Crystal died so fast.
She never knew what to make of me. Our daughters had been best frenemies since age six, their squealing little naked bodies careening through our small house, slipping on laminate, streaking from their daring “night swim” in our inflatable Intex Quik-Set into a hot shower. They were trying to shock Gus but vastly underestimated his ability to block out child-squeal.
To this day I’m not sure Crystal actively liked me. She worked the night shift and though our daughters spent summers together we seldom crossed paths. When we did, she was wry, polite, and distant. I chalked that up to the fact I am…a confetti cannon of off-putting. In later years she’d say I talk too fast and too weird and it made her insecure. But she never disliked me, and that was good enough.
Sometimes people are put on this earth and you are compelled to love them. Whether they like it or not. Hell, whether YOU like it or not. So I pestered Crystal with friendship. She tolerated it, a lifetime of unhappiness and downright sorrow making her suspicious, always.
But she did love. She loved her daughters. They were 6 and 12 when I met them and she doted on them.
Things changed over the years. I wasn’t a constant part of her life after our daughters firmly parted ways. I would check on her if my daughter reported anything needing checking that she gleaned from school. Thus maybe our friendship took on a matronizing aspect.
I badgered her to fill housing forms, would stop my car in an abandoned field with her in it until she made the difficult red-tape phone calls she needed to make. I knew what it was like to be so under it all. So buried in demands upon your spirit and energy that you just stay in bed, or in the bong, or in the fridge. Friends yanked me out from time to time. I tried the same tactics.
I loved on her, sporadically and with force because there seemed no other way to go about it. I loved her youngest daughter, Sweetie, too, sometimes to my own daughter’s “steam-coming-out-the-ears” objections.
“Sweetie” isn’t her name save in my house. My son Jack, age four, hearing me continually refer to her in casual endearment (Mother’s Little Secret, all my children’s friends are named “Hon” “Darlin” “Babe” or “Buddy.”) decided it was, which delighted the seven year old girls. “Iz Sweedee!” he’d chirp when she’d appear at the window.
I made the mistake of introducing her on some outing as Sweetie.
“That’s not my name,” she stated with fire and confidence. Then softer, “That’s just for Jack.”
She is an unusually beautiful child, 11 but slight as a nine year old, carefully laying out clothes that match and making sure her hair is clean and brushed. Her eyes have the remarkable white/blue/silver you’d find at the heart of a glacier, ringed in black corona; the overall affect being an image that could have only been given to Earth via the Hubble.
She showed up after a year’s absence at my door. I had been keeping tabs on the tumult. Things weren’t great on her homefront. She’d come home with my daughter from the bus-stop, and my daughter was just as surprised as I was. Sweetie was calm, mature, had apologized to all the girls at school for any friction they might have had between them in the past.
I believe the child is built for survival. And I believe she knew on some level that rocky, rocky days were ahead. It was time to lay hands on every adult relationship she’d built over her life and make sure it was steady.
I took Sweetie back home that night and disliked what I saw…and here began my powerlessness.
I don’t believe in calling DHS (child protective services) if a child is not it serious peril. Because DHS can’t guarantee, though they intend well, that any new situation will fix that peril. Sweetie was physically safe, fed and sheltered. Her mother was simply overwhelmed.
So I did not call DHS. But over three people had called DHS on Crystal by the time I’d come back into their life.
If you can help that parent, one whose not a junkie and not mentally ill, get back to ok, where they can they then care for their babies like the once did, THAT’S what you do first. I made a rule for myself to stave off saying the wrong thing or making the presumptions I am dying to make.
The first and only words from your lips are “How can I help?” and they are spoken to the parent, not the kid. So I made grocery runs, drove to doctors appointments. Then more doctors. Then…
A week after Sweetie reappeared, Crystal, her mother, 46, went to the doctor with a sore leg and came home with a cancer diagnoses. Sarcoma, muscle cancer in her thigh. Words like “rare” and “aggressive” bounced off me because she wasn’t scheduled to see an oncologist for near a month so it couldn’t have been that bad, right? And we all know people who have gotten cancer and, if they are young and the cancer is followed by light words like “skin, muscle” instead of “lung, lymphoma” they’ve come out ok.
Crystal was given pain pills and that was good. Reality was no place for her right now, she had no idea what to do with reality. No one should suffer that waiting for further tests and so-so answers and hem and haw without anesthesia of some sort. But they made her bed-bound. I’d go to her there. She placed my hand on her back thigh and I felt hard impaction, a flat swelling (two things that don’t usually go together, “flat” and “swollen”) under the skin. My palm was too small to cover the entirety of it.
But it didn’t click. My hand told my brain weird soothing things…”We’ve felt hard skin before. Cysts. Pregnancy. Obesity. Inflammation.”
My brain only later let me re-frame.
My hand had been on a tumor, or part of it, because it was so large I couldn’t totally cover it. A malignant tumor that size is no longer living local; it has swam on, seeding a whole body, sapping life force to power it’s mis-programmed cell multiplication.
Crystal had a thin support system. I wanted to be more, do more. But she just didn’t like to ask for things and I had no right to try and butt in and direct things. She had family and closer friends…they just weren’t near, and though I tried to connect with them I didn’t do well.
Things sped up when she had reluctantly asked me to take her to a doctor’s appointment. I told her to be in front of her apartment waiting, and she wasn’t.
I used the pitifully concealed hide-a-key and let myself into the dark apartment. It was damp and hot despite being November; she’d shut every window and kept the fan pointed at her bed, recycling fetid air. Crystal was sound asleep. This made me mad. Cancer, no matter how light as we all assumed it was, meant you don’t fucking miss doctor’s appointments. This was important. I aggressively flicked the light a few times over her cringing face in as if to trigger Bucha Vertigo and hollered none-to-warmly at her to get her sick butt UP.
I wasn’t mad at her. I was mad that she was so damned sick and no one was there to take care of her and that’s WRONG. She groused from her bed that she didn’t care about “that junk” (doctors, I assume). I declared tough shit and grabbed clean sweats from the top of the laundry. I dressed her as she began to doze on the toilet and got her in car. She was incoherent on the drive, dehydrated.
Thank God, because the doctor saw it. Saw that she was NOT ok.
Crystal’s father, elderly but capable, entered the picture and I faded back. There was a constant undercurrent that I caused more hassle than comfort when I tried to insert myself. I had never been accepted into their loose clan and that just was that.
Sweetie didn’t come around much after the first few days she spent with us, despite my zealotry of outfitting the guest room to her taste, my lectures to the girls that they were to behave as sisters when Sweetie was here…they didn’t have to play together or even like each other, but they had to live in kindness. I was eager to mother her, but she pulled away gently. Partly because, I think, she had three or four other options, some of which didn’t make her go to school, partly to be with her mother and sister, and partly, to my shame, because my own daughter was not kind to her. LE didn’t understand the scope. She just saw a person she seldom got along with cuddling her puppy, playing with her annoying little brother, and being snuggled by her mom. LE was pure ice-burn toward Sweetie.
I sent regular texts to both Crystal and Sweetie, mastering all the funniest non-corny gifs and stickers to communicate with Sweetie and short “tell me how much of cancer’s ass ya kicked today woman!” to Crystal.
I hung around their apartment while scattered teenage boys who loved Crystal and called her “second mom” shaved her head for her…they didn’t quite do it right but I forced myself not to but in. She was happier with their jokes and bumbling. I came later, scrubbed her down in the shower and made fun of her granny panties as I dressed her. She laughed and then cried, which she only ever did in short bursts. I folded her thinning frame into mine. “I can’t do stuff for myself!” she said. “I should be able to do stuff on my own!”
“Who the hell SAYS, Love?” I asked her. “Guess what? All women battling cancer get free back scrubs after head shaves, it’s the law. Now let the people who love you take care of you!”
Oh if I coulda just convinced her more people loved her.
I checked in via text one night mid-December. “Well do I come up now and give you your prezzies or wait til you come home?” I texted. I’d put together a care package. Three sassy head scarfs, “Cancer Picked the Wrong Bitch!” big mug, “You’re stronger than you know” inspirational wood plaque, and one silly sassy bright red cosplay bob wig, her favorite color. They’re all in the Goodwill box now, unopened and cruel.
She said she was in the hospital. I said “Ug. Hospital. Treatment or trouble?”
And simply: “No more treatment. I’m terminal. I have six months.”
I have no idea what I wrote and I deleted the conversation in some stupid fit of melancholy. But she responded to whatever I messaged with “Luv ya.” Last message.
Crystal was given six months.
Crystal cashed out in six days.
I say cashed out because…Crystal was done here and I do believe she had a choice in how long she wished to stay. That the spirit had flown before the flesh. I believe because I’d seen my mother do it. Both women had begin to shut down, separating from their most loved ones.
Before I knew the extent, when I thought that “swelling” was nothing to fear, I’d appear at the foot of her bed arms crossed, “Crystal, LE says Sweeties not been in school all week!” Crystal scrunched her face and shrugged “Well I don’t know nothing about that. She’s been in school probably!”
“Crystal where is Sweetie staying tonight? I’ve asked Mark and Sheila and everyone else she normally stays with but they don’t have her.” Crystal would lift her ever-present iphone and squint through messages, until finding the polite message Sweetie had left telling her mother where she was crashing that night. “She’s doing fine,” said Crystal, turning away from me. “She’s tough kid.”
That disconnecting is painful but it’s the last protection the dying mother can offer her child. Independence and self-reliance. “Get used to me not being around.” When my mother, rather dismissively, stopped coming to her porch swing to watch her grandchildren play months before heart disease took her, we were offended and hurt. But it was a gentle shrugging off of bonds…something a loving person might do to loosen the connecting tendons of love so there is slack when they’re slashed by death, so maybe it hurts less.
Oh…I wanted to be in charge, my friends. That’s a problem with me. I always know how to make it better if everyone will just see it my way. I had resources others didn’t, I had space, I had good research abilities and a great knack for getting what I want. Let me take over, I’d hiss in my brain. Let me arrange care for you, Crystal. Let me get you a patient advocate who won’t take “sometime next month” as an appropriate scheduling for an oncologist.
But they can’t see it my way because they aren’t me. They have to make it work their way. And I have to be a help, not a mouthy pushy butter-in.
And Sweetie? That’s tricky. She’s little. She still needs a pushy butter-in to advocate for her, although she’s been navigating this atomic upset of her life with poise and patience. Still, the only other time Crystal cried in my arms was a quick and sudden break down early on, while Sweetie was bouncing around her bedroom packing enough clothes to stay with me for and indeterminate time.
“Thank you for keeping my baby safe.” She let me hold her with a begruding lean that wasn’t dislike for me, I think, but the rigidness that took her when she let the enormity and the unfairness of it into her brain. More than a person should bare alone, though I think she insisted on it.
I held her again, said, “Just until you’re strong enough to, Darling.” And Sweetie…seeing the tears her mother seldom showed and having a composure life had given her along with the many gut punches, sighed in the doorway and said, “Mom? Don’t cry just because I farted.”
Crystal laughed and kissed and hugged her child.
Crystal died a few days before Christmas.
Sweetie is… well I don’t know. I’m not blood, I’m not legal. I text her directly and she consistently insists she’s “fine,” but insists it from different homes, different relatives, different states. I think there are many more things that she is, underneath that “fine.” But good God that child is strong.
I want to bundle her into my life, or at least give her what I can without upsetting all the others who love her. I want to do right by Crystal, do right by Sweetie. But I’ve no rights to do right.
All I know is my next move. I know her remaining legal guardian. My next move is to buy him a hamburger and say those words, the only right ones. “How can I help?”
I can’t do anything else.