The summer is winding down, and Jessica and I are at the coffee shop. I have given up any idea that I will get any work done here, because she will want to hang out, which means asking a lot of questions about how things work and watching all of the people.
She asks for a Coke Zero from the fridge, and the barista explains that in order to have the Coca-Cola refrigerator, they have to have some Coke in it, but he never sells any so he doesn’t know how much to charge.
Eventually we agree on a fair price and he makes my mocha with almond milk, steaming hot the way I like it, in a pint glass, sprinkles no whip, and I realize I have become one of those people who can’t just drink a damned cup of coffee. I’ve become a pain in the ass.
I tip the barista extra but can’t figure out how to turn back into someone who isn’t a pain in the ass. I am thinking of this as Jess and I head for a bench outside. A big green awning keeps the worst of the sun’s sting from us, but it is late summer in Kansas. I look at my steaming drink and wonder what the hell. The fridge had two Coke Zeroes in it, but I’ve got hot coffee in my hand on a ninety degree day.
This is the kind of thing that is occupying my attention when Jessica says, “I’m freaked out.”
She announces it calmly. She announces everything calmly, not like me, but I can see, now that she has gotten my attention, that she is vibrating with worry. She sits down next to me, and I open her can and she takes a swallow.
She has some medical tests coming up, for which she will be under anesthesia, and the older she gets the more stressed she becomes about the potential results of these tests. They often mean more surgery, and they always mean more pain, and I wish . . . well, the things I wish.
I was not expecting this conversation here on the bench outside the coffee shop in the summer sun. I don’t know why we can’t have them at home, where maybe I might be prepared for them, or at least not blinking sweat out of my eyes.
But I get it together, and try to think of what to say. I start with, “I know,” trying to say that I understand her frustrations. “I know you don’t like—”
“No,” she says with such intensity that I shut up. “Listen,” she says. “I am afraid I will not wake up again.”
I don’t know what to do with this or what to say. If she had said she doesn’t like how upset her stomach feels afterward, or how sore her throat is from the tube they always place so she doesn’t stop breathing the way she did that one time, I would have an answer. I would have We’ll bring some graham crackers for your tummy or I’ll get some cold Sprite for your throat, but for this I have nothing. I don’t even have I know because I don’t; I had no idea she is afraid of dying.
“You’ve always woken up before,” I say, one of my more feeble efforts, and I don’t even have to see the sharp shake of her head to know it is not the right thing. But there are no right things. You’ll be fine, everything will work out, no worries, those are all just lies, the bullshit that we say to each other because we do not want to sit with this. If anyone knows that sometimes life isn’t fine and everything doesn’t work out, it’s Jessica.
But I have an out, an escape hatch, and I grab it with both hands.
“I can find out if you can do the tests without anesthesia,” I say. “They’ll be hard without it but I can tell the doctor how important this is to you and I’m sure he’ll try.”
“When will you call?”
“As soon as we get home.”
“Okay,” she says. “Yes, that is what I want.”
“You bet,” I say.
I know I have only postponed the reckoning. There will be a time, I don’t know how soon, when I can’t offer a solution like this, and I don’t know what I will say to her then. It will happen on a day like today, while I am contemplating nail polish colors at the drugstore or reading the list of ingredients on a package of crackers at the grocery store.
I know now that it is coming but it will still take me by surprise when it gets here, and I hope I will do the right thing then. I have no idea what the right thing could be. All these years and I have never learned how to be Jessica’s mother except as the moment demands.
She rests her head against my shoulder and I stroke her hair.
“I hope it is okay with you,” she says.
“Of course, darlin’ girl. I’m not the one who has to go through this.” I just have to watch. I have always just had to watch.
“And you will make the nurses say 1,2,3.”
“Of course,” I say. She always watches when the nurses put the needles in. 1, 2, 3, they say and go. She always needs to know who is in the room and what their names are and what they will do and how they will do it.
“I just . . . you know,” she says.
“Want to see it coming. I know. I’ll do my best, darlin’,” I tell her, and I see that she has given me the right answer for when the time comes.