Short Story by Noah Towbin
Stage IIIB breast cancer. That’s how I died.
Now, let me tell you how I lived.
I was born on September 23, 1968 to a reasonably poor family of migrant farmworkers. We would move with the seasons, sequestering ourselves in the South during the chilling reign of winter and following the sun to the North when spring would begin to nurture the growth of blossoms on the ground. Towards the end of my life, I would often reminisce on the mild, sultry odors of roses in the New York fields near the harvests and the startling hues of the Texas Bluebonnets that would ostentatiously announce the retreat of the ice.
My mother died in the winter of 1983, leaving my family with a single source of income and a gaping hole where once a loved one had existed. Without the money to spare on a coffin or funeral, my father took apart the antiquated shed that held his harvest baskets and tools to craft a final resting place for the body of his love. It is hard for me, even now, to forget the sounds of the anguished sobs that would rise up amidst the harsh cacophony of sawing wood. Eventually, the coffin was finished. We buried my mother on New Year’s Eve of 1983 in a grave that I had hollowed out with my father. Neither of us cried; our tears were already spent.
Throughout this time, I had been attending a small, church school for the children of local immigrants. Once a week during the winter months, I would endure the penetrating freeze of rural Texas to learn about having a relationship with God and honoring our parents’ memories. Simultaneously, we began rudimentary lessons in mathematics and critical thinking that would prepare us for future work in the fields. My teacher, Miss Joana, saw potential in me that even I could not, and she recommended me to a boarding school near Dallas. Although my father did not have the income to pay for my private education, I was determined to learn and therefore decided that I would take a full-time job as a server and dishwasher at a diner in the city to finance my education.
Over the next five years, I attended the Hope School for Girls and learned. I learned about the intricacies of geometry, the mysteries of astronomy, and the omnipresence of a divine, religious spirit. I read the insightful works of Brontë and Austen, employed the physical logic of Newton, and just about memorized the entirety of the King James Bible. I had intentions of pursuing a Master’s in Education—I had been saving the tip money and spare change from my late nights at the diner to cover a significant percentage of what graduate school might cost. I wanted to become a teacher and return back to my local church to teach lessons and help kids do more than live by the harvest. With the help of one of my teachers, Miss Anna, I wrote and sent in my applications in the fall of 1988. In the spring of 1989, I received two letters: one from the Master’s program at the University of Dallas and one from my father.
I opened the admissions letter first, anticipation causing sweat to dampen my brow and a shake to develop in my fingers. Before I could even process the meaning of the entire message, the words “congratulations,” “acceptance,” and “attend in the fall of 1989” grabbed and held my attention. With tears of raw joy flowing freely from my eyes, I read the entirety of the letter—the University of Dallas Master’s in Education program had eagerly accepted me into their graduation class of 1991. As I read the final words, I allowed my eyes to slowly shut. Visions of the future passed across the black backdrop of my eyelids—me graduating with my Master’s, going back to the rural area where I had grown up and starting a small school for children like myself, and smiling as I teach a young girl how to write her name on a small slip of paper. When I opened my eyes, I realized that I had nearly forgotten the letter from my father in the excitement of my acceptance. Carefully, I tore through the envelope and pulled out a worn slip of paper with small, almost illegible words clustered together in the center of the page.
My heart plummeted as I regarded the feeble letter in my hands. In my father’s unpracticed penmanship, I saw the words “cancer,” “months to live,” and “need help.” He had developed a malignant pancreatic tumor that would kill him by the end of the year. Having given up farming due to arthritis, he had no income to fund treatment and no friends or family to call on for help. Except for me.
That same morning, I sent back a letter to the University of Dallas explaining that I could not accept their offer. My hopes of earning my Master’s and teaching children like myself imploded as I packed my stuff and left the Hope School. The day was March 19th when I arrived back at the relatively small, poorly insulated wooden hovel in which I had grown up. As soon as I entered, I could detect the faint odors of decay and tequila. I found my father moaning in his bed, cradling a bottle of cheap Jose Cuervo. His skin, calloused from years in the fields, had fallen victim to jaundice and assumed a disturbing shade of amber. His built frame had withered since his diagnosis, leaving him a husk of the hearty, convivial man he had been before. I would spend the next several months taking care of him, spending time with him, and—most importantly—easing him into death.
On the morning of September 16, 1989, I made a small breakfast of bread and butter for my father and left to buy some eggs and fruit at the nearby market. That would be the last time that I saw his deep grey eyes twinkle with life in the dim, golden glow of the just risen sun. At the small store where I had been buying groceries for the past several months, I gathered a small loaf of bread, five eggs, and three apples into a basket and proceeded to pay with my rapidly dwindling reserve of tip money from my time in the city. The cashier, a somewhat shy man of my age named Gabriel, engaged in some quiet small talk about my father and the weather before bashfully asking me if I would want to meet him for dinner at his house later. I declined with a gentle smile, making up an excuse about having to clean the floors and walls of the house—both of which stood without a single speck of dust.
This exchange had become almost ritualistic since I had first come to the store. During our initial meeting nearly half a year earlier, Gabriel had timidly requested my phone number and asked if I would be interested in getting dinner with him that night. I declined, mostly because I needed to tend to my father; however, Gabriel had persisted in asking me to spend time with him each time we met. Now, it was more comedic banter than anything else.
When I returned home, it was early evening. The sun had started to fall from its position in the Heavens and track a long arc into the shadows beyond the horizon. The rich, stuttered song of the Black Rail rang out among the brush as I approached the small house and nudged open the door. I can still remember the subtle smell of death and decaying flesh that tickled my nostrils as the air rushed out of the cottage. I found my father in his bed clutching an empty bottle of tequila in one hand and a framed picture of my mother in the other. His deadened eyes stared unblinkingly at the cherished image and his body remained still as I stood at his door, waiting for him to wink at me or gesture for me to come closer or blow me a feeble kiss or move at all or do anything. He never did.
Having nowhere else to spend the night but the final resting place of my late father, I reached out to Gabriel. He picked me up in a slightly rusted maroon pickup truck and brought me to his small cottage near the edge of the Cedar Creek Reservoir. We stayed up nearly the entire night baking fresh bread from scratch and skipping small stones across the murky surface of the lake. I will never forget the rich, yeasty aromas of conchas baking in his worn oven or the satisfying smacks of rock on the water as I processed my anger, sadness, and tiredness. The next morning, as the sun crested over the rim of the reservoir and extended its rays into our tired eyes, Gabriel took me home and helped me dig a small grave next to that of my mother. I did not have enough money to buy the materials for a coffin, so we decided to wrap the body of my father in several layers of cloth before laying him to rest. In the evening of September 17, 1989, I gently placed the shrunken frame of my father into the Earth and carefully covered him with dirt by the light of a dim candle and the autumn moon. As we walked away from the house and graves, I surreptitiously interlaced my arm with Gabriel’s and began to silently sob. That was the last time I would return to my childhood home.
After that, I spent most of my free time with Gabriel. Outside of my time spent working random jobs for food and my general expenses, I basically lived at his house and took full advantage of his innate kindness. We spent the remaining months of 1989 baking bread, tending to the small vegetable garden outside of his house, and simply enjoying the natural intimacy that existed between us. I loved him.
On January 17, 1990, Gabriel affirmed his love for me by proposing underneath our favorite Texas Ash. The air was frigid and the tree barren, but I felt warmed by his affection and accepted with a grin across my face. I hadn’t smiled in such a manner since my father had passed away. The year of 1990 remains a blur to me even now, and I can only truly remember the feelings of passion and love that dominated my emotions during that time. We wed on August 18th at a small ceremony and conceived a child that night.
In the afternoon of June 4, 1991, Isaac was born. Gabriel and I raised our son as best as we could with our limited resources, and he slowly developed into a curious, intelligent, beautiful young boy. I still remember the faint, herbaceous smells of freshly trimmed Buffalo grass and blooming, magenta Prarie Verbena on the springtime nights where I would lay awake with Isaac and gaze at the stars. I would watch his small, curious eyes widen as I pointed out the constellations Ursa Major and Orion and directed his view towards flashes of shooting stars dashing across the dimly lit sky. By October 22nd of 1997, I had pooled the remaining savings that I had amassed over the past decade and managed to secure Isaac a spot in the Triumph School for Boys—an institution near the Hope School that I had attended many years before.
Years later, in the fall of 2008, Isaac applied to the University of Dallas to obtain an undergraduate degree in education. On February 4, 2009, we received a letter of acceptance and scholarship in the mail—his history of academic achievement and volunteerism at rural schools had earned him a full tuition stipend for the duration of his collegiate education. In college, he met a beautiful young woman named Eva in one of his introductory courses. Their connection was immediate and strong, and they proceeded to marry on September 26, 2010. I can still remember the feeling of hot, proud tears streaming down my face into Isaac’s tuxedo as we danced to Marco Antonio Solis’ “Te Amo Mamá” at his wedding.
After entrusting my son to Eva, I had one goal left before I’d be completely fulfilled: meet my future grandchildren. At 5:47 am on February 15, 2013, my family was blessed by the birth of two beautiful twins: David and Luna. David—the more reserved and thoughtful of the pair—had the strong brow of Gabriel and Isaac with the gentle, chocolate eyes of my late mother. Luna—his bubbly, extroverted counterpart—was graced with Eva’s luxurious, jet-black hair and the profound dimples that I had first passed on to Isaac almost 21 years earlier. As soon as the twins could walk, I would “steal” them away from my son’s house and take them for walks around the Cedar Creek Reservoir. As they aged, we would go for drives around Dallas in search of the best hot chocolate and talk about strange, theoretical worlds existing in the outer reaches of made-up universes. This rapidly became my favorite pastime.
Between 2013 and 2018, everything seemed to be perfect. Nothing about my life up to that point necessarily screamed of perfection, but I found fulfillment in the time that I spent with my son and grandchildren and fostered love in the moments I shared with Gabriel. I was happy. Then the chest pain started.
The soreness was faint at first, almost unnoticeable unless I sought it out. I attributed it to a combination of age, the days that I’d spent helping my father on the fields of New England, and a strained chest muscle from a persistent dry cough that had plagued me off and on for my entire life. Eventually, the soreness began to manifest as sharp pains in my left breast whenever I’d move to put on a shirt or attempt to lift David or Luna up into my embrace. At the urging of Gabriel, I went to the University of Texas hospital for some professional guidance and medication to ease my discomfort. My diagnosis came on January 5, 2019: stage IIIB breast cancer.
By the time Gabriel made me go to the hospital, malignant tumors had formed within my left breast and along numerous lymph nodes in the surrounding area. While doctors explained to me that there was serious potential for recovery, I felt otherwise—I could hear my body telling me that this year would be my last. Although Gabriel and Isaac vehemently objected to my decision, I refused treatment. I didn’t want to live out my last few months in a hospital bed. Instead, I focused on being with my family and appreciating the scenery of the Cedar Creek Reservoir cottage where I had lived with my husband for nearly thirty years. I spent time cooking empanadas with Gabriel. I spent time walking along the banks of the lake with Isaac. I spent time telling stories about my past to David and Luna. When I woke up on the morning of March 26, 2019, I knew that my life would be over within the day. I spent the morning and afternoon sitting by the lake by myself, enjoying the nostalgic, piercing beauty of the Texas Bluebonnets.
That evening, I died in a haze of throbbing pain originating from my chest. Surrounded by my family, I succumbed to the pull of Death and left the husk of a human being lying on that bed. As my soul exited the ephemeral realm where I learned to appreciate the scents of springtime roses during the harvest with my parents, baked and enjoyed fresh bread with Gabriel, followed the arc of shooting stars across the Texas nightscape lying next to Isaac, and made up worlds with David and Luna, I felt at peace. With the hands of my husband and son resting gently on my forearms and the eyes of my grandchildren locked with my own, I allowed my temporal surroundings to fade away into the blinding, beautiful light beyond.
That is how I lived.