I was desperately trying to be in the moment, to soak in the beauty of the morning sun filtering through the mist on the water, the joy on my son's face as we paddled carefully beneath the pilings of a bridge.
But, as I would find myself approaching happiness, I would remember. Remember that this might be the last time we ever canoed on this lake together. Remember that I might never go on another "End of Year" trip with him and the Scouts. Remember that by the next spring I might be gone from my son's life entirely.
Remember that the day before, my doctor had found a lump in my right breast and was concerned enough to make an appointment for me to come back Monday to "check things out" at a deeper level.
My annual "lady" appointment was late in the day on Friday, and everything had been business as usual until she asked if I had any concerns.
"Well, I have noticed this little bump on the side of my breast" I responded. "I really don't think it's anything, it hasn't changed size or shape in a month or so..." I trailed off.
I was trying to act casual but frankly, I had been so freaked out when I felt it in the shower that I'd spent the last month poking it and squeezing it, obsessively trying to decide if it was SOMETHING or just me allowing my anxiety to run away with my imagination.
She examined my breast carefully, in that gentle, exploratory manner doctors have. The least sexual touch in the world reaching for your most private parts. Her cool hand cupped my breast, fingers pushing at the sides, around my breastplate, the nipple.
Her forehead creased when she found the spot I was referring to. "There is definitely something here," she muttered, poking with more intensity as I had myself done so many times.
"I'd definitely like to get you in for a mammogram first thing Monday."
Mammogram? I'd never had one before. I was just 38 years old. Now, she was worried enough to want me to get one two years early? Panic gripped me in a sick hug.
'It's cancer,' I thought. 'My god. I knew it. Cancer. Why didn't I come sooner? I'm going to die. Die. And my children...Oh god!"
Wait..Monday? MONDAY?!? She was going to make me wait THREE days to find out for sure? I took a deep breath to modulate my voice.
"Isn't there some way we could do that today?" I asked hopefully, fearfully.
She called the imaging center but there wasn't a way to get me in so late in the day, on a Friday.
Their next availability was early Monday morning and that was that.
"I'm so sorry. I know you are concerned" she added (The understatement of the century!) "But it probably is nothing. We just can't be too careful, you know?"
Oh I knew. I have seen what cancer does to a family.
I knew she might have just discovered a death sentence living inside of me. She might have just doomed my family to years of fear and uncertainty, of dealing with a sick mother, pale and bald from chemo, showing up at their school functions, a shaky ghost of the woman she had been. Of my children having to grow up without a mom if the cancer turned out to be more aggressive than I was, or the chemo was, or our prayers were.
I made it out to my car, cold tingling spreading across my chest and shoulders. I fumbled with my keys to unlock the door and then sat heavily in the driver's seat, quietly falling to pieces.
I debated calling my husband, not wanting to frighten him prematurely. But, I couldn't handle this alone. With shaking hands I dialed his number. I wiped my eyes and tried to pull myself together to talk to him.
When I heard his voice on the line I rushed to tell him the news.
"Hey," I managed to croak, throat constricted. Then I began to sob.
He is a good man and said all the right, comforting things, asked good questions, was caring but "sure it was nothing," which is exactly what all husbands through the ages have said when their wife drops this bomb in their lap.
And then he asked "Are you still going camping this weekend?"
Oh god. In just a few hours I was supposed to leave with our son for his Cub Scout Pack's end of year trip. Which I had organized. Which he was so looking forward to.
That grounded me. Dried my tears. "Of course," I said, because that's what you do when you're a mom. You suck it up, you squash your fear and move forward because there are little people that need you.
And I did go, but, instead of the the trip being one of pure happiness, I frequently found myself thinking I needed to make this time count, needed to make these memories be beautiful, so that if something happened to me, if there never was another mother-son camping trip, at least my boy would have THIS canoe ride to look back on, THIS campfire song, THIS cuddle with his mom before bedtime.
On top of our sleeping bags, his sturdy little boy body spooned against me, we settled down to sleep, giggling and whispering in the dark.
His head tucked beneath my chin, I breathed deeply, relishing his puppy dog, sun-warmed, sweet little boy smell. And when he was finally still, and his breathing even, I cried into his hair.
...It wasn't cancer. It could have been, might one day BE cancer, but that time, it was just a cyst. Thank you, Lord.
But the fear stays with me, that I am not immortal but my children need a mother who will live forever. So my greatest prayer is that I live long enough to raise them to adulthood, to be here as long as they need me. After that, everything is negotiable.