Sheri, At This Very Moment13 min read

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Alcohol, Death or dying, Terminal Illness
By Bianca Sayan | Narrated by JV Hampton-VanSant

Every time I wake Sheri up, I want to sit her down and distill, reduce, refine. What is important to her? What experiences would she want to wake up for?

Every time I wake Sheri up, she is a quivering, glassy mess for the first several hours. She isn’t quite my wife, not yet. She is always fragmented by the process and hasn’t quite reassembled. She coalesces behind the curtain of the recovery room into someone more familiar, someone solidly, sharply Sheri.

Our reunions are incredibly imbalanced. She just saw me yesterday. It was fraught, me clinging to her, sloppily giving her promises. I’ll take care of them, I won’t fail you, I’ll be the mother you always were. I haven’t seen her in three years; a string of a thousand days of going to work, shepherding the kids through a thousand micro-crises, my now-solitary absolutions.

She has never come out of the recovery room without that pinched look that says give me the bad news. We’ve promised to wake her up for the bad as well as the good. So, she’s asking me, straight away: good or bad?

“Everything is fine,” I say. “We just woke you up for Leslie’s graduation.“

Sheri perks up. “Law school?”

“Yep.” Neither Leslie nor I could deny Mommy that pleasure. Neither of us could face her if we had disappointed her either. “Boston College. Commencement is tomorrow. We thought we could have a little family time.”

In the early years, we woke her a lot. After the kids graduated from high school, we agreed to spread things out. It sounds cold, but it’s a choice: see Mommy and shorten her life, or don’t.

Sheri has promised never to ask after the cure, and I have promised to tell her immediately after she wakes up if there is one.

“Doctor Odebye gave me the all-clear. No signs of progression.”

“Perfect, Honey. Perfect. What do you say we get you fed? We can do our Coles’ Notes.”

Sheri winces because the last time I woke her, I had to tell her that her favourite place in the North End closed.

“I’ve got a new place to take you to. Someone who used to work at the Red House.”

The look in her eye says that she is still tired and betrayed by all the little things that die while she is away.

I drive in a new direction. In fact, new geography. I’m torn about taking her to Quincy Wharf, a stretch of land that didn’t exist six years ago. But, fuck it, the lobster rolls are good, they carry the beer Sheri likes, and a decent version of those fussy iceberg wedge salads she always picks at.

She’s wearing her poker face as I turn off of Crabtree Drive near Quincy into what used to be the beach. Instead, a wharf juts out. At the tip, a faux-hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Maxie’s. Sheri’s little nose wiggles disapprovingly.

I sigh. “Trust me. I haven’t forgotten what you like.”

I order her salad, a French 75 (three shots of gin, please), a glass of white, mussels (in wine, always), and a lobster roll (light on the mayo). For me, a bowl of Manhattan chowder and a beer.

She’s nibbling at her salad persistently, a good sign. “Coles’ Notes, please, Love.”

“Want to start with me?”

“I don’t know,” she says coyly, “Do you have good news for me?”

Fifteen years and I still haven’t achieved tenure. Yet.

“I’m very close. Doubleday published my book on the history of Cyril Briggs and The Crusader. Got an option for a second book. I think it will be hard for the university to avoid committing this time around.”

Sheri harrumphs. “Good, it’s about time. They don’t deserve you.”

My biggest fan.

She pushes the salad plate aside briskly. “Okay, the kids, give it to me.” She always comes out assuming a grocery store tabloid’s worth of accumulated missteps. She only admonished me the first time, but the gravity of my load becomes more apparent every time and I can see the mantra behind her eyes: She is all alone, and she is doing her best.

“Okay, Leslie is graduating. You already know that. She’s going to article with a firm in Rochester.”

Sheri nods. “Fine.”

“Coleen kind of cooled on the modelling last year, enrolled in nursing at Salem State. She likes it a lot.”

“Nursing.” She wrinkles her nose.

God, she is an abominable snob.

“It’s a good fit for her,” I say gently. “We did not plan on raising a flock of lawyers.”

Sheri takes the hint. “Barty?”

“He’s taking a little break from consulting. Been bumming around Malaysia for a couple months, But he’s back to see you. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you about his beard. He’s still in vacation mode.”

She eyes me. “And they’re all still single?”

“No one serious yet.”

“And you?”

“Me what?”

“Dating?”

I laugh. “No, darling. I’m very busy, dating is awful, and there are no Sheris lurking on these dating apps.”

She seems both disappointed and satisfied. “I don’t want you to become an old maid.”

“You are the last person that should use that archaic term.”

“If you don’t like it,” she says primly, “I suggest you find someone open-minded to keep you company.”

I roll my eyes. “You want to go see the kids? They’re waiting at home in Jamaica Plain, as usual.”

Sheri pretends to study the dessert menu. She is always caught between a deep desire to see the kids and a deep wariness. The first time Sheri woke after the kids had left for high school, Coleen was a completely different creature: a foot taller, hair an inhuman electric green. She appeared like a spectre and nearly gave Sheri a heart attack. Of course, for us, it had been a three-year process: Coleen’s sudden final growth spurt, her aggressive colonization of the colour spectrum, her dalliance with alternative modelling. Sheri completely missed the piercing period, and I still thank God for that. We would have never heard the end of it.

For Sheri, she risks coming back every time and not recognizing her own children.

“I’ll settle up,” I say firmly. “There’s cake at home.” Sheri sighs and slips her coat on.

§

I knock at my own front door, a warning signal.

“We’re here!”

Hollers from the inside.

Of course, nursing school has mellowed Coleen out a little bit. She pops her head in the door, her cloud of crow-coloured hair tamed into a braid, just a tiny nose stud left. “Mommy!”

“Come here, girl!” Sheri says crabbily, hugging her tightly. “Your hair is very nice,” Sheri murmurs. “Much less alarming than last time.” Coleen pulls away, flustered, smiling.

Leslie and Barty accost her at the same time, squeezing her vigorously and without an ounce of decorum. Personality-wise, all the kids take after me.

As Leslie runs off to get the cake, a plump little corgi staggers in.

Sheri visibly blanches.

“Who is that?”

“Oh.” I’m completely flustered. “I forgot.”

“That’s Baldwin,” Coleen announces nonchalantly.

Sheri stares at Baldwin, the little interloper. “You forgot,” she repeats slowly. I’ve broken a cardinal rule: no omissions from the Coles’ Notes.

Coleen picks up Baldwin. “He’s a sweetie. Here, sit down and have a cuddle with him. You won’t regret it.” She sits Sheri down in the La-Z-Boy and plops Baldwin in her lap. He curls up immediately, sticking his nose under her arm. Coleen has a way of disarming Sheri by not noticing her recalcitrance. I can picture her wielding the same skill at the hospital, whistling cheerfully through stitches and shots with a nurse’s efficiency.

“Well,” she says crabbily, stroking his fur, “It’s good you have some sort of company.” And I know I’m forgiven on this one, anyways.

Leslie is cutting cake and Barty is showing her pictures of Langkawi, and once again, I remind myself to be grateful for this. Some people don’t even get this. Some people don’t get teased about being spinsters. They’re just widows, and that’s an entirely different thing.

Later, the kids drag themselves to their old bedrooms, and Sheri and I crawl into our bed. I’ve got her favorite sheets on, the stupid standing lamps I hate but she loves still glowing in both corners of the room.

We don’t have sex when she visits. Someone might hear this and think we’ve both soured. But it’s a distillation of our love, into something functional and desperate, focused on just being together. There is some romance and some tragedy to this, like two lovers aimlessly haunting each other for centuries in their church graveyard. It’s something, and that’s better than nothing. I’ve been mourning for years; It’s a fresh cut every time she reawakens, her seeing me so much older, trying to measure the years in palettes and folds, me always struck just how she stays the same. It’s emotionally fraught, and it’s just not very romantic.

Besides, Sheri is very, very tired.

We run our hands through each other’s hair, kiss noses, and spoon insistently. I sleep the deepest sleep I’ve had in three years.

When I turn over in the morning, Sheri is up, her glasses perched on the end of her nose. She has somehow found a copy of Cyril Briggs and The Crusader: Black Communism in Early 1900s America by Tasha Warner-Browne. She notices me out of the corner of her eye but does not stop scribbling notes into the margins.

“It’s very good,” she comments. “The title is awful.”

She’s right, of course.

I make her breakfast and she reads through the French toast and eggs. I don’t mind. I know what she is doing; she is trying to suck in the fruit of my labour because then she will know what I’ve been thinking and doing for the past three years. It’s all there in that book.

She’s still reading while I drive us to Leslie’s graduation. When we park, she sighs and closes the book.

“I’d like to read as much of this as I can before I go back,” she says wistfully. We mosey over to the college green, find our chairs, wait through the hubbub. I tap her gently when Leslie comes on stage and she snaps up, camera ready.

“I’m so pleased, Love.”

I know. “She worked so hard. You’d be so proud.” She nods firmly as if to say of course.

Barty already has the barbeque going in the back. No one else is invited. When Sheri is awake, core family only. We have to soak in each other while we can. Barty makes all the burgers and Leslie tells Sheri about the three-year battle she waged to get her degree: teachers, rivals, Achilles heels.

Barty and Coleen give her a rundown of the decent literature to come out since last time, literature she’ll never be afforded the time to read. And, yet, of all books, she makes time for mine.

Sheri does not ask about nursing school, and Coleen doesn’t volunteer.

The barbeque devolves into a crash course on modern politics, emerging technology, notable catwalk looks, fad diets, economic fluctuations, and significant scandals.

By eight pm, Sheri is bushed, but I gamble and make her an espresso. Coleen usurps Baldwin’s spot on her lap, desperately trying to fit all six feet two inches into her mom’s arms. Sheri looks up at me sheepishly, obviously delighted at Coleen’s little regression. By ten, though, they’re both out for the count.

I reluctantly guide Coleen through a zombie walk to her old bedroom, pick up Sheri, and plop her onto her side of the bed as gently as my aging body can manage. As I slide in next to her, she snuggles in seamlessly against me.

Right before I fall asleep, my face buried in her hair, Sheri’s voice jars me out of semi-sleep. “Love, see if you can’t pester Coleen into applying to a nurse practitioner program. She’s capable of it, I know it.”

I’ve stopped breathing rhythmically, so she knows I’ve heard. “Mmm.”

Silence, then, softer. “Love you.”

“Mmmm.”

I squeeze her gently, and she wiggles deeper into my belly.

Even quieter. “Baldwin seems like a good choice.”

The coveted Sheri stamp of approval.

§

In the morning, Sheri is absent from bed. I find her in the kitchen, halfway through a pot of coffee. My book is closed in front of her, she’s in a state of repose. Baldwin is sprawled in her lap, eyes closed and tongue out in a demonstration of deep contentment.

“I finished it,” she says unnecessarily.

“I’m glad.” I’ll have her notes to keep me company for a little bit.

“The second one needs to be about the American Negro Labor Congress and their contributions to workers’ rights,” she says decisively. “It’s a natural extension. And necessary to restate.”

Of course. She’s right.

I wake the kids up, pour them coffee, goad them into giving their mother a proper send-off. Coleen blearily sits next to Sheri on the couch, her head on her shoulder. She is dangerously close to a big show of emotion.

I give her a look. Don’t cry. Don’t make Mommy feel guilty. Don’t ruin her last day. Don’t bring down her mood.

Everything is fine.

We’ve managed to squeeze fifteen more years out of the eight months she was given. We are nothing if not efficient.

Sheri hugs each of them stiffly, whispering something in their ears. By now, it’s a ritual.

I bundle her into the car, and we stop off at the North End for cannoli before we head to the clinic. Sheri eats hers in the car in the parking lot, always with surprising delicacy. I’ve somehow coated my sweater in powdered sugar, but she looks as sleek as a cat post-grooming. 

There’s a glassiness to her now that alarms me. I need her to be stoic, to go gently into her sapphire coffin. If she doesn’t, the theatre of the whole thing comes apart. She should be kicking and screaming, but every time she’s had the grace of a regent.

There’s a fragility in the air, and I’m scared to disturb it. Sheri speaks first. Her voice is almost perfectly hers.

“I don’t think either of us anticipated this going on for so long.” No. Sheri was supposed to be under for five years, tops. A third stage FDA trial was going to bloom into a cure and Sheri was going to roll back the stone and strut out of her tomb. But FDA approvals have a way of dying on the vine. I say nothing.  

She turns to me. “Is this cruel for you?”

I am sincerely, deeply aghast. “How could you not dying be cruel to me? I’ve been given a gift.” And I will never not feel this way. What no one seems to grasp is that any moment of any day I know Sheri is safe, safe even from death. There is a millennium of compiled literature yearning for this very thing—to be able to place the person you love in a protective cocoon that defies the laws of nature—and I have it.

“Why us?”

One would think that she’s indulging in a bout of self-pity. That would be so deeply un-Sheri. But she continues, “What makes me too good for death? Other people are dying all around us at this very moment. I’m not special.”

Chance. A confluence of technology, poor predictive models, a surprisingly permissive insurance policy, bullish pharma forecasts, and family connections. And here she is, a fucking miracle.

I can write a book, but I can’t articulate this to her, not in a way that will dissolve her guilt and make her feel worthy. Also, selfishly, I don’t care that we’re not special. The die has been cast, I will not reroll. But I try to articulate it to her anyways.

“You enduring is the great joy and the great miracle of my life. Let it continue to exist, please.”

Sheri snuffles a little. It is the fifth time she has cried in front of me, usually only reserved for auspicious days. When she’s done, there’s nothing to do but go inside.

I walk her into the freezing room. And I think, should we talk? Are there things that remain unsaid? Should I ask if she should wake for me at all? Is our love worth her life? She bends over and pecks me on the lips.

“I’ll see you in five years, Bunny, tops.”

Part of me is horrified, part relieved. She has offered up a few more precious days of her life to spend time with me. But I want her to leave me behind. I want to rot away in my stupid mortal coil as she flies by us. I want her to wake up in a world of eternal youth, or at least one where she lives long and well. It’s not worth it, I want to whisper. I’m not worth it. But I don’t.

Sheri tugs gently on one of my corkscrew curls and points at what must be my greys. “You look just perfect. Just how I thought you’d look at this age. Like a school dean or a poet.” I laugh. I don’t know why she thinks they would look the same. I realize at this moment that I will never see Sheri at fifty. I will never know how she silvers and goldens. I want to crumple, but instead, I peck Sheri back and prepare my litany of promises. I’ll live without grief and age slowly to wait for you. Our children will bloom, bloom, bloom. We’ll think of you every day, but not suffer for your absence. We’ll honour you in everything we do and every time you wake up it will be worth it, worth every moment of the little slivers of life you sacrifice to see us again.

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