by Paula Shablo
Monica’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands, curled into fists, pressed against her mouth, even as her chin dropped to rest on her chest. She stared over the tops of her glasses, and her eyes filled, then overflowed, with hot tears that instantly soaked her cheeks.
It’s a relapse, she thought.
What a cruel word, and one that she’d discovered fit many situations beyond the medical terminology they’d become so familiar with over the last few years.
Jaime was almost three when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). There had never been a history of cancers in either Monica’s or Jonah’s families, so they were completely stunned by the revelation once they’d sought answers for Jaime’s increased fatigue, appetite loss and complaints of “Arthur-write-us, just like Grammy.”
Actually, what had sent them flying to the emergency room was the discovery of an odd lump on the child’s neck. Monica was washing Jaime’s hair when she felt it. Not remembering any incident that could have caused a bump to form, she asked Jonah if the toddler had fallen while they were at the park.
Nope. No falls, no crashes into furniture, and yet this very odd lump. Alarm bells went off in their heads, and they sought the advise of experts.
ALL in childhood is a cancer that has been successfully treated, and after the initial devastation they’d felt upon hearing Jaime’s diagnosis, Monica and Jonah had been optimistic.
Jaime had been a trouper beyond expectations. She had a smile for every doctor and nurse involved in her care– and there were dozens of them. Monica was stunned to learn how many different doctors would have to be involved in Jaime’s care. Of course, an Oncologist was expected. But there was also an Endocrinologist, a Nephrologist, and on and on. Since leukemia is a blood-related, it can affect every organ in the body, and so the care team was vast.
At first things went alright. As well as anyone could have expected, anyway. The numbers looked good, even if Jaime looked awful. Chemotherapy took her hair quickly; at the age of three, she didn’t have much to begin with. She’d been one of those little blondes whose hair was practically nonexistent at birth and grew in slowly. She’d finally reached a point where Monica could put her hair in tiny pony tails, and now it was all gone. She sported dark circles beneath blue eyes that never lost their sparkle even on the worst of days.
After the first round of treatment, there was a little break. Then, things went south with the discovery that the blood count numbers had taken a dive into the bad zone.
“Relapse,” Oncologist Dr. James said. “We’ll have to move more aggressively.”
Monica had wept on the trip home from that appointment. Jaime slept fitfully in her car seat, as if even in slumber, she knew what was facing her in the next few days. “Move more aggressively?” Jonah had groaned. He was driving, and had waited for a red light to comment at all. “That last round wasn’t aggressive? Dear Christ!”
Monica didn’t reply; what was there to say?
That day began their grievous association with the word “relapse”. There were times of remission, when they would rejoice and plan. But “relapse” lived in the backs of their minds, and most of the plans they made were day trips to the zoo and the Butterfly Pavilion, Disney movies and playgrounds.
Jaime was almost six when the final relapse hit.
They had been planning a surprise birthday party with the Disney Princesses at Disney World, but the likelihood that she’d reach that birthday was in doubt. With the help of a great travel agent and the resort itself, the whole trip was planned in a day, and they flew out within a week of that awful announcement by the Oncology team.
Of course, they told Jaime that the trip was early because of their schedules; they would never come right out and express their fears that she wouldn’t have a sixth birthday.
Jaime’s hospital room walls were plastered with photos from the trip: Jaime with all the Princesses; Jaime blowing out her birthday candles; Jaime grinning from ear-to-ear, her blond hair grown in just long enough for a stylish pixie cut, her blue eyes sparkling, her two front teeth missing. Goofy, Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Daisy, Pluto–they were all featured in various shots and different locations throughout the park.
Weak and tired, Jaime still insisted that her wheelchair never be included in the photos. She wanted every picture to look “normal”. Looking at them from her hospital bed, a week after the trip, Jaime smiled and told all her visitors about each picture, each experience, and about how lucky she was that her parents’ schedules netted her an early birthday trip.
Monica knew Jaime understood perfectly why she’d celebrated her birthday early, although they never spoke of it. Jaime had been through a great deal in three years, and Monica suspected the child went along with the story more for her parents’ sake than her own.
Jaime slipped away in the earliest hours of the morning, twelve days before her sixth birthday. Jonah and Monica were with her, holding her hands. Her final words: “Love you, good ni…” The final word had faded out on her last breath.
Johan and Monica kissed her, whispering, “Love you, baby. Love you, little Jaime. We love you so much.” They repeated it over and over, love, love, so the words and the feelings would follow her to wherever she was going next.
Grief relapses, too.
Monica had gone out the back door of the house, intending to get gardening tools to clean up the yard. Winter had not been kind this year, and the place was looking rough.
Now she stood staring at the shed door, where Jaime’s little sand bucket was hanging on the door handle. Pink, with yellow dots, the bucket should have looked weather-beaten after the long winter. The shed door was sporting flaking paint and rust spots, but somehow, the bucket looked pristine.
Its last use had been almost a year before, on a day trip to the lake. Jonah had caught a sixteen-inch rainbow trout, which he’d then cooked over a campfire for their lunch. Jaime had put all the bones into the bucket and brought them home. She said she was going to reassemble them as an art project.
God, were they still in the bucket? Monica moved closer, sobbing.
The bucket was empty.
Like me, Monica thought. Just like me. Empty. But…
Where are the bones?
It occurred to her that she should search for them, but where on earth would she start? Surely one of them had thrown the things away before hanging the bucket on the shed door!
Was there an actual art project somewhere in the house, one with reassembled trout bones? That didn’t seem likely; she’d have remembered that.
Unable to bear a search on her own, Monica decided to wait for Jonah to get home from work.
They had left Jaime’s room mostly untouched in the past few months. Still, Monica reasoned, fish bones would have smelled…well, fishy. If they were in here, wouldn’t she or Jonah have found them by now?
“This is not how I envisioned cleaning out her room,” Jonah remarked, his voice froggy with unshed tears.
“We’re not cleaning out her room,” Monica replied, rather harshly. Jonah flinched, but didn’t answer.
They found it on the bottom shelf of the bookcase: the trout’s spine traveled from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of a sheet of poster board, and all the rib bones had been neatly laid out.
Jaime had apparently spread glue on the poster board and assembled the bones. Once dry, she’d painted over them, thickly coating them in a rust-colored paint. She’d glued rocks and twigs around the skeleton and the whole effect was reminiscent a of 3-D archeological find.
“My God, it’s perfect!” Johan cried, and now the tears did flow. “Did you know she could do this?”
Monica shook her head. She was already planning the framing, and where to hang it. She knew the grief would relapse every time she saw it, but so would the pride, and the memory of Jonah’s grin when he’d pulled that fish from the lake, the smell of it roasting over the fire, the taste as they’d eaten fresh trout while sitting in front of a little fire, laughing about this and that.
Jaime had said she would reassemble the bones in an art project. Neither of them knew when she’d done it, but here it was, and it was a part of them all that they could keep forever. Jaime must have known they’d find it and understand that.
Love relapses, too.