I push her on the swing, back and forth, back and forth. The creaking chains mirror my body complaining under the strain but persisting, determined to fulfil its role.
I remember a day when pushing a swing was tedious. Today it is pure bliss. The wind in Amy’s wispy blonde hair, her tiny hands gripping for dear life as she squeals with delight, “More! More!”
Today is our time: just Amy and I. At only one, she will have no recollection, but I will. These moments will be soaked up, inhaled and carried to my grave. They’ll breathe life into my lungs while my organs are still cooperating.
We make our way along the grass, Amy with her toddler waddle, me with my gaunt body and weak gait. Spotting dandelions, I pick one, teach her how to make a wish and blow. She is too young to wish but I have enough wishes for both of us. Each tiny speck that blows away is loaded with a wish for each of my children, my husband and possibly a selfish one for me.
I take Amy home for her midday sleep where Alexander is waiting for me in his Batman suit. It’s his turn for exclusive mummy time. I’m exhausted but his beautiful, eager face livens my failing energy. My gorgeous three-year-old superhero. His special requests involve rainbow ice cream and the biggest Batman toy he can find. Simple pleasures and easy fixes.
I let him choose a big cone with two scoops of unnaturally coloured ice cream. It melts faster than he can lick it but the kaleidoscope of colours dripping off his chin makes us both laugh. There was a time I’d have been quick to wipe the stickiness away but now I let it be. Alexander gains the attention of many onlookers – his cape, mask and infectious cackles are mesmerising. Or perhaps it’s me they’re looking at, with my telltale headscarf, a face aged beyond my years.
Alexander sprints through the toy store at lightening speed and I follow, trying my best to keep pace. He spots the Batman of his dreams, with buttons magically making his hero talk. “This one!” he says with solid decision and a face-splitting grin. We pay and take Batman boy and Batman toy back home, sticky and content.
I want to cry as I dare contemplate all the moments I’ll miss. I can feel the hairline fractures in my heart as the thoughts crash through my steely exterior. But I won’t ruin this day, this perfect day. I need to retain my poise, as tomorrow it is Max’s day, which he’s been waiting an eternity for.
I sleep fitfully, unable to find a comfortable position. My brain is in overdrive and I cannot eradicate the feelings that are spinning out of control. I’ve been here before: fading in and out of sleep rehearsing the why’s, the how’s, the what if’s. They are unhelpful at best, completely debilitating at worst.
I awake to Max’s silhouette looming over the bed. He beams, “It’s Max & Mummy day, you need to get up!”
I smile and extend my hand, which he grabs attempting to pull me out of bed. A shower and cup of tea gradually perk me up as we discuss the finer details of the day. My husband looks on, trying to hide his concern at my deteriorating state.
The end is inevitable. This disease is stripping me bare working it’s way through every nook of my body, strategically shutting down each section. Having everything to live for makes no difference. It is ruthless, careless, indiscriminate.
Max gathers my handbag and keys and puts them on the table. His excitement is palpable and I allow it to wash over me.
“Where to first, my amazing Max?” I say, disguising my breathlessness.
“Have you forgotten already? Scienceworks, then a Happy Meal!”
Max races out the door, remnants of a goodbye trailing him.
Scienceworks is a frenzy of button pushing and “Mummy, come and see this!” I watch from a central seat, my soon-to-be-school-boy frantic with pleasure at all the things he can touch. He knows I’m unwell, but to what extent we have not yet divulged. There never seems a right time.
His hunger drives us to the next stop – a Happy Meal – a rubbish food once dismissed. Today he can have ten of them if he likes. If only happiness was such a basic commodity. I eat a couple of fries, the salt pierces my mouth ulcers robbing me of an appetite.
“This has been the best day, EVER!” Max declares. I agree.
We drive home as he talks incessantly about the brilliant discoveries he made at Scienceworks and how he can’t wait to tell Alexander, Amy and Dad about his day.
My husband later finds me on the swing in the backyard. The darkness is comforting. No one can see me here; no brave face is required.
“They’re all finally asleep,” he says embracing me from behind. His protective arms are strong, healthy. A tear burns down my cheek. I allow its fall. The one that follows brings a deluge with it, my body convulses into sobs. They are heavy with anger, sorrow and despair, of lost dreams and unthinkable goodbyes.
“I can’t do this,” I choke out.
“You don’t have to,” he says.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)