Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. She performs tales featuring food, family, nature, and strong women. Her writings are in or soon will be appearing in Ekphrastic Review, Pinesong, Impspired, The Sun, Brass Bell, Verse Visual, anti-heroin chic, Gargoyle, Silver Birch, Ovunquesiamo, Verse Virtual, Poetry in Plain Sight, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Yellow Mama, and others. She’s a 2021 Pushcart nominee, received Best of Micro Fiction, 2021 (Haunted Waters), nominee for Best of the Net, 2023, and was a 2022 runner up in Frost Foundation Poetry Competition. Her second chapbook, Feathers on Stone, is coming in late 2022 from Main Street Rag. She is a member of the North Carolina Poetry Society, gave a talk on poetry at the Society’s 90th celebration, is a member and area representative for North Carolina Writers Network and on the stage side of her work, is member of, and the coastal area representative for NC’s Tar Heel Tellers and coordinates Poetry Workshops/Readings online through her Brunswick County’s Arts Council
When a mother learns she will likely die before Christmas, what does she say to her ten-year old daughter?
For now my sister and I are saying nothing. Her mother will break the news to slowly—over a period of weeks so that the understanding of it all will be able to sink in slowly and not overwhelm her. It will be like the stream of water eroding a rock, the knowledge meted out drop by drop, drip by drip until the knowledge penetrates the gaiety of the girl’s childhood, carves a canyon of “growing up too fast” into her heart. Her Dad is only a “weekend” Dad. Her life is centered on her mother.
Insurance companies denied re-testing when her mother’s annual check revealed the first “dark spot. ” “It’s not necessarily anything,” they told her. So the mom had to wait until she had tremendous pain. Only then did they authorize another scan. Those results revealed that it was cancer and was spreading into organs, areas of the body that made excising in surgery impossible.
“So , I also have to tell her about the chemo,” my friend told me. “They said I would likely be alive for my daughter’s August birthday, but not the one after that, and maybe not for Christmas.”
She teared up speaking to me. “How do I tell my child; my life force is flickering like a candle in the storm of cancer and is about to be snuffed out. How do I tell her that I may not see her graduate from high school, help her pick out a prom dress, take her on college tours, be at her wedding?
I think about the small things, things that she and I did together with our mother that her daughter will miss—making cookies, learning to drive, playing with our pets. I think how much her daughter will miss her mother laughing with her over the antics of their cat—that in fact, she may have to give up her cat because if she lives with her grandmother –well, her grandmother, our mother, is severely allergic to cats.
How will she explain that to a ten-year-old girl? My sister seems so brave and assertive. She is already grieving the loss of the marriage, that parental bond that formers a protecting loving bower over the head of a child. Her ex-husband loves the child, but he is not a mom.
Each of her parents loves the child. In fact our parents are a big part of her child’s life but they
nearing eighty and the grandfather , our father, has a bit of dementia.
I stand with her as she tells her daughter. She wants me with her when she tells her the first piece of information and for the subsequent revelations. That’s not hard. But she asks me to let her do the telling and for me to just hold her hand and be there to dry her daughter’s tears. The first time, it seems as though the child has not heard her. But when a few days later, she tells her about losing her hair in chemo, her daughter begins to take note. The child is torn between wanting to hug her other and resenting her for “allowing” something to grow inside that will eat her up entirely, take her away before she, the daughter is ready. When we tell this little girl that lawyers may get involved to decide where she will live, she rushes at her mother, pounding her with fists, crying out through tears. “Who will send me off to school, take me to lessons, kiss me good night, if cancer takes you away?” She has not mentioned her birthday or Christmas, or any of the big life events her mother might miss, times when she would miss having her mother with her. No, her fears, her hopes reveal a worry about the seemingly mundane bits of daily life are truly the most important things and my sister tells her, “I will do these things as long as I am on this earth and faithfully, so that you can carry the memory of them with you every day, and in that way relive them.”
For all my sister had wanted to say, for all the words and scenarios she practiced with me, it seems that neither of us counted on this child’s deep wisdom, that the daily practice of love is what counts most and she would need only to be reassured that this practice would continue in reality and then memory forever more.
Although this story is fiction the way it is presented, a real incident in my family, and the desire for the reader to substitute the name of any child, makes me leave the child’s name out.