This week, I got lucky. Priscilla was still worn out after her three previous days of illness, and my mom said I could drop her off at her house to rest while I took Benjamin to his preschool class at the library. Since it was Mary’s naptime I got her to sleep in the guestroom pack-n-play at my parent’s and I left, taking only one passenger with me. Benjamin jabbered away from the back seat of our minivan, not necessarily directing any of his ongoing commentary towards me so I let my mind wander a bit, staying open to whatever random thoughts happened to weave themselves in and out of my subconscious. It was the typical hodgepodge of to-do lists, irrational worries, and overly ambitious expectations; fragmented ponderings forming a mosaic of mental self-absorption. As usual, I was overwhelmed by me.
On the way, I picked up my almost three-year-old niece, Isabelle, and two minutes later the three of us pulled into the library parking lot. Today they were having a cookie exchange, and Benji and Isabelle both carried their cookie-filled tins with pride and excitement.
“Hey Benji, my mom made these cookies,” said Isabelle.
“Oh, my mom made these cookies,” repeated Ben.
“Aunt Molly, I am going to carry these cookies all the way in and give them to Miss D. O.K Aunt Molly?”
“That’s a great idea Isabelle, you’re a big girl!”
“Hey Isabelle,” said Ben “I am going to give my cookies to Miss D too.”
And with that, they both handed me their cookie tins and ran for the door.
Entering behind my two skipping companions, I was greeted by the uplifting smell of books. There are few places a financially strapped mother of young children can venture into without feeling like an eyesore or a bother. The library is a haven of possibilities and hope to everyone, no matter what their age or social status. The librarians here are warm and welcoming. Aisles of pages and words invite me to cook, laugh, create, or solve a mystery, all from the comfort of my couch. Mothers and a few dads were starting to gather in the children’s section, unzipping coats and smoothing down static charged hair. Miss D was handing out nametags. Isabelle and Ben were fully engaged in the process of finding an empty place on the multi-colored rug and shouting out random bits of information, primarily pertinent to preschoolers. “My favorite color is blue Miss D, but today I am wearing pink.” “Miss D! Miss D! I am getting a new batman for my next birthday!”
Without having to trail my 16-month-old, I was free to grab a magazine and actually sit in a chair and read it. Ahh! What a thrill! The class would last for 45 minutes, nearly an hour of me time. I settled in and got busy. About six feet to my right was a small table and chairs set up with crayons and coloring pages where two women, each watching a toddler, started a conversation frequently interrupted by the whimpering of their daughters for attention and juice. I wasn’t eavesdropping, necessarily, but being that close to me I couldn’t help but keep one ear tuned in to their attempt at a discussion. It started off with the usual back and forth about school stuff and community events, and then one of the moms shifted the tone by saying “It’s harder now to volunteer as much, since I was diagnosed with MS.”
My mind froze up. All attempts at reading with comprehension were now futile. I had talked to this woman almost weekly, while both keeping our little ones from pulling down displays and interrupting the class. She wasn’t that much older than me and always seemed bright and upbeat. “Oh I totally understand,” said the mom across from her, also a woman I had smiled and said “hello” to on a regular basis. “I have been going through treatments for breast cancer and I am really worn out most of the time.” The magazine, now just a prop in my hands, lay limp in my lap and my eyes stared inattentively at the swirl of tips and life improving suggestions, illegible with their unimportance.
Both women recalled, matter-of-factly, the moments they new something wasn’t right, tingling hands, slurred speech, a call back after the results of a mammogram.
“I was fine until I actually sat down in the office of the specialist, then I bawled my eyes out.”
“It was the mastectomy that finally got me.”
Tears of my own were welling up. Tears of sympathy for them, their families, and ashamedly for me and the unknown burden I would one day carry. Their normalness, assaulted unexpectedly by terrifying possibilities, was a little too, well… possible. What phone call, letter, or diagnosis would I receive, capable of turning my entire world upside down?
How did they go on, exchanging pleasantries and baking cookies for preschool class at the library, a chore that felt overwhelming to me, full of health and free from such intensive emotional baggage? I stole a glance in their direction, two women transforming into warriors right before my eyes, coloring pictures and doling out snacks. Part of me wanted to step in their shoes, to feel the tingling, the missing breast, to will peace upon myself in this pseudo state of crisis. But their crosses, too heavy and too form fitting to their own souls, were impossible to carry on my unsupported shoulders. I was no more capable of lifting this weight unassigned to me, than of throwing on some spandex and attempting to run a marathon I had never trained for.
At the end of class, the moms and dads joined their children for one last song. We helped them put away their nametags and thank Miss D for another stimulating session of stories, games, and crafts. We made small talk, all of us parents. I gazed warmly at each of them, having no idea what other secrets were bravely up locked up beneath the smiles I had become familiar with over the last couple of months. My biggest fears, the anxieties that rob me of sleep, could very well be the reality of her, or of him, or of me tomorrow.
I loaded up our van with two bubbly children and a bag of brand new books. The sun had warmed that winter afternoon to a balmy 52 degrees. The day was wide open and my heart, stretched a little wider by the courage of others, beat it time with my prayers for mercy.