The Moon Above: Part 25
Chapters 49 and 50
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The Thin Thread
AFTER A WHILE I went back to my place less and less and one day, I realized that all my belongings were back in the house, and I was, too. It wasn’t anything we talked about, it just happened. We were past the point of thinking we could control the flow of our lives, so we were content to see what fate had in store for us.
One day she came and sat down next to me on the couch, where I was reading the paper. It was a Saturday, in the spring, and the smell of fresh-cut grass wafted through the open windows.
“I need to tell you something,” she said, touching my arm so that I
would put down the paper. “It’s something I’ve only told you once before.”
My heart started racing when I heard that. I knew what it meant, but I almost didn’t believe it. It was a miracle, it was too good to be true, it was some cruel joke by God.
“It’s not going to be just us anymore. I’m pregnant.”
We had not been trying to get Virginia pregnant, not specifically. We had not talked about it as a goal, but occasionally the topic would rear its head and we had decided she was too old. She believed it and I believed it, but as it turns out, she wasn’t. She had a child before so that made it more likely that she could conceive later in life.
And so, when I was nearly fifty-two years old, we began planning for a child. Virginia threw herself into decorating the guest bedroom, which would be turned over to the baby. James’s room, which we rarely set foot in except to clean, was not considered for the new need. Walking in there to tend to a new child would be too much, and by silent agreement we left his room alone.
The months seemed to fly by, for me, at least. This pregnancy was rougher on Virginia than the first one. She was sick a lot and I stayed home as much as I could to care for her. The garage let me bring cars home to work on them, which was very nice, so I was close by most of the time. It was a nice time, although again I wasn’t the one having the baby. I would work a while and then go in and chat with Virginia, or bring her food, or wipe her mouth when she was sick. It felt good to be needed and to be able to help.
We were six months into the pregnancy when the doctor called us both in to talk about the results of a checkup. I was a little nervous. This was the first checkup I had been to.
“The baby is fine. He’s a very active little boy, as you probably know,” Dr. Lumpkin said.
We hadn’t known, and hadn’t intended to find out, but now we did.
“But his activity is not the only reason for the extensive sickness you’ve been experiencing.”
Dr. Lumpkin did not live up to his name. He was not lumpy at all, but bone thin and nearly as white, with a shock of white hair on the top of his head. He looked like a big Q-Tip and would have seemed comical except for the grave expression on his face. Virginia slid her hand into mine and we waited for his next words.
“I’m afraid you have Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I would like for you to get another opinion, but I would also like for you to start treatment right away. This form of cancer can be quite aggressive.”
As it had in the past when I was in a rage, my world narrowed to almost nothing. I focused on Dr. Lumpkin’s shock of white hair and everything else went black. I could feel Virginia’s hand gripping mine with almost painful force, but my hand seemed to belong to some other dimension somewhere.
“And the baby?” I heard her ask. “What about our son?”
“The treatment will be very difficult to carry out effectively if you are pregnant. I strongly recommend that you have an abortion, fight this cancer and then try to get pregnant again later.”
He said it as if we were discussing throwing out bad fruit in a refrigerator before buying more. It was just another option, another check on the paper.
“We’ve lost one child,” Virginia told him, her voice as flat as a snake. “We won’t lose another. We might not get another chance.”
“I wish you would talk about it. Talk about it tonight and think about it. But you need to move soon on treatment.”
We didn’t talk about it that night. There was nothing to talk about. Virginia would not hear of anything else. We sat on our couch, holding each other close, and cried until our tears mixed together and our arms and shirts and necks were wet.
“This is just a challenge,” she said. “We’ve gotten this far, and now we’re down to you and me. But God doesn’t want it to end there. He wants us to be a family again.”
We fell asleep on the couch and later I woke up with a pounding headache. I woke Virginia up and we staggered to bed with sore necks. I lay in bed and the headache did not go away but danced around my skull and sent sparks coursing through my eyeballs. I was probably dehydrated. I had cried out all my liquid. Lying there in pain, I prayed to a God I no longer believed in and asked for help to get through this one last thing. I wanted Virginia to live and I wanted my son to live. I wanted it all and I did not think that was too much to ask, not after all I had been through. I got no answer back, but I figured that meant God didn’t say no.
Virginia started her treatments two days later. She couldn’t do chemotherapy without risking the health of the baby, but she could do radiation treatment with shielding to protect the fetus, the doctor said. It would not be as effective a cure as doing radiation and chemotherapy together, but Virginia would not hear of any course of action that might harm our child. I dropped her off at the hospital in her car, a Buick, but picked her up in a car from the shop: A ’56 bright pink Cadillac. I thought it might cheer her up, but she was so weak she could barely muster a smile, and the smile looked almost like a snarl. She fell asleep immediately on the way home, her head drooping limply on the door, her hair blowing lifelessly in the wind.
And so, she grew, and she shrank. She became thin and drawn except for her belly, which began to bulge with our son. She ate frantically for the baby’s sake and threw up when the radiation attacked her.
“Darling, maybe the doctor was right,” I said one day after she spent most of the day in the bathroom, sick. “This is going to kill you.”
“No,” she said, so faintly that I could barely hear her, even with the door open. “This is just my cross to bear. You’ve gotten through some tough times, Johnny, and so will I. You got sick and thin and you got through it.”
“I wasn’t carrying a baby, though. It was just me.”
She turned her head away from the toilet and to me. She was thin and gray and sick but still beautiful, still my Virginia, and no soldier on any battlefield has ever displayed more courage.
“But you came through it and got me back. And I will get through this and we will have a son. God doesn’t make us suffer for nothing.”
“You will get through this and we will have a son,” I repeated, and sat down next to her and held her hand. That was the only part of her statement that I believed.
After a couple of months, it seemed God was easing up. Virginia began to gain weight to catch up to her belly and her color and her energy returned. The therapy was helping, and the baby, as if responding, became more lively, kicking to get out. Life returned to normal, or as normal as it can get with a baby on the way. On one particularly nice day, Virginia and I drove downtown in a black ’62 Thunderbird that I borrowed from the shop. It still needed a little work and coughed dramatically now and then, threatening to die, but it was the perfect car for a perfect day. We walked the same street where Wernher von Braun had been carried, and window shopped. I bought her some ice cream from the drug store soda fountain. A decade before they wouldn’t have served me in there, but now I was just like anybody else, a man buying his pregnant wife a cool treat. We stopped at Dimont’s jewelry store and I bought her a little silver bracelet. It didn’t have any rare stones and it wasn’t expensive, but it looked nice against her skin and it made her smile.
“Thank you, Johnny,” she said, and kissed me, something she rarely did in public.
There are some days that burn themselves into your memory, whether for bad or good; this one was for good. While it was happening, I thought, I want to remember this, and I worked hard to do that and I’m glad I did. I still remember the warmth of the sun pushing against my forehead and Virginia’s lips pushing against mine.
It became harder and harder for Virginia to go out as the baby neared. She was still strong, but she was going through two traumatic experiences at once: saving her life and bringing forth new life. It was more than any woman should have to bear, but she did it with all her strength. Two days before the birth, Virginia had to be hospitalized. The drugs and the stress of a birth at her age had worn her down. She still was tough, and her color was good, but she needed more rest and attention than even I could give her.
There are days that burn themselves into your mind, for good or bad. Sometimes there are years between them, sometimes they follow as close as the moon and the sun. The day the baby arrived was not long after our walk downtown. It was not a day I had to prompt myself to remember. I couldn’t forget it if I tried.
The labor was relatively short. I held Virginia’s hand as the contractions started to get more numerous, and she made the usual jokes about how this was all my fault, the same jokes she had made when James was born. The doctors shooed me from the room for the actual birth, and I slouched in a chair, feeling guilty that I felt so tired when I wasn’t the one trying to pass a bowling ball through my body. The baby’s cries pierced the fog of sleep and pulled me to my feet. Virginia was there with our son, both of them swaddled and exhausted and clinging to each other like survivors of a shipwreck. I kissed her on the forehead and tried to kiss him on his little wizened apple forehead, but he was too curled up for me to reach it, so I made do with the back of his head.
“We’re a family again,” she said, and we were, dazed, confused, tired, but alive, happy, a family.
The doctors wanted Virginia to rest and to keep the baby for a while for observation, because of what his mother had been through to produce him. After receiving increasingly pointed hints, I kissed them both again and went home and fell into a deep, dark, bottomless, dreamless sleep.
Virginia died in the night. I did not feel a thing, received no premonition or ghostly message. No goodbye.
My Greeting and Farewell to You
IF MY SON had not been born, I would have returned right then to the woods, drank myself to death and waited to be picked apart by the raccoons and the alligators and the buzzards. But Virginia was not my last tether to the earth; my son was.
I could not raise him alone. I put him up for adoption, with the condition that I be allowed to live near him, to keep an eye on him, to watch him grow. I interviewed many candidates because my son was a bright, healthy boy, and I picked a young family that promised to raise him right. I have always lived near him, sometimes right across the street, but I have kept my distance and let this new family thrive. The new parents loved him as their own but agreed that when the time was right, he should know the story.
And so, I am telling you the story.
You are the boy I used to babysit every once in a while. Your mother gave me some books to read to you, but you weren’t very interested. They were stories about love and war and things like that, with talking animals and knights in shining armor. You told me that your mother said I had better stories to tell, real stories about love and war, and you wanted to hear those. Particularly the ones about war. But those stories I wouldn’t tell.
Until now. You’re not ready to hear it yet, though, so I have written it down for you. When you are old enough, when you are ready, you can read it.
I don’t know what you will learn from it, I just wanted you to know. You can push your way past all the cruelty and meanness and loneliness and take what you have learned from life and travel with it as far as you can and make something good. You can take the pain — the pain you have received and the pain you have learned to give — and stick a trembling finger out from this world and touch another world. You can build an aluminum can and put a man in it and land it right on another world.
And it means everything. And it means nothing.
And you can love another person. One person out of billions, the same as any other, another person fated to live in pain and die. You can treat that person badly and you can treat that person well and you can love that person and keep them in your memory until you die. And it means nothing. And it means everything
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