Breathing (Part One)
Easier to do this now, she thinks. Easier to sit in the chair pulled next to the sofa, to watch bland and garish images alternate on the television. It's always on, to drown out wheezing lungs and sizzling electricity. Easier to breathe steadily, easier to slip her hand into the hand that waits. Easier to be orphaned the second time.
Her mother likes the shopping channels--not to watch, but to purr in the background. The hostesses smile encouragingly, hair lacquered into place, careful makeup, perfect teeth, comforting Midwestern accents proclaiming the virtue of gold-plated diamonique jewelry. The satellite TV system has four shopping networks, but her father picked it out to watch hockey. When she was in grammar school, they had a huge, boxy set with a tiny monochrome screen. Her parents refused to spend money on a new one until her teens, years after everyone on the block was already watching glorious color.
The wallpaper in the living room is not the dark coral stripe she grew up with. Now the walls are crisscrossed in cornflower blue, peeling mildly with age along the ceiling's edge. She's forgotten the last time her parents redecorated, but the beige sofa is threadbare and tired. The wood floors show the same wear they did nearly fifty years ago, when she and her brothers treated them like a skating rink, a racetrack, a basketball court. Since they grew up, there has been much less traffic.
"...And I bought one for my daughter," says a loud Southern woman who has called into the housewares show. Probably a paid shill, but C.J. winces anyway, and looks at her mother. The older woman's eyes were open, but she did not see.
It's easier to do this here, because her father tried to deal with the hospital, first going in for hours of radiation and chemo. And if that wasn't horrible enough there was his inpatient stay, visiting hours from eight-thirty in the morning to seven in the evening. A rigorous schedule, strictly followed, eleven-hour days for six weeks for her father. It makes her throat close to think how the call had come at quarter past seven in the morning, at home. How, at the end, they'd been nowhere near. After his funeral, her mother pulled them aside, individually and then together, and asked them for a promise. "Not in the hospital. Not like that, not with all those strangers and all that white." Her mother was still walking then, but already thin, so thin, translucent or lit from the inside. C.J. promised along with her brothers and intended to keep it. Not in the hospital. It had to be easier at home.
She squeezes her mother's right hand in her left, listening to her cough her way from sleep to semi-consciousness. Using her right, she dabs at her mother's chin with a checkered dishcloth. There's a mountain of laundry waiting in the basement. She and her brothers often sleep in what they've been wearing, leave the discarded clothes hanging out of the hamper with dirty towels and pillowcases, with nightgowns stiff down the front with sickness and saliva, with the foul smells and the stains.
"Claudia," her mother says in a voice that is less a voice than a rattle of vocal cords that have no tension left. "What time is it?"
She always knows what time it is now, keeps it ticking in the back of her mind. "Five-thirty."
"AM or PM?"
She points to the sunlight slanting in through the curtains on the western windows. "PM. The boys went to get food."
Mia turns her face to the upholstery of the couch. "I'm not hungry."
She never is, anymore; her children have to battle to get her to drink water, or take protein supplements, and anything they get into her leaves her system, unprocessed, by one route or another. "There's nothing in the house," C.J. says lamely.
"Is anything on TV?"
She flips to the preview channel and watches for a while. "Not much."
"Leave this, then." She moves her fingers falteringly to her own cheek. The nails are ragged and unpainted, though they never used to be, even when she was a mother of small, explosive toddlers. "You should go rest," she rasps.
"You look like three miles of bad road."
"Mom, I'm fine." C.J. thinks that it would be nice to look perfect, as people do in movies at dramatic moments like these. It would be nice to have lipstick, eyeliner, to be brushed with a luster like the anchors on QVC. Nice, but impossible, to be lovely here. They watch the channels scroll in silence.
First the screen door, then the wooden one creaks open. "The food-man cometh," Thomas calls, backing in, and John follows, groceries spilling from both their arms.
"You should've gotten paper bags," Mia says disapprovingly.
"They were out," Tom explains over his shoulder as he stomps toward the kitchen.
She sniffs. "Don't make a mess in there."
C.J. is grateful that her mother can't see the state of perpetual disaster that the rest of the house has fallen into. It's especially embarrassing in the kitchen where, she has tried very hard to convince herself, she did not spot a roach in the drain. Then she is guilty for the gratitude. She helps her brothers carry in the food, peeking at the contents. "This is crazy," she says, hefting a mesh bag full of potatoes. "We're never going to eat all these."
John shrugs. "I thought mashed potatoes might be good some night."
"And corn chips and salsa," Tom says, stuffing a few bags into the cabinet. "And strawberry ice cream." He pauses and makes a face. "Not together."
"Celery, Buffalo wings, pudding, and cheese?" C.J. shakes her head. "What is this, random acts of cholesterol?"
"Shut up and have a Twinkie." Tom tosses one of the small packages to her. "How's she been?"
"The same." She hugs herself, unconsciously squishing the snack cake. "Maybe a little worse. A little apnea, when she was asleep."
"Vomit?" Tom asks, automatically in medical mode.
John wedges a gallon of milk into the top shelf of the refrigerator. "Did you call the hospital?"
"Because I know what they'll say, John." C.J. sets the Twinkie down on the hutch and swipes at the stray locks of hair that cling to her forehead. "They'll say we should bring her in, and I'll say no, and they'll tell me all the horrible things that are happening inside her. They'll tell me she's shutting down and it's only a matter of what gets to her first, and they'll tell me she belongs in a hospital. They'll say we should bring her in, and I'm tired of arguing with people who are right."
He glares at her for a minute and then turns back to the groceries. "And we got yogurt, like you wanted."
John studies the carton. "Fruit on the bottom."
"Whatever." She looks down at the almond-colored linoleum and can't remember the previous pattern. There have been half a dozen since they first moved in, when she was three, and the whole kitchen was done in hideous shades of navy and olive and gold. "It's time to give her the pills," she says.
Tom checks his watch to verify the time. "Yeah. Whose turn?"
"She keeps them down better when you do it," John says, hiding behind the freezer door.
"It's true," C.J. says quickly before Tom can protest.
"Fine," he says, shoulders slumping in resignation. "I'll do it. I have to take mine anyway."
As he leaves, C.J. watches John rearrange cartons of orange juice and two-liter bottles of root beer, all of them close to empty, all of them unfinished. "I'm going outside to smoke," she says.
His forehead creases. "You should quit."
"No shit, Sherlock." She grabs a pack and a lighter off the top of the low bookcase that stores winter boots, old scarves and mismatched mittens. She half-stumbles down the three steps to the back door Outside, she rests her back against the weathered gray siding and lights the cigarette. As she takes a drag, it seems to pull back, drawing something out of her. She knows it's nonsense, but that's how it feels, as she tips her head back and exhales a swirl of smoke into the cloudy sky.
Ten years earlier, when her oldest brother was diagnosed, it had been foreign and surreal. Cancer was the word that they said over and over, trying to imbue it with reality. Then there were the specific words, the medical terms that the doctors used, that they all memorized. These sounded more like the Latin they knew from Catholic school than something that could kill someone you loved.
The books she read on cancer and, later, on grief, said that shock was typical. That it was normal to experience disbelief before fear, numbness before agony. It assuaged little of the guilt that hit her the day that she realized he was dying, which was two days before it happened. The knowledge drifted in her mind, painful and alien as the ravenous cells stalked her brother's lymph nodes. "Ceej," Aaron had said, the last time he was able to speak to her, "you gotta help take care of them." He hadn't specified if he meant their parents, or their brothers, or his daughters, and she has never been sure. Two days later they did what he'd wanted and turned the machines off.
With ten years' distance, she recalls what came later in an abstract blur: holding onto her sister-in-law's shoulders, an interminable morning on the phone with an undertaker, complete strangers telling her they were sorry. Then shock, and the things she did to get through it, dangerous things like smoking too many cigarettes and screwing her boss. It had been hard, but it had been a long time ago. Time had passed, the bleeding stopped, the pain faded, and finally there was only a scar. Joy came back. There were some very good years.
Mia found the lump in her breast in the middle of summer, not quite six months after Bartlet left office. Her surviving children were first paralyzed with fear and then galvanized by it, rushing to red-eye flights and crowding the oncologist's office. In her memory, C.J. can see it all as a flow-chart, or a printout from a seismograph. The spike of initial panic and the slow descent into relaxation, treatments that helped, seemed to help, didn't help, the first mastectomy and the first remission, and then the cycle repeated. Waves and surges over four years and finally this anticlimactic gradual decline.
She was forty days out of her second remission, talking to a specialist she'd heard about in a neighboring town, when her husband lost consciousness in a car on Interstate 80.
Her first cigarette is gone, and her second one fast disappearing, when she realizes the sun is setting. Her skin prickles, and the concrete of the patio seems cold to her bare feet. She tugs the sleeves of her charcoal sweater down over her forearms. Inside the house they keep the temperature high, and no one is ever warm enough.
What's happening must not be harder, so it has to be easier. When she flew out three months earlier, she told her friends she was going home for a while. Now she thinks: I haven't been home in three months. It's disturbing to feel homesick in a place as familiar as her own flesh. It must be pretty unusual, these days, for a family to keep one house for five decades. But they'll have to sell it, after--she mentally chokes that off, knowing only that neither she nor her brothers want to live there anymore.
The end of the cigarette burns down to her hand. She yelps and drops it, putting her fingers into her mouth to relieve the pain. The remnant smolders on the pavement a few inches away and she contemplates a third one, shaking the pack against her hip. She decides to wait, takes a few seconds to compose herself and goes in from the gathering darkness.
"Hey," Tom greets her as she comes into the kitchen. He pours water into the coffee-maker and turns it on. "She took the potassium and the codeine."
Though she knows it's like holding a parasol up to the Deluge, she feels her heart skip. "That's good."
"She spit out the tamoxifen, but I figured it wasn't worth fighting about." Tom rubs his forehead. "It's not going to slow things down any further. And what's the point of slowing it down anyway?"
C.J. makes a soft, noncommittal sound and opens the refrigerator, letting the freon cool her burn. "What did you buy that's quick and easy?"
He folds his arms and leans on the counter. "We got some bologna."
"From the deli?"
"Oscar Meyer." A smile, almost goofy, appears and disappears on his face. "All this time, I still haven't learned to cook. I can ruin spaghetti."
Staring into the fridge, she thinks of the dinners that Toby has learned to make. He's got a touch of insane genius for cooking like he's always had for language. "I can burn instant pudding."
"And you know why that is?" He cocks his head toward the living room. "She used to chase us out of the kitchen waving a spatula. 'I swear to God, if you touch one of those cookies...'"
C.J. chuckles and finishes the refrain with him as she takes out the lunch meat and a loaf of bread. "'I will make a call, I will have you killed.' Yeah. I didn't know how the burners worked until I was twelve. Hand me a paper plate?"
Tom does. The coffee machine beeps, and he removes the pot. "Coffee," he shouts into the hallway, and turns back to his sister. "It's funny. Technically, she might die of malnutrition."
She looks up sharply from the food. "Don't say that."
"I didn't mean it was funny, Ceej," he says. "You know that. I just meant, of all things, of all people--"
"I know what you meant." She pushes at her hair. "And she still won't let you put in an IV."
"No. She was always scared of needles."
"When was she ever scared of needles?"
He takes out three mugs and fills them with coffee. "Remember when we were kids and we had to get measles shots? She always used to wince and shield her eyes."
"No," C.J. says. "Why don't I remember that?"
Tom shrugs. "It was a long time ago. We were little. You need coffee."
She accepts the cup and drinks from it without stopping to consider the temperature. "Ow!"
His eyes widen in amusement. "Burned your tongue there, did you?"
"Let me ask you something. When did I lose the ability to coordinate motion with thought?"
"When did you have that ability?"
As C.J. sets her mug down, John walks into the kitchen. "Hallelujah," he says to his coffee cup.
"Did you know Mom was afraid of needles?" C.J. asks.
"I guess. Yeah. Why?"
"She's falling asleep." He stands in front of the sink, blowing on his coffee. "This stuff is like heroin to me."
"Yeah, because you know the hard stuff. You've been down on the corner." Tom looks at the ceiling. "It's okay to drink now, C.J."
She picks up the cup and stares into it. "What's on TV tonight?"
"Garbage as usual." John looks at her. "You need a shower."
"You're a bit gamy there yourself."
"What we need," Tom intones dramatically, "is a plan. A plan for how to do this."
"I agree." C.J. gulps some coffee. Her tongue tingles unpleasantly. "A plan would be a good thing to have."
"Well, there are people who are professionals at making this kind of plan," John begins, oblivious to the dirty look Tom directs at the back of his skull. He looks across the room. "Whose sandwich is that?"
C.J looks at the dark glossy surface of her coffee. "I'm not hungry."
C.J.'s niece, the older of Aaron's daughters, was driving the car. She panicked, but did it gracefully, pulled off to the side of the road and called 911, managed to make it clear that she wasn't just trying to get her motor jumped faster than Triple-A. Her grandfather woke up before the ambulance got there. He tried to talk, but his voice was weak, his words disjointed. Delirious, Robin said, when she told them. He had been delirious.
They all thought it was a heart attack, until the chest x-rays came back, spotted with shadows, blue-black and ominous. It looked like moth-eaten fabric, like Swiss cheese, like a Rorschach test from Hell.
He didn't want them to get upset. He was disgusted with the fuss and the unsubtle exchanges of worried glances. C.J. tried to keep things calm over the phone, while the line on the other end passed from hand to hand. "They caught it early, right?" she had said, she was sure, fifty times. "That's why they do these x-rays. That's why they have the treatments. They caught it early." And her father called her a good girl when they gave him the phone.
"I'm an old man, Claude," George said. "I feel like hell when I have to bend over to tie my shoes. Tell your mother to stop pestering the nurses and let 'em alone and sit down."
She had laughed. But they had all been wrong again, wrong or lying to themselves. Her father obeyed the rules, followed the prescribed courses of therapy. He called it nonsense at every turn, as his wife and children alternately cajoled and threatened him. He never missed an appointment, or a chance to gripe about the outdated magazines lying around the waiting room.
They diagnosed him in the spring, and by the end of July there was no more pretending it was only an old man's aches and pains. Before the leaves turned, the fear was back. It was a living thing that touched her, grabbed her, metastasized at the same rate as the tumors drifting around her father's lungs and heart.
And her mother kept losing weight.
"It sucks," Josh says sympathetically.
C.J. sits on the floor beside her bureau and twines the phone cord around her fingers. "Yeah."
"Nothing about it that doesn't suck."
She leans her elbows on her windowsill. The glass reflects her own face, the low lamplight, the cream-colored walls. She peers through the image to see the night. "Did the President ever tell you that story about the old couple in the winter of 1714?"
"No. Tell me."
"There was this old couple in the winter of 1714."
He chuckles. "You're a great storyteller."
"Had you noticed that about me?" She shifts the receiver from her left ear to her right and continues. "They lived out in the woods in a cabin, and they were walking back from town in a blizzard. I think maybe the man was carrying the woman because she had the galloping consumption or whatever people got back then."
"Do you want me to tell the story or do you want to be a stand-up comedian?"
"Anyway, there was a blizzard and they were snowed in for a long time. When somebody finally came and found them, they'd frozen to death. And the man had the woman's feet cradled against his stomach, so the last of his body heat went to keep her warm."
Josh listens thoughtfully. "And you think that's the way it's supposed to happen?"
"I think their kids would agree it sucks. How's Sam?"
"He continues to burst with pride. He wanted me to tell you that you've got to come by when--" he swallows "--you get back, and see the baby."
C.J. sighs. "I've already seen her several times."
"Yeah, I can't believe we've lost Sam to this cult of parenthood."
"Cute baby, though."
"If you go in for that sort of thing. And of course you talk to Toby."
She doesn't call home as much as she should, and she knows that. There are times when it's like she might drown if she doesn't hear his voice, and then she calls and when he speaks it's hard to breathe. "Yes," she says simply.
If she didn't know him so well, she might not have noticed the edge in his tone. "Have you talked to Donna?"
She stands up straight, crosses the small bedroom and flops down backwards on the bed, stretching the phone cord to its full capacity. "Once or twice."
"She called you?"
"I called her," she admits. "Just to check in."
"So you have her new number."
"Can I have it?"
"I just want to talk to her," he says, his speech plaintive and strangled. C.J. can picture him laying his head back on the top of his chair, fidgeting, looking both exhausted and boyish. "This is stupid. I just want to talk to her."
"It's not up to me to give out her number, Josh." She rubs her eyes. "If
"Yeah, yeah." He breathes deeply and slowly. "Last time we talked she told me I should call a lawyer."
"I am a lawyer!" Josh laughs bitterly. "Besides, they charge like two hundred and fifty dollars an hour."
"Yeah, and I know how you're hurting for cash there, buddy." She taps her fingers on the top of her thigh. "Look, I'm sorry, I really am, but I'm not taking sides. I'm not sure that she should be cutting off all contact, but you haven't been the best husband."
When she stops talking there is nothing but the pops and hisses on the line. "You still there?" she says, tentatively.
"This is the point where we used to talk about work," he replies.
"Okay, so talk about work." She reaches out lazily for one of her pillows, sliding it under her neck. "You're backing Lawrence DePeter."
"Yeah. You want a job?"
"I've pretty much hung up my campaigning shoes."
"Damn. I was hoping maybe you'd take over for me."
She scoffs gently. "That bad, hmm?"
"Pop quiz, hotshot," Josh says. "Name the incumbent Presidents defeated in the last hundred years."
It only takes her a couple seconds. "Taft, Hoover, Carter, Armstrong."
"Beaten by Wilson, Roosevelt, Reagan, and Bartlet. I don't think the incumbent's in a class with the former, and Larry DePeter is definitely not in a class with the latter."
C.J. nods even though he can't see her. "Well, they can't all be."
"Guess not." Josh yawns. "It's about two-thirty in the morning here, C.J."
"Yeah. Thanks for calling."
"Like you could stop me?"
She frowns at the overhead light. "You know, when your father died--I felt terrible about it, but I didn't know it was like this."
"I had the campaign to distract me," he says casually.
"Did that help?"
"No." He pauses. "Talk to you soon."
"Bye." C.J. gets up again. It's exactly like being a teenager, the long conversations with her best friends. But then she was always being interrupted by loud, alarming crashes downstairs, by her brothers trying to invade the room, by her mother yelling that dinner was ready. She drops the phone into its cradle. The house is quiet.
She wants a cigarette. She tiptoes to the back stairs and descends, placing her feet precisely on the steps to keep them from squeaking. As she nears the kitchen, she hears voices. Her brothers are at the table; John is sipping coffee while Tom idly shuffles a deck of cards.
"What're you two doing up?" she wonders, stopping in the doorway.
"We're old," Tom says.
John grimaces at him and then looks at C.J. "He's old, and I'm anxious."
She pulls a stool up between them and sits down, crossing her legs. "About what?"
"Take a wild guess." He gestures toward the living room with his coffee cup. "And I haven't seen my wife in a week and a half."
"So call her," Tom suggests, fluttering the cards into an arc and flattening them back down. "Have her come over."
"Wendy doesn't handle illness very well," John mutters. "You saw how she was with Dad. She cries at the drop of a hat."
Tom raises an eyebrow. "Why would she cry if somebody dropped their hat?"
"The Cregg children," C.J. says, resting her chin in her hands, "are not
"They are not," Tom agrees. "Anyone want to play a game of something?"
"No." John folds his arms on the table. "I'm tired."
"Me too," C.J. says. "And I may never sleep again."
"Well, I hate being the bad guy, but--"
Tom interrupts him with a groan. "It starts."
"We should've gotten hospice in here weeks ago," John says firmly. "At the very least, Mom ought to have a nurse or something. And what we really ought to do is make her go to the ER."
C.J. stares at him for a beat. "No."
"She's loaded up with disease and painkillers," John says defensively. "She doesn't know what she wants."
"Really?" Tom snaps. "She seems like she's in pretty much sound mind, to me."
"You act like I'm suggesting something radical." John struggles not to raise his voice. "This is what hospitals are for, to save lives."
"We're past that," C.J. says flatly. "You do know that."
"Of course I do." He drums his fingers on the table, frustrated.
"Of course he does." Tom's voice is chilly. "You know, I think you're just scared. Strike that, I think you're selfish."
"Oh, I'm selfish now?"
"Stop it," C.J. orders. She reaches for John's coffee cup, touching his hand. "John. Johnny. She knows what she wants and it's not up to us."
"Fine," he says dubiously.
She takes his mug and drinks the cold liquid, as if it seals some kind of contract. "Are you two done bickering like the Gabor sisters? Because if you are, I can go out--"
"Kids?" Mia's voice from the living room is as loud as she can make it, which is feeble, pathetic, frightening. They troop into the living room, single file, guilty-faced as if they were caught in the cookie jar. C.J. believes they can never grow up completely in their mothers' eyes. Thirty years of playful, well-intentioned nagging about marriage and career have only been minor variations on lectures about getting chocolate pudding on lace tablecloths.
"You shouldn't be up," Mia tells them sternly.
"Back at you," Tom says lightly.
"Me?" She coughs; her children tense up until she relaxes again. She regards them jovially, as if she's caught them in some foolish behavior. "I sleep all day. What's your excuse?"
John takes a step backward. "We should get you some water."
"I'm fine," she insists. "I suppose none of you listen to me anymore."
"We listen to you," C.J. says.
"I tell you to go to bed, you sit in the next room fomenting rebellion." She shakes her head. "It's not very polite, and it's not very mature."
"Fomenting rebellion?" Tom repeats.
"Shush, you. I get the History Channel." Her smile is as frail as her voice, ghastly, and gut-wrenchingly hopeful. C.J. looks away, and Mia glances at her. "Go to bed. Or else let's all play cards."
"We should all sleep," John says.
"One game," Mia presses.
Tom holds out the deck. "Hearts?"
C.J. sits down on the floor, legs folded Indian-style, and looks steadily at her mother across the coffee table. "Deal."
Continued in Part Two.