Courtney came in that morning to find me asleep on the side bed, still in my clothes, a pillow over my head. She was saying something to me as I woke, but I couldn’t really parse it. There were a bunch of other people in the room: doctors and nurses.
I had a surge of adrenaline. What was happening?
“She’s fine,” Court said. “Well, not fine-fine, but you know.”
I nodded. I slipped out of the bed and into the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face. My hair was a royal mess, as it often was if I slept with it under a pillow. I just finger-combed it a little because my good hairbrush was back at the hotel and the comb there was too likely to tangle the extensions.
When I came out, most of the medical team was gone, just the good-looking surgeon and the one hospice counselor who maybe looked just like a nurse I’d had once and maybe I just can’t remember. They say emotional trauma can knock out bits of memory, you know?
They took me and Courtney into the hallway to talk about whether Claire should stay there, or whether she should move back to the residence facility she’d been in before.
“Does she want to? Move back to the other place,” I asked. They looked at me like I had two heads. “Why is that a strange question? She’s the patient.”
“Yes,” the surgeon said, “but I’m not sure she should make that call.”
“I’m just saying she should at least have a vote or whatever.”
The blond hospice counselor looked at me. “Here’s the thing. Right now she seems to be rallying. She’s responsive, talkative, and not in any acute crisis.” In other words nothing like a sudden bowel obstruction. “But her options to have her pain mitigated are more limited if she goes back there. And if she does suffer anything acute, it will be harder to intervene.” She shot the surgeon a look. “Now, I’m not sure further surgical intervention would actually be warranted, given how advanced her cancer is at this point.”
The surgeon seemed slightly put out, but didn’t contradict her.
“Well, I know for a fact she doesn’t want to be away from pain relief.” I could picture her as she had been as we’d left the room, eyes closed and her hands folded on her chest. “And you know she really hasn’t started eating again since the last emergency.”
The two of them again exchanged a look. “I was given to understand she was eating small amounts…?” the hospice counselor said.
Courtney stage-whispered it, even though we were in the hallway where Claire couldn’t hear us. “She pretends to.”
The surgeon sighed. “Then I think the improvement we’re seeing in her energy and mood is that now that she’s no longer putting any stress on her digestive system, she feels better. But of course this is only a temporary waypoint.”
Of course. She couldn’t live off of ice chips and glucose bulbs forever. “How long does she have? If she’s no longer eating?”
The surgeon seemed to take my question as an answer of some kind. “There’s no question she should stay put, then.”
Courtney asked it a different way. “Because she doesn’t have that long?”
They both nodded and the counselor answered. “At the outside, two weeks. More likely sooner. At some point the temporary respite that not eating is giving her will begin to fade, and that’s when the hard part starts.”
“Starts.” I hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
“For her. You know how we talk about birth being labor? It’s work. Death can be, too. It’s hard work.”
“Okay.” I had a lump in my throat. “Should I tell Remo? I’ll tell Remo.”
“I’ll tell Janine and Lilibeth,” Court said.
Our little conference broke up then, and I thought to ask her. “So I guess she didn’t get kidnapped into white slavery in the Big Boy bathroom?”
“No, and I finally got her to sit down and look at some more facts. She’s still a little skeptical to hear it coming from me, since I work for you, but it’s starting to sink in a little that Digger hasn’t been totally honest with her about his prospects for getting rich off these lawsuits. She also was sure that Mom must have a pile of money from a pre-nup with Ex-Husband Number Two, but Janine said no, that’s just wishful thinking.”
“Lilibeth is the type to make a pile of money off an ex-husband, not Claire,” I said.
“Exactly. Speaking of which, I get the feeling that’s one reason why she’s less worried about Digger coming through with his promises than she might be.”
“This was the husband where she got the marriage annulled because she framed him for cheating on her?”
“No, that was her first husband. The second husband decided to cut bait when he found out how much she was costing him, but he still owes her something. I really did not pry for the details. My focus was on getting her to understand how deep the shit is around Dad.”
Part of me was worried she told her too much, and that was going to help Digger’s case, but then I remembered the whole point of our lawyers talking to each other was that they were supposed to have the same information. One legal team pulling a “gotcha” out of a hat during the trial only happened on TV. Both sides having all the same facts was supposed to help parties settle without it having to get to a judge, right?
That is, if both parties actually used logic. It was hard to tell when Digger’s lawsuits were strategic, when he was an asshole, and when he was just angry and stupid.
“You don’t think he’s going to try to show up here, do you?”
Courtney gave me a look. “Of course he’s going to try to show up. That’s exactly the kind of asshole he is.” She folded her arms. “I’m sure part of what Lili’s doing is scouting for him. Mom’s said under no circumstances does she want to lay eyes on him, though.”
I wondered if it was going to come down to us physically barring the door or having to call the police. Yeah, he was that kind of asshole.
“All right. I’ll go back to the hotel, tell Remo and Ziggy, and then I guess we’ll come back.”
“You just did the overnight,” she said. “Drop Remo back here after lunch–I’ve got his car. Then you and Zig take a break. Come back at or after dinnertime.”
Right. Stick to the rotation. “Okay, but call me if–”
“Of course. I’ll call or page if anything happens.” She kissed me on the cheek. “How was she last night?”
“Chatty.” I wasn’t ready to tell her yet about how I’d sung songs to Claire that night. It felt too personal, too intimate, to tell anyone else about just yet. Which seemed ridiculous. Singing was something I’d done in front of tens of thousands of people, and Courtney was my closest relative. But there it was.
“So you probably need a good long nap.” She kissed me again, this time on the other cheek, and it felt more like a dismissal. Yes, get out of here now, Daron. It’s your sister’s turn to have some alone time with the mother she loves.
“Okay. Wait, where’s Lilibeth now?”
“She checked into a budget motel. Janine’s going to pick her up after she gets off work.”
“Oh, did they make up?”
She pushed me. “Go. We’ll talk later.”
Right. I made myself turn around and walk toward the parking lot. I got in the car. I dropped by a grocery store to get Pop Tarts because I remembered Ziggy wanted some. Then I drove back to the extended-stay place.
But when I got there I sat in the car, baking in the summer sun, suddenly weighed down by the thought that Claire’s demise was probably really and truly coming within countable days. It was like the news was literally too heavy for me to stand up under the weight.
I didn’t feel sad, exactly. I didn’t feel like crying. I just… couldn’t move. And I sat there feeling what I was feeling, which was just that death is a huge thing. Death goes up there with love, and I guess with birth, in the top three most humongous things from a human perspective. When one day someone’s there, and then the next day they’re not, it’s gigantic.
It’s one of the most gigantic things there is.