When They Tell Me I Have Cancer

When they tell me I have cancer over the phone on a Tuesday, though I try to concentrate on all the important words like “noninvasive” and “caught early,” I am thinking instead of the nights when my son was still small, and I watched him breathe while sleeping by the snowman nightlight in our old home. I kept it up long after Christmas because it was dimmer than the other lights, bright enough that I could see him in his sleeper near my bed when I reached out to place a hand on his chest, but not enough that he’d confuse it for daylight. When he’d wake in predawn hours, I would hold him to me, to where that cancer is now, sway our sleepy bodies back and forth in its small glow.

The body of the snowman was filled with glitter that moved when it was warm, a thousand tiny improbable stars on the bedroom wall, brighter than those real ones I can see tonight in the sky with its patchwork of clouds. Instead, there is just the loom of artificial light on these steps and only the shadows for company, all the people offstage. And when I watch the moonlight in all her many colors as if I am walking through other people’s dreams, I think of all the goodbyes I have been given, the way they are paper lanterns now losing their spark, silt stained and uncertain.

How one exhaled into that year of the plastic snowman, so that now when I sleep alone at night the blue sheets around me flutter down on his empty half like sails in some absent boat. Or that one goodbye a few years later, some faded, tinny recording, only ever my own voice, echoing back. The oldest is the black curve of a highway; another, a plastic die in a Target bag that I almost take back, again and again.

From the sleep drought nights of my son’s earliest childhood, I do not imagine it will be this that I remember most, the curve of his small body against my own as I paced around the room, my sheer, sad exhaustion or frustrated tears, that light all around us.

When they tell me I have cancer over the phone on a Tuesday, I do not imagine I will remember this more than I will the voices of those now gone from me, the way his head had fit just there. The way it had fit, and that dumb snowman with his barely there plastic body, how it had lit up from the inside.

How, when bright, it had seemed we were drenched in stars.

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