I push my way through the doors of the small complex of buildings behind County General. If I look to my left I can see the window of the room, I spent so much time in when I was twelve. It was the longest I'd ever been away from home, until I went to college. Once it was clear, I would survive, I hated being there and only wanted to be home again. The food was terrible especially compared to my mother's cooking. Don't kid yourself, that woman can cook.
She's sitting in a chair that almost looks like a recliner. She's wearing headphones, probably listening to some classical music, so she doesn't know I'm there until I'm standing in front of her. She's so thin, and I try not to react to it. I wish she'd put on a little more weight, but its hard for her.
"Guthrie!" She says surprised and pulls her headphones off and looks up at me. Her eyes are huge and fill with happy tears. "Oh! I didn't know you were coming!"
I lean over and kiss her. "It was a surprise." I say. "I've got three days off, and Jeanne's got a conference, so here I am."
She claps her hands in joy, and wipes away tears. "Oh! I'm so happy! Guthrie!" She's so happy that it almost breaks my heart. She loves me so, and I've moved so far away from her. I wish I could see her everyday. I wish I could be near her, and my five nephews and niece; especially now.
I sit across from her, pulling over a small chair. One of the nurses walks over to check on something, and seeing me says, "Who is this?"
"This is my oldest, Guthrie." Hannah tells them proudly. "He's just about finished up his residency. He surprised me!"
"Oh, this is the one expecting the baby." She says smiling at me.
"My first grandchild. It's a baby girl and I can't wait to meet her!" I smile at her slightly embarrassed.
"We love your mother. She's the sweetest patient we have. She made us all soup last week. It was the best I've ever tasted."
"She's the best cook on the planet." I say.
"You got no argument from any of us." The nurse says. She makes an adjustment with the IV and then leaves us alone.
"How is it going today?" I ask.
"Oh, you know." She says brushing it all aside. "I should be finished around four. It's kind of a long day today. But they'll give me a blood transfusion toward the end. I always feel so good after that."
I smile at her and leaning forward, kiss her on her bald head. I try not to look as frightened as I feel. I'm trying to be brave for her sake, and the sake of my nephews, and niece and my brother, but I'm terrified.
My mother has cancer.
Around two p.m., Adam shows up. His hair is mostly gray now, and he's a little bit heavier than when I was a kid, but he could out work me without even trying. He's the strongest man I've ever known. He's browned by the sun; a real cowboy. The first time Jeanne met him she was terrified. It wasn't until later that she discovered he's really just a big ball of mush. He dotes on her and calls her his long lost daughter.
I hope I can be as kind and thoughtful a father, as Adam. I can remember him sitting, his six foot two frame, squished in my little desk in second grade, drinking a cup of tea with me. There was no one else to come to the mother's day tea, then, so he did. He was twenty-two years old.
"How you doing, sweetheart?" He says kissing Hannah, not seeing me because his eyes always look for her first. "Guthrie!" He says seeing me at last and embracing me. He kisses my cheek as though I were still just nine years old. "You made it!"
"You knew he was coming?" Hannah asks surprised.
"Sure, but he wanted to surprise you!" Adam says smiling at her. "Thank God you are home. The twins have gone football crazy, and I'm too old to be out there with them. You can take over."
"I've only got the one kidney." I tell him, laughing. "Contact sports are too dangerous." My nephews are nearly thirteen now, and giant balls of energy.
Adam pulls up another chair and sits on the other side of Hannah. "Did you eat lunch?" He asks her.
"I had half a sandwich, and an entire bag of chips." She says.
"Good girl!" He smiles at her, kissing her and lifts his work-rough hand to brush it across her cheek.
The bag of chips is a lie. I ate half of it, but I cover for her with a wink.
"She's put on three pounds this last week." Adam says proudly.
"With your cooking?" I asked surprised.
"No." Hannah says firmly. "Believe it or not, your brother Brian has become a pretty good cook."
My brother Brian and his wife live in a house that he built on the ranch. Caroline is his second wife. His first wife died before they celebrated their first anniversary. We thought he might never remarry, but then he met Caroline. Her father runs the feed store in town. They got married about five years ago, and he adopted her two little daughters who her first husband left behind without a second glance. They love him. Two years ago, they had a baby girl of their own, and she might be the cutest baby I've ever seen - of course I haven't seen my own daughter yet. Everyone dotes on her, including her two older sisters. Brian seems perfectly content to be surrounded by women.
"I won't believe it 'til I taste it." I say. "I should call Jeanne," I tell them looking at the clock and seeing that she's probably on a break. "I'll be right back."
"You alright?" She asks.
"Yeah." I lie.
"Guthrie," She begins. "Don't lie to me."
"She looks pretty bad." I confess. "It's scary."
"She's a fighter. Everyone says that she's doing well." She reminds me.
"Nothing's ever guaranteed." I say with a sigh. But it is true. Everyone says she is responding well. I've looked at her charts. Everything has gone better than they expected. She'll finish these last few rounds of chemotherapy, and we will cross our fingers and pray that all the cancer will be gone, forever. But she is my mother. Small, vulnerable, beautiful and I cannot bare to consider this earth without her here.
I return to find my brother tucking a blanket around her. She has fallen asleep and he lifts a finger to his lips to keep me quiet. He leans forward and kisses her bald head, and tears fill my eyes. You can tell that Adam could care less that she is bald; that she is skeleton thin; that she is ill; that she has survived a double-mastectomy; he loves her and can see how beautiful she is - even now.
I follow him into the bright sunshine of a courtyard. He sinks into a chair and closes his eyes for the briefest of moments. He appears to have aged years and years since the last time I was home, which was only a few months ago, right after her surgery.
"Adam. . ." I say, but can't think of what else to say. I cannot imagine Adam without Hannah, anymore than I can imagine earth without sky.
"How's Jeanne?" He asks opening his eyes and looking up into my face.
"Tired and big." I say smiling at the thought of her beautiful face. "She burst into tears the other day because she said she's bigger than any pregnant woman she's ever seen."
"A pregnant woman is nothing to be trifled with, Guthrie." He says knowingly. "Just tell her she's pretty, kiss her, and tell her she's pretty."
"I do, and she is pretty." I smile at him. "How are you?"
"Well," He says looking in the distance. "I've had better times. She's responding well. That's what they say. We'll know soon." He sighs and I wish I were still young enough to climb in his lap and put my arms around him. Instead, I reach out and squeeze his shoulder. "I'm glad you came to see her." He says, clearing his throat. "You fill her heart with joy, Guthrie. Nothing makes your mother happier than seeing you."
The house is the same. It doesn't seem to change, but the people in it do. My brothers are all gone now. Our adopted sister, Izzy away at college. I can't even begin to think of her as college sophomore surrounded by all those horrible boys. It pushes me over the edge to even consider it. Izzy came to us the year I was thirteen. She's Hannah's niece, but that connection faded away; like me, she's one of Hannah's children.
My brother Ford is a school teacher in Sonora. His wife is the principal which makes her his boss. My brothers and I find this hilarious. In the evenings he directs the youth symphony. Like myself, and all my other married brothers, his happy.
Our brother Evan became a rodeo star, but you've probably never heard of him - unless you follow rodeos and I've discovered not too many people do. He has yet to find the love his life - at least the two-legged kind. He is currently married to the rodeo circuit.
You've heard of my brother Daniel though, or at least heard him sing. He's kind of famous which is bizarre for all of us. He started out playing guitar for Tommy Noma who was kind of big deal back in the day. Now, Tommy opens for Daniel which would be awkward but they're really good friends and don't give a crap what the world around them thinks. They are in it for the music. Besides, Daniel married Tommy's baby sister.
Crane married his sweetheart, Molly. She's the local vet. They have four kids and live across town.
So the house would be empty except Adam and Hannah have six kids; Jack and Jeb, the twins, Katie, Riley, Henry and Everett. They are 13, 12, 10, 8 and 6. It is looking at their bright, trusting faces that I finally understand my own brothers' loss. I cannot imagine these children without their mother. She is the center of us all - she is our family's heart.
The dinner table is as noisy as ever. There are twenty-two people around two tables. The only ones who are missing are Daniel and Evan; the super stars. We eat, laugh and tease. Crane breaks out a guitar after dinner and we all sing. It sounds like a choir. The brothers leave, the children go to bed and I linger. There's a roll out bed that was once mine in the front room. I will sleep in it tonight, as I did when I was a boy.
She's fallen asleep, and Adam lifts her so gently and tenderly, I turn away. It is too private. He carries her upstairs whispering to her softly. I cannot hear the words but it sounds like a piece of music composed by a Master.
"Wait, what time is it?" I whisper into the phone. "Aw, hell, sweetheart, I'm sorry. Hang up and go to sleep."
"No." She says defiant. She's a stubborn woman.
"You need your rest. I'm hanging up, love."
"No, you aren't." She says. "Leave the line open. I'm in bed. I'll fall asleep to your voice."
I say nothing unable to speak.
"Guthrie," She says so softly I'm not sure I'm dreaming. "I love you." Still I say nothing overcome with emotions. "Guthrie? Are you asleep?" She asks.
"No." I sigh, wishing she were in my arms right now. I always feel better when Jeanne is near. "I hate waiting." I say.
"I know. Remember waiting for your residency acceptance letter?" She asks.
"I said I was sorry." I tell her, but she's laughing. The weeks before I got my acceptance letter were horrible. I don't like things unsettled. I like to know what is going to happen. I had been grumpy, sullen and difficult. I was terrible. But waiting for this, is nothing compared to a simple letter.
Crane and I both drive her to treatment in the morning. She sits between us in the old truck which miraculously still runs. She is cheerful as ever, her head wrapped in a beautiful silk scarf.
It is fall and all the leaves have turned; her favorite time of year.
"It is just beautiful out." She says looking all around her - her big eyes even bigger because there is no hair to draw your attention away from them. "Crane are you and Molly going to the fall dance next week?"
"Oh, I don't know. I imagine she'll drag me there. You should come Hannah. If you do, I'll dance with you." He tells her.
"I don't know." She looks out the window. "Everyone makes such a big deal about me. It is embarrassing."
"Everyone loves you, Hannah." I tell her.
"Oh, they just feel sorry for me." She says. I suppose it is true. If you saw Hannah while you were walking down the street, you would feel bad. She's clearly ill. But she's a strong, proud woman. It must hurt her to be pitied. I study her.
"Stop staring, Guthrie." She says irritated.
"It isn't that." I explain. "I was just thinking how annoyed you must be not to be strong enough to put folks in their place." I grin at her.
"The things you say." She says, but she smiles too. We understand each other, my mother and I.
My daughter is born the day before Hannah's last chemo treatment. It is a celebration all the way around. I am stunned by the beauty of this tiny creature. Her hair is red, like the mother who gave birth to me so long ago, and her eyes are huge just like the mother who raised me. Jeanne laughs at me and points out my eyes are big too, but I cling to a strong belief that family goes beyond genetics, and somehow, this child of mine has inherited her grandmother's beautiful eyes.
I call home and am rewarded by my brother's tearfully happy voice, "Oh, Guthrie! I wish we were there! Wait, let me put Hannah on!" I can hear them talking and her shout of joy.
"We are both on." He says.
"Oh, Guthrie! I wish I could see her! I can't wait! As soon as I'm strong enough, we'll be there!" She promises.
"I haven't told you her name." I tell them. Jeanne and I have kept it a secret all along. We agreed on it almost immediately.
"What did you name her?" Adam asked.
"Hannah Joy. Her name is Hannah Joy McFadden." I say through tears. "We named her after the most beautiful woman I've ever known."
There is silence on the other end of the line, and I wish I could see their faces.
"Hannah?" I ask. "Adam?"
"She . . . she can't talk, Guth." Adam's voice is soft. "You . . .you've always been . . .you are still the sweetest thing." I'm always amazed at Adam's ability to straddle the fence between macho and tender. Seriously, if you saw him in his cowboy boots and hat, you'd think he's the toughest man on the planet, but if you watch him play with his children, or care for Hannah, you'd think he was a stereotype from a damn Oprah show. I don't know how he managed to maintain such an open tenderness, and he's completely unashamed of his emotions. "You saved me, Guthrie. You know that? When I was exhausted and lost, and just wanted to run away from it all, you would climb into my arms, and then I could keep going." I swallow down tears shocked. He's never revealed any of his inner life from those difficult years after our parent's deaths.
"I can't wait for you to see her, Adam. She's just the most beautiful thing." I say. "I can't believe it."
"I am so happy for you, Son." He says. "Your mom, she's so proud and that you named her like you did, well, we are pleased. Go on and kiss Jeanne and tell her how much we love her."
"I will. I'll call again later, okay?"
"That would be good. I'll let the Brotherhood know." He says.
"I love you, Adam." I tell him.
"I love you too, Guth."
The Brotherhood, was Hannah's nickname for my brothers and I. We were a surprise to her. Adam had mentioned us to her from time to time when they were dating, but he neglected to mention, he was raising us. He married her on a Saturday afternoon and brought her home to us. I still can't believe she didn't turn around and run the other way. Imagine, picturing a perfect honeymoon, alone with your new husband, only to discover you will be living with his six younger brothers - oh, and you get to cook and clean for them too! She didn't run. She stayed, and loved us too. From the very first second I saw her, I exhaled, realizing for the first time that I'd been holding my breath for a very, very long time.
We are all together again so that they can meet our newest family member. My eyes shine with pride as the brothers fuss over little Hannah Joy, just three months old. She is the most beautiful child to have ever been born. Jeanne laughs when I say this, but doesn't disagree.
Jeanne and I stand alone together on the front porch. My arms are around her, and I am blissfully happy. If we turn to look out to the front yard we can see the tree that we were married under surrounded by the same crowd of people who are in the front room now, taking turns holding our sweet baby girl.
"There's an opening at County General." She says just as I lean in to kiss her.
"What?" I am stunned.
"They need a good oncologist, Guthrie." She looks at me and I can't believe God gave me this good woman.
"You love the city. You are a city girl." I say.
"I'm your girl, Guthrie. I don't give a damn about buildings. Besides, they could use a good pediatrician. Hell, I could make a living off your family members' kids alone!" She smiles at me, and I feel like I've fallen in love all over again.
"Jeanne . . ." I struggle for words.
"You love it here, Guthrie. And why would I want to take our daughter away from this." She gestures toward the picture window where we can see my brothers and their wives, gathered around her. Daniel is holding her, kissing her head and even from here you can tell he is singing her a lullaby. I swallow down tears and pull Jeanne even closer so happy I can't even speak.
We go inside just as Daniel hands Little Hannah to her grandmother who sits in a chair near the fire. They have the same hair, I think to myself; The two Hannah's.
That is a word that comforts me like nothing else. It will be at least a year before we can say it officially, but it looks to be true. The cancer cells that attacked and invaded my beautiful mother's body, have left, forever, we pray. Her hair is coming back and her head is covered with a soft grayish-brown fuzz. I am sad to think that her beautiful chestnut curls are no doubt forever gone, but so grateful that she herself is still here, and will be for years and years to come. Every day, she is stronger, and my brother's face has lost the look of sheer panic that he's worn for nearly a year now. We are all so happy to have her restored to us, a little battered, but ever strong.
The two Hannahs sit together in a rocking chair near the fire. My mother sings to my baby girl, a song she sang to me when I was just a boy, and rested in a mother's arms for the first time in my life. I hold onto my wife's hand, and tears fall silently down my face. My brother, who is standing behind her looks up and crosses to me, wrapping his strong arm around both Jeanne and I. He kisses my cheek, as though I were still his child, and I suppose I forever will be - just as little Hannah will forever be my baby.
"Everything is going to be alright." He tells me and I believe him. He has never lied to me. My faith and trust in his love, and the love of my mother is a legacy that lives not only in me, but will live in my sweet, baby daughter who isn't even big enough to understand how lucky she is to be held in her grandmother's arms.
"Everything is alright." I tell Adam, and smiling at him move to kiss my mother's soft cheek.