On the eve of Mother’s Day, I thought of two little girls in Adelaide who lost their mother to cancer seven years ago. I remembered finding out about Mary’s cancer, her pregnancy and reconnecting with her as adults, chatting about our lives in the intervening years since we first met in high school.
This post is my first attempt at a short story and it was a no-brainer that it would be a dedication to my friend, taken from us too soon.
“Hey darl, you want me to pick up some bread and milk on my way home?” Kyle asked over a crackling line.
“Mila?” Kyle asked, concerned. “You there? Can you hear me? Hello?”
“I’m here,” Mila replied. Her voice was barely audible. “Just come straight home, darl.”
“Is everything all right? I’m sorry I couldn’t come with you for the scan today. Bruno’s got me by the nuts at the minute. It’s just…”
“Just come home,” Mila cut him off mid-sentence.
“Okay, I’m about half an hour away if there’s no traffic.”
“Love you,” Kyle said but Mila had already hung up.
Kyle found his wife sitting at the kitchen table; her hands wrapped tightly around a mug. Before he reached the kitchen door, he was interrupted by their three-year-old daughter.
“Daddy!” Bella called out to her father as she ran towards Kyle from the living room adjacent to the hallway. She wrapped her little arms around his legs where he stood outside the kitchen.
Kyle hoisted up his little girl, lifting her high above his head, much to her delight. Her giggles immediately made his heart smile. He blew raspberries on Bella’s tummy, which made her giggle even louder.
He gently lowered her back to the floor and kissed the top of her head as he knelt down on one knee so that they were facing each other eye-to-eye.
“How’s Daddy’s big girl today?”
“I’m drawing Mummy!” Bella beamed proudly.
“Oh really?” Kyle turned quickly to glance back at his wife, motionless in the kitchen. He wondered how long she had been sitting there like that, catatonic.
“I’m drawing you next! Then Bella! Come! See, Daddy!” Bella said excitedly. With great effort, she pulled her father to his feet. Taking one of her father’s big, calloused hands in both of hers, she started to lead him towards the crayon-covered coffee table where her masterpiece laid.
“Give Daddy a minute to say hello to Mummy first, okay? Go finish your drawing and I’ll be in shortly,” Kyle gave Bella a little pat on her behind to send her back on her way to the living room. He took a deep breath and headed into the kitchen.
“Hey,” Kyle said as he kissed his wife on the cheek and sat down next to her. Mila did not move. Had she even blinked? Slowly and gently, he pried her fingers open and took the mug from her hands, which were cold as ice despite it being a hot summer’s day.
He took her hands in his. “Babe?” No reaction. “Babe?” He repeated.
After what felt like minutes, Mila finally turned to look at her husband. “Hmm?” she muttered.
“What happened at the doctor’s today? Is everything okay with the baby?”
Oh God, we’ve lost the baby, Kyle thought. Not again. “What did the doctor say?” Kyle tried again.
“The baby is fine.”
Kyle wanted to breathe a sigh of relief but knew there was more. “Are you okay?”
“They found a lump,” she said, seemingly looking through her husband.
Kyle felt as if his heart had stopped beating and his throat caught. He suddenly felt as if the walls were closing in on him.
“It’s in my ovary,” Mila continued. “They did a biopsy.”
Don’t say it, Kyle thought to himself.
“It’s cancer,” Mila confirmed.
Kyle’s vision became blurry and he realised he had started to cry. “How could they already know this so quickly? You were only supposed to be getting a scan today. If they did the biopsy they couldn’t possibly have got the test results already!”
Step one: denial.
“They did the biopsy at my last visit. Today was the test results,” Mila explained calmly, her voice devoid of emotion.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before? I should have been there with you! How could you keep this from me?”
Step two rushed right in: anger. Who was he angry at? Her? Himself? The doctors? God?
Mila looked into her husband’s tear-filled eyes. “It will be okay. The baby will be okay. I am going to be okay. We’re all going to be okay,” she declared matter-of-factly. She took his face in her hands and brushed away his tears.
Kyle looked at his wife – strong, funny, a loving mother and his best friend. He melted into her embrace and allowed himself to cry, determined this will be the last time. He needed to be strong for her.
“It’s a girl,” Mila whispered.
At the hospital, a panel of experts in oncology, obstetrics, surgery and psychology had gathered together and analysed every pro and con of Mila’s case. They considered her physical and mental health. They considered the baby’s chances of survival.
At home, Mila and Kyle had sat on their mismatched deck chairs, watching their little Bella, happily playing in the backyard by herself. Occasionally Bella would look up at her smiling parents and hold up something she had discovered in the sandpit their neighbour had built for her.
Mila took Kyle’s hand and put it on her growing baby bump. He felt the tiny kick and could not help but smile. Husband and wife had done their own analysis. The doctors had said the tumour was growing very quickly and they risked both mother and child if they waited.
Could they put the baby at risk with chemotherapy? Should they wait till after the birth? Should they induce and have the baby before term so that Mila could have surgery sooner? What if something went wrong with the surgery or the baby did not survive a premature birth, or worse, both? As wonderful a father as Kyle was, how would he cope as a widower and a single dad?
Baby Marion arrived in all her pinkish glory, with a healthy pair of lungs as she declared her arrival to the world.
Big sister Bella loved kissing the baby’s head, covered in a few tufts of soft blonde hair.
Daddy Kyle often fell asleep on the couch with the baby on his chest as they watched footy together, dressed in matching red and white Sydney Swans colours.
Mila often found herself staring at the beautiful family she had helped create. How did I get this lucky? she thought to herself.
Shortly after Marion’s first birthday, Mila was in her oncologist’s office with Kyle. He had taken the morning off work to be with her. He had not missed a doctor’s appointment since Mila’s initial diagnosis, as if the doctor would not dare give bad news as long as he was present.
They held hands, interlacing their fingers, as they sat down in front of Dr McGlynn’s desk. The doctor always arranged his visitors’ chairs perpendicular to his desk, with his own chair facing the visitors. He always liked to sit with his patients with nothing between them.
“How have you been feeling, Mila?” Dr McGlynn asked as he closed the door and sat across from the couple. A man in his mid-fifties, Dr McGlynn had a calming sense about him.
“Not too bad,” Mila replied. “Marion just slept through the night for the first time last week. Bella is starting to realise there are responsibilities that go with being a big sister, and I am just trying to remind myself why I had kids in the first place. But I wouldn’t change a thing,” she smiled at her husband.
“What about the meds?”
“I haven’t been getting sick since you adjusted the dosage last month.”
The doctor made some notes on a card, then turned to Kyle. “And how are you going? Used to getting out-voted by the girls yet?”
“I don’t think I have won a vote since the moment I met Mila,” Kyle smiled.
“Right answer,” Dr McGlynn smiled. The smile disappeared quickly as his tone became more serious. “As you know, a twelve-month all-clear after your treatment was what we wanted.” Pause. Deep breath. “Unfortunately, your last scans showed four new tumours.”
The doctor turned his computer monitor on his desk around so they could all see it. Mila and Kyle sat up straighter in their chairs and both leant closer to the desk as Dr McGlynn pointed to the circled areas on the screen.
“Given you were clear on the previous scan, it means they are growing very quickly and aggressively. I would like to schedule you in for surgery as quickly as possible so we can remove them and hope they are benign. But if not, then the sooner we can begin treatment, the greater our chances of nipping this in the bud and stopping them from spreading.” Boom!
Kyle was trying to process this new information. He felt as if the air had been sucked out of the room and began to sweat.
“Can you operate today?” was all Mila asked.
Mila smiled weakly as Kyle replayed for her the music video that her friend, Vanessa, had made for their wedding. It was their favourite thing to do on their wedding anniversary each year. Now, they just watched it to celebrate each day they had together.
“Could you message Ness and thank her again for me?” It was difficult for her to speak.
“I just did,” Kyle said. “And she told me to tell you happy 39th and to give you a kiss from her.” He bent over her in bed and placed a gentle kiss on her parched lips.
“Did she ask you to kiss me on the mouth?” she teased.
Kyle gave her another kiss, this time on her cheek. “Okay, well, that other one was from me, then, cheeky!”
“It is my birthday,” she smiled again. She closed her eyes. “Where did you hide Marion’s birthday present?”
“On top of the laundry cupboard, like we always do with all the girls’ presents.”
“You know she’s not going to be spending the next four days looking for it. She’s two. She just wants cake.”
“I know, but it’s our tradition to hide the presents.”
The conversation slowed while they waited for Mila to catch her next breath.
“Have you wrapped Marion’s birthday present yet?”
“Yeah, Bella gave me a hand with it last night after I had put Marion to bed.”
“Did you have to re-wrap it after Bella went to bed?” Every word was a struggle now.
“Nah,” Kyle said. “I didn’t bother. We all know the paper will only last about five seconds once Marion gets her hands on the box anyway.”
Mila’s breathing slowed and Kyle thought she had drifted into sleep. “I hope I get to see her open it.”
Three days after Marion’s second birthday, they buried her mother. The little girl did not recognise all the strange people in her house, fussing over her and surrounding her Daddy.
Her elder sister, Bella, looked sad as she sat at the coffee table in the living room with crayons in hand. Marion went over to her sister and gave her a quick cuddle, and then went in search of her Mummy.
Later that evening when all the visitors had left and the girls had been put to bed, Kyle would find the picture Bella had drawn that afternoon. And he would allow himself to cry for the first time since his beloved wife gasped her last breath three days before.
He stared at the drawing of him, Bella and Marion, all dressed in black, and a wide, empty space on the page where Mila should have been.