The delicate fingers that lay between mine felt too light, too much like nothing. I forced myself not to curse as I listened to her breathing; slow and shallow. The sounds of the hospital room were the only things that could distract me from the straining puffs of air she let out of her lips every eighth second.
Why did it have to be like this? Why had she been given this slice of hell on earth, why not the millions of other people in this world? Why did my mother…?
My thoughts tore into a deep part of myself and I couldn’t help the unfiltered anger that flooded me. She was the glue, goddamn it! I shoved my seat back so hard I was sure the legs were broken.
Ever since I could remember, my mother had been the glue. She held each and every one of us together, raining kisses over our faces even after we were old enough to be embarrassed by the kind of easy affection she’d always given. It didn’t matter how old we got, she would hold us, in her heart and with those strong and unwavering arms, whether we needed her to or not. The only time either of my brothers or I had seen her anything less than a goddamn warrior was the night our dad sat us down after my high school graduation ceremony. Her face had been streaked in dried tears, her legs barely able to hold her up. My father’s words rang in my ears as if that day had only been yesterday.
“Your mother is very sick, boys. The doctors say there isn’t much they can do aside from making her as comfortable as possible. We don’t know how long she has left.”
I’d never known true pain before I watched my mother, once beautiful and full of life and laughter, turn into a shell of the woman I’d known all my life. I couldn’t remember the last time I heard her deep, soulful laugh or her lame excuse for stopping by my condo every now and then. She didn’t want to intrude, she’d say. She was sorry, she’d say. But what I always heard was I miss you. What she told me on those late night visits was always the same.
“I miss you, baby boy.” I remembered her saying those words so many times, the woman who’d raised me to give, not take. The woman who’d always put her boys first, even after she was diagnosed.
“Fuck,” I all but growled, finding myself pacing the length of her hospital room, my life filtered unbidden through my head along with the memories of my childhood. A choked cough came from the bed and worry instantly had me by her side. Her hand came up limply to cup my cheek as her eyes opened, looking at me with such love that I felt the emotion rise up inside of me. My hands shook as I took hold of her hand lying against the hospital bed with both of mine, squeezing gently as to not hurt her. Nothing had ever gotten to me like my mother’s love for me. It was a weakness I would never be ashamed of again.
“I miss you, my baby boy,” she whispered, her voice so quiet I had to strain to hear it. Yet I did. A fat tear slid from my eye as I pressed my face to the warmth of her hand and let her hold me the only way she could.
“I’m right here, Mom. We’re together, now”
She shook her head vehemently, as if I wasn’t understanding her.
“I…“ Her chest heaved up and down frantically as she coughed and I plead with her to stop talking and just rest. But my mom, she was stubborn. It was a trait that was iron nailed into the Jones and Cardie family and there was no stopping her once she started something. Fear flashed through me at the thought of causing her any more discomfort at the cost of saying something in her state.
“Breathe. Breathe. Anything you want to tell me, I don’t need to know. I know you love me; I know that, Mom.”
My mother’s eyes began to fill with fear and that’s when her breathing dropped back to a normal pace. I let out a breath of relief and gently took her hand in mine again.
“I will miss you, baby boy. Take- t-take care of Darren for me…”
A sharp pain pierced my heart at her frantic words. Her hand curled around my own as I squeezed three times. Her words felt like a goodbye that I couldn’t bear to face, but if these were my sweet mother’s last moments, I owed it to her to be strong.
So many words filtered through my mind as I tried to hold back the overwhelming pain that threatened to break me all over again. But I didn’t need to be strong for her, I realized. She was the strongest woman to grace my world and for that, she deserved nothing less than what I’d always given her - the truth, even when it hurt.
“I’m so afraid of living in a world that would take you away from us. I can’t wake up every morning knowing I’ll never get one of your kisses ever again. Mom, I used to hate them. But now, please, just don’t leave me. D-don’t leave us.”
For the first time in my life, I cried for my mom and I let her hold my face in the palm of her hand as my strangled cries filled the room, smothering the sounds of beeping until I forgot where we were.
“I’ve got you, Lucas. I’ll always be with you”
My eyes were closed when I heard her just audible whisper. My eyes flew open only seconds later as loud, hurried beeping filled the room. The deafening roar tumbled out of me as I watched the last breath leave her body. My once unstoppable and loving mother was gone. Gone.
My soul crushed against my ribs as I crawled onto the bed and held her for the very last time.
I’ve got you, Lucas. I’ll always be with you. Her words were the only thing I could hear even after the doctors had announced her time of death and the morgue had been called.
I’ll always be with you.
The minute I stepped inside the waiting room I wanted to run the other way. I didn’t belong here. I belonged six hundred miles away in Chicago with my love, my Kaelyn, the only one who’d ever touched my heart. Besides my mom, of course. My eyes wandered around the room to the patients that sat in each corner, most with their eyes closed and looking as if they’d spent most of their very young lives here.
I tried to imagine my mother coming here, every month, sometimes for treatments that only ever made her weaker, sicker, less and less like the woman who’d raised me. A hand clasped against my shoulder and I heard the deafening click of the heavy doors as they closed.
“This place is so depressing,” Asher said behind me, his voice filled with cynicism and I laughed, knowing just how right he was. This was where people came to die, wasn’t it?
“Knock it the fuck off, Ash. Luke doesn’t need any more stress today.” Ben, the oldest of my two brothers, turned toward him and gripped his shirt in his fist easily. Energy was rolling off him, the worry and agitation we’d all felt in the car ride here coming out to play.
“He isn’t going to fucking die, so don’t say shit like that. Got it, Kid?”
I watched as Ash sized Ben up and in one move had him in a headlock against the very door that made my flight instincts kick in.
“Fuck man. I’m just trying to ease the tension, OK?”
Ben visibly relaxed at that and wrapped an arm around him in a quick squeeze, a sad excuse of an apology falling from his mouth.
“Come on; let’s check in before someone kicks us out.”
Ben caught up with my wide steps as we neared the reception desk of the hospital.
Fuck, I hated hospitals.
“Sorry, man,” he said, facing me then. I nodded, not knowing what to say. It was selfish really, wanting to run away from the demon that tore through my blood while my brothers took the brunt of my heightened mood swings and their own fear.
They were going to lose me, too.
I couldn’t blame either of them for being on edge, even if I wanted to.
“Lucas, I’m so glad you were able to make it out. How are you feeling?”
Dr. Rhodes’s booming voice hit my ears and I lifted my gaze to see him in front of me. A sharp laugh came from me at the irony. Here we were in a cancer research hospital, our last chance at some answers about my disease, and he was asking how I felt?
“I’m peachy, Doctor. Can we get this started?”
He took a step back from me and I could see him taking me in, trying to decipher where my animosity was coming from. Aggravated, I placed a hand over my cloth covered head, clear of all the hair I once had and forced myself to take a deep breath. My cancer wasn’t this man’s fault. Hell, it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. I had been marked a wanted man the moment I was born and this thing would have caught up with me whether I wanted it to or not. It was just a question of time. As I closed my eyes and dropped my head momentarily, a pair of chocolate brown eyes with little flecks of gold flashed beneath my eyelids and that image gave me the strength to push through the anger I could feel heightening inside of me. I was ready to explode from it. But Kaelyn had always been stronger than me and I told myself that if I could just make it through today, I would find a way back to her. I just needed to get through this day.
“I fucking hate hospitals, Doc,” I gritted out.
He nodded, as if he completely understood.
“We’re going to make you as comfortable as possible during your chemo and afterwards. There are also spare rooms for your family to stay close if they’d prefer it. Shall we go back to my office?”
The empathy I heard in his voice put me instantly at ease and I nodded. I felt both of my brothers’ hands on either of my shoulders, silently telling me We’ve got you.
We stepped into a dimly lit room behind a white door with no window. A large mahogany wood desk was in the center of the room surrounded by four matching chairs. A long brown leather couch was pressed against one wall of the spacious room while the others remained bare besides a single plaque that held what looked like the doctor’s diploma in a glass case. Doctor Rhodes sat down, gesturing for each of us to take a seat. I readied myself to face a tough conversation ahead, knowing that this road had been long and grueling for mom and in the end, it had won over her unyielding strength. The memory of that didn’t give me much hope looking forward.
“Before we begin your chemo I wanted to sit down with you and lay out how this is going to happen.” His voice gave no room for argument and silently, I was grateful for his bluntness. Over the last two years I’d been doted on and reassured, some doctors even straight out dismissing my wishes when it came to my own body. Fuck, that. I had told them. I may not have much control over what was happening to my body, but I did have control over the decisions I made. I needed to remain myself, Lucas Jones, a hardheaded asshole at times, during this process. I’d be damned if I was going to sit back and allow my body to be poisoned with no end result in sight. That was a huge reason why I found myself here now. MD Anderson Cancer Center had one of the best reputations around and that was worth it, to me, to give it another chance.
“I’m going to put you on a rigorous treatment plan, and I will also set you up with one of the best dietitians I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Fiona Mills is a miracle worker when it comes to strengthening the immune system. I would trust her with my own family.”
I nodded, to my surprise I believed him. He seemed to be a man that didn’t say something unless he was being truthful. It was a fresh change after what I’d heard from people in the past.
“And what about this experimental drug you told us about, is he going to be in the trial?”
It was Ben that spoke up, his hands gripping the chair on either side of him. I knew he hated this, maybe more than I did. He was the closest to our mom, being the oldest and it hit him the hardest when she passed. I gave him a quick glance, raising my brow to gauge his mood. Benjamin lips turned up into what kind of looked like a smile, though it was probably only for my benefit.
“Yes, that was a major reason I wanted you to come down here so soon. This drug has been incredibly effective with leukemia and lymphoma. The cases I’ve seen have been very similar to yours, actually. Early to late twenties, with previous diagnoses in the family. Unfortunately, you cannot begin the trial until your blood cell count is higher. I’m hopeful that we’ll only need to do a few rounds of chemotherapy as I know you’ve already been through the ringer these past months.”
I folded my hands in my lap and they instantly curled into fists. The feeling of frustration that had clung to me for the last two and a half years rose in my veins, my body rigid with tension.
I didn’t want to fight anymore.
All I wanted was to live long enough to see my girl again, that was if she would even see me after the way I had left her.