Seven Stages to Clarity by pfeifferpack

Summary: When facing eternity, a good mother will try to put all her affairs in order. That means getting real, seeing clearly and putting your own heart's desires on hold, your dreams in perspective, letting your brain control your advice. Now if only those you love will just cooperate! Joyce looks to her daughter's future as her own mortality becomes an issue and comes to some startling conclusions. Can Joyce convince Buffy to forget all that she has been telling her, all that everyone has been telling her, thereby easing Joyce's own worries before facing the hospital and possible death?
Setting: S5 and begins to go AU at the end of "Fool For Love" (written by Douglas Petrie). I am using bits of dialogue from that episode in the beginning of the story before it goes a very different direction.

Story Notes:

A/N: Some info such as doctors' names and Joyce's medical condition were taken from "Shadow" (written by Dave Fury) and "Listening to Fear" (written by Jane Espenson) and a wee bit of Riley attitude paraphrased from "Into The Woods" (by Marti Noxon).

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified a grief cycle (her initial number of stages was five) that occurs when people deal with death or grieving. The current feeling is that there are more like seven stages, hence my title. Those stages encompass: Shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness (or a period of reflection realizing the full impact of the loss), an upward turn of adjustment, reconstruction of life with the change, and finally acceptance and hope.

Chapter 1

Joyce felt the world slip gears and move into slow motion, the doctor's voice deep and distorted as with one of those machines that disguise voices and make a person sound eerie and wrong.

She was young! She was vital! She had a life and plans and two daughters to see grow into full womanhood! This could NOT be real. It was a mistake, a bad joke.

The doctor was giving her a "worst-case-scenario" and worst just didn't cover it.
"You do understand that long-term survival is possible, even if only in a minority of patients. With aggressive treatment and close monitoring, it IS possible to outlive the typical life expectancies for this type of tumor," the doctor droned on.

The man just didn't understand. Joyce had a future and it was a long one. This was one tragic mistake and that CAT scan was going to prove it. Maybe she'd even feel like laughing when they admitted that the diagnosis was completely wrong; or maybe she'd just hit the smug bastard currently taking her life away with his every word.

The serious look on his patient's face was mistaken for concentration by the physician so he continued describing the likely progression if the tumor remained untreated. "With oligodendroglioma, you will likely progress from those headaches that brought you here to seizures in the frontal lobe. This will begin to affect your personality and might prove quite confusing for you and your family. You said you have two teenage daughters, correct?" The doctor put on his best patient-friendly smile and feigned interest in the entire person he was treating, rather than the tumor he was just itching to expose.

"What?" Joyce was startled back into the conversation, aware that some question had been asked but unable to fathom just what it had been.

"I was asking about your daughters," Dr. Isaacs prompted. "You did say you have two of them?"

"Yes, Buffy is in college and Dawn in junior high school. They both need me, so this just can't be allowed to happen. Their father isn't a part of their lives and they depend on me alone. You did say that if the scan does show this tumor that I still have a good chance, right?"

"Not precisely, no, but the sooner we address the tumor, the better your chances are. Some patients have had close to a dozen years of quality life because it was caught in time. With surgery and good follow-up treatment…a course of anticonvulsants…some steroids to minimize brain swelling…and chemo, of course. We've had a lot of success with Temozolomide and it has relatively mild side effects." He smiled and patted Joyce's hand in sympathy. "There really is reason for hope, no matter what the outcome of that CAT scan, but the sooner we act, the better your chances."

Okay, it was all a big deal about nothing. She'd check into the hospital, have the test and find it was all just nothing more than a bad migraine. No tumor here, folks, move along. Her girls weren't babies, but they still needed their mother.

Buffy had Riley and Joyce was glad that her dreams of a happy, white-picket fence life and fat grandbabies looked promising at long last. She hadn't really gotten to know Riley well yet. Buffy had been so involved in her own life since beginning college that she had precious little time to spend with her mother and little sister. 'That's only normal,' Joyce reminded herself with a soft smile. Riley seemed a solid young man though, very dependable, polite, self-confident…and human, not a century older than Buffy.

Dawn was at an awkward stage, neither child nor adult. She was typical in that she needed her mother at this turning point in her life.

Joyce still felt guilty over the painful mistakes she'd made with Buffy. Not believing her stories about vampires and mystical destiny had led to so much pain for them all. The seemingly logical response of psychiatric care and hospitalization had proven a disaster for the entire family. That was just the beginning of Hank's looking elsewhere for his comfort and pleasures-a normal life without his child having a breakdown and a wife focusing all of her attention on said daughter. Joyce had felt a personal failure on all fronts.

After the divorce and move to Sunnydale, she had been so busy building a new life for the two of them that Buffy was left to her own devices far too often and Joyce regretted each lost day of that time.

She still hadn't listened, not when Buffy tried to warn her of something "off" about Ted, not when Buffy finally demanded that she accept the strange, frightening world that was the true reality going on unacknowledged by every 'sensible' person.

She and Buffy were finally on good footing now, all those bad years and wrong choices being put in the past. Angel had been dealt with and Buffy seemed on the way to being happy again. There were scars, but they had a firm bond between them now.

Joyce had a chance to do it right with Dawn, to not make the same mistakes. Surely such a blessing as this second chance had to mean that she was to have plenty of time to be the kind of mother she always wanted to be to BOTH her girls. To hold her grandchildren and spoil them and watch Buffy and Dawn become the wonderful women she knew they were destined to become.

"…of course if surgery is necessary, you'll have the best we have on staff here. Dr. Kriegel came to us from Sloan-Kettering and has done this procedure innumerable times with great success." Dr. Isaacs smiled reassuringly, "I'm sure you have the best possible chance for all of this to be dealt with quickly and satisfactorily. You'll likely even keep that pretty blonde hair." The doctor patted her on the head like she was some vain child that he was patronizing.

'Satisfactorily?' The only possible good outcome would be to have the tests show no growth on her brain at all.

"I'm sure you're right, doctor." Joyce rose and mindlessly reached for her purse. "I'll be ready to check into the hospital in the morning. I need to pack and let the girls know what's happening. Buffy will be able to watch over Dawn the short time I'm there." She began to compile mental lists of all she needed to do in the short hours left to her "normal" life. The important thing was not to panic.

The drive home was the longest Joyce could ever remember. Her mind buzzed with thoughts, plans, fears and still a firm denial that anything was about to change. She supposed it was too late to get additional insurance. Still, there was coverage and she had enough put back to see them through. The gallery was doing quite well and the inventory would sell easily if worse did come to worse.

The last thing she wanted to do was overly alarm Buffy. Her daughter's …calling…was dangerous enough without adding distractions. Earlier Buffy had tried to pull one over on her, disguising the fact that she was obviously treating an injury. The past year had led to an unspoken truce where Buffy's slaying was concerned. Joyce had to adjust to the peril her eldest was in on a daily basis. No more head in the sand for Joyce Summers. Buffy was constantly at risk. No, the last thing Joyce wanted was to make a big issue over this little glitch. Her girls needed to let her worry about them, not the other way around.

Joyce had hoped that Riley helping out with the slaying would make Buffy less prone to injury. Maybe with proper backup Buffy could outlive all expectations, even grow old. Oddly enough, it seemed Riley's presence hadn't prevented much. He was highly trained, or so Joyce had been told, but he was still a human facing a supernatural enemy. No matter how many of Buffy's friends or boyfriends were at her side, the risks were still alarmingly high for her brave girl.

She had so many dreams for her beautiful elder daughter. Buffy was far more intelligent than she herself believed. Just getting the grades she had received while saving the world every night was remarkable. Joyce still resented the intrusion of Buffy's calling, how it warped her life and cheated her of all the things most girls could take for granted. Buffy was a beauty too, a real head turner with a wonderful sense of humor. She could do and be anything she wished!

Joyce just wanted her happy. Well, happy and safe. A nice, faithful, devoted man to help partner her in life, a career that fulfilled her and a family to surround her with love-a typical mother's dreams for her child, Joyce supposed.

Realistically, Buffy's life was destined to be anything but normal. Still, there should be some way to carve as much happiness as possible out of it. Buffy had already more than paid her dues. She was surrounded by so much violence and pain; it really wasn't fair at all. If Joyce could remove the burden from Buffy she would. As it was, all she could do was be there for her daughter and she wasn't going to let some bit of tissue in the brain stop her.

Joyce sat with her second cup of tea and worked over her "to-do" list for the girls to follow while she was in the hospital. The groceries needed to be the right kind-not just frozen pizza and junk food. She highlighted the fresh vegetables on the list in bright yellow. The knock on the back door startled her into spilling a bit of her liquid comfort.

"Stopped by to see if you got that shipment in you were telling me about last week." Spike smiled in greeting as Joyce let him into her kitchen. "Fancy some help with the heavier pieces?"

Joyce smiled in return. It was hard at times to remember that the creature before her was actually over a hundred years old, and a vampire at that. He seemed such a charming, disarming boy most of the time. She tended to relate to him that way as well. Their tentative friendship had begun over drunken, tear-filled moments in this very kitchen a couple of years before and had slipped into a comfortable place that she enjoyed more than she wanted to admit. She still had few friends in Sunnydale.

"I had Bobby unload them, Spike, but thank you for offering."

"Always willing to lend a bit of muscle." Spike perched on the counter, ignoring the chair available at the table. "Writing some fanfiction for "Friends" or "Ally McBeal" there, pet? Make all the characters do the things you want them to do, not what the soddin' writers come up with?" His teasing tone always made her want to laugh. He really was full of charm when he wasn't taunting Buffy into hitting him. They had talked at length about Joyce's old dream of becoming a famous novelist and Spike was always encouraging her to try her hand, even if only as an amateur.

"No, but speaking of TV shows, have you managed to get that cable connection you were working on where you live?"

"Still a work in progress." Spike noted the tea bag on the saucer by Joyce's cup and frowned. One day he'd invite the lady over for a proper cuppa and show off his ingenuity in turning a tomb into a proper home, fit for even a lady such as Joyce to come as company.

"Maybe Xander could lend a hand. He has always been the one to get my electronic messes straightened out here."

Spike knew better than to voice his opinion of the boy who had made himself a thorn in his side ever since his chipping. Joyce liked the whelp and, Spike was pleased to realize, she liked him too. There were times when he could remain silent, if the prize was worth it, and having a friend was a fine prize indeed. "I've got a handle on it, pet. Just need to nick the right bits and pieces and I'll be as high-tech as Bill Bloody Gates. Plan on havin' more than just cable TV when I'm done. Gonna be fully connected, a man of the times."

Joyce chuckled. It was true that Spike wasn't like most vampires she had heard about since being forced into admitting they existed. Even Angel seemed to hold onto an aura of bygone times compared to Spike. True, Spike hadn't moved past Sid Vicious in his fashion sense, but that was a statement and not a sign of being stuck in the past. She wondered, not for the first time, just how it felt to be nearly immortal. At the moment, that made her more sad than contemplative, so she shelved the thought.

Spike noted the fleeting emotions that crossed her face and wondered what was up. "Everything okay, Joyce? Eldest giving you nightmares with her unfortunate choices in mates?" There were no words for the hatred Spike felt towards Riley Finn and seeing his Slayer hanging on the berk was maddening.

Joyce detected the jealous tone in his voice and pushed aside the fears that came from suspecting that yet another vampire was attracted to Buffy. "Riley has been very helpful and Buffy is finally enjoying herself like any normal college-age girl, so no, no nightmares on that account."

She could see the look of concern on Spike's face and knew he was aware that something was not right. It wouldn't do to confide in him when she had yet to even speak to her own children though. "Everything is fine. I'm making a shopping list and I just know Buffy and Dawn will ignore everything on it and load up on microwavable junk."

"Going somewhere then?" Spike guessed. "Can't say I'd want Buffy trying her hand at cooking a real meal. Might be better if they did stick to the quick n' easy. Less chance to burn down your lovely house." He smiled at a private memory. "And have you tried any of the Bit's 'specialties'?" He shuddered and turned slightly green, causing peals of laughter from Joyce.

"Sadly, yes. She seems to have no interest in following normal recipes and I refuse to try her concoctions again after the last time. She decided that peanut butter would make a great ingredient in lasagna for some reason. It wasn't." They both grimaced at the thought. "She had this convoluted logic about peanuts being protein and how the consistency was almost like Ricotta cheese."

The phone broke into their laughter and with some regret Joyce went to answer. She laughed a lot in Spike's company; it felt nice. "Summers residence. Joyce here." She closed her eyes in resignation as she listened to Buffy giving her excuses for missing the dinner they had planned. "Just make sure Giles feeds you while you do this research, okay? He may be your Watcher, but I'm your mom and I don't think you eat nearly enough."

Spike thought Buffy looked perfect as she was, but didn't voice it. So the Slayer was in for a night of research. He wondered what big bad was on the scene to bring Buffy to the point of reading dusty tomes and listening to Rupes drone on and on about this and that misinformation the Council passed off as fact.

"Suppose I'd best be heading off. Wires to connect, bits to nick." Spike slid from the counter graceful as a cat and headed for the back door. "Give a shout if you need anything. Harris isn't the only one handy and willin' to offer."

"Thank you, Spike. I know you are always considerate and helpful to me and I appreciate that. You're a good friend." Joyce watched as his black clad form melded into the night.

"No, honey, I'm fine." Joyce continued packing, managing to avoid eye contact with a worried Buffy. "Have you seen my conditioner?" Keep it casual, that's the ticket.

"Did you look under the sink?" Buffy was trying to wrap her mind around the news her mom had just given her. Vampires and demons she could face 'til the cows came home-even a herd of vampire cows if they existed-but hospitals were another thing completely. In Buffy's short life, hospitals equaled despair and death. "So why the hospital? I know you've had those migraines lately, but that isn't usually a reason to check into that place."

"Well, it's likely nothing, honey. Dr. Isaacs just wants to be sure, run some tests."

"I'm pretty sure you're not talking multiple choice or true-or-false here. What kind of tests and for what?"

Joyce finally looked her in the eye and noticed how pale Buffy was at the thought of her going into the hospital. "I'm only staying overnight for observation and a CAT scan." She could see that Buffy was already in overdrive with concern. "I'll only be one night and they say that even if there is something it's still early and I'll be just fine."

"What's this early 'it' that's nothing for me to worry about?"

"There's a slight, a very slight chance that I might have a small growth on my brain."

Buffy blinked and felt light headed. This was no little something; this was serious, deadly serious. "You mean…a tumor."

"Yes, dear, that is the term." Joyce sat on the edge of the bed and took her daughter's hands in her own. "Sweetie, it's really unlikely, but they don't want to take a chance, okay? Remember who you're dealing with here. I'll be fine!"

"I know you will," Buffy tried to sound reassuring in spite of the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"By the way," Joyce sought to change the subject, "I got asked out to dinner."

Buffy's raised eyebrows gave away her surprise.

"What, you think I don't have 'it' anymore?" Joyce teased. "His name is Brian and he's completely human. I looked for wiring this time." She smiled at Buffy's slight blush.

"So…dinner, huh? Make him take you someplace expensive." Buffy wanted her mom happy and this Brian had better watch himself or he'd be answering to the Slayer.

"He's a real darling; you'll like him. He's a lawyer and is well on his way to making partner."

"Lawyer, huh? Thought you said he wasn't a demon." Buffy teased.

"I said lawyer, honey, not politician," Joyce quipped back. "So you see, nothing to worry about with this test. I've got too much to do yet for it to be anything serious. They'll look at the scan, see I have a normal brain, give me something for the headaches and send me home to torment you and Dawn."

Joyce watched from the kitchen window as Buffy finally gave in to the tears and fears. How strange that the comfort her daughter needed was coming from a gun-toting vampire awkwardly patting her back and offering silent support.

Heaven only knew what had caused the appearance of a shotgun. Buffy and Spike had a volatile relationship at best. One would think they were in a heated romance the way they fought yet kept coming back to one another again and again. That gave Joyce pause. True she really did like Spike but sensing the underlying attraction between Buffy and the vampire caused more concern than joy. Still there was no denying that they were evenly matched in strengths, and stubbornness too for that matter.

Seeing her strong, proud daughter turn her face into Spike's shoulder and give in to the wellspring of grief nearly broke her motherly heart. Just another reason the scan would have to show nothing but a normal brain: Buffy needed her no matter how strong she wanted to think herself. She needed her mother.