Many people around me are suffering. I don’t know this type of suffering that they face; death, illness, addictions, cancer. It breaks my heart when people who are close to me have to deal with such pain.
While I was reflecting recently on why we suffer, I was reminded of this story I originally wrote in college, but have revisited/edited a few times since then. I decided to share it with you all today as a reminder to be in prayer for those around you who are in need; those who suffer the great pains of illness. Those who are stricken with cancer or addictions. Those who might be facing death…
Shivering from the cold, I buried my head deeper into the scarf that was much too big for my small face. The loose brown curls escaped from underneath the hood of my bright pink winter jacket that I had managed to squeeze myself into for yet another year. Mama promised to buy me a new one next winter.
Mama and Daddy were in the front of the van, singing a Christmas carol as Dad, squinting through accumulated snow, concentrated on driving. I tried to sing along, but forgot most of the words. I should’ve made them sing Jingle Bells.
My hands found one of the tiny, bear-shaped buttons on my coat and I began to twist one around and around until I thought it would break. My sister sat next to me, her mass of dark curls identical to mine, bounced up and down in rhythm with the bumps on the road, as she flipped through the winter edition of Highlights for Children magazine. I looked out the window as we drove past kids catching tiny sparkles of snowflakes on their steaming tongues. Then they raced up hills only to come sledding down again.
It was Christmas Eve, 1984, and I was on my way to Nonna’s, just like every year, for dinner and presents.
“Becca,” Daddy said and I looked up, “Did you know that when I was your age we had to drive ten hours to my Nonna’s house for Christmas Eve dinner?”
I smiled. My parents meant everything to me back then. They were in a word: perfect.
“Dad, it was not ten hours,” Mallory groaned, looking up from her magazine.
Daddy winked at me in the mirror before he went back to singing “Silent Night” with Mama in two-part harmony.
My sister always had to be right. Didn’t she know that Mama and Daddy knew everything? Please, she was what? Ten? What did she know?
Letting my pink boots tap against the seat, I slowly closed my eyes to nap the rest of the way to Nonna’s. I dreamt about all the things my parents had taught me since I was a baby. I could count now, and I knew the alphabet. I could ride a bike without training wheels, jump rope, draw, write my full name, and almost rollerblade. My swing in T-Ball was improving, and I knew first, second, and third position in ballet class. I could tie my shoes by myself, brush my teeth and floss. I shared most of my toys at school and stopped bothering Mallory when I was told. I helped Mama set the dinner table and make brownies and I rode on Daddy’s lawn mower with him in the summer. Mama and Daddy taught me everything I needed to know for life. They were flawless.
The van came to a sudden stop and disrupted my simple childhood dreams. My scarf was on the floor and my sister’s magazine that was once so interesting, was now slightly wet and crumpled underneath her boots.
Daddy opened the door for me and I jumped into his strong, loving arms. He carried me all the way to Nonna’s front door. I watched my short puffs of breath next to his long, bold ones. He even let me ring the doorbell.
“Ciao! Come Stai? Ciao! Ciao!” Nonna kissed us all as we stepped inside the warm home that was buzzing with relatives’ chatter. The smells of homemade pasta sauce and garlic bread drifted into my nose.
“Ah, Mal, you are so big!” Nonna said to my sister as she squeezed her cheeks. Then she took me from Daddy and cried, “Becca!”
“Buon Natalié, Nonna!” I said in my mousy voice. She squeezed me tight and helped me take off my winter gear. As soon as I was free, Mal and I ran off to play with our cousins.
About an hour later, I got bored with playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because, since I was the youngest, my cousins always made me be Raphael. I wanted to be April, but Janie always got that part. She was twelve.
I left the room as Mal, who was Michelangelo, was fighting Shredder, my cousin Evan, and went to the Christmas tree. I loved looking at all of Nonna’s ornaments. Her favorite one was the two turtledoves, so she placed it close to the top of the tree. Every year I tried to reach for it and every year I was a little bit closer. It was Mama’s favorite, too.
Wandering down the stairs I noticed Mama was sitting on the couch looking at some sort of book. I ran over to her and watched her for a moment. She was crying.
“Mama,” I whispered. She jumped at the sound of my voice and motioned for me to sit next to her on the couch. I climbed up and snuggled into her arm. She was looking at a photo album of my Nonna’s. “Who’s that?” I asked pointing to a little boy.
“That’s your dad,” Mama smiled down at me.
“He looks so little!” I pressed my face against the glossy photograph.
Mama turned the page. “And that’s Nonno and Nonna with Daddy and Zio John,” she said, pointing. One of her tears hit my Nonno’s face.
“Why are you crying, Mama?” I sat up straight now.
She ran a hand through my thick curls and kissed the top of my head, “Oh Baby, it’s not your fault,” she whispered into my hair. “I’m scared.”
“Why are you scared? Were you a bad girl this year? Don’t worry Mama, Santa will still bring you presents,” I comforted her.
She laughed a little and held my chin in her hand, “Becca, if I ever leave you, know that I still love you.”
That was a strange thing to say. “Where are you going?”
“I might have to go away for a little bit,” she licked her lips, “Io sono a malatta.” Mama sometimes spoke Italian when she got nervous.
“Sick? Do you have a tummy ache, Mama?”
“No, it’s a little more serious than that.”
“Baby, do you know what cancer is?”
I shook my head. Daddy and Mal walked in just then and sat next to Mama and me on the couch.
“What’s cancer?” I asked
“I never wanted to be the kind of parents to my kids that my parents were to me,” Mama said. “I don’t even know where they are right now and I promised myself that I would always be there for my children. I would never, ever leave their sides for a second.”
Mal looked down at her feet at my question and Daddy put an arm around her. “Ti amo Mama,” she said and gave Mama a hug. “You’ll get better soon.”
“What’s cancer?!” I was getting impatient and kind of annoyed that Mal already knew about this.
Mama swallowed, “Sometimes our bodies make bad cells that make us very, very sick,” she explained, “and sometimes our bodies become so weak, that our good cells can’t fight the bad ones.”
“That’s cancer? Bad cells?” I asked.
“Yes. And I have lots and lots of bad cells,” Mama held my hand. “So I might have to go away for a little bit and let the doctors try to fix it.”
Daddy was crying now and Mama turned to hug him. I hugged Mama and Mal hugged Daddy and together we sat on the couch for several minutes crying and hugging.
“Pranzo!” Nonna called from the kitchen to let us know dinner was ready, but none of us moved.
It was that winter, the winter after I turned seven years old, that I realized my parents weren’t perfect.
I closed the photo album from Christmas Eve 1984 that I found in my attic several years later and fought back the tears. A piece of paper fluttered to the ground and kissed my feet. I knew instantly what it was.
I picked up the paper and opened it. “1 Peter 4:12-13,” it read, “Don’t be surprised at the suffering you face, as if something strange is happening to you. Instead, be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so you will have the wonderful joy of seeing His glory when it is revealed.”
Mama had written this out for me on one of the last days she was alive. Although the verse was talking about suffering for being a Christian, it spoke volumes to me today with what I had to face.
The verse was one Mama had memorized and recited to my sister and me often. We usually rolled our eyes when she said it because we didn’t understand. After Mama passed, I was so angry at God for taking her away from me as a child. For so many years I felt alone and deserted. I wanted nothing to do with a God who allowed such a painful death. I didn’t understand why she had to suffer the pain of cancer, and why the rest of us had to suffer the pain of life without her.
Mama was gone 21 years this August, and I could still hear her whispering “Ti Amo” as she tucked me into bed each night. It was difficult now, with kids of my own -Lucas in fourth grade and Deanna just over her seventh birthday, around the same ages Mal and I were when we found out – when we’d go to Daddy’s for Christmas because for some reason I still expected to see Mama. In fact, I wanted to see her there greeting us at the door with kisses, just like Nonna did for me.
I was expecting Mal any minute, so I put the album away, tucked the slip of paper into my pocket, and grabbed my old Raphael outfit for Lucas. He had been asking me for it for a couple weeks now – suddenly the turtles in a half-shell were back and more popular than ever. Lucas thought it would be so cool to have a “real Ninja Turtle costume from the 80s” to show off to his friends.
When I got downstairs, Mal was already making herself comfortable on my living room sofa, talking on her cell, but she smiled when I entered the room.
“Okay Dad, I’ll let Michael know…” Mal was saying. “Yeah. No. Dad, I know! Yes, Becca is here. You wanna talk to her? Okay….Okay. Yeah. Okay, ti amo. Okay, Dad. Ciao!”
I looked at Mal with sympathetic eyes as she hung up the phone, “What did Daddy want?”
“He and Michael are having some problems with the painters or something? I dunno, he said Michael will know when I tell him,” she waved her hand as if pushing the problem aside.
“Oh yeah, Michael hired some painters for Daddy’s shed,” I explained, handing my sister the latest edition of In Style. I was always prepared when she came over, I knew what she liked.
Mal grabbed the issue out of my hands and eagerly began flipping through the shiny print.
“Ok, I have to go pick up Lucas from soccer,” I told Mal, grabbing my keys. “There’s leftover Chinese food in the fridge, help yourself, and Deanna gets off the bus at 4:00, so watch for her,” I looked over my shoulder at Mal, content in the pages of her new magazine. “Oh and Michael should be home soon anyway, so you don’t have to stay long if you have anything you need to get to and…”
“Take it easy, Principessa,” Mal soothed in a motherly tone. I smiled at her old nickname for me, “I can handle it, I’ve been doing this for how long now?” she asked me, eyebrows lifted.
“I know, I know,” I said, shaking my head, “Ok, see ya in a bit! Grazie!”
“Ciao, ciao!” Mal called after me.
Stepping outside, I let the sun soak my face and took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet blossoms that were just beginning to bloom. Small white birds flew from branch to branch, across yards and streets. Spring was finally here, Mama’s favorite season.
When I reached the school, I waited outside the car for Lucas. Soon enough, he came running up to me, his backpack bouncing behind him.
“Mama!! Mama!!” He called, his cleats clicking on the cement sidewalk as he ran.
“Lucas! Come estai?” I hugged him tightly and helped him get into the car.
“Benissimo, Mama!!!” Lucas was always in an energized mood after soccer practice. I envied his liveliness.
“How was soccer, did you score any goals?” I looked at him in the rearview mirror.
Lucas began to chat excitedly about his soccer team, saying that they were the best ever, and that he scored more goals than anyone else.
“Even Stephen couldn’t score as many goals as me, and Stephen’s been playing soccer since he was five!” Lucas went on.
I listened to him talk about soccer the entire way home, but my mind was elsewhere. I had Mal coming to stay with Michael and me a couple days during the week to help with the kids. Sometimes I couldn’t wake myself up in time to get them ready for school, so I was thankful for Mal’s help.
When we got home, Lucas ran inside while I checked the mail. There was a check from Daddy from the last paint job I did on his new shed. The shed was for the red ‘76 Chevy Camaro he bought to remind him of “the good ole days” and I was helping him paint it until just last week. Physically, I couldn’t handle my normal load of painting anymore, so Michael suggested I hire some people to help Daddy. I had to cancel several painting jobs in the last month with my interior-decorating business and I could tell that things were going to get worse.
I also hadn’t been cooking like I used to because I was just too exhausted. A lot of the time, I stopped to get take-out on my way home from picking up Lucas or running other errands, but now with Mal to help with the cooking, I didn’t need to, and when I walked in the door, the warm smells of fried calamari embraced me. What would I do without Mal?
These days I just didn’t have the energy anymore and now I feared the worst.
Sighing, I dropped the keys in their spot by the front door and fell onto the couch. Mal was right there with two Advil and a glass of water.
“Thanks Mal,” I smiled and took the medicine.
She shrugged and walked away like what she was doing for me wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
“Mama!” I heard Deanna’s mousy squeal coming from the hallway, “Spin me around Mama!” She plopped her little body right on my lap with her arms outstretched.
“Hi Baby,” I squeezed her tight.
“Spin me! C’mon! Spin meeeeee!” Deanna pleaded. She loved this game. I would spin her around and around, and then drop her onto the couch. She would get up a second later and cry, “Again, Mama, again!”
I took her by the waist and spun her around a few times. She pretended like she was flying with her eyes closed, arms out to her sides as far as they could go and as straight as a line, and her messy brown curls waving behind her. Then I dropped her on the couch as she laughed hysterically. I loved to hear her laughter fill the room; it made me forget about…everything.
Her voice, buried in the couch cushions, came out muffled now, “Again!”
Michael came home just then and without a moment’s hesitation Deanna jumped from the couch and into her Daddy’s arms. Mal smiled from the kitchen. She never married, although she came close, so I think she enjoyed being around us as much as we enjoyed having her.
By the time dinner was ready, all I wanted to do was nap. I didn’t have much of an appetite, so I told Michael I was going to lie down.
“Are you okay?” Michael took me into his arms.
I forced a smile and nodded, “Everything will be fine.” I looked at the kids who were busy helping Mal set the table.
He kissed my forehead. “Why don’t you try to eat something, Becca?”
My lip began to quiver. He knew I was losing weight, but there wasn’t anything I could do to prevent it. “I’m scared, Michael. What will happen to the kids?” I rested my head on his chest and he rubbed my back.
“We don’t know anything for sure–” Michael began.
“C’mon Mama! I’m hungry!” I looked at Lucas who was already sitting down and ready to eat. Deanna flashed a smile at Michael and I and my heart sunk at the thought of leaving her.
I tried to eat that night, if anything, for the sake of my family. The last thing I wanted to do was let them down. I remembered what it was like for me, holding my parents on such a high pedestal. Mama and Daddy were my idols; they were everything I wanted to be. And then in a seven-year-old’s heart, to see the imperfections of whom she held most high…well, she is never quite the same.
After dinner I helped Lucas with his homework and then took a shower. Letting the hot pellets of water soak my face, I inhaled deeply and the problems that flooded my mind evaporated with the steam.
Rubbing away the condensation on the mirror with my arm, I squinted at my reflection. Tomorrow, I thought, I would know for sure. What I know now, I am only concluding from my own diagnosis. The Doctor will tell me everything is fine because surely a sister, a wife, and a mother of two couldn’t possibly have breast cancer. It had to be a mistake. I wasn’t ready to leave my family. Not yet.
I nervously tapped the sides of my legs as I waited for Dr. Haman the next morning.
“Rebecca Costa?” He called from his office.
I followed the sound of his voice and closed the door behind me.
“Have a seat.”
I sat down slowly, biting the insides of my mouth in fear of what the next few minutes would bring.
He scanned several papers and made a couple of marks on the top of each one while saying “mmhmm…” and sighing as he flipped through the packet.
I looked around the office until my gaze landed on a picture of Dr. Haman and his three adorable children. They all had glittering blue eyes and wavy auburn hair. Dr. Haman was grinning from ear to ear, on his hands and knees, gazing at his daughter. The only girl in the photograph was stunning, her smile bright and passionate as she looked up at her father. The two boys hung on Dr. Haman’s back, their heads tilted to either side in mid-laughter.
“Mrs. Costa,” Dr. Haman said, leaning back against the cushiony, wheeling chair. “Last time you came in, you said you noticed some discharge coming out of your left breast, is this still the case?”
I nodded, nervously grabbing the sides of my pants.
“And are you sleeping well?”
I bit my lip. “Actually, I’m more tired during the day. It seems like everything I do is too much for me. And then when night comes, I can barely sleep at all.”
“I’m always tired, but I’m never hungry. I’ve lost over ten pounds this past month alone.”
He smiled then and nodded. “My sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.”
I drew in a deep breath. “It actually runs in my family. My mother died of it when I was very young.”
Dr. Haman’s face grew serious. “Well from what you’ve been telling me for several weeks now, and the way your behavior has been changing…” Dr. Haman looked out the window for a long moment. There were lush green hills peeking over the horizon, but his focus was on a small white bird sitting on top of a mailbox.
I licked my lips. I knew what was coming.
“Mrs. Costa, all of your tests came back positive for Stage 2 – breast cancer.”
I looked at Dr. Haman’s picture again and imaged Michael, Lucas, and Deanna in their places. Without me.
When I pulled in my driveway later that afternoon, Mal’s car was already there.
“Mal,” I called, walking in the door and tossing my keys on the table.
“In here, Becca!” She called from the playroom.
Mal was tidying up a bit before the kids came home. I watched her from the doorway without saying a word. I could not imagine what life would be like without her. All the time she dedicated to my family was more than I could have ever asked for.
She caught me watching her and jumped up. “How’d it go?”
I nodded, fighting back tears.
That was all she needed to know.
Mal came over to me and embraced me in a long, tight hug. “Ti amo,” she whispered, sounding very much like Mama. I buried my face into her neck and let the tears spill ceaselessly.
“What’s going to happen?” I barely made the words out through my sobbing.
Mal swallowed and I felt a bead of moisture hit my forehead and roll down my cheek. It wasn’t mine.
“You’ll make it. I know you will,” she whispered.
Together we heard the garage door opening and pulled away, drying our faces with the backs of our hands.
“Michael offered to pick up the kids today. Dee hates taking that bus,” Mal said.
I laughed a little. “I know it, Lucas too.”
“Mama!” I heard Lucas call.
Mal and I walked into the living room and I gave Lucas and big hug. Deanna hopped up behind him, waiting to be hugged. I lifted her up and squeezed her tight. I was still holding her when Michael came to give me a kiss.
“Mama! Today at school there was a FIRE! Allllll the kids had to go outside!” Deanna began excitedly when I put her down.
“It was a fire drill. There was no fire,” Lucas explained.
“Yeah there was! Sydney Kramer said she saw one!” Deanna argued.
“Oh sure. Where?” Lucas grabbed his Game Boy from the kitchen counter.
“She diiiiiiiiid! In the cafeteria!” Deanna’s eyes were wide.
“Well she lied,” Lucas sprawled on the couch.
Deanna came running up to him and took his face into her hands, “Sydney Kramer doesn’t lie. There was a real fire,” she said slowly, looking at her brother in the eye.
Lucas shook his head and Deanna left him alone.
“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” Michael whispered in my ear.
I looked at him questioningly.
“Lucas and Dee,” he explained. “One minute they’re arguing, the next they’re playing.”
I watched my children sitting side-by-side on the couch now. Lucas had his Game Boy in hand, and Deanna had her head on his shoulder watching the screen.
“So, what did Dr. Haman have to say?” Michael took my hand and we sat with Mal at the kitchen table.
I looked at Mal for support. She smiled and took my other hand.
“It’s breast cancer,” I said, “Stage 2, which means it’s growing, but hasn’t spread…yet. He wants to start chemo on Monday before I have surgery.”
Michael’s grip on my hand was weaker now and I glanced up at him.
“It’s ok,” I said. “The doctor says it’s very treatable.”
Michael nodded and without a word got up from the table and started preparing dinner.
Mal and I looked at each other, frowning.
“It’s ok, I can do that,” Mal offered getting up from the table.
Michael didn’t say anything as he grabbed different foods out of the fridge, but Mal went to the kitchen anyway and helped him.
“Michael,” I began, but he dropped the bowl he was mixing salad in and walked into the bedroom. I followed him.
He sat on the edge of the bed, his face buried behind his hands. “I can’t do this,” he said when I sat next to him.
“Do what? What’s wrong?”
He looked up now. White birds were singing to each other on the branches of a huge willow tree in our back yard. “I can’t be strong for you anymore. It’s too hard. Watching the kids earlier…I just can’t.”
“You don’t need to be,” I told him, putting a hand on his back.
“I do. What about the kids?”
“It’s going to be fine. I’ll tell them, you don’t have to worry about it.”
The birds flew away.
“What if I can’t help them by myself?” Michael’s eyes searched mine for the answer.
“Stop talking like that.”
Michael was quiet, but then he nodded slowly, “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m just…I’m scared. Aren’t you scared?”
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t.
Michael looked away just as the birds began a new chorus.
“Come on, Michael. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.”
After dinner that night, Mal helped with the dishes before going home.
“Mal,” I whispered to her as she was grabbing her purse to leave.
She turned. “What is it?”
I brushed tears from my cheeks before taking her hand and pressing a slip of paper into her palm. She gave me a questioning look.
“Mama,” I began but tears choked back my words.
Mal opened the paper and read. Her fingers traced my mother’s delicate script. Closing her eyes she sighed and hugged me.
“Mama wrote that out for me before she passed away,” I explained in her embrace.
“Sshh,” she whispered into my hair.
We stood like that for a moment, a bond between us that could never be broken.
When we separated, Mal smiled at me. “Mama always knew what to say to make it better, didn’t she? Even when we didn’t know it at the time.”
I nodded. I missed Mama so much, even now. Especially now.
Mal pushed the paper to her heart, then slipped it into her purse, hugged the children goodbye and left.
Quietness surrounded me for a second before I called Dee and Lucas to the living room.
Deanna sat on my lap and Lucas sat in between Michael and me.
“Ti amo Deanna.” I kissed the top of her head.
She grinned up at me, “Ti amo Mama.”
“Ok, what did you guys have to tell us?” Lucas asked impatiently.
Michael and I looked at each other. Suddenly, I was at a loss for words. Gazing out the window I saw the fresh greens and browns against the sky. Outside was beautiful, but on the inside it was dark and glum. Here I was sitting with my two children who were about to hear something no child should ever have to hear.
The soft white birds’ songs were barely starting up again, and my heart was all but slowing down. I controlled my breathing so much that it was soundless. The birds, my heart, and each long puff of air…it was like my personal symphony, striking the chords for only me.
“Lucas, Dee,” I began. “There’s something wrong with Mama.”
They looked up at me at the same moment Michael looked away.
“What’s wrong, Mama? Are you sick?” Lucas asked.
“Do you have a tummy ache? I can make you some soup!” Deanna offered.
I smiled at each of them. “Yes, I’m sick. Very, very sick. The kind of sick that only a doctor can fix.”
They said nothing, but continued to watch me.
“I have a little lump in my chest,” I tried to explain as best as I could. I struggled to think of how Mama told us about her cancer. The image of bad cells eating good cells flickered into my mind and a second later it was gone. Thanks Mama.
I watched Lucas and Deanna’s expressions change from confused to pained as I used Mama’s story about the cells. Their poignant faces were enough to send Michael into a muddle of tears.
But Lucas wasn’t crying and neither was Deanna. Instead, each crawled into my lap and wrapped their arms around my neck. “Ti amo, Mama,” they whispered. “Ti amo moltó.”
The sweet white birds seemed to be watching us embrace from the window, and as they sang, I noticed something more about these birds that I hadn’t before. They were nonna’s birds – tiny white turtledoves from the Christmas tree that she placed so high; as they meant so much to her. Mama’s favorite ornament. And also mine.
And somehow I knew then what I didn’t know when I was seven. Everything was going to be fine. We were going to get through this. My children and my husband were not going to lose me like I lost Mama.
And over and over again, I heard my children whisper into my neck, “Ti amo, ti amo, ti amo…”