Carol Cooper sat on a fold out chair in front of a walnut casket from the Batesville company. It was mid morning on a Tuesday in April at the Odd fellows cemetery. She smelled the damp grass and the freshly turned soil. Mike Cooper was laying there in that Batesville casket looking a lot more peaceful than he had the week before. His hands were folded serenely across his chest. The cancer finally got him. It took him away and left Carol and his year old daughter, Nicole, behind.
Carol watched Mike's family pull up in their big cars and file into their seats. They were a lot of help the last few days, loading up her refrigerator with casseroles and cold chicken. Strange, in the weeks before Mike died, they only came over to turn up their noses at her messy house. Where was all the help then, when she really needed it? There was sweet Aunt May, taking her seat and barely throwing her a glance. A few weeks ago, she was at her home, perched on the edge of the couch looking sideways at the clothes on the floor and Nicole in her crib.
"If there's anything I can do," Aunt May had said. "Please, let me know."
Carol thought, my husband is in our bedroom dying of cancer, there's dirty clothes on the machine and dishes in the sink, and you have to ask?
"Of course, I will," said Carol.
There was silence while Carol changed Nicole.
"Mike is looking a little pale today," said Aunt May.
"Well, he has cancer," said Carol.
"I guess I should be going," Aunt May said. "Remember, if there is anything I can do."
"I'll be sure and call," said Carol.
The Cooper family had a thing about death. Everybody does, and everybody deals with it in their own way. For the Coopers, dealing with it meant not dealing with it. Before things got bad, really bad, before Mike became a skeleton, before his skin turned red from the radiation and before his hair fell out, well, the Coopers could be counted on to lend a hand here and there. They would watch Nicole sometimes during appointments or drop by to chat. The house was clean then. As Mike degraded, everything else degraded right along with him. The priorities changed.
One day, Mike said "We don't have a lot of time left."
"I know," said Carol. "I try not to think about it."
There were all kinds of things Carol tried not to think about. For instance, how Mike's voice was just a whisper most days, when it wasn't slurred by the meds. Or how about the biggie, what the hell was she going to do after he was gone?
"We should make some plans," said Mike. "You know, about the services. That kind of thing."
"I guess your family will want to be there," said Carol.
"Always with the smart ass answer," said Mike, but he was smiling. "That's my girl."
"Forever," said Carol, and then she started to cry. Damn it, she thought. Forever wasn't as long as it used to be.
Mike would have cried with her, but he didn't have the strength, so he just held her hand. They sat that way for awhile.
A few days later, Mike slipped into a state that was neither dead or alive. He lay there on the bed in a fetal position, his breath rattling horribly in his chest, his lips blue from the meds.
"He's not in pain," the hospice nurse had said.
There wasn't much to say to that, so Carol just nodded, thinking, small favors.
The death watch had begun. The Coopers phoned for updates. Carol rocked Nicole next to Mike's bed. Everything took on a certain fuzziness. Carol felt like an actor in a bad movie. The script sucked, the lighting sucked, the sets were crappy. Who paid for this? She wanted out. She was calling her agent first thing.
It happened early in the morning on the third day. Everything just stopped. All the hustle and bustle of living with cancer, the appointments, the driving, all of that ended because they weren't living with it anymore. Mike was just gone.
Just like that, it was Carol and Nicole and no one else...
20 years later, and here was Nicole, sitting at Carol's kitchen table, in trouble again.
"What did I do wrong?" asked Carol.
"I'm the one who's pregnant," said Nicole.
"I wish your father were alive," said Carol.
"You think this is because of daddy issues?" said Nicole.
"No," said Carol. "I don't know, maybe. You might be less of a smart ass if your dad had been around. You want more coffee?"
"Is that bad for the baby?"
"The coffee or your smart lip?"
"Are we really going to do this?" asked Nicole.
"What, I was joking," said Carol. "Anyway, my only child is pregnant and has no idea who the father is, so I might get a little surly once in awhile."
Nicole opened her mouth, thought for a second, then said "Okay, you got me there."
"I raised you by myself," said Carol "That was the last thing I wanted for my own child, to be a single parent. And here you are."
"I get that I screwed up," said Nicole. "I really do. Do I have to be constantly reminded of what an idiot I am? I'm on the mercy of the court here, Mom, I just need your help."
"What am I supposed to do?" said Carol. "I'm still angry. It's hard for me to be helpful when I'm angry."
"Just be here for me, mom. Holy cow, do I have to spell it out? Your my mother, this should all be instinct," said Nicole.
"Will you go to church with me?" asked Carol.
"No," said Nicole. "That didn't take when I was a kid, it won't take now."
"It's the only way," said Carol.
"Look, that might be what worked for you, but it won't work for me. You know what will work for me? You just being my mom. How about that?"
"You need God," said Carol.
"I need my mom," said Nicole.
Nicole watched her mother busy herself with making another pot of coffee. The silence wasn't hard. It never was with her mother, no matter what was between them.
With the coffee brewing, Carol sat down and said "I'm always your mom."
"I know that," said Nicole. "I don't want to go through this watching YouTube videos and Googling everything. I just want to ask my mom. Is that too much to ask?"
"But if you would just..."
"If you're relying on God and I'm relying on you, what's the difference?" said Nicole.
That stopped Carol. She furrowed her brows and sipped her coffee. Finally she said "That actually makes sense."
"Don't act so shocked," said Nicole.
"I'm still mad at you," said Carol.
"Yeah, but now you have to work at it," said Nicole.
Next up: And baby makes two