In my purse, I carry a note which describes the clinical condition of a woman I knew. Tracy was not a good friend of mine in any real sense of the word; I did not share my life with her, not ask her for any help. For one, we moved in different circles, for another, Tracy was in not in a position to help me except by example. She was the mother of a little girl named Tessa, whom it had taken her seven years to conceive. She was diagnosed with cancer when Tess was very young, and by the time her daughter turned five, Tracy’s cancer was terminal, and all of her will was bent toward staying alive for one more day.
I assumed that I could help by getting Tracy more information because I have always found that knowledge is my best defense. Furious at the fact that her treatment had been delayed, and certain medications not administered to her because she did not have health insurance, I sat down with her and wrote those symptoms down. But instead of calling him, I waited two weeks until that Thanksgiving when I ran into my brother-in-law at the time, an oncologist, to ask him what he thought about Tracy’s situation. He looked at the drugs she was on, explained to me that they were usually given when there was nothing else that could be done, but that in some very rare cases, patients responded positively to them.
I didn’t tell Tracy that. I told her instead about the experimental drugs that she might be able to access were she willing to try them, by driving from Fairfield, Maine, where she lived, to Dartmouth, New Hampshire. She wanted to give it a go but, by then, her body was too far gone. Not long after, I stopped to talk to her as she sat in her car, waiting for her husband to pick up their daughter from school. She was so weak she could hardly speak. Thinner than it seemed humanly possible to be, and the fragrance of medicinal marijuana clinging to her, she had shown up, as she always did, to pick up Tessa, even if she could not herself get down from the car and walk to the door.
I saw Tracy one last time just before she passed away. She was lying in a bed that had been set up in her living room, with her husband and mother there to help. By this time she was simply receiving morphine so she could be comfortable while she waited to die. As someone who believes in the power of books, I brought one for Tessa that day, The Next Place, by Warren Hansen. I asked if Tessa would like to go home with me for a play date and it was incredibly poignant to me to watch Tessa climb up onto her mother’s bed to ask if she could go. It didn’t seem to strike her that her movements might be painful to her mother who was so wracked with frailty. Perhaps she knew that nothing she did could hurt the mother who had fought so hard to stay with her.
When she was told that I was going to leave, Tracy asked her mother to lift her up. She wanted to give me a hug, she said. I don’t know where she found the strength, nor what might have motivated her to try to do this for a woman she barely knew. Except that there was Tessa. I remember that I stood there saying, don’t worry, we will look after Tessa. I remember that whatever I said had the weight of a promise and though it wasn’t a request that Tracy had the capacity to make out loud, it was still one she articulated. That grateful farewell was all she could do for her daughter.
I meant well. But I moved from Maine. Tracy’s note stayed in my purse when I bought a new one. And Tessa stayed on my mind. One mother’s day came and went in the throes of selling and buying and moving and settling and bemoaning the mundane difficulties of a life lived with the blessing of good health. But this mother’s day, as I went through a series of medical tests of my own, I recalled once more my promise to Tracy. I called up the school she still attends, its tuition paid by her grandmother, to see if she was still there. I remembered that more than anything else, Tracy wanted her daughter to stay at the Kennebec Montessori School, within the inclusive, familial embrace of a high quality education transmitted by teachers gifted in the art of recognizing the unique nature of each child. Apparently, despite the loss of an elderly care-giver who had taken care of Tessa before and after school, her father is committed to her staying there for one more year. I am not sure what she will do this summer, but I hope I can find a way to help.
As a start, today, on mother’s day, I thought I’d honor both a mother of incredible courage and love, and keep a promise. I went out and bought a few of my favorite books, and a couple I had never heard of, for Tessa: The Great Nursery Rhyme Disaster (David Conway), A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson), When Papa Comes Home Tonight (Eileen Spinelli), Incredible You: 10 Ways to let your Greatness Shine Through (Dr. Wayne W. Dyer), It’s Okay to be Different (Todd Parr), You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (Mary Ann Hoberman) and You are my I love You (Maryanna K. Cusimano & Satomi Ichikawa). They are the kinds of books I imagine Tracy might have liked her daughter to have.
Tomorrow I will put them in the mail along with a note to Tessa. What I will say to her, I do not know. I know that she had read the first book I gave her many times, and I hope that these new books will help her navigate the parts of the world that are navigable. I cannot be like a mother to her, but it is not too late for me to be her mother’s friend.