I smile to myself as I watch my husband, Ryder, Skype with his mom and dad with our daughter on his lap. They are all smiles, of course. I know Ryder's been missing his parents since they've been in Chicago for the past three months while his mom is receiving a new kind of chemo. We've been so used to having them right down the street for so long now, it's been a little strange without them.
"Where's Courtney?" I hear Ashley, Ryder's mother, ask. "I want to see her too."
I make my way from behind the kitchen counter and stand behind Ryder and Charlie who are sitting at the kitchen table.
I inhale a sharp breath when I see her. Her normally olive toned skin is pale and she's even thinner than the last time I saw her. "Hi, Ashley! We miss you so much!"
She smiles happily. "I think you get prettier every time I see you. How have you been?"
"I can't complain. Did Ryder tell you about the party?"
She nods excitedly. "He did! I can't wait to have all my family together again! It's been so long..."
"I think it's a perfect idea, and wow; five years married already? That's definitely something to celebrate," Ryder's father, Asher, says. He's sitting on the hospital bed next to Ashley and even though I'm only looking through a laptop, I can tell how tired and worn they both look.
Ashley's been traveling to Chicago for the past year and a half to receive chemo; with all the traveling and medicines, she's fading fast. Since Ryder's brother, Logan, also lives in Chicago, they've been staying with him and his wife to start a trial run of new medicines. It's a hard thing to watch, but what's even harder is watching my husband hold on to a miracle that's scientifically impossible. I'll never let him think for a second that I don't believe Ashley will make it much longer, because in reality, I want to be as hopeful as he is. She means so much to our family and none of us could bear losing her.
"I agree. I remember when Asher and I celebrated five years together. That seems like forever ago now," Ashley says.
The thought of Ryder's adorable mother falling for a guy like Asher could raise a few brows. He's 6'4, covered in tattoos and wears sunglasses wherever he goes, day or night. He's the definition of intimidating, but he's a sucker for Ashley.
Asher chuckles. "Well, Buttercup, it kinda was. We've been married almost thirty years."
I smile, but underneath the strong facade I put on for my family each day, I'm dying inside. I hate to see them all so hopeful, so sure that everything will turn out okay. I guess the alternative is moping around in sadness and there will be plenty of time for that after she's gone.
I'm starting to choke up, so I decide it's time for me to get back to cooking. "I have a roast in the oven, so I need to get back to it. See you guys next weekend!"
After we say our goodbyes and I've gone back to dinner, I can't help but eavesdrop on Charlie telling her grandparents goodnight. She's six years old now and smarter than I ever could've imagined, but sometimes I wonder if that's such a good thing.
"Goodbye my sweet angel," Ashley tells her.
Charlie pushes her long brown hair behind her ears and watches the computer monitor intently. She looks so strong, so determined. "No, Grammie. We can't say goodbye, just see you later."
Ashley chuckles. "You are absolutely right. In that case, I'll see you soon. How does that sound?"
"That's better," Charlie smiles.
After dinner, I clean up the kitchen and join Ryder on the sofa. He's about two hours deep into a documentary about volcanoes. I reach for the remote on the coffee table and turn off the television.
He doesn't say anything, doesn't even look at me. I knew his mind was somewhere else.
"Ryder, I-" My words get stuck in my throat when he turns to me and I see his green eyes glisten with unshed tears.
He rarely ever cries, but I know seeing his mom this way is tearing him apart. I wrap my arm around his shoulder and he lays his head on my chest. He's quiet for a while and I'm wondering if I need to say something or just be here for him.
"Courtney..." he whispers, "She doesn't have much longer, does she."
It doesn't sound like he's asking me what I think, but rather if I'm confirming what he already knows. My heart squeezes in pain, but I don't let it show. "Cancer is just one of those things where you never know what to expect. But from the looks of it, I'd say she's having a rough time."
"It feels selfish of me to want to hang on to her when she's suffering so much. I just can't imagine a life without her..." His voice cracks and he trails off.
I run my fingers through his tousled brown hair and sigh. It's times like these that it gets really hard to be strong. I don't want Ryder to hurt and I'd do anything to take his pain away, only I can't this time. "You don't have to imagine a life without her. No matter how long you had her here with you, the impact her life has had on you, your brother and sister...all of us..." I take a deep breath and push back the tears that threaten to fall. "None of us are the same because of her. She's impacted all of our lives so much that we'll always carry a piece of her with us. And then...our children will carry her."
It becomes so quiet in the room you could hear a pin drop. After a while, I can feel the tears soaking into my shirt. His hold on me tightens and he cries out. My heart breaks into a million pieces knowing there isn't a damn thing I can do to make it better. All I can do is cry along with him.
And so I do.
"Mommy?" a sleepy voice calls out, getting our attention.
I turn around to see Charlie standing at the bottom of the stairs. She grips her teddy bear in both hands and watches us with worried eyes. I can tell she's about to cry since her eyes turn a bright, vibrant shade of green every time she does. I hold an arm out and she joins Ryder and I on the sofa. She jumps up onto Ryder's lap and hugs him tightly.
The three of us sit in silence, holding onto one another and doing the only thing we know how to do at a time like this; just be there for each other.
"What are you doing, mom?" Charlie asks me for the twentieth time in the past hour.
"The same thing I was doing the last time you asked," I reply simply. I've been making handwritten invitations for our fifth wedding anniversary party in a couple of weeks and I'm doing it in calligraphy which takes forever. Even longer when you have a nosy six year old wandering around the house with nothing to do on a rainy day.
She sits down at the table across from me and sighs dramatically. "When will dad be home?"
"In another couple of hours or so," I say, watching her peek through the window blinds again. "And I think he has a surprise for you."
She looks at me and grins. "Really? Is it a puppy?"
I give her a bored look. "Charlie, you know you can't have a puppy right now. It's a lot of responsibility and you-"
"I know, I know. I'm too irresponsible. But I'm getting better! I put my shoes away and I made sure to refill the toilet paper roll this morning."
"Prove to me that you can do that every day and then we'll talk about a puppy."
She rolls her eyes and slides down from her chair.
"Stop rolling your eyes before they get stuck like that," I tell her with a smirk.
She groans and starts up the stairs. I go back to work on my invitations, but just as I get going again, my phone rings. I push my things aside and get up to retrieve my phone off the counter.
"Hello?" I answer without looking to see who it is.
"Court! I heard about the party! I can't believe it's already been five years!" Piti exclaims.
We've been best friends for nearly ten years now, but since she lives in Chicago and we are all the way down here in Florida, we rarely get to see much of each other anymore. Needless to say, when we talk, we get really, really excited.
"Well, believe it! You're coming right?!"
"Are you crazy?! Of course I'll be there! CJ has that interview in Palm Springs anyway, remember?"
"Oh, that's right! So you'll be here early then. We should plan something! I haven't had a girls day in too long."
"Then let's change that! I can come visit you while CJ's in Palm Springs and help you get ready for the party. It'll be just like old times."
I chuckle. "Then it's a date."
Piti has been dating Ryder's nephew, CJ, for the past six years. He just finished medical school last month and already has a job offer here in Florida. Not surprising, since the guy is brilliant and graduated from Northwestern at the top of his class. I guess it helps when your mother is a Professor of Medicine there, too.
If he gets the job, I'll be reunited with my long lost best friend. I maybe could even have a social life again for the first time in years.
I hear Ryder pull up and I start to get excited. "Charlie! Your daddy's home!" I call upstairs.
She comes roaring down the stairs and she's at the front door waiting for him the second he opens it. Her eyes light up and she squeals with excitement. "Grammie!"
She jumps into Ashley's arms and hugs her tight before moving on to grandpa. She takes them both by the hand and practically drags them inside. The first thing I notice is Ashley's healthy glow that I haven't seen since before she got sick. The second thing I notice is the hopeful glint to my husband's beautiful green eyes.
Charlie takes her grandparents up to her room and I watch Ryder expectantly. Once it's just us, he turns to me and smiles. "Kitten, you're not going to believe this. Mom just got some good news from her doctors in Chicago. Her next trip will be her last."
"That last surgery did the trick. I knew it would!" he says, hugging me tightly.
When you've been married as long as we have and you're as in love as we are, it's not hard to pick up on each other's emotions. Most of the time, that's a good thing. But right now...
Ryder pulls away from me, but keeps his hands planted firmly on my shoulders. "What? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. I just don't want you to get the rug pulled out from under you is all."
"You still don't believe in miracles, even after I just told you-"
"Ryder, it's not that. I believe in miracles, of course. I just don't want you to get your hopes up only to get bad news again....like last time."
The last time would be three years ago when Ashley's cancer returned. Ryder was ecstatic when he learned his mom was cancer free for the first time in two years only to be told seven months later that it had reared its ugly head. I refuse to ever see my husband that broken again.
"So what you're saying is, I should just assume she's gonna die?" He asks with a little venom to his voice.
I hesitate before answering since I guess in reality, I am saying he should assume that she'll eventually die. Death is one thing we're all destined for. I can't bear to see Ryder upset, so for now, I'll tell him what he wants to hear. "No, you shouldn't. I'm sorry. If you feel good about this, then I feel good about it too."
His eyes soften and he closes the space between us, wrapping his arms around my waist. "I don't think you realize how much I love you."
He presses his lips to mine for a quick, but sweet kiss. I smile against his lips. "Are you gonna show me?"
He playfully smacks me on the ass and lets out a growl. Despite everything that's been going on in our lives, we aren't lacking in our relationship. We still make time for each other and keep things interesting in the bedroom.
He kisses me again, only this time it's a little more heated.
"Uh, mom? Dad?"
We quickly spring apart, panting and looking a little disheveled. I clear my throat and try to formulate a response, but my daughter is too quick witted for me.
"You know that's what bedrooms are for, right?" she smirks.