As the short spasms of choking noises continued, she rushed into his bedroom and slipped her hands around the worn pan to steady it. He was holding the black handle, his face lowered to the brim of the pan as the anticipated stream of liquid flew from his mouth. She waited until all was quiet and then left the room, returning with a warm washcloth.
"Here you are, Daniel."
He took it as he had countless times since this journey of treatments had begun. With a slow motion, he wiped his mouth.
She carried the pan carefully out of the room and poured the contents into the toilet. Each time it was as though a part of her was thrown into the basin and flushed away.
In his room he lay on his back, the glow from the nightlight casting shadows on his pale face and hairless head.
She held his hand and felt each bony finger.
"Thanks, Mom." She was always impressed with his gratitude. He added softly, "Did I wake you?"
She reassured him that she had been awake before he had started to cough. She had been lying in bed thinking of health, the end of treatments, no longer feeling the hospital "owned" their lives, and the texture of blond hair growing back.
His next question was asked in a concerned whisper, "Mommy, what should we put on top of our Christmas tree?"
"I don't know. What do you think?"
"Should it be an angel or a star?"
She yawned but she did not feel sleepy even though it was only three in the morning. There was a peace filtering the room and she held his hand and listened as he switched the subject to teenagers.
"What do they like to eat?"
"I guess we could ask Renee." Renee was a friend of the family. "She's almost thirteen."
"Is thirteen a teenager?"
"I wonder if they like pizza or chicken fingers?"
"I bet they like pizza."
Suddenly, as though remembering, he smiled at her. "Oh, Mom, I think you've got it right. They do like pizza."
His smile was bright and wide, reminding her of marigolds, bobbing their silky heads underneath summer's warmth.
Two months later on a cold February night his weakened body breathed its last. She held him until the very end, wondering when her heart would stop beating as his had, wondering when she could join him in Heaven.
Over the weeks leading into spring, she watched her own heart slip out of her body and slither in a pool of brokenness upon every floor, in every room, no matter where she went, her heart always heavy at her feet. The neighbors didn't see her heart, nor did the cashier at the local Food Lion, not even her friends at church.
She thought living with cancer was a weary journey but this new journey of death weighed much more on her shoulders, her mind, and with each breath. When she wept, she was sure her heart would burst.
She was scared her six-year-old had no chance for a normal life now. This child has lost her best friend, and her parents could barely handle their own tears.
She feared the baby growing inside her womb was dead or deformed or would eventually suffocate from her torrents of tears.
Her sixteen-month-old son cried; he cut his finger. She wanted to kiss it but her compassion and concern was lifeless, and all she could do was sit motionless in the other room until he toddled to her.
The months pierced one into another, each day beginning with the reality -- Daniel would not be waking up in his bed today. In early May, her baby arrived, heathy and beautiful; all she could think of was that Daniel was not here to welcome this new family member.
She dreamed of being a well-known author, having editors as well as the public want to learn about grief, death, and her precious four-year-old.
Each time the phone broke into her thoughts she hoped it was her agent with good news. Usually the call was from a telemarketer, insisting she purchase something she did not need.
At her mailbox, she searched through the credit card bills and advertising flyers for a response from an editor she submitted an article to. First she threw the junk mail into her trash bin. Then she popped off the withered blossoms of her potted orange marigolds and crushed them between her fingers, filling her lungs with their aroma. This may be as good as it gets, she thought, her head tilted towards the blue spring sky and then repeated the thought aloud.
"You seem to be doing so well," her neighbor Maggie stressed as she walked down the driveway to check her mail.
She couldn't smile. She only clutched her throat and hoped she would not make a gutteral sound like a wounded animal.
She watched Maggie walk into her house and then thought, Today is all we have, today is all we are assured of.
So she packed the diaper bag, put the kids in the van, and headed to the park to play.
"Can we have Lunchables?" Her six-year-old was hopeful.
"And chips?" Eager faces.
"...I guess so."
The baby cooed.
At Food Lion, on a whim, she picked up a bag of M and M's and, placing it in her cart next to the Lunchables and chips, thought, They deserve these, their lot has been rough. She chose a rattle for the baby.
There may be no tomorrow. This life, this here and now with whiny children, a mountain of laundry and diapers to change, and a heart that was broken, might be all she'd ever get. There was no certainty her novel would sell; it was probably too dismal anyway.
At the park, she embraced her children, noticing their beautiful wide eyes. Today is all we have, today is all we have, the pine trees echoed above her as she scanned the sky for Heaven.
And she imagined Daniel smiling down at her, saying, "Oh, Mom, I think you've got it right."
Planted in a flower bed near a stone bench were marigolds. She breathed in their fragrance as they shone bright and full of life -- as he once was.
As he still was. Far across shimmering fields, in that place of peace named Heaven.