Mom and I fought again today. This time, it was about how I “mope around the house all day.” And, stupid me, I yelled back, “Maybe if you cared, you’d actually help me find something to do.”
All she did was stare at me, eyes wide as a deer-in-headlights. Then she mumbled something and left the room, her bottom lip quivering on the verge of tears. I felt a little bad after I thought about it later, but I’m not sure if I could have said anything else. Recently, she hasn’t talked to me at all. Or as little as possible, whichever is convenient for her.
I’ve been going to once-a-week check-ups at the doctor’s office to see if the cancer is still in remission. She drives me there and drives me back home without a word.
What kind of mother can watch her own child slip away from the world and actually help with his disappearing act?
So the days went by like that, with Phoenix and I walking our days through the hospital and around it occasionally, or visiting each other when we were to sick to leave our beds. There was one day . . . in mid-August when I went to see if she was doing okay, because she hadn’t come to my door early like she usually did.
When I knocked, there was no answer. “Phoenix?” I reached for the doorknob, but changed my mind.
No . . . she was probably just . . .
Then the door flew open and I came face-to-face with the startled gray eyes of a woman with brunette hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. “Hello—“
I knew it was rude, but I couldn’t stand not knowing. “Is Phoenix okay?”
The woman stared at me for a moment, then realization seemed to click in her eyes. “Phoebe? Yes, she’s fine.” She smiled reassuringly and opened the door a bit further. “Come in, will you?”
“Thanks.” I stepped past her into the room and the first thing I saw was another mound of yarn on the black shag rug. But this time, there were colors no less depressing than gray. No blues, or reds, or yellows. Only black, gray, and white.
“Phoenix . . .” I looked up and saw her propped up in the bed with six or so pillows. Today, she was wearing a white cap with tiny black and gray flowers stitched all along the top edge, as though they were growing from the hem. But there was something different about her.
On the bedside, there was a Styrofoam head with blonde hair that reached to the table-top. A wig. Before now, I didn’t even know that her hair wasn’t real.
Her eyes followed mine and she shrugged. “It gets itchy.”
“I’ll bet.” I grabbed the desk’s chair and pulled it up to sit beside the bed.
Suddenly Phoenix looked up and at the woman who had seated herself on the couch to read a book.
“This is my mom. You can call her Mom if you want. Or Ms. Ryder.”
I smiled. “Ms. Ryder sounds okay to me.”
But then from the couch she said, “you can call me whatever you want, Jove.” At my quizzical expression, she added, “Phoebe has told me a lot about you.”
Phoenix nodded and picked at the little fur her plush cat still had. She sighed and lay back on the pillows. “Something about having to lie still drives me crazy.”
“Me too. Maybe watching a movie will help?”
She shook her head. “Nah. Never does, really.”
“I have 'I Love Lucy' DVDs. Want me to—“
From her abrupt response, I could tell she didn’t want to do much of anything. So all I said was, “I’m still here for you, you know.”
She nodded. “Yes.” Her fingers shifted to the quilt and tapped out an unrecognizable rhythm. We sat for a while and I thought she was asleep after she’d had her eyes closed for ten minutes or so.
But she surprised me and asked, “Can you help me get out of bed?” Her eyes were still closed, but I sat up a little straighter. Whatever I needed to do to help her feel better, I would try it.
“Yeah. What do you want me to do?”
Her eyes came open and she pushed the quilt off. “Help me walk. I . . . my legs are like rubber.”
“Alright.” I wasn’t the strongest in the work myself, but I was able to half-lift her out of bed while Ms. Ryder watched out the corner of her eye, though she tried to not show it.
When Phoenix’s feet were on the ground, she clutched me around the shoulders with one arm and I helped her across the floor to her mound of yarn. When she had settled on the floor and I’d arranged pillows around her in such a way that she was able to lean on them, she began to braid like the first day I’d been in her room.
But this time, there was no beauty in it. Only dark colors. It was depressing to say the least and nothing short of Gothic.
She continued working without looking at me, the tip of her tongue sneaking out of her lips in concentration. But I couldn’t stand to watch her weave those awful colors together. Not Phoenix. It was a though she were admitting defeat. As though someone had knocked the rainbows colors right out of her.
So I stood and went to Ms. Ryder, whispered to her as not to disturb Phoenix, “where is the rest of the yarn?” She motioned to the desk drawers. I hurried to it and riffled through, searching for the brightest color I could find. The brightest it got was a lilac purple with tiny pink and green sparkles that freckled it.
I cut about a twelve foot length out of the ball of yarn and went back to Phoenix. She still hadn’t looked up. I proceeded to slip the purple into the still-large Gothic mound. When I was done and sat back to watch Phoenix, she gave no indication that she had seen me.
And when she caught hold of the purple, it was woven into the braid all the same. Just like the dark had been woven into the rainbow that first day. All I could do was think, “Your ray of sunshine, Phoenix.”
As the braid grew longer, the sparkles began to rub off on the black, gray, and white. At that point, Phoenix stopped and looked it over. She hesitated. “I didn’t put that in . . .”
“Yes you did, Phoenix Sky Ryder.”
“But it wasn’t how I wanted it—“
“It’s your ray of sunshine. You need it.”
She looked me right in the eyes for the longest time, searching for something. “Middle,” she said.
“Middle.” And that was it. Nothing was in her voice, no disappointment, no happiness, no hurt, nothing. All I could hear was my name. And all I could see was that one ray of the dark braid. It was beautiful.