Beauty and the Mustache(9)

By: Penny Reid

I crossed to her immediately and covered her hand with mine. “Anything…you can tell me anything.”

She gave me a weak smile, squeezed my hand with hers, and said, “This isn’t something you need to worry about yet. But when the time comes you should use hemorrhoid cream to remove bags under the eyes.”


Dr. Gonzalez found me coming back from the cafeteria, my momma’s rocky road ice cream clutched to my chest. He pulled me into a consultation room and broke the news I’d already guessed.

My mother was dying.

She had cervical cancer. It was stage four. It had metastasized everywhere. He gave her six weeks. Hospice had been called, and they were on their way.

She’d either ignored or confused the symptoms with menopause. He said she’d likely had symptoms for more than a year. I was not surprised that she’d disregarded her own pain. Her selflessness was her greatest strength and her most infuriating fault.

When I was sixteen, she’d walked around on a broken foot for two weeks. She finally went to the doctor when I handcuffed her to Billy’s truck and drove her to the emergency room.

After the chat with Dr. Gonzalez, I delivered my momma’s ice cream. Not long after that, the social worker for hospice arrived and spoke to us both. The entire experience was surreal.

My mother ate her ice cream and chimed in every once in a while with, “Now, I don’t want anyone to go to any trouble on my account.”

I could only stare at her. Words failed me. Thought and motor skills were also failing me.

It was decided that she would be released tomorrow and given transport back to the house. We would be assigned a day and a night nurse who would help us care for her over the next six weeks or so.

Six weeks.

I stayed for the rest of the day. We chatted about my job and her coworker friends at the library. She asked me to break the news first to her boss, Ms. Macintyre. Momma felt confident that Ms. Macintyre would know what to do about the rest of the staff.

I stumbled out of the hospital around 9:30 p.m. feeling exhausted and empty. My brain whispered to me as I walked to my car that the only thing I’d consumed that day was a triple-grande Americano at 7:00 a.m.

I wasn’t hungry, though. I was the opposite of hungry, but neither full nor satiated.

I slipped into the driver’s seat and stared unseeingly out the windshield, and was pulled from my trance by the sound of my cell phone ringing. I glanced at the caller ID. It was my friend Sandra, my best friend Sandra.

Relief and a tangible feeling I couldn’t name seized my body, a pain so sharp that I gasped. It felt like the glass chamber that had surrounded me all day had finally shattered. I was suddenly breathing, and the air that filled my lungs hurt. The photo of Sandra’s smiling face on my phone blurred, or rather my vision blurred because I was crying. I swiped my thumb across the screen and brought the phone to my ear.


“Ashley! Thank God, you answered. Marie and I need you to settle a debate. Which is worse: not having enough yarn to finish a sweater or discovering that the yarn you used for the sweater was mislabeled as cashmere and is actually one hundred percent acrylic?”

My brain told me that it was Tuesday, which meant that back in Chicago where I lived and worked and had a lovely life reading books and enjoying my friends, it was knitting group night. Sandra, a pediatric psychiatrist with a pervy heart of gold, was in my knitting group, as was Marie.

“Sandra….” My voice broke, and I rested my head against the steering wheel, tears falling messy and hot down my cheeks and neck and nose.

“Oh! Oh, my darling….” Sandra’s voice emerged from the other end earnest and alarmed. “What’s going on? Are you okay? What happened? Who made you cry? Do I need to kill someone? Tell me what to do.”

I sniffled, squeezed my eyes shut against the new wave of tears. “It’s my mother.” I pressed my lips together in an effort to control my voice, then took a shaky breath and said, “She’s dying.”

“Your mother is dying?”

“They’ve called hospice. She has stage four cervical cancer. It’s metastasized everywhere. She has six weeks….” I sobbed, almost dropping the phone and shaking my head against the new onslaught of tears.

The other end was quiet for a beat. “Okay…where are you? I can be there by tomorrow.”

I shook my head. “No.” I sniffed and wiped my hand under my nose then took a deep breath. “No, no. Don’t do that. I just…I just needed to tell someone. I’m leaving the hospital now.”

“Are you in Knoxville?”

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