Skip to main content

Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
Contact Us

Three Months


by Terez Peipins




 The fear never hit Dove until she lay down.  During the day she willed it away or even resorted to rosary beads, more for the tactile pleasure than for any religious belief.  They were her grandmother’s, white shell that felt cool in her hands.  She fingered each one deliberately.


 But at night she was afraid that every stitch in her side or each hint of a headache signaled an imminent end.  And then worried they wouldn’t and every cavity of her body would be probed and everything removable taken out.


Dove was her father’s nickname.  He joked about the Holy Ghost appearing over her head when she was born.  Her name was Dorothy, after her paternal grandmother and she hated it.  Dove fit, she was a peacekeeper by nature.


When the kids got home from school it was less noisy than just a little while ago; their childhood held in like a breath.  The months Dove spent lying on the sofa had left their mark.  Thea, at nine, was already a little adult, always asking her, “How are you, mother?”


And Dove always, even in her worse moments, answered, “Why, just fine honey bee.” Dove’s relationship to the world turned upside down. She had to slog through a treacherous thick mud, sticking to her hair, her eyelashes to find her once solid physical self.  Sometimes her voice sounded like it came from underwater.


Olivia was holding up a note from school.  A trip to the science museum.  “Wow,” Dove said appropriately impressed. Olivia was five and this was a big event.


Thea practically sneered. “Rinky dink.”   Dove gave her a look which warned.


This had never been a part of her life.  Dove got home at six if she was lucky after picking up the girls from swimming or soccer.  She wondered now if they missed that.  Tom didn’t get home until seven or even later because a couple of evenings a week he had night classes, usually freshman comp. 


Tom had blamed her for getting sick.  As if she could want this, the pain and nausea that made her migraines from another lifetime seem like child’s play.  Dove’s problem was she accepted the blame.  Dove was going back through layer after layer of her life wondering if to say it was bad genes wouldn’t be simpler.


It was April, the most glorious of springs with the dogwood flowering.  Her eyes teared up.  Two years now since she’d been sick.  The girls were in the backyard, afraid of wandering too far.  Dove’s own childhood had been reasonably happy.


Those memories returned but so did others that neither the chemo nor the radiation could burn away.  Dove believed in ritual, in purification.  Chemo burned away what hurt, what had gone bad.  Dove got off the recliner, it was a step up from the sofa.  She’d live to go to the beach, to see the white sand in Florida.  The girls would play, too old now for pails and sandcastles but not for boogie boards.


The click of the door surprised her.  It was Tom.  “I left some papers.” he called to her and was gone again in a question of minutes.


Dove made dinner.  In her old life they’d bought everything prepared and ate out so often that it wasn’t even a treat.  Now she prepared a salad, brown rice, and organic chicken.  She always made extra for Tom.  Sometimes she just stuck it into the fridge and ate it for lunch the next day.  Dove tried to cover all bases, mostly eating raw foods, the chicken she only had once a week.  Observing dietary rules was like a religion and kept her occupied.  Her salads were full of every vegetable imaginable.


The girls picked them out and had plain lettuce and tomatoes with bottled ranch dressing.   “Ick, beets.  They make everything pink.”  Thea protested.


“They’re on a separate plate.  You don’t have to eat them.” Dove said calmly.


Thea gave an exaggerated shudder and Olivia giggled.  “Daddy was here.”


“He left some papers.” No white sugar but Dove had some cookies sweetened with apple juice.  Thea groaned again, “Just because you have to eat that…”And stopped just short of swearing.  They were still not back to what once was a relaxed banter.  Perhaps they never would be.  Dove chewed on a cookie she didn’t even want.  They probably filled up on junk food at school anyway.


The girls had homework and then could watch an hour or two of television.  Olivia always read with the TV as a backdrop.  Maybe it was because Thea was so bossy and always chose the programs or maybe she just didn’t care.


Dove hadn’t picked up a book in months.  They no longer challenged her from a bedside table or lured her into some trivial oblivion.  Just before her illness, she took to popular novels so predictable there was comfort in them, that and the fact they appalled Tom.   He felt personally defeated whenever he saw Dove reading a bestseller.  “And you know next thing, I’ll be teaching that next semester.”


Dove got them ready for bed.  As usual Thea was angry. “How come you tell everyone you’re sick?”


“People find out.”


“I don’t like the way they look at me.”




“My teacher, everybody.”


“They’re just trying to be nice.”


“I don’t want them to.”


Dove didn’t either.  It was either that or the feeling of being a pariah. It was like being pregnant; everyone had a piece of advice which Dove long ago stopped listening to.  She even stopped reading about the latest treatments.


“What is it about him?” Her sister, Lynn had asked.


“What do you mean?”


“He doesn’t like us.” That was when she first brought Tom home to meet the family. Her father was a lawyer (why else did she become one?), her mother gardened, and Lynn and Jeff were beautiful, lithe blonds.  They’d been Dove’s babies, especially Jeff.  Eight years separated them.


Tom was her instructor.  She waited until her senior year to take an obligatory English course and there he was.  She was only twenty-one; he rode a motorcycle and was way out of her league. She had law school in her sights.  He said to her, “I don’t see it.  People’ll walk all over you.”


It didn’t stop her.  When she finished law school and Tom got tenure at a state university in the south, she found a job working for a judge.


Her father said, “I guess you’ll be staying down there now.” No winters, no snow.  She didn’t feel like an outsider since most everyone she knew was a transplanted Northerner.


These days she didn’t read, she didn’t work.  Tom kept asking when she was going back to work.  Divorce had been in her mind before the cancer.  Tom was adequate with the girls but he’d make a remark about Thea putting on weight and she knew puberty would be awful under his very critical eye. 


Dove even thought of going home.  Her practical side countered that Boston was impossibly expensive.  The image of a house with a big oak and maples in the front yard filled her mind but it didn’t exist anymore. Dove roused herself from the reveries and went to her own room, bare as a cell with a single bed, small desk, and empty walls.  She wanted nothing more; when she got sick she moved in here. Her sleep was deep and dreamless.


Her mother told her to think of it as a sabbatical.  Dove rarely took any time off except when she had the girls.  Tom had long summers and sometimes went to England on a grant to do research or to teach.  She stopped caring after the first summer.  The girls were used to camp. This busy modern life was what her mother called it.  “They don’t stop and do just nothing for a minute.”  Dove tried to value just that, that nothingness which now filled her time. 


Dove pictured Tom with divorce papers in hand.  It was probably something he wanted.  After all he had the girlfriend in his department, a grad student.  But then he could get custody; she was ill after all.   Once her brain could work its way through any problem but now months of treatments made her feel the important connections were missing; that her very brain was hot.


He was getting all the sympathy in the world for his situation, how good he was with his poor wife. All those years she’d been too afraid to leave him. 


In the beginning Tom tried with Thea but soon lost interest.  Thea was a typically difficult first child.  Olivia was different but by that time Tom tuned out.   Of course, Olivia loved him with desperation and any attention he paid her was greatly rewarded.  Tom either didn’t care or was unable to respond.  Dove wanted to think it was the second.  How could anyone not respond to Olivia with her liquid brown eyes and love of cuddles?


Those early years when the girls were babies, Dove was radiant.  She loved them and she loved her work.  She even believed in the law, in a sense of justice.  Now she saw it as plea bargaining lawyers on their way up to the courtroom making decisions between comments about golf swings or vacation trips.  She could have easily joined them but the children kept her on the outside.  All that work at the beginning and the babies. Dove never stopped.  Now she was shocked that she could leave her job behind. 


 To live with a cancer that nothing could destroy, to have no idea what triggered it.  Her mother claimed it was working too hard; Lynn blamed Tom.  There was no explanation or if she believed everyone around her, hundreds.


Dove laid out in a coffin with roses and carnations around her with that cloying smell of death.  She’d written a will specifically asking for cremation so she knew that image was wrong, overly theatrical, the death she feared.


She was thirty-five.  Now sterile with a breast like an Amazon warrior.  Even that brought up comments.  “You probably didn’t need to have that removed.” a neighbor had told her.  People simply made her tired.


Dove got up early and made breakfast or rather, poured cereal into bowls.  Her hands shook as she measured out the coffee.  Tom always insisted on grinding it fresh but she couldn’t be bothered and found no difference in taste.  If she did everything perfectly with no mistakes she would be all right.  The whole nightmare would finish and I promise God, I will be good.  Did that constitute a prayer?


She looked at the clock.  Was Tom gone already? Her D day appointment was at nine so there was time.  Dove used to lay out outfits for the girls.  Now, Thea would never stand for that and Olivia looked fine without her intervention.  Thea was wearing a purple string around her wrist.  “What’s that?”


Thea answered, “If I wear it until it falls off, my wish comes true.”


Dove didn’t dare ask. The bus came and picked up the girls.  There was a last minute scramble of activity and they were off.


The front door clicked open.  Tom said to her, “I got some bagels.”


“Thanks,” she took one, another forbidden food.


“I can take you,” he offered.


“No, it’s ok. They’re not going to do anything.”  She had believed that before and she’d come out exhausted and pale.


Dove got into the car, still shaky.  She remembered the blessings from one of Elaine’s books and now did them to keep her mind occupied.  She tried it in turn for the occupants inside each car, for every living thing around her.  She could hardly keep up. “May you be free from danger.  May you have physical well-being. May you be happy,” and in between she repeated the blessings for herself.  She liked that she could include herself.


After more repetitions for everyone in the waiting room, she was led into Dr. Grant’s office.  She rarely saw him but he was the head of her team.  “Sit down,” he motioned her to his desk.  He broke out into a smile.  “It looks good. “ Dove exhaled.  “That means I’ll see you in three months.”


A reprieve.  She felt the relief slide over her.  Three months of no nausea and then beyond that if she dared to consider it.  She’d take the girls out after school to celebrate, she’d call her mother.  She’d even call Tom and start on the divorce.