the news of my activities would eventually get back to my mother, I sat on the porch and painted a card with an iris on it. I folded in the first five cartoons and added an extra stamp to her envelope. I didn’t write any explanation.

The next week, when I called at my appointed time, she said hello, and then added: “I read your comics.”

Well, crud, I thought. I’d hoped we’d start with small talk before we plunged into the topic of my cancer and how I coped with it. But no. “You did?”

“I did,” she said. “They are very much like you.”

My stomach dropped. What did that mean? Did she think my cartoons were afraid of spiders? Cried loudly and often? Were inept at crosswords? With too many choices and none of them flattering, I cleared my throat and decided to plunge ahead. “How so?”

She breathed a little, gentle laugh. “I find them remarkably brave.”

When those words in my mother’s voice vibrated against my eardrums, the earth slowed. Time paused and reversed itself. Gravity changed. I no longer felt like I was drowning.

My mother thought I, of all people, was both remarkable and brave.

I closed my eyes. I pressed the phone, and by extension, my mother, to my cheek.

~Virginia Elizabeth Hayes

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