I can't breathe.

I'm sitting on the couch in my living room and I'm honestly not sure how I made it here.

I know that if I try to get up or take another step, I will fall down and I won't be able to rise again.

I have no air to call with. I cannot make myself be heard.

I try to reach out to Bair with my mind. Maybe he'll hear and come rescue me, my own fuzzy headed Irish healing man. I went to Ireland after college to find my roots and to write. I came home two years later with a novel almost complete and a wooly man from County Cork, trailing behind me, eyes roving the golden hills of the San Joaquin like he'd never thought to see anything like them.

I never finished the novel, but I did marry my Bair. We bought a twelve acre parcel off the Tollhouse Road. I taught school and Bair created a haven. He planted an orchard and a garden. He sold his vegetables and fruits at the Farmer's Market. He delivered boxes of produce to homes in the neighborhood.

He cooks and carves. He tells stories. He is a healer. Every time I stub my toe (which I'm always doing) or bang my head or slice a finger on a wayward carving knife, he sits me down and tells me a story as he binds my wound or rubs the sore spot. Then he gives me a kiss and says "Well, now, my darlin', that's that. This hurt won't be bothering you again." And he's usually right.

He did the same for our three kids. They're all grown now and it's their children who come running to Gampa Bear with a scraped knee. They know he'll make their hurts go away.

Right now, though, he can't seem to find the right thing to say as we face this story that I believe might be my last. Neither one of us is sure if he can heal me this time.

I hear his snuffly breathing coming down the hall. He has heard me. Or he has noticed the emptiness where my body usually is at this time of night, snuggled up to the warm expanse of his furry back.

"Are you all right, Bree?"

I look at him. Take in his dear face, ruddy cheeked and wrinkled, like an old apple, with grey-blonde fuzz sprouting on his chin and his hair standing on end. Behind him, on the entry table, stands the Valentine's Day bouquet he picked for me last week. I've forgotten to give them fresh water and they're looking a bit droopy. I wonder who will revive them.

I shake my head at Bair.

"I'll drive you down, then, shall I, darlin'?"


I've been in the hospital almost three weeks. They want to observe me. I believed the oncologist when she said this new drug would make me more comfortable. That it would shrink the cancer and make me breathe easier. Instead, it gave me blood clots and fear.

Meanwhile, since I'm here anyway, we've started radiation. It should shrink the cancer and make me breathe easier. I don't know if it can do anything about the fear.

I'm surprised how tenacious I am about this life. I always thought that if I got cancer (although I'd imagined breast, not lung, since I haven't smoked a day in my life) I'd take a deep breath, say goodbye to those I loved, and go gracefully, respectfully accepting of my fate.

But this clinging to life surprises me. I have to hold on to every possible hope. I started treatment before I even had a full diagnosis. I was going to beat this thing.

I still think I might be able to. At least I might be able to add a few months, maybe a year or two.

My room is on the fourth floor of Community Regional, with a view northwest across Fresno and up towards the foothills and home. I spend a lot of time staring out that window.

Sometimes, it feels like I've entered another world. The air is different here, sounds are distilled. Machines beeping, people coughing, complaining, crying. The wheeze and hiss of breathing machines as the respiratory therapist makes his rounds.

Bair comes every day and reads to me. He doesn't have a story in him to cover the hurt he's going through now. He has to find one somewhere else. Right now, he's exploring Terry Pratchett's work, hoping, I think, that reading about time will somehow give us more of it.

He also tries to tempt me with food. He makes all my favorites. Today it's vegetable soup made fresh from what he picked this morning. It's only March, but he's got stuff growing in the greenhouse. Winter squash and greens. He tells me about the peach orchard he's going to plant on the rise overlooking the almond grove.

I don't have the heart to tell him that my mouth is so sore I don't think I can manage much of this soup. Each chunk of potato shreds the back of my throat as I swallow.

My hand hurts. The spot where the nurse missed the vein, pushing potassium supplement into my flesh instead of my bloodstream. The nurse was apologetic, but that doesn't really fix the fact that I now have a small wound on the back of my hand that hurts like a sonofabitch.

The oncologist and the radiologist come in as Bair is cleaning up soup drips on the wobbly hospital table. They've got the results of my latest MRI and PET scan. The cancer is definitely stage four. The lymph nodes are involved. Things don't look good.


Beatrice is coming to visit. She called this morning and asked if it's okay if she brings her girlfriend. Of course I said I'd love to meet her. I'm pretty sure Beatrice doesn't have much support from the rest of the family, but this is a no-brainer for me. Bea is my granddaughter and I love her. She's twenty-two now, but I remember when she was a baby. My first grandchild! Oh, I couldn't wait to see her. Beatrice is the one who named us Gamma and Gampa. She had trouble with her "Rs" back then.

Maeve and Michael lived in Fresno and they'd bring her out to the farm every weekend for Sunday dinner, along with Anne and Con and their current friends and partners. Bair insisted on this tradition when the kids started moving out on their own. I loved having my whole family together, along with anyone else who wanted to come along. Bair would cook and I would pass around hugs and soak up the stories.

I always thought I'd go back to writing. Finish the novel or start a new one. I guess I've just been so busy, we both have, composing the stories of our lives that I never found the time to write them down. I thought the time would come when I could sit on the back porch, look out over the almond grove and write.

A knock sounds and in walks my beautiful Bea. Hair in a ponytail, low slung jeans showing her belly button ring, huge smile on her face.

"Hi, Gamma! How are you feeling today?"

"Oh, jeez, I don't want to talk about me, okay? I'm here and let's just leave it at that." I hate talking about being sick with my family. They don't need to know what's really happening with me. It's too damned depressing.

They don't need to know that the doctor is afraid the wound on my hand is infected, so they've put me on major antibiotics. That I feel sick most of the time and that the soreness in my mouth is worse. My daughter, Anne, says maybe I have a yeast infection. It happens, I guess, when antibiotics take away the natural something or other in the system. She says that's why it's hard for me to eat. She talks to me about it, but I don't think there's anything I can do. Dr. Ghaly doesn't take well to being told how to practice medicine.

They don't need to know that the radiation is making me feel so lethargic that there are times I don't think I can lift my head or sit up, let alone walk across the room. I feel chained to this bed by these damn IVs and my whole body is becoming a loose sack of skin, bones rattling around like matchsticks.

They don't need to know that shit. It's bad enough that I know it.

Standing next to Beatrice is a young woman I guess most people would describe as plain. Straight brown hair, parted on the side, average size, average height. Just average. But I suspect that would only last until they saw the life and humor that sparkles from her bright brown eyes. As she's introduced, she asks if she can give me a hug. I'm a little embarrassed because it's been so long since I've showered. I get a sponge bath every day, but my hair's a mess and I know I smell and look like a sick old person. Yuck. Why would anyone want to hug that?

Then Sara wraps her arms around me and holds me like I'm strong. Like I can handle the weight of another body so close to mine. She makes me feel real. I'm not ready to let go…not sure if I ever will be, when she releases me and sits on the chair next to my bed.

Beatrice settles on the covers at my feet, resting a hand on my foot and lightly rubbing her thumb across the nubs of the blanket. All through her teen years, after she and her parents had moved to Sacramento, Bea would come spend weekends with us, at least once a month. Every morning she'd bring me a cup of coffee and settle at the foot of my bed, just to talk about what was happening in her life, tell me about school, read the funnies. She always rubbed my foot just this way.

"So, girls, tell me a story." I lean towards them, wanting to hold onto them somehow. "How did the two of you meet?"

Sara laughs. "Bea said you'd ask that. She said you love stories."

"I also said you'd be the only one brave enough to ask how we met. Everyone else is afraid if they hear the story of two women getting together it either means they're somehow giving us permission to be lesbian, which everyone knows is against the rules, or that somehow our gayness will rub off and they'll have to get some counseling or something."

"Oh, hush, Bea! Is it really that bad? What about your mom and dad? What about Gampa Bear? You don't get that from them, do you?"

"Well, no. But Uncle Con turned is back on us yesterday when we went to the farm for dinner. And later, he cornered me in the kitchen with his Bible and some "proof positive" that our "lifestyle choice" was against all that was holy and good in the world."

"Oh, honey. That makes me sad. What did you do?"

"Gampa rescued me. He came in and put Uncle Con to work loading the dishwasher. I escaped to help Aunt Anne round up the kids for baths."

"Well, all I can say is poop on Uncle Con for being such a putz. Now, tell me the story. I promise I know it's not my place to give you permission to be who you are, and I'm not in the slightest bit afraid of catching anything from the two of you. I'm the sick one in this room, aren't I?"

As they talk about the coffee shop introduction, the missed phone calls, the ultimate meet up at a poetry slam where Sara reigned supreme, I'm struck again by how much I'm going to miss.

Anne comes in later. The girls are gone and I'm wallowing in my sorrow.

I really don't think I'm afraid to die. I don't. But I'm so fucking sad that I'm going to miss all the amazing things in my kids' lives. Will I ever see Anne's youngest, Ben, ride a bike, or learn to read? At two, he loves to sit on my lap with a pile of books, soaking in the pictures and wordplay. I just know he's going have a lifelong love affair with stories, like me, and I won't be able to share that.

I'll miss out on the adventures of Beatrice and Sara. I may never see my son happy again.

Shit! It pisses me off!

Not really realizing it, I've spewed all of this onto the shoulders of my youngest child. As if she didn't have enough to worry about what with raising five kids and helping Bair on the farm. I know she's doing more and more work this month to get ready for spring planting.

She holds my hand and cries with me.


I can't tell what's real. There is a man standing in the doorway, but by the time he reaches my bed, he turns into a toaster. He's giving me the weather report.

He disappears when Maeve comes in. She thinks it's the sleeping pills.


My body is falling apart. Nothing is working right and I'm afraid all the time. I'm in someplace called ICU observation because my liver and kidneys aren't doing what they should. The man in the bed next to mine died last night. I heard him gasping for air. I heard them calling "Code Blue" and running in with equipment and people and noise and lights.

I don't want that to be me.

I try to explain this to Con. He brings me some lunch that I have no interest in eating and a smoothie that stings as I swallow. He brought Adam, his son, today, but the nurses won't let him in. At fourteen, they say he's too young for ICU.

I think everyone's too young for ICU.

I try to tell Con that I'm afraid. That I don't want to die like that man last night. That when I can't breathe I feel like the ocean is closing in on me and I'll never surface again. Being dead doesn't scare me. But dying like that does.

He looks at me. Looks away. Looks at me again.

"You know, Mom, you should be afraid. Your soul hasn't been saved and you know in your heart what that means for you after you die."

I just look at him. I'm confused. Did my son just tell me I'm going to hell? My son, who's been a part of countless discussions at our kitchen table... who must know me well enough by now to know that I've thought long and hard about my spiritual life…who can't even see that there might be another way to be in the world than the one he's chosen? Of course I believe in God. I just don't think She would have created such a gorgeous, diverse world and then reject half of it.

"Mom, please. Please accept Christ as your personal savior. Before it's too late. I don't want to lose you for eternity. Please, Mom."

I have no idea how to respond to this. I feel like I've been slapped down. Like everything I've said and done as this man's parent is lost. I've always respected my kids' right to choose their own spirituality. I just wish Con would respect mine.

To be fair, he's probably the most steadfast of all my kids. He's been to see me almost every day of this hospitalization. He calls me every morning. He makes sure I have what I need, and I know he's doing the same for Bair.

Still, I'm pretty sure I just finished telling him that being dead is not what scares me. I'm actually a little curious about that part, to be honest. But going to hell is not on my list of fears.

Later, after I've told him I love him and sent him away, I think about what Con has done. I think he's afraid. He's afraid of what he can't control or doesn't know. He really likes having the answers. Ever since Heather died, though, he's become more and more rigid in his thinking. It's understandable, I guess. I mean, no one expects that when you kiss your thirty-eight year old wife goodbye one morning, it'll be the last kiss you ever share. His whole life rolled over that day, windshield shattered, lying on its side at the bottom of a hill, run off the road by an out of control drunk. It makes sense that he's trying to make the pieces fit into some semblance of simple and safe.


Back in a regular room, although I don't have a roommate this time. I miss ICU. I'm afraid to be alone. If something happens…if I can't breathe, there will be no one here to bring me back.

The kids and Bair are taking turns spending the night with me.

I don't sleep much. I don't like those pills they give me. There's one for anxiety, too, but it makes me feel worse, so I don't take it.

I can see the maternity floor across the way. The lights are on in some of the rooms and I think of the babies being born right now.

I listen to the shushing of Anne's sleeping breath and think of the babies. It brings me comfort.

I may be going home soon. My blood work is getting better. My liver function or something. The kids keep track of that. I can't follow.

My legs still swell. Sometimes so badly, I think my skin will split.

I hear Maeve talking to the internist. She just wants to get me home, she says. She doesn't want me to die in this hospital.


Home, now. The drive is an ordeal, but it feels so good to be outside, breathing spring. There's still snow on the Sierra Nevada, but we're low enough in the foothills that the grass is lush and green and flowers are starting to bloom. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

I ask Bair to park me on the back porch while they get my bed ready. I can see down to the garden. The kids are playing. Anne told them to weed, but it looks like they're having a dirt war, instead. Their laughter rises up to me. I love that sound. I can picture my own kids, working in this same garden thirty years ago. I hear their voices rising up, calling to me across the rows of lettuce and across the years.

The almonds are budding. The palest blush of green and white misting the dark gray branches. I wonder if I can be buried there.

Maeve asked me yesterday if I wanted anything special at my funeral. You know, songs or poems or Bible readings. I told her I didn't care. It's her job. Hers and Anne's and Con's. I've planned my share of funeral services, and don't need to do another.

Still, I think it might be nice to be buried on that hill that overlooks the almond trees.


Home doesn't feel like home. I'm in a hospital bed in the living room. Everyone tiptoes around me. Someone's always hushing the children, or trying to get me to eat. They measure how much Ensure or Gatorade I drink, they measure how much I pee, they monitor my bowels.

Fear is a palpable thing.

A nurse comes every day to clean my wound. I send Bair out of the room when she comes. This is nothing like a stubbed toe. It's spread up my arm now, around my wrist. I look away when she unwraps it.

I also do physical therapy. I exercise my legs and arms. Take a few steps. I don't think I'm moving forward, but at least I'm not afraid anymore.

I try to convince the kids that it's time to call Hospice. Anne doesn't want to. She thinks it means we're giving up. I don't know what to say to her.


Back in the hospital.

Last night, Bair was helping me in the bathroom. There was a lot of blood and it scared him. He's scared all the time now. He's so used to making things grow. To healing things. It's not in him to watch death happen and not do something.

But he can't heal me and there's nothing I can do to make this right for him.

There's nothing I can do to make this right for me, either. I'm going to die. Probably sooner than I thought. Sooner than I wanted to, but I'm starting to think that there's nothing wrong with that. It just is.


Lots of tests to prove what I already know. My body is falling apart. I have infections in my arm and urinary tract, a perforated intestine and a rectovaginal fistula.

The cancer doesn't seem like such a big concern anymore.

I tell the doctor that I don't want any more medicine. I don't want any more feeding tubes or breathing treatments. I want to be done.

I'm not giving up the pain medication, though. I need it. The pain is starting to take over everything.

The family troops in to say goodbye. First Con and Adam. Adam is stoic. I hate leaving him like this. First his mom and now me. I hope that Anne and Maeve will remember to give him a little extra mother-love every now and then. Con is crying. He holds me close and tells me he loves me. I know he does.

I ask Anne not to bring the little ones in. Caitlin, her oldest, comes, though. At twelve, she's a young woman. We just celebrated her first cycle last fall. The three of us hold on to each other for a long while. I'm the first to let go.

Maeve and Michael come in together. She is such a strong, no-nonsense woman. I'm glad she has him. Her breaking point is coming and he'll be there to gather the pieces. They are a fine pair and I'm so glad that Beatrice can count on them.

I'm waiting for her and Anne. They are driving down from Sacramento. After I've seen them, I'll be able to go. I'm ready.


I guess things don't work out like they do in the movies. I'm still here.

I can't focus on anything. There is pain, but I don't think I care about it. Sometimes it makes me pay attention to it. It screams at me and I try to scream back.

No one can hear me.

Someone is holding my hand.


I'm drowning. If I can just untie this knot I know I'll rise. I'll be able to breathe again. I struggle with it, but my hands won't work.

The earth moves. I am shaken like a tambourine. Jangly, discordant music envelops me.


A moment of total clarity. Nothing hurts. I am suspended. Everything is still. I see my daughter. She's asking me something. I am sad. I don't want to leave her. I don't want to leave any of them. She smiles at me.

The knot unfurls and I am released. Rising. Drawn up into the dawn and the story that's waiting for me there.