I started packing clothes into a duffel bag, my head sifting through a million thoughts. By the time I realized what I was doing, I absentmindedly had pulled out more than a dozen shirts for a weekend visit to Grandma Patsy's house. Truth is, I was lost. I'd never packed for this kind of a trip before.
Once I had finished, I started carting my stuff into the living room. Murphy sat at the computer, drawing something. Sky sat on the couch, every minute or so announcing how bummed he was.
"Man, I wish I could go," he said.
"You do?" I said. "How come?"
"Because I miss her," he said. "She's fun."
"Yeah, she is," I said, feeling the tears coming back. Quickly, I turned away to hide my eyes and left the room. A few minutes later, I returned. I was ready to try again. I had to tell them.
To a kid, Grandma Patsy is like fresh air. When baby-sitting, her primary objective is to trample as many rules as her time will allow; small children find this sort of approach simply breathtaking. When Sky was 4 and Murphy 2, Amber and I returned from a trip and were horrified to discover Grandma Patsy had taught our children how to play with actual hammers, nails and saws.
Some might remember past columns featuring Grandma Patsy's adventures. Like the time she unsuccessfully tried to rescue a poor bat that had become entangled in a sticky trap. Or the time she accidentally caught her pants on fire while teaching Sky how to safely play with a sharp, burning stick. Then there's the formerly warmer pet ferret she keeps in her freezer -- yes, right next to the hamburger -- because she hasn't had the heart to bury the beloved animal; I've lost track of how many years it's been in there. I wish this was one of those strange, fun columns, I really do.
But, just as I've had trouble spitting it out here, I've struggled with finding the right way to break the news to the kids. So here it is: Two weeks ago, we found out that the reason Grandma Patsy has hurt so badly for so long is breast cancer. Essentially, it has spread everywhere -- and there's very little that can be done. Nothing, actually.
In the past two weeks, when the subject comes up that Grandma's very sick, I've tried giving Sky and Murphy subtle hints as to how bad it is. But I haven't found the right moment and, frankly, it feels a bit like robbing them of their innocence; they haven't been through this sort of thing before.
Finally, the other day, I mentioned the word "cancer." Murphy, who is now 6, asked a few questions, then ran outside to play. But Sky, who is 8, has been another story. He's remained notably silent on the issue, and I've noticed him quietly paying attention to the phone calls and solemn talk. He knows something big is happening, and I think on some level, he understands it's something he doesn't want to know.
But tonight, I got a call from my sister, who has been looking after our mother in the wake of her first chemo treatment. I'd already received the morning status report, so I wasn't prepared for more bad news. That's when she told me mom fell and broke her femur and was in a helicopter headed for Mercy Medical Center in Redding.
When I hung up the phone, I was sitting on the hearth, no doubt a terrible look on my face. I looked up and saw Sky, sitting on the couch, watching me. And just like that, the moment was upon us.
"You know Grandma Patsy's really sick, right?" I said.
"Yeah," he said, wrinkling his face. "Cancer."
"Yeah," I said, looking him in the eye and this time seeing no way out but the truth. "Sky, she's probably not going to live more than a year. And maybe not even that long. I don't even know."
His eyes filled with tears that streamed down his cheeks. Every time one fell, he reached up and brushed it away with his index finger. Suddenly, he looked so fragile to me crying on the couch. I felt like I'd just broken his heart for the first time. And I had.
"Come here, buddy," I said, holding out my hand.
He stood quickly, took a couple of steps and melted onto my lap. I hugged him as tight as I could, trying to make him feel better, but there are some things we cannot protect our children from. Every time his stomach trembled, I felt sick. And helpless.
"I know you're sad," I said. "I'm sad, too. She's your grandma, but she's my mom."
"I know," he whispered.
He just kept sniffling, trying to act strong. I looked around for something to wipe his nose with, but there was nothing. Then I spotted a sock nearby on the floor.
"Hey, can you pick that up for me?" I said.
He reached down, grabbed it and handed it to me. I folded it neatly in half and held it over his nose. He looked back at me with a strange expression on his face, as if to ask if this was all right. I nodded, then rested my head on his shoulder.
"Go ahead," I said. "When people are dying, it's OK to blow your nose on socks."
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 874-5716.