Julia closed the door on Max’s room and headed downstairs, her heart heavy. James had been right, they needed to let the family know what was happening. But just because it was right, didn’t make it easy.
“Where’s the squirt?” Bre asked as Julia entered the kitchen. “You told him about the pancakes?” A mound of golden pancakes already sat next to her and she poured the batter into the pan.
“He’s not feeling well,” Julia said, trying to sound casual. “I’m going to call the school, give him a day off.” Bre nodded, but her smile had slipped to a frown. Julia finished up the call with the school and returned to the kitchen for a plate of pancakes.
“This is why I didn’t want to say anything,” Bre said at last with a heavy sigh. “I wanted things to be normal for as long as possible.” They both knew peach pancakes wouldn’t fix what was broken, but they were Max’s favorite breakfast.
Julia nodded. “He’s a smart kid, though. He knew something was up.”
“Divorce,” Bre said flatly and grimaced. “I’m not sure which is worse, honestly. I just wish we could have waited until we knew more. We can’t really tell him anything because we don’t know anything.”
Julia collected their plates and wondered what to do about James. They couldn’t leave him in his room all day.
“I’ll bring him up some pancakes,” Bre made a small plate. “He must be hungry.”
Max’s heart sank and his stomach knotted at the soft knock on his door. He wished he could hide or disappear. But the door opened, bringing with it the scent of buttery pancakes and warm peaches. He felt sick to his stomach.
“Max, honey?” his Mum’s voice was soft but bright.
How could she smile today? Go away, he thought. Willing his mum to leave since he hadn’t disappeared. But Bre didn’t obey his unspoken plea. There was a soft click as she set a plate down on his nightstand and then the bed shook as she sat down next to him.
For a moment they stayed that way. Max’s heart raced wondering what was going to happen. He could hardly think. There was a cacophony of words racing around his head. Mum is sick. We don’t know. Are you going to die? We love you. It’ll be alright. And the biggest of all, CANCER. That word drowned out all the other words they’d said last night. That word bounced around his head with bright red letters, dripping in blood. That word meant death.
Max jumped as someone grabbed his shoulder and pulled him close. He had forgotten his mum was there. And she wrapped her arms around him. He felt her chest rise against his head as she took a deep breath.
“Mom called the school,” she said at last. “So there’s no rush today.”
Max had forgotten all about school. How could you go to school when your mum was dying? How could life be normal again? Peach pancakes and a day off? That wouldn’t fix mum. He knew he was crying when the tears hit his hands.
“Hey, sprout,” Bre said softly and kissed him on his head. She tilted his head up and wiped his tears away. Although more fell just as fast. A sob caught in his throat and Max choked on it. He curled up into a ball on his mum’s lap. CANCER. Mum is dying. It’s all right. CANCER. Are you going to die? The words spilled through his head blocking everything else.
Eventually, he realized his mum was rubbing his back, his eyes stung and he hiccuped back another sob. But he was wrung out. Exhausted by crying, the words fading into the background. They were still there, but they weren’t overwhelming him.
“It’s scary isn’t it?” She said at last. “And we can’t say it’s all going to be okay. We don’t know that yet. But there’s a really good chance. There are new treatments and surgeries and there’s a really good chance, I’ll be fine. I’m still young and strong.”
Max wasn’t sure what to think.
“Do you know what I’d like more than anything in the world?” she asked leaning in close. Her eyes were sparkling. “I’d like to teach you to fish.”
Max blinked. That wasn’t what he expected. He knew what he wanted more than anything in the world. “F-fish?”
Bre grinned. “First off, I’m not sick yet. There’s still a lot more tests to go and that will tell us more. Let’s concentrate on what we’ve got now. And what we’ve got now is a day off. Let’s run away.”
His mum nodded. “What do you say we all pile in the car and head up North? You’ve never been to Granite Falls, have you. It’s my favorite place in the world. There are giant trees and tons of birds. You’ll love it.”
Julia watched Max and Bre from the porch. She was bending down helping him get the worm on his hook, then he cast it enthusiastically into the lake.
Why had they waited so long? Why had it taken a crisis to get them to come up here? They should have come every summer. Here, Max had enough space to run off all his excess energy.
Here, she could show him the different flowers growing by the paths and what plants to avoid.
Here they could sit together as a family and tell stories around the fire, roasting marshmallows.
And here they could sneak out in the middle of the night and lay in the grass and find all the constellations.
Tomorrow they had to return to the real world. The new world they lived in with phone calls from doctors and fear and worry. Doctor’s appointment and hospital visited. There would be surgery and chemotherapy. Julia had to tell herself it would all be okay. Lots of folks recovered from cancer. And the doctors were very hopeful with Bre. The five-ear outlook was over 70%. Not the best outlook, but Bre was still very young and the doctors said the overall survival rate was much higher when you factored in age.