Oddly, I stood in the cafeteria unsure about what I sure be more surprised at; that the moment hit exactly the same way. Again. Or that I had the very same reaction to it, that I wanted to write it down. That I wanted to remember. That I needed to remember.
So, there I was again. Or, more to the point, there we were again. Me and two little boys, Richard and Sam. (Not their real names) in the cafeteria at school. That’s when the universe hit me upside the head for a second time. But in this moment I reflected on the thumping reality of truth, and life. And wrote it down.
Anyway, back to the boys.
I had rushed into the south cafeteria at school, after dropping off Julia, furiously searching for some mental space to rest my mind before heading into work. My stomach growled. My head exploded. Then I heard the musical sound of a distinct speech pattern, the Queen English. I froze. It was not only musical, it hit a note from way back. I turned. I search the sea of small, brunette, black and blond haired children. Until I found them, until I found Richard and Sam. It wasn’t such a surprise to see foreign-born children at this school. It was a surprise to see these children at this school.
The last I saw of the boys, was a year ago last Christmas, my hands looped firmly around their mom’s shoulders. Christmas 2018 didn’t feel so Christmas-y. Roughly two years prior, when I asked their mom, while sipping a cup of morning coffee, how she was doing amazingly, shockingly stupefying, she told me the truth.
“Okay now , but later I’m having chemo.”
Admittedly, I was surprised at her candor but quickly fell into line. This wasn’t my first chemo convo. One of my best and oldest friends from home had stared cancer down, and made it blink, twice, before the age of 50. I knew how to stand with a friend through this moment. I knew how to listen attentively when she gave the details of her care. I knew how to step back when she, or he, needed extra space during a cancer trial. What I did not know was how to have that talk with another mom of small children.
“I’m glad you told me,” I said…”that way I can check on you.”
“That would be nice,” she said. We’d become fast friends. I dubbed her the Mom Warrior. A year later I learned just how much my game face would fail as things progressed.
“We’re moving back to England,” Mom W. said as we sat at the tiny tables in the caf. “I can’t get the medical treatment I need in America.”
I sat envying her duo citizen status, her fluidity, for a moment. Then an understanding bloomed. “You’re sure you can’t get the care here?”
She bellowed and said, “I’m sure. I’m a doctor.”
Another dumb mom moment. I’d never asked what Mom.W. did she did for a living. She always seemed so relaxed at school, so I assumed she was stay-at-home mom. I never assumed the cancer had kept her home bound.
“My family is there, and so is my husband’s. They can help us with the kids.”
“Well, that makes sense.” I knew on the days I didn’t see her sweeping through the halls at school, and a nanny led the boys to class, a round of chemo had taken my friend down.
She looked into the distance, then back at me, and leveled her eyes into mine and said. “I’m probably going to die in London.”
I live in New York City where folks say and yell all kinds of shocking, deeply private, and plain old non-sense, at times, at the top of their lungs, any moment of the day and night. I’d never experienced such directness regarding one’s personal death. Her honesty was like a punch in the chest. So, while sitting in the too small kid chair, I began to cry like a baby.
“I’m sorry. I guess I’m just use to saying this. It’s okay. I’ve made my peace with it. And as a family we do therapy,” Mom Warrior said.
I smeared the dampness from my eyes. “No, it’s not okay. None of this shit is okay.”I always felt bad when I cursed at school. But today wasn’t one of those days.
She peered into my eyes. They produced more puddles.
“Don’t worry, it’s not happening for a few months. And its still the holidays.”
As the weeks wound down to the Christmas break, I saw the Mom Warrior more and more at school. She told me of the wonderful support she’d found through Gilda’s Club, a non-profit started after the death of the comedian Gilda Radner, by her then husband Gene Wilder. I once worked near the Soho office, and walked past its red door often. But I never, ever went inside. She told me about making memory books for the kids and writing letters for when the boys were older. I suggested that she go to places she loved and making videos, so the boys could see and hear her thoughts about vital landmarks.’ “That’s a great idea, I could do that in New York and London,” she said.
And when the day came to say “see you soon,”rather than good-bye, I hugged my friend tight about her shoulder, her brown hair cascade down over my forearms. I waved good-bye to the boys and spared them the embarrassing, public display of affection. As they moved down the hall, I found myself trailing the three of them, like an asteroid held by their orbit. I couldn’t believe God was letting this happen, letting them go.
Christmas came. I traveled to Michigan with Julia. This was the season my mother hasdstarted, what turned out to be, her final decline. And the more my mom slipped away, the more I texted my friend across the pond.
Days would pass before I received a response; funny pics of Richard and Sam in their new home; pics of the Mom Warrior sitting in the cushy chemo chairs, wearing a big smile.
“Who smiles while having chemo?” I texted back.
“Did you notice that my shirt matches the chemo chair?!” she asked.
In February, I did a text check-in. And after a long stretch of silence Mom Warrior texted to say she’d just completed a three-week term in the hospital. “I nearly died,” she wrote.
Now she was back home.
So, I went back to work, and upped my prayers. I believed. I believed with all my heart. Even as my mom died and left this earth. I refused to believe it would happen to my friend across the pond. The very unfairness of the thing was simply too much to consider. How could a mother of two boys under the age of ten leave this earth? I couldn’t hold it in my mind.
February came. We buried my mom. Then I was buried in grief.
By the time May arrived, and the sun’s rays began to lengthen through the days, and the air began to warm, I raised myself from a flat position and moved off the sofa. My far-away-friend crossed my mind. So, I sent a text.
Then I received a text.
From her cell.
“It’s Jenine, it’s….”
It was the Mom Warrior’s husband, texting from her phone. As I read his words, I had to put the phone down unable to see his words.
She was gone.
An announcement had been made at school, but with Julia and her boys in the different classes in different grades, I never received word.
I’m a big believer in positive thinking. So, when outcomes aren’t right. Or at least not the one I wanted, the acceptance of that reality is one big, jagged pill.
And that leads me back to that school cafeteria in early September, on that frantic morning when the gears of my mind were stuck on I can’t, and I won’t and hardness of a life that I’d worked so very hard to create; the bump and endless grind of single mom reality. And as I gathered my coffee and headed to the hot tables for food, I heard the sound. The sound of accented Queens’ English with a child’s lilt.
I searched around.
“Well, hello!” I said, eyes wide.
“Halloo, are you going to have our special sandwich?”
For two years, I made a big deal of enjoying the same, bagel, cream cheese and bacon, breakfast sandwich creation, dubbed the Sam Sandwich, with the boys. But that day, I was on my third day of dodging carbs. But miraculously I’d seen seen Sam, the brown-eyed, beautiful boy.
“Absolutely, I’m having a Sam Sandwich!”
To hell with dodging carbs.
I gathered my items, sat down, and said to the two older women seated at the table beside them, “I used to have this sandwich with the boys and their mom.”
And the lady with the strawberry blonde bob, and ruby red eye glasses gave me a weak smile.
I only mentioned the Mom Warrior once, but I felt it was important. She was here too. I could feel her heart.
“The boys’ father thought it important to bring them back to this school,” the strawberry blond said with an equally potent English accent.
I could see the enormous gift of it all. To uproot your family once to let your gravely ill wife be close to her family. Then pry those roots away again, to bring your kids back to a different kind of home. But a home, nonetheless. A gift for the boys. But it was me that sat down in clover. Sat down with the knowledge that God puts us where we should be, to do the good we can. Looking at the boys’ bright shining faces, I could see their mom, their dad, and my path toward a deeper gratitude. For community. For connection. Richard and Sam’s dad hadn’t made the choice to return to school with me in mind. But I received the gift anyway. Presents, or breakfast sandwiches are like that. You never know when a good one will pop up.
“Tomorrow, we’ll have the Richard Sandwich,” the older boy said.
“What’s in that?”
“The same as the Sam Sandwich, just with sausages.”
I smiled. “You bet; I’ll be here.”