One

Eight hours and forty-three minutes. I thought it was short. But I was wrong. It was infinitely long. Maybe too long.

Dear God, don’t let it be too long. Please don’t let it be too long.  

Eight hours and forty-three minutes.

Five hundred and twenty-three minutes.

Thirty-one thousand, three hundred and eighty seconds.

Thirty-one thousand, three hundred and eighty moments when she could slip away and disappear forever.

Thirty-one thousand, three hundred and eighty chances that I would miss it.

Dear God, don’t let me miss it. Please don’t let me miss it.

Every mile was an eternity. Every rotation of the tires an excruciating reminder of how slow and relentless the passage of time. Dear God, don’t let it be too late. Please don’t let it be too late. 

I had thought we were close. We’d moved to Washington only a few months ago and I’d been thrilled at the thought of how easy it would be to get to my parents and grandparents in Montana – just a mere 541 miles. Leave after breakfast, be there by dinner. We hadn’t lived this close to my family in almost a decade. Now it felt like we couldn’t be farther.

Dear God, please don’t let it be too late.

We’d been painting when my husband walked through the door that morning. All mess and fun and three half-naked little bodies, their hands covered in a rainbow of brilliant color. My first thought was terror. He’d just left for a 48 hour shift at work. Why was he back so soon? He’d been fired, I thought. He’d quit. He’d gone insane. This would all have been completely out of character for my steady, reliable, responsible husband, but these were the explanations that popped unbidden into my brain as he entered the room. What else could it be?

“It’s time,” he said. Just that. Nothing more.

Time for what? I thought. Has there been a disaster? Were we evacuating?

“Your mom called.”

Then I knew.

This realization required action. So I hugged him. It wasn’t as comforting as it usually was. It felt raw, awkward, scripted and insufficient. In one millisecond my calm body had been jacked full of adrenaline and emotion.

Why had she called Tony and not me? But that didn’t matter now. It was time to go. I tried to move quickly and purposefully but my body felt like a machine that had run out of oil. Grab the bags. Check. Clothes. Check. Toothbrushes. Check. Toothpaste. Check.

“We should probably bring some nice dress clothes,” Tony called from the other room where he was hurriedly readying his own suitcase.

“Why?” I called back. We were going to Montana, not the Grammy’s. What could we possibly need nice clothes for?

There was a long pause. Then he cleared his throat and replied, “Well … for the funeral …”

Oh. That’s right. Dress clothes. For the … funeral.

We evacuated the house in less than an hour. We had to stop to fill up the truck at the corner gas station near our apartment building. The stillness of sitting in the car, waiting while the pump dry heaved and finally began spluttering gasoline into our tank was sheer unrelenting agony. The immobility hurt my body. We had to go. Every second was precious. We couldn’t wait. Dear God, I prayed. Please let me make it in time. Please don’t let it be too late. Dear God please don’t let it be too late.

I watched the traffic moving sluggishly past us on the street. Someone with sunglasses and a lopsided baseball cap biked to the cross walk and did a little jump off of the curb. The line for Starbucks’ drive through was backed up into the parking lot. What was wrong with everyone? Didn’t they realize what was happening? How could they act so normal?

Even my own stillness felt like a betrayal. Everything should be chaos and destruction. Nothing should be normal. Everything should be falling apart … but it was only falling apart on the inside. Tony jumped back into the driver’s seat and we hit the road. He turned up the music and offered me some corn nuts. This felt better than the stillness, but it couldn’t drown out the clock. Time was hemorrhaging.

The nursing home had called my parents in the middle of the night. “It’s time,” they’d said. Now it was morning. It had already been over ten hours since that call. Why didn’t my mom call me? I’d told her, “It doesn’t matter if it’s in the middle of the night. If she takes a turn, I want you to call me. Call me right then.” She had agreed. But she hadn’t called. Why hadn’t she called? I had been sleeping when I could have been driving. What if I missed it?!

Dear God, please don’t let me miss it. 

There was no time for thoughts like that. I didn’t matter. It was what it was.

I prayed Dear God, let me make it there in time. Dear God, Please let me make it there in time. 

My Grandma had been diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a type of chronic blood cancer, years ago. She managed it well, going in for special treatments to keep her blood counts in range. It was an uncomfortable inconvenience but it wasn’t like REAL cancer – the kind that spread through your body like spilled ink cascading across a Persian rug. It wasn’t that, thank God.

Until it was.

The doctor said that sometimes, as it circulated through the blood, the CLL would drop a seed … and sometimes that seed would grow. My grandma’s CLL had dropped a seed in her lungs. She’d never smoked, but she got lung cancer anyway.

They treated it and she beat it. I wasn’t surprised. She was tough like that. She was polite and refined on the outside, but underneath she was a workhorse of a woman. Even in her 80’s she would stay up until three or four in the morning working away in her kitchen, baking delicious goodies to sell. Earning her own money. Doing what she loved. She was amazing like that.

Then the cancer came back, and this time there was no hope.

This seemed to be happening a lot. The cancer would appear, you’d fight it and you’d win. Then it would light the wick on its dynamite vest. It would cheat.

It had just happened to my friend back in Wisconsin. I thought of her again as we raced across the mountain passes and long windy plains, as my Grandma lay dying. My friend had gotten breast cancer and she had beaten it. Then, mere months after her 3rd anniversary of becoming cancer-free, it exploded. We had seen her just before we moved. She was yellow with jaundice, just like my dad had been 26 years earlier. Yet, as sick and as exhausted as she was, she was still the joyful, gutsy, strong women I was so pleased to have known. She’d managed to make it to the fundraiser our community was throwing in her honor along with her husband and five children. Five children. And now she lay dying and there was nothing anyone could do. It was bullshit.

Then there was my daughter’s friend from preschool, a little blonde sprite of a thing who had gotten arm cancer as a baby. That’s not the technical term for it, of course, but that’s what it was. The tumor had grown right there inside her arm, of all places. They fought it, amputating at least twice, trying every traditional and alternative treatment they could find. They gained ground, lost ground, gained ground … and then it exploded. Now she was dying too, right at this moment. After we’d moved I’d watched through Facebook as her mother posted almost daily updates. She didn’t leave her daughter’s side.

When this sweet little five year old felt up to it her family would lay in bed with her, playing play-dough and making arts and crafts. When she didn’t her mother would just stay with her. They would read or watch cartoons or just survive. The entire town was praying for this baby girl. Everything else had failed, but maybe prayer would work.

Everything felt too big and too terrible and yet it was all moving too damn slow. The tires hummed on the concrete. We handed out snacks to the kids followed by their tablets. “You can play the whole way if you want,” I said. It almost felt like one of our family road trips, except it was the first one I’d ever not loved.

My mind was a continuous and unending loop of pleading. Please, please just let me make it. Dear God, don’t take her yet. Please don’t take her yet. Please just help me get there in time. Please, please please. 

Then my phone rang.

I grabbed at it like it might try to escape. The called ID read “Mom.” My heart melted into a puddle of dread. I answered the phone.

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