I have always been in thrall to the power of the list. When I was 10, I made a great many lists for the benefit of my overworked parents. A list of names for the horse I should get for my birthday. A lists of compliments I should receive more often. A list of countries I should be allowed to visit before my 16th birthday. Nothing intoxicated me more than the sensation of crossing off the last item on a checklist.
When I got sick, I quickly felt the pull of the Bucket List. What better way to approach dying than the way that I approached living: Let’s get things done! If life was a series of experiences, I should check off all the boxes while I still had the chance. At the top of my bucket list was this: Write a letter to my son.
Letters are funny things. My son was 22 months old. How old would he be when he read it? What would that boy or teenager or man want to hear from his 35-year-old mom who was on the cusp of losing everything?
“Dear Zach,” I wrote.
“When you find out that your mom got Stage IV cancer when you were not yet two, you might start to wonder if your childhood was very sad. After all, cancer is a very sad thing and yes, we were all very afraid of what would happen. But I want you to know the truest thing about me: I am your mom and you are my son, and there is nothing in the world that is as real to me as that. Ask anyone who was there, and they will tell you the same thing: every day was filled with joy because I had you.
I squirreled the note away on the bookshelf reserved for all of his baby pictures and milestones, and immediately hated it. It wasn’t enough. Just the thought of it being the record of our time together made me feel queasy. He deserved more.
This was around the time I began flying to Atlanta every Wednesday to undergo experimental cancer treatment. I would leave for the airport before dawn and get home after midnight, stealing into his room in the dark to give him a quick kiss. “I’m home,” I’d whisper to his shadowy outline in fleece pajamas. “Tomorrow it’s me and you.” I found myself compiling a list of things we could do together. He would need some photographs with Santa Claus. He would ride the little train at the museum. He would have an epic birthday party.
Each day it was just me and him and the video camera, my cheerful voice narrating as he touched Father Christmas’s beard or marveled at the train conductor yelling “All Aboard!” I stored up hundreds of short recordings of how we went on dawdling walks. How we threw a party devoted to his beloved John Deere tractors. How we painted with water because he kept eating the acrylic paint. I wanted to hoard experiences, stockpiling treasured moments as if building a museum devoted to us. This is us riding on a train, Zach. We did this together. You have done this before, with me. Remember?
I would race through my week with Zach, collecting experiences, but on Wednesdays there was nothing to do but wait. I’d go to the hospital for long, hard days. Before and after, I’d sit in the airport, puffy from chemotherapy. Walled off from the life I was terrified of missing.
A few years before, when I was desperate to have a baby of my own, I spent time in airports and restaurants riveted by pregnant bellies and strollers everywhere. But now it was the families that fascinated me, kids chasing siblings, parents chasing everyone, and babies along for the ride. I thought about all the places I wanted to roll through with Zach and my husband as if we were a traveling band and the loss of this future knocked the wind out of me. What if you see your whole life without me?
Then, after one long Wednesday, I was waiting for my return flight in my little corner of the Atlanta airport, which happened to be next to a nonstop flight to Orlando, Florida. It was deep into the evening, and all the children, once intoxicated by the promise of Walt Disney World Resort, had gotten loopy. “The Sleepover Sillies” had taken hold, and parents were starting to lose their cool. One father took a break from a heated argument with his wife to seethe at his three children:
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we are going to MAKE SOME FAMILY MEMORIES, DAMMIT!”
I was writing letters for Zach’s future birthdays and recording songs he liked to hear before bed. I wanted to make sure my son would want for nothing even if he didn’t have a mom beside him. And the best way I knew how to do this was to check items off a list. But in doing so, I was robbing the present to give to the future. I had to learn to give up on being Future Mom and simply be Present Mom.
That night, back at home, I crept into Zach’s room and leaned low into the crib to kiss his warm cheek. “Let’s not worry about getting everything done,” I whispered. “Tomorrow it’s me and you. And no video camera.”