‘Nose to Nose’
“Remove a growth and do a minor procedure. Women’s stuff, you know. I’ll give you the gory details later.” She crossed the kitchen to put her arms around him. The two of them fit perfectly together. When she hugged him, her ear lay right on his chest over his heart. He was genuinely scared. He pulled back a little to look at her face.
“Do you have cancer?”
“I don’t know.” The hesitation in her voice alarmed Rick.
“Not a good answer. I need a yes or no.” He felt his gut turn to liquid fear. “Actually, I need a NO.”
“Well. I have a growth on my uterus that needs to come out. The doctor says that it’s probably nothing, but he wants to be sure.”
“Just to be sure that it’s nothing?” Her words were difficult to understand. Ellen was the center of his universe. Without her, he didn’t exist.
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” Brian came running into the kitchen excited about something. “Comerecomerecomere...” He ran back into the living room without a backward glance, confident that she’d follow. She did. Rick never felt second fiddle to Brian, but today he was annoyed that she’d leave him standing there in the middle of the kitchen when he needed to be reassured about her continued presence. He watched, then followed her, waiting for reality to occur to him again. Around the doorway he could see Brian pointing at the television, hopping up and down. “See. See.” He could barely contain his own energy. “On Ice,” he shouted. The Disney characters were skating in a darkened rink, advertising their ice show.
“Wow! That’s cool, Brian. Maybe we could see about getting tickets and going. What do you think?” Ellen knew how to keep her son happy and looking forward into the future. Right now, Rick didn’t trust the future. She glanced happily at Rick. He responded with a tentative smile. “That’s a great idea, Ellen,” he said.
Brian began to jump up and down. “Yea,” Ellen joined hands with him as they bounced around the room,
“Thanks to you too, Daddy.” Brian grabbed Rick around the waist and spun him too. Rick tried to keep his feet steady underneath him, but he couldn’t, and they both went down with a heavy thud. Rick was angry at first, toppled by his son who didn’t know his own strength. Ellen helped them untangle their arms and legs while she laughed. Ellen’s laugh neutralized all Rick’s anger by the time he was standing again. He relied on her to do just that--everytime he needed her to. But what if she wasn’t there? He shook his head. He wouldn’t think of that now. He knew she would go out and get tickets for the ice show, and they would all go, Brian embarrassing Rick by his drooling and gestures. But he would go because this was his family. Happiness for Brian came easily. Rick’s had a price.
“Come on,” Ellen said as she pulled Rick back into the kitchen. “Talk to me while I get dinner going. He followed as obediently as Brian..
“I can’t get my head around the fact that you have to go into the hospital,” Rick said.
“Let’s not talk about that right now. Tell me about your walk with Brian.” She ran the water and filled the spaghetti pot.
“Nothing to tell. We stopped into Kelly’s long enough to spill a coke. George McCarthy was there bragging about his kid again. Big baseball star.”
“George? Bragging?” She turned to look straight at Rick. “Doesn’t sound like him.” Right now, Rick was feeling vulnerable and didn’t want to sit and discuss his exaggeration.
“I forgot. George is perfect. I’m a liar.” Rick opened the refrigerator for a beer. Ellen looked at him until he sat back down again.
“Okay. Okay, so he wasn’t bragging. He was trying to be nice. I hate that. You know how I hate that. Brian is a big baby and people feel sorry for him. I wish they’d keep their pity to themselves. Besides, I’m not going in there ever again.” He popped open the can and took a significant swallow. A tiny amount dripped out of the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. “Gees. I’m drooling just like Brian.” He put the can down and stared at the yellow and gold label. Ellen crossed the room to lay her hand on his head. He could feel her fingers gently twirling his curls. He remembered how she did that in the early days when he’d lie on the sofa with his head in her lap. They’d make plans and watch old movies. Well, their plans didn’t include this. He turned and hugged her around the waist as he struggled to contain his tears and his terror.
“It’s going to be okay, you know,” she whispered,
“Life has no guarantees for anyone, least of all us.”
“Yeah, I know.” Rick felt the weight of her illness and began to cry--for himself and for the life they’d never finish if she died.
“Shhh, Brian will hear you.” She stroked his head and held him as he calmed himself. “We have to keep it together for him. God gave us a special gift in Brian, and we have to treat him like fine crystal because he could break, and that would kill me.” She was serious, he knew. She often told him that they were a family because of Brian, not in spite of him. Rick could never express how he felt denied having a real son, someone to play ball or talk politics or wrestle with. He felt sorry for himself on very few occasions; this just happened to be one of them.
Rick could hear footsteps coming quietly down the back stairs. He knew it was Susana. She always tried to be quiet and not disturb anyone, but seven-year-olds were inherently noisy. Actually, her quiet movements made him a little nervous. It wasn’t normal for a kid to be that tip-toey. He expected that she’d knock quietly too. She did. A tiny tap-tap. “Come in,” called Rick.
“Can Brian play?” she asked through the door.
“Come on in, Susana.” Ellen opened the door. The child was peeking out from under her bangs. “Brian is watching television. Go join him.” Susana nodded and tiptoed into the living room. As soon as Brian saw her, he got excited and squealed. She calmed him right down. Ellen followed her into the other room while Rick sat looking at his beer. He couldn’t muster the strength to even pick up the can. He felt like all the life had been drained out of him. He could hear Ellen opening the closet and bringing down the Candyland game. Rick hated those giant gumdrops and candy canes, but Susana had the patience to play that game with him over and over again. What he loved was to play Scrabble with Ellen, usually after Brian went to bed. They watched old movies and talked. It never mattered to Rick what was on, what mattered was Ellen’s company. “God, don’t take her from me” was the prayer going through his head.
Ellen came right back out, smiling. “She’s a great kid. She almost always lets him win.” She stirred a blue box of macaroni and cheese pasta into the water and set the timer on the front of the stove. She moved so surely and swiftly that it defied the possibility of anything serious being wrong with her. Think positive, he told himself. Why worry about something that may not happen? The telephone rang. Ellen answered it and began to whisper softly from the hallway between the livingroom and the kitchen, it obviously was one of her sisters. She was probably explaining this mysterious female procedure she was having. Rick felt jealous. Why could she tell everyone else and not him? He picked up his beer and downed it, hoping it would soothe him, knowing that eventually it might at least dull some of his anger. Ellen came back into the kitchen, wiping her hands on the dishtowel.
“I’m going to ask the Senora if Susana can stay for dinner. We’re going to eat soon.” She opened the back door and headed up the stairs without even looking at Rick. She missed seeing the mournful _expression in his eyes.
Susana sat next to Brian at the table so he could reach out and touch her. She didn’t seem to mind. “Be sure not to get any drips on my clothes. My mother will get angry.”
Ellen chuckled. “Your mother wouldn’t get mad at your getting dirty, would she?” Susana looked up at Ellen, stunned.
“I’m lots of trouble,” she had said straightforwardly. Rick burst out laughing. “I am really,” she reasserted. “Mama says so all the time. She has to punish me a lot.” She picked up her glass and drank delicately from the edge. She used both hands to set it back down.
“What could you possibly do to get punished?” Ellen asked.
“Well today I ruined one of Mama’s tablecloths from Italy.” She put her head down and stared at her hands in her lap.
“But tablecloths are only things, not so important as little girls.” Ellen’s voice choked up a little.