She spoke softly. She spoke just above audible, her voice grave. She told me to change it this time. She told me to choose differently, to follow the words into the light, instead of turning around to the familiar. She gripped my hand, unusually strong for someone so sick, and spit out the words, “Promise me, Taylor.” The words were strangely biting as her fingers dug into my skin, “Promise me, this time you won’t let me die. Promise me you’ll change the past so I won’t have to die.”
I open my eyes to another day as I sit up in my dorm bed, my alarm music playing subtly in the background, a lifting tune to get me out of bed. But the burden is still here, always. Mom died last week. The cancer took hold and continued to eat. She had survived through the fevers, through the pain, just to deliver that puzzling message to me. I still have bruises from her fingernails on my wrist. I don’t want the impressions to go away; the marks prove she’s still here, holding my hand.
As cryptic as her last words to me were, I have no way of knowing what the hell she was talking about. The doctors said she was delusional at that point, but I remember how her blue eyes burned; she looked real and raw in those few moments. She didn’t seem foggy or crazy. She made me promise, and I had promised, like a good little girl, not understanding what I was promising. Promising to give her hope, maybe? At least in my dreams, she wouldn’t die.
The school counselor said I should take more time off, but I insisted I was okay. I insisted I needed to get back to normal. And so today is my first class day back. My writing class is in an hour, and I’ll have to hurry to shower, dress, and make it there in time. I won’t forget my journal this time, never again. Mom taught me to never take moments for granted. You never know when you’ll get another chance to observe and transcribe that perfect moment.
The cancer had attacked aggressively, severely. If she had known the warning signs and gotten checked earlier, she could have beaten it, if there had been enough time. But my parents and I had all been oblivious. We made our way through our regular routines of work, school, friends, appointments, and parties. Mom had started getting sick more frequently but chalked it up to work strain. And I was too focused on my freshman year of college-all the classes, events, some cute boy whose name I don’t remember now. He had asked for my number and we had planned on meeting up, until Mom got the news.
Dad, focused on writing his next novel, How to Find Time, was out of town when the call came through. Mom told us the news over the phone. That first week she was alone, too late for treatment. I had found her curled up in a ball on one side of the bed, glassy eyed, in extreme pain, tears streaming down her cheeks. She told me she was waiting for someone to come get her and bring her to the hospital. Dad would be home tomorrow. I held her until then, until we could all go together to check her into the room that would become her tomb. She had waited. She was always waiting.
Her last words come back to me, pulling at my heart strings, and I have to choke back a sob. Promise me, this time you won’t let me die.
I pull my journal out, flipping through, looking for that note I wrote Mom and Dad the day I left for college. I had been sitting at the desk in the living room, window open and breeze rolling in. I could have spoken directly to Mom and Dad in the other room, but there were things I could say in a letter that were too hard to say face to face. Even though in my life I hadn’t wanted for much, there were dreams I needed to pursue apart from them, apart from this home they created for me.
I could hear Mom’s laugh and Dad’s witty comment in return. I had finished the letter and made sure it was placed so they’d find it after I’d left, and then I went into the kitchen to join them. All smiles, the three of us. The sky was a clear blue, and there was a light frosty bite to the air, the crispness of autumn making its way through our jackets as we took a walk in the diminishing light.
My hand rests on the letter, carefully caressing the words I have to go.
I can’t help it. I can’t help the tears, but this time I don’t hold them back. I let them slide down my cheeks, trying to purge myself of the past, trying to keep the guilt from crushing my brightness. Maybe it is too soon to go back to normal. And what is normal, now?
Promise me, this time you won’t let me die. Promise me you’ll change the past so I won’t have to die.
I feel a pulse under my fingers, and look down. Heat begins spreading up through my fingers, and the pulsing continues. The words on the letter are focusing and re-focusing, as if they are being re-written each time the tears hit them. Startled, I push the letter out of my hands and the ink darkens to its usual color, but not before I notice the light behind the words.
I immediately grab it back up. The tears are still coming, not as strong. Mom had told me. How did she know? She had told me to follow the words into the light. I look around at the familiar, but then turn back, focusing on following to somewhere new.
I place my hand on top of the pulsing mix of ink and light, and feel a sensation of being drawn inward. There is a flash of pain and a searing burning across my hand.
What the hell is going on?
My whole body is vibrating painfully over the letter, the colors going in and out, and I feel as if I’ll faint.
And then I’m back to that day. I see my old living room. The letter is on the desk, only partially written, and my hand is poised halfway through, ready to write the next words. Mom is laughing from the other room, but the sound is coming in and out. There is a loud buzzing surrounding me, and dad’s witty comment makes it way to my ears. My focusing is coming and going, and the letter in front of me is vibrating, like it did in my dorm room. Promise me, this time you won’t let me die.
A severe pain across my brow shatters my thoughts, and I will myself to focus on the present.
There’s the breeze, the light, the feel of the crisp air; my senses can make this real. And the throbbing lessens and the buzzing fades.
I feel Mom’s arms around me, “Honey, whatcha writing?”
Something has changed. I didn’t get to finish the letter, and Mom and Dad are already in here, ready to take that walk.
“Grab your coat, love. We’ll meet you out front.”
I turn around, reaching for Mom. A sob breaks free, and I bury my head in her chest.
Startled, she gently says, “Honey, it’s okay. We’ll still see each other plenty. I’m not going anywhere.”
I can already feel myself being pulled back to my present, like a rubber band. This elastic reality will only last another few moments.
The ink is spilling from the pen all over the paper, creating designs, all leading to the last word I’ve written.
I can change my words. I can change the end of the letter. I can warn my mom and change the end of her story. I have a few seconds left. The room around me is shifting back to my dorm, and the ink under my hand is drying before I can get the words out. Mom’s face is starting to fade.
Just enough time for a warning, just enough to change a few words.
You’re right, Mom. This time you’re not going anywhere. This time I’m not letting you go.