Jeremy took Jake fishing. Jake wore his new snow hat (purchased for our ski trip later this month) for the chilly start around 9:00 a.m. They took the 14 foot Carolina Skiff instead of the kayak. Nervously I sent my little seven year old baby into the cold morning, thinking thoughts like what if he has an asthma attack or gets the fish hook stuck in his eye. Rational thoughts like these are my trademark. After helping load the boat with an extra blanket to keep them warm, after wrapping a scarf around baby Jake's face, after giving them an extra water bottle, I returned to my kitchen checked the clock, 9:15, and wondered, what time should I begin to worry about their safety?
Jeremy is family, distant family, actually just a friend who I'd like to call family. Jeremy and Jake have seven degrees of connection, beginning at its origins, North Charleston High School. Jeremy was a student in high school during my first few years as a twenty-something teacher there. I never actually taught him, but I knew him because I taught Sarah Nell, Lauren's cousin. Sarah Nell was Abbey's first baby sitter, then her cousin Lauren took over. Lauren's mother Fran was the successor ultimately becoming Jake's private nanny. Lauren is Jeremy's wife.
I hope I keep these people in our lives forever. Family, big family, is important to them. They believe in God and self discipline. They are on speed dial because when I need something the Cummings are the people I call.Fran loves Jake. As a baby two of his first words were mommy Fran. She held him, sang to him, read to him, taught him, fed him, rushed him to the doctor when he split his lip, shared him with Grandma Frances, and kept him safe while George and I worked.
One of the hardest things I ever had to say to anyone, was to Fran, telling her that I was bringing Jake to First Baptist School with me for child care, and she would no longer see him every day. While we certainly all expected this eventually, I did it rather early. George and I were going to live separately and moving Jake to school with me would make it easier. Fran talked with me about reconciling, told me of struggles from her early marriage, urged me to remember I loved George. She cried for the loss of time with Jake, and I assured her we would stay in their lives.I haven't really lived up to that promise, but from time to time we see each other, for a wedding, a birthday, a school play, to take some pictures, and even just an occasional visit, but not often enough.
My deepest connection to Fran is this: It was January 7, 2008. I remember too clearly pulling up to the JCC for Abbey's first basketball game.
The week already dumped a storm of confusion on my life; Tuesday I left school for the hospital in Summerville. George called, his assistant Wade rushed him to the medical center, thinking he had gall bladder problems. By the time I arrived at the medical center, the doctor established they wouldn't be able to help him, fluid on his heart needed more sophisticated treatment than they offered. An ambulance rushed him to Trident Hospital where they discussed this pericardial effusion, and the surgery, pericardiocentesis, that would release the fluid around his heart; they scheduled the procedure for the next morning. I visited the MayoClinic online and read everything I could about this condition. The possibility of metastatic lung cancer appeared, but George assured me that he knew he did not have cancer. He also spent an entire conversation explaining to me how he knew he was not going to die because he believed if a man was going to die, he knew it.
Fran of course came to the hospital and sat with me while we waited. She loved George very much. Without much drama, the surgery successfully relieved the pressure. Next we would wait again because it could return, fill back up, and then we would need to do something else. In the meantime they would test the fluid. Heart problems, that's what we were dealing with.
Thursday and waiting, the word that ultimately characterized the next four months.
Thursday and Abbey's first basketball game, a moment I will remember that I never saw. She was disappointed that her dad couldn't be at the game to cheer her on. For Christmas he bought her a basketball hoop and together they built it in the driveway, just two weeks earlier. He was tired, and didn't stay long on Christmas day, he hadn't been feeling well for a couple of months.
Just as I pulled into the JCC parking lot, George called, crying. "Melissa, sweetheart," he said, "it's stage four lung cancer. The doctor said there isn't much they can do."
"What does that mean? How many stages are there?" I'm yelling, trying to sound calm since my children are with me, and crying. Crazy spinning behind my eyes makes it hard to see.
"I don't know." he replies, "This isn't good. I need you."
"I'm on my way. Hang in there. I'm going to be there in a minute. We'll figure it out." I spew a list of half confident declaratives.
I rush Abbey into the gym. I leave Jake in the bleachers. I kiss her and tell her I must go to help take care of Daddy, which she is fine to have me do because he is her prince, and she'd rather nothing more than me to love and care for him and bring him home. She promises to shoot and score for him.In the parking lot, I can't collect my thoughts, but I'm running, racing, rushing. I dial Fran's number. I have spent a lot of time since that moment wondering why I dialed her number, impulse, instinct. Crying, sobbing, barely coherent, I say, "Fran help me. It's stage 4 cancer." Softly, nervously, she replies, "oh no, Melissa, oh no." I further explain my situation, I'm at the game, I've dropped the kids off, I need to be with him, he's scared, I'm scared. She replies, "Go. We will handle the kids." Moments later, I'm hysterical with fear, driving out of the parking lot in West Ashley, but lost, making turns and losing touch with where I actually am; the phone rings, Lauren is on her way to be with my children. "Help me. Oh my God help me." I plead. "I'm lost, I can't figure out where I am or where I'm going, I'm driving in circles, I need to be there, what does this all mean? Oh God help me." I continue to cry. She says her calming things, whatever they were, she helps me to navigate back to a familiar highway, she goes to my children, and handles so much more than a 25 year old should be able to.
I arrive at the hospital and George is angry. He's angry with how he was informed of his situation. He was alone and the doctor blurted out his chance of survival as none. Perhaps he's angry that he was informed of his situation. Certainly he has known for a long time and ignored it. I hold his hand. I hug him, being careful around the apparatus near his heart. I promise him I'll take care of him and that we will get through this. He tells me that he is scared. I lie to him and promise we will beat it. He lies back, assuring me it's true. Abbey calls, she made a shot for her dad. He smiles.
I didn't call my sister, my mom, or my best friend Hope. I called Fran, Jake's nanny. I knew she would show up. I knew she would handle the most important thing, our children. I called her because she loved George. She was the matriarch of the family that would help us through this tragedy.
Two weekends ago, at Sarah Nell's wedding, I told Jeremy and Lauren how badly Jake wanted to catch a fish. I told them about the dreaded eel catching experience. Jeremy jumped at the opportunity to bring Jake fishing. He sent me a message this week saying he'd come over Sunday morning if that was okay. I didn't tell Jake, just in case it didn't work out. Jeremy showed up. They caught two red fish, 15" & 18".
Jeremy taught Jake how to tie the shrimp up. They fished over by the shipwreck at Bowen's Island. Jake described the experience: reeling the fish in was hard, heavy; the fish felt bloody, sharp and rough; Jeremy had to help him with his scarf a few times to keep warm; Jeremy, according to Jake, is way better than awesome. This is Jake's family. I know why I called Fran.