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Tell You Later
By Nancy Neufeld Callaway

I helped her pound down mounds of shark cartilage, then touted as a near-miracle cure for all cancers. And at one point she looked at me with her sallow, tired, lifeless eyes as she was spooning in a huge lump of the white powdery shark cartilage, and she asked me, "So what do you think, if a shark gets cancer, you think it eats spoonfuls of human cartilage?" Flashing me that old witty grin, but without the laughter that usually went with it, because she was just, as we both used to say, "Too pooped to pop."

I get to her house as quickly as I can, and I gently sit down on her bed, careful not to jiggle the mattress because the movement could tear more skin away from her already open bedsores. I try not to look like I'm talking to someone who's dying because I know that she can tell when I'm giving her that unbearably sad look. So I act casual, nonchalant, and slowly I work my way into a somewhat perky, "What is it you wanted to tell me?"

And she looks at me with utmost concern, with those deep-set, knowing eyes, with years of experience, and nods up and down. "Not now, I'm tired. Maybe later."

"Okay, but…" I begin.

"No," she whispers. And she holds my hand, turns her head away from view, and drifts off to sleep.

To death, I wonder? Or just a nap? I'm not sure. But I sit there motionless -- for whatever it was going to be. And an hour or so later, she wakes up, smiles, and asks me if I want to play Rummy Q or Gin -- our games of choice. Apparently the previous conversation we were about to have -- never was.

We'd been playing Gin for almost 20 years. When I was around seven, she taught me Crazy 8's and Go Fish, and soon we moved on to War, my personal favorite. And then came Gin. We were both good. Though she was better. And we were both competitive. Though I was more. And somehow, one day way back when, one of us -- probably me -- started cheating. Just a little. A tossed card here and there, a peek at her cards. And I only felt a little guilty because very soon after, I noticed that she was cheating as well, but not nearly as well as I'd been cheating. And thus began our little ritual which lasted for many, many years.

And during those last few months, we played a lot of cards. I remember a good friend telling me how lucky my mom and I were to have all that time together. To talk about what was important to us, and bond, and make sure we'd said everything we needed before she died. But that wasn't how it was. We never talked about anything remotely heavy, for that would feel like giving up. We talked about little things, the minutia of everyday life. My mom was not planning on leaving, never accepted her death sentence. And she was the boss. That's how she lived, and that's how she would -- not live.

One night, about seven months after she'd first been diagnosed, she and I were sitting on her bed playing Gin…only a few nights after she'd screamed to me, "I want to die! And I want you to find out how to do it. Get a gun and shoot me. It's what I want." But unable to do that, my father and I turned the dilaudid on her built-in painkiller pack up to 10, enough to relieve all her pain, and possibly kill her -- and luckily, it did the former. And can I tell you? When she woke up a day later, she was so happy to be alive. My dad came back into the room, still shaken by our wrenching night, and told her that he didn't want to live without her, that he couldn't live without her, and that if she died, he was going to kill himself. Then she looked at him and responded matter-of-factly, "Okay." And we just sat with that for a while.

Until later on that day she and I play more cards. She usually deals, but now even the smallest effort is too big, so I deal. I pick her cards up backwards, so I can't see them, fan them out for her, and stick them in her hand. She looks at her cards and smiles…"Not bad."

I look at mine too. "Hel--lo ladies," I say, looking at the shittiest hand I've seen in my entire life. But this was not unfamiliar territory to me. And we begin playing, and after about five minutes, her drugged eyes drift shut and she passes out for several minutes, which is something she has been doing for a few weeks. And while she is "out," I quickly put my hand down, take her cards out of her hand, completely rearrange them, give myself a few better cards, and sit… innocently… waiting for her to come to.

She does. And she looks at me -- quizzically? Perhaps. Knowingly? Perhaps. And I say I gotta pee. So I get up, leaving her alone with the cards, and just enough time to do whatever it is she feels like doing, and when I get back, she beats the pants off of me. And that is the last game we ever play.

I cheated on my mom while playing Gin. While she was dying.

And she knew. And I knew. But neither one of us ever said a word. It was all that we could share together. The only real thing we had left between us. You want to know what's most sacred? The one thing I've learned that I'll never forget? I'll tell ya…

But not now. Later.

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