THE WHY? FOUNDATION - TOUCHSTONE THURSDAY
written by Chaz Salembier
Eight months was still a lot of time, I remember telling myself. With fuzzy kid-logic – in which hours are days and days are months – I had convinced myself that this was such an infinitesimally small problem that like an ant under my shoe I shouldn’t give it a second though. In fact, I should ignore it. Elephants in rooms, after all, only exist if you let them. So I turned a blind eye toward it. In the 90’s, when soda was cheap and video games were starting to make it possible to live lives you never thought existed, it was easy enough to distract myself. Out of head, out of mind. Eight months was a long… long time.
I hated school. I mean, really, what kid didn’t, but school was school. I remember spelling it “skool” in my book reports as a juvenile middle finger to my grade school teachers – you can’t get to me. You can’t teach me (belligerent eye roll). My mother drove me to school every morning. It was a short drive, maybe two minutes, short enough that most days I had to walk. But two minutes is an awfully short time. Short enough that it’s difficult to convince my mother that my stomach is feeling particularly grouchy. I complained heavily, with plenty of nasally whine and, sighing, caving under my insistence; she drives past the front door of the school and takes me home. I play it straight, don’t blow my cover, on my way home, which is key to finagling my way out of another day of classes.
There was no official family announcement that I can remember. As an eight year-old, the finality of death was still a relatively new concept and one that still seemed absurd. I didn’t even quite know what was happening to my mother. She had leukemia, I knew, something nasty to do with her white blood cells, but most of her disease was nothing more than whispers behind closed doors. I don’t know if my parents were trying to keep me in the dark intentionally, to protect me, or if I genuinely didn’t understand. All I know for certain is I didn’t know for certain.
We arrive at home, and I’m told to lie in bed, which I do because, hey, lying in bed is better than sitting at a desk. My mother brings me a bowl of soup and, to pass the time, she reads to me. This is not an uncommon sight at my house – me lying in bed, my mother in the chair next to me, some wild, large, philosophical fantasy novel, with enough imagery to keep my impatient and TV-trained brain occupied. Today, it is the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia. I sip soup and listen to her read The Last Battle, as Aslan – the great a noble lion and quite unsubtle metaphor – judges all of those who have fought in the great battle. The good guys are invited to join him in His country and, with that, Narnia comes to an end. Father Time calls the stars down from the skies, he puts out the moon and the sea washes over the land. Narnia is no more. My mom has read this book to me a few times. She always pauses at this part.
Around this time I started seeing Mrs. V, an older woman who looked as though she was plucked from someone’s garden. She invited me to her office once a week during school and, at the time, I was none too concerned why as I strutted room to the envy of my classmates. Mrs. V and I would sit in her small office where I would fill out puzzles, draw, and do visual word challenges. I thought I was pretty damn special at the time. As though I might be just awesome enough to play for an hour a week with Mrs. V while answering her trivial and banal questions about my family. I would later learn that Mrs. V was a grief counselor, who was preparing me for the death of my mother.
I spend the rest of the day walking around with my blanket around my shoulders, trailing after my mother like the world’s most annoying jet stream. My stomach feels fine. It always does. And she knows this. Yet I’ll pull this stunt a few more times over on my mother in the coming months. Each day on the short car ride to school I’ll groan and complain with the bravado of a Shakespearian actor on his deathbed. And day, I’ll wait in bed for my bowl of soup and whatever fantastic book has been dug up from our basement library. What I won’t admit at the time, however, is that this isn’t about skipping class, the joy of knowing my classmates are stuck doing math workshops in Home room, or playing coordinated tunes on hand bells in Music. No, staying home from school isn’t so much about “school” as it is “home.” Because home is where mom is. And any day more I get to spend with her is a better day than one spent away. Because these days go by so, so very quickly.
Eight months became weeks, became days. For reasons that she can explain better than I, eight months came and went with little ramification. Throughout the rest of my childhood, I was told not to get my hopes up, not to expect her at my baseball game come next spring, or to welcome me home from my driver’s test, or even at my high school graduation. But as I write this, having graduated from not one but two educational institutions, she is skiing somewhere in western Colorado. This past summer, she was told that one more year of recession and she can stop taking her medication. Suddenly, the rest of her life seems like a long… long time.
In 1995 Chaz’s mother, Janice, was diagnosed with Chrinic Mylegenous Leukemia and given less than a year to live. Proving cancer was messing with the wrong lady, Janis is currently happily taking on the world and enjoying every moment of every day. To read the short story THE BLAST CELLS written by Janice about her cancer experience please click the link below.