She turned to my mother, “I’ve never had one morsel of red meat my entire life.” Almost in a giggle she added, “look where that got me.”
The anti-social, impulsive child that I was, I laughed, a little too loudly, along with the rest of the adults in the parking lot that sat adjacent to the schoolyard and church where the rest of the little ones created a cacophony of gleeful screams. “That’s mine-s!” and “Tag! You’re it-s!” all harshly brewed together to produce the discordant song of a Sunday afternoon.
I made a mental note to ask mommy why that was so funny later.
To me, Mary Cerami was beautiful, in some aged and peculiar way, funny more often than not, and tall. So tall…well at least from my five year old perspective. She looked like a queen with an eye patch. What I didn’t and couldn’t understand for many years was that her lovely face was kissed with those wrinkles not by the gentle lips of time, but by something that surpassed description with even a word such as vile, or monstrous, or deranged. The word cursed with the task of describing this sadistic disease that was slowly annihilating this woman from within herself hid somewhere in the depths of a cave of language, where no tongue had yet had the satisfaction of reaching and pronouncing its acidic syllables. It crouched in an infinite chamber that had no lights, impossible to find. No pen that had yearned to discover its hiding place had yet succeeded. All had slouched in defeat, using a word that would not torture the ears when heard or blister the eyes when read. Malicious or morbid would suffice, but still it could be felt, lurking there, just out of reach.
Perhaps she was well acquainted with this word. They may have had quite an intimate relationship. If they did, if it did haunt her relentlessly, she made no indication of it visibly. She did not plague her permanent stadium of cheering fans with her obvious discomforts and undoubtedly horrifying thoughts. She marched forward with love and God in her heart with her husband’s hand in hers, and the support of hundreds held tightly in the other. She smiled, she made jokes, she laughed at these jokes, and she prayed to the Lord who had blessed with the life that she had been given.
That Sunday afternoon changed my life. While everyone was busy talking about “adult-y” things as I saw it (the reason I had promised myself that I would never be an grownup, as they were painfully boring), my little fingers slowly weaved their way through the ugly skirts, khaki, and pantyhose that so often choke the pews, and gave the slightest tug on Mary’s skirt. She felt the pressure and immediately looked down. Being quite the opposite of shy once I got myself going, I peered right into her face and demanded to know why she wore an eye patch.
“Well you see…It’s because I’m really a PIRATE!” She burst out and proceeded to tickle me until I was a pile of furious resignation on the floor.
“NO! Why are you REALLY wearing the eye patch??” I persisted, emphasizing the “really” as if I was the smartest human being on Earth for interpreting the fact she wasn’t telling the truth.
She smiled and ignored my parents’ horrified expressions and went on to explain in that adult voice that I love to be addressed in. There was nothing that I hated more than to be spoken to as if I were an infant. Googaa talk…after all, I was five years old. It was at this time that I first realized that I really enjoyed this woman, and that we should be friends. I also instantaneously became aware of the fact that she was very sick and that the eye patch helped her headaches to be ones of less severity. A get well card was clearly the solution to this cold that she had.
With my plethora of friends (sarcasm), I managed to fit her in frequently for play dates. We had grand old times together with plenty of adventures, toe painting, and of course, we always sat together at the church service every Sunday. It had rocketed from my least favorite to the absolute best part of my week, all because of my first friend. I taught her how to hold hands and skip, because, understandably, Iwas the only one in the world who knew how to do it, but I would let my secret slide just this once. I had forgotten she was sick. After all, if you were sick, you were stuck in bed all the time, and your mom would come and give you lots of soup and Popsicles.
As I spent more time with her, I learned countless things about how to treat people, when to talk, and when to keep my mouth shut. She talked to me about God, and how miraculous he is, and how to appreciate things, because when the grass that you always complained was itchy is gone, you always remember how thrilling it was to get the blades stuck in between your toes, and how soft it was. You didn’t remember that it hurt when you stepped on a pricker.
With these fantastic new and improved “social skills” that I came to possess, I became engaged with kids my age and made some friends. In the midst of all of these novelty distractions, I became less and less aware of the fact that Mary could not come and play as often as she used to.
Her disease was closing in on this amazing woman I had come to know and love. It was running wild inside of her, crashing and bruising and tearing her to pieces, like a bull trampling through a once delicately furnished living room. The cushions were slashed. They bled stuffing out into the fireplace which immediately ignited and roared upward in licking motions to the ceiling, the curtains their medium. Vases were shattered, and the shards could be found imbedded into the tattered walls which were once adorned with smiling family portraits. The idea of a flawless paint job once residing in the room now seemed like a preposterous idea. The sleeping family rested peacefully in a world of dream one floor up as the flames ascended the stairs.
One of the last nights I saw her, we spent most of our time in the wonderfully decorated living room of hers, as she could not do much else. I was aware that she was sick, but, as most five year olds are, still ignorant to the severity of her situation. I turned to her and asked one of those questions that you regret for the rest of your life.
“When are you going to die?” I inquired, completely heedless of the fact that my question probably burned like fire in her ears.
“The doctors said that I have a hopeful two years,” was her answer. It was delivered through smiling lips.
I disregarded the answer as alarming and gave a nonchalant, “OK,” not understanding that to everyone over the age of eight, two years are gone before you can remember what you had for lunch.
We had a wonderful time the remainder of the evening, although I’m sure my question haunted her conscience long after I departed that night. I did not leave, of course, without a very large hug…
The following morning, I awoke to a crinkle in my ears and squealed with delight at the sight of a present on my pillow. It was the candy bead set that I had so fervently spoken of with Mary on a number of occasions. It was accompanied with a small card that told me how much I meant to her and that she was so glad we were friends. She told me to be brave and that she loved me. It was Sunday, so, for obvious reasons I was ecstatic about thanking her for my wonderful present.
I ran to Sunday school, as if the sooner I arrived, the sooner I would get to leave. When the “a” of “Amen” was made audible in the prayer, I was only a figment of the classroom’s imagination. Perhaps they had placed one too many prayer mats on the floor that day.
I plopped down outside the chapel door as their last notes of song were ending, and anticipated Mary’s exit with an almost unhealthy excitement.
She never came.
I waited every Sunday, but she never came. Mom wouldn’t be fair. She would pick me up and make me go out to the car. Once, she had to drag me. The thought never came to my mind to ask where she was, until I was lying in bed with my mother one night. Night time and stars always made me think of death and Heaven, and its permanence would either terrify me so much that I was rendered unable to speak, or lull me to sleep with the thoughts of angels and their singing.
I turned to my momma, half buried in a cocoon I had built in an attempt to hide myself from what I was now beginning to realize.
“Mommy, is Mrs. Cerami…?” My eyes flitted to the stars.
“Yes hon, I’m so sorry,” was all she said, and I crawled right up into her arms and cried for my friend. I cried for the sweetest, bravest, best friend I could ever have wished for.
I believe that people who are real heroes do not call themselves the latter. My ears hear the word hero, and my mind hears Mary…Mary…Mary, over and over again. I will never forget that smile she wore until the end, and my, she wore it well. Fighting through horrendous headaches and nightmarish treatments, she never spoke of her pain; she only went faithfully on to be the most incredible example that a human being could be. Bravery may be an understatement. The correct word may not exist in any language, or it may hide in a chasm similar to in which the disease’s word lies; in a cave somewhere out of reach. I will continue to search for it, but for now I will call her a hero. I most certainly am not a hero, but if I ever am to become one, I will be able to tell, as I know exactly what one looks like. Every time I face a challenge, I think of her and accomplish it, because I know that she had a much larger task set before her than any one of my miniscule problems. Do I still find myself acting like a spoiled brat at times? Of course, but when I notice it, it sure disappears in a hurry. I don’t let others around me get away with it either, because there are so many terrific things in life to pour your energy into, none of which include griping. I used to cry for everything. After she touched my life, there is only one thing to this day that makes me cry. I am strong. I can handle anything that comes my way, and knowing this, I put myself out into the world for more opportunities to present themselves, and I take each head-on with a vibrancy of step.
I am not afraid. The night does not scare me anymore.