When you’re waiting, time is measured out in used coffee spoons, worn socks and sweatpants, stained wine glasses and dishes in the sink; artifacts that comprise a day. Time stamps. Things that say I have been here. I have lived this.

Time pauses. In 1988, I applied for college two hundred miles away from my home. I was number six in a family of seven children and none of us had gone to college.  There was no money for school so I applied for a student loan. Answers came in the mailbox back then and that’s how I counted my days, waiting for the mailman. The letter never came. I remember driving to Kmart to buy a trunk to hold my worldly possessions as I shipped off to a dorm room I wasn’t sure I could stay in.  For two weeks, I was called to the registrar’s office.

 “The check should be coming in the mail. My mom said it should be any day.” Maybe.

I felt like an imposter among my dormmates, waiting for a decision from people who didn’t know me. A bank. I slept in a bed I hadn’t yet rented and ate meals in the dining hall that I couldn’t pay for. Eating felt like stealing. Bagels. Tater tots. Chicken patties. Do I dare take some cake? All around me, freshman settled into their brave new worlds of independence while I counted the steps back and forth to the registrar’s building to speak with the lady with red hair and thick glasses. This was time I measured in uncertainty and fraud. Then the phone in my dorm room rang. It was from my mother.

 “Honey, the check is here.”

Time takes. On the first day of September in 2006, I was awakened in the early hours of the night by a phone call. A family member living with my widowed mother was frantic. “Something’s wrong with her. She said her head hurts. She keeps passing out.” I called an ambulance and said I would be on my way. I was a mother of a young boy back then. My life had been a carefully sculpted into a journey of college, career, marriage, family, and all of the securities that world entailed.

Aneurysm. There was a tropical storm and the hospital wasn’t flying anyone out. I followed the ambulance up Pennsylvania Avenue in Maryland into DC in driving rain and howling winds, knowing every second took her further away from me. I counted those moments in stop lights.

She woke up the next morning. I had time to call my family. Everyone was there. We talked and laughed. I remember walking out of her hospital room that evening and calling over my shoulder, “I love you, Mom.” She said she loved me too. That night she slipped into a coma.

Time stretched on two more weeks. My oldest sister yelled into her ear, “Wake up, Mom! Wake up! You can do this! Wake up!” I sat next to my mom in the hospital and read out loud chapters from an Anne Rice vampire novel that had been on her night stand at home. In case she could hear me. Just in case. Fourteen more chapters. And then she was gone.

Time stops. I was teleworking in my basement office when my cell phone rang.

“Ma’am, can you please confirm your full name and date of birth? This is the radiologist’s office. Our next available appointment will be in about nine days. We need you to come back. Would you prefer morning or afternoon?

 “Wait. But…I mean…did they find something? From the mammogram?”

“We need you to come back.”

 “But…somebody looked. A doctor looked?”

 “Yes, ma’am.”

In the early mornings since, when consciousness has awakened me from sleep, I have counted. I have lifted my lids to the world in the darkness of pre-dawn and counted. Numbers and measurements give stability to this new unstable gait. In 216 hours, this will be done. In exactly nine days, I will know. 

Each year, a friend on Facebook gleefully posts a countdown to her trip to the Outer Banks. “Only nine more sleeps!” I have only nine more sleeps.

The online patient portal shows the doctor’s report and scans. Dense breast tissue. Right breast normal. Left breast showing abnormality. Lower left third quadrant. I stare at the scans, zooming in, mapping veins and shadows, white on black. Tissue clumped and stretched, obscurities hidden but white as ghosts.

“Morning or afternoon, ma’am?”

I have counted my time in artifacts. Used coffee spoons and dirty laundry. Letters in the mail. Stolen food. Stop lights. Book chapters. I have counted and marked each artifact.

And now, again, I wait.

A Beautiful Painting

beautifulpictureTonight I am a beautiful painting. I am a woman in a window whose kitchen lights shine brightly against a waning July summer sky. My blinds are open and all of the evening sun’s rays pour into my world, setting a backdrop of myself on canvas, a single woman sipping wine. I am wide open for the world to see.

I live in a village of older homes with older trees, surrounded by many people. We are sea-side against a river and a bay and the views can be so beautiful and overwhelming on a nightly walk that the very questioning of a God becomes ludicrous.

Lonely. A pretty blonde jogger rushes by my window measuring her moments in breaths. She is thinking, “I forgot that I am strong. I can do this.” Someone made her doubt herself today; probably for many days. I’ve had those runs. Running hurts but it makes her stronger than the person who is steadily trying to break her down. She sees me in my window, alone, sipping wine and thinks, “How lonely. How awful. Some day that woman will be me. I will try harder.” And she pushes herself against the painful cramps in her legs believing that no pain is greater than being alone.

My neighbor takes out his trash and glances up in time to see me looking back. A polite nod and he is back inside. The sky darkens more and I look up to see a full moon opaque against a pale blue sky, almost not discernible without the cloak of night to bring out its beauty. Look up, I say to no one. There is a full moon looking down. It is stealing applause from the sunset and taking the breath from the wind.

As the evening darkness circles about me tonight, my colors brighten within my tiny world. My kitchen walls flourish with yellow tones. My body becomes an outline more pronounced and apparent. The blue of my eyes pierces my pale face. I am a silhouette of a dying day and an awakening night.

Building a new life felt like climbing a mountain I couldn’t scale.  There was no more energy in me to try. I remember a 4th of July night when my sister took my son to fireworks and I sat alone on the kitchen floor, leaning against my stove and sobbing into a bottle of wine wondering if I could actually keep going. The mourning of every loss grew exponentially as I let myself feel the weight of it all.

The loss of dreams unrealized can feel like hell. There is a fine line between becoming a victim and bearing down to find the strength that lives inside of you that keeps you going when nothing else can. At that point, loneliness becomes fortitude and strength. Grief is a journey that you can only hold on to and ride.  Acceptance makes it okay to let go.

As the days pass in my village, perspective has taken over despair.  Now time has passed. I am a beautiful painting in this window tonight sitting alone but not lonely. I am chalks and oils, water colors as light as the glowing moon. Brightness and clarity against darkness. The loneliness that runner girl perceives as she runs farther away from my window against the darkening sky is actually my light flowing from within. I am not lonely anymore. I am no longer afraid. I am grateful for the peace and love and fortunes around me, despite the fact that they will never look like the picture I had once created in my mind. I hug my son with all my strength. I take in the sunsets of my seaside village and breath in the calmness I have needed for so long.

Look up, I say to no one. There is a full moon looking down. Stealing applause from the sunset. Taking the breath from the wind.