By: Hugo L.R. Reed
Prologue: Through the Valley
The fluorescent lights of the hospital room cast an odd, sickly glow on the sheet-tile flooring, and made it seem as if there were several glowing blobs coming from the floor itself. It was easily getting near the morning rush hour now, and the news was playing from an old television provided for the room's patient. However, there was no sound and the captions that were provided in a black box at the bottom of the screen went by too fast for most to actually follow.
The blinds had been pulled back to welcome in the rising sun, or at least what could be glimpsed through the St. Louis skyline. Several towering skyscrapers and office buildings made the view more a monument to mankind's accomplishments than God's.
Maria Lease smiled as she stroked her son's hand softly. Peter had taken the day off from his classes to visit her while they waited for the test results. Truth be told, she already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Things had been getting steadily worse for months now, no matter what they'd tried.
She'd been struggling with what was real and what was fake, seeing things. Peter said that they were hallucinations, but that always bothered her because they always seemed so real. Still, after some time she was forced to admit that he was right, and she was seeing and hearing things. It wasn't really going senile, because she still had moments of clarity, like now, but sometimes it was hard.
They'd managed her medicines and taken her off two of the pills and that had helped a little. What it didn't help was the fatigue. She was tired… all the time now. She woke up in the morning and was tired. She also couldn't do much of anything for herself anymore. Sure, part of that was her increasing age. She was in her late forties, so she hadn't expected to have the same capabilities as when she was twenty, but she hadn't expected for it to be this bad. Apparently exhaustion was another symptom, and she hated that.
She hated the fact that someone else had to take care of her and her house. She hated being half-asleep when Peter visited. She hated not being able to drive herself to the hospital that morning, but she couldn't do anything about it. She'd worked hard her entire life so she was used to fighting and struggling, but when it was simply a matter of the disease she didn't have any way to fight beyond hoping the treatments would work.
The treatments had been almost as bad as the sickness itself. Peter had helped explain what she would experience. Not that Dr. Hilton wasn't a good doctor, but they spent too much effort and time trying to dress up and comfort her with the situation and often diluted what was going to happen. Peter knew better than to lie to comfort her, at least most of the time.
He was a good boy, if a little naive at times. Still, he'd been the first one to actually voice the idea of dying, even if he'd been disgusted by it.
At first, the idea of death had horrified her, but over time, she'd come to have an understanding of her life, and accepted the idea that it might just be coming to its end. After all, he greatest desire throughout her entire life was to see her son off into a great life, and he was certainly on his way there.
"It's going to be ok, ma," said Peter, smiling at her in a way only he could. "We went through all that chemo, right? We did everything he told us to. Besides you got all those people at the church praying for you, right?"
"Of course," she said, stroking his hand with her thumb, feeling the bumps and callouses that had begun to form.
She didn't really believe that, even as she said it. Maybe if it had been Jack that had said it, she would've been more honest and told him he was an idiot. Actually, if Jack had been there, she would've hit him. Still, the mother in her couldn't bring herself to break Peter's hope, short-lived as it may end up being. She'd always wanted the best for him, no matter what.
"Now, there's no point talking about this thing until we have more information. Now, tell me about you kids. How's Miranda doing?"
"She's great, already top of the year in trigonometry and psychology, no surprise there though."
That made her smile a little. Miranda and Peter had been inseparable since they'd met in middle school. Maria had always liked the girl. She had a good head on her shoulders and was easily the best reach Peter had to other kids his own age. He'd always been too withdrawn for his own good.
"She's a very smart girl. I always did like her."
"Can't be that smart if she's always around me," said Peter, smiling softly.
"Oh, hush you!" said Maria, slapping his leg with her rolled-up newspaper. "You're a beautiful boy Peter, and when you do get the courage to tell that girl how you feel about her, she'll be the luckiest woman alive."
Peter suddenly took a vested interest in the news broadcast
"Well… we'll see," he said softly.
She scoffed slightly, although more out of motherly habit than actual anger. Peter had been harboring a crush on Miranda since high school; although he let their friendship get in the way of his feelings for her. Maria felt that there was a good chance the girl felt the same way about him too, only they were both too recluse to admit the way they felt.
The two had a pure sort of chemistry with each other, and were constantly found in each other's company. Though she never said it aloud, she was always grateful Peter had chosen Miranda. She was a wonderful young woman, and Maria held onto the hope that maybe Miranda could help led Peter to God.
When he was young it had been easy to talk to him about God, but that was before Jack had left them. After that, Peter refused to have anything to do with the church. She knew his refusal was more hurt and anger than a refusal to believe in God, but Peter was definitely struggling to try and find himself. Still, she had no doubt that he would find out who he was, and he would be someone far greater than anything she could've imagined.
"So, how are you getting on in your classes?" she asked, changing the subject as much for herself as for him.
"Not too bad. My worst is history, but I'm maintaining a 78% in there right now, so it's not too bad."
"Always knew you were a clever boy," she said, proud of her son.
She hadn't had the chance to go to college herself. Being born from a poor, Mexican immigrant family, higher schooling wasn't really a possibility for her, and she'd had to work most of her out of school life, meaning she hadn't really had the chance to think about devoting time to school or homework. As such, she'd never gotten beyond her G.E.D. However, she was determined that her son wouldn't have the same limitations and had often worked two jobs at once so that he could have the chance to study.
Even once Jack had left, a chunk of his alimony checks were put aside for Peter's college. It was one of the happiest days of her life when she'd learned that he was going to be able to go to college on a partial scholarship. As with almost any mother, she learned a love that she didn't know could exist when Peter was born. She'd never been able to stay mad at him, no matter how maddening he might be from time to time.
Then six months ago they'd gotten the first word from the hospital.
It had made her angry at first. She wasn't a smoker and hadn't done anything that should give her lung cancer. Yet she still had it. She'd wept and cursed fate and prayed for a cure that did not come.
Then came the chemotherapy, and that had been horrible. Every four weeks she had that poison pumped into her veins and was violently sick a few hours later. Her hair had fallen out and she'd somehow gotten even more frail and weak.
For a long time she was angry. After a while though, she began to see things in a different light. Sure she wanted to see more things for her child, but she also knew that the LORD wouldn't allow her to die if she had more to do. The fact that she might be dying merely meant that her job on earth would be finished, and there was a strong satisfaction in that. Maybe Peter didn't actually need her anymore, if he even had since he'd graduated high school.
More than that, she knew he'd be ok. He would live and likely prosper and with a bit of luck, Miranda might even become his wife one day, and lead him down the path to happiness, and there was no greater hope she could have had then that.
The door opened as Dr. Hilton and her resident, Katherine Miller walked in. Truth be told, Maria didn't really understand the difference between a doctor and resident. Peter had tried to explain it to her, but it just left her more confused. He always was smarter than she was, and could grasp complex ideas and theories that just left her confused. He usually was good at breaking things down in a way that she could understand, but it didn't help the feeling that was just an old fool who was past her time.
Still, even in that she was proud of her son. He was easily the best thing she'd done with her life, and if that was all she accomplished, she would consider her life a life worth living.
"Hey Maria," said Dr. Hilton softly, sitting on the edge of the bed and grasping her had gently. "We got your tests back, and I'm sorry, but it doesn't look good."
Maria wasn't surprised, and wasn't even angry, anymore. She merely nodded softly.
"What does not good mean?" asked Peter, still by Maria's side.
"The cancer is still extremely aggressive, and doesn't appear to be going into remission. I'm sorry, but if you're sure you don't want to continue the chemo, we've really done all we can. The most we can do now is make sure you're as comfortable as possible."
"I'm sure," said Maria.
She'd already told Peter that she wouldn't go through that again, and after a brief argument, he'd accepted it. Or, at least, he hadn't spoken out against it any further.
Peter shifted slightly, but his face betrayed nothing. Still, as his mother, she could feel the anger coming from him. He was so smart and had such a bright future, but he held on to so much anger. She was worried it could consume him if he let it.
"It's ok son," she said gently. "I've made peace with this."
"We'll give you some time," said Katherine, kindly as they walked back out of the room.
Peter stood and moved to look out of the window. She knew that meant he was trying not to cry. He'd done that ever since he was a little boy, and his stance was just the same as it had been throughout all the years of his life. Somehow, the more he grew up, the more he stayed the same.
"It's just not fair, ma," he said, crossing his arms.
"It had to be sometime, Peter. No one lives forever, not here anyway."
"I know," he said, reaching up to brush away the tears. "I love you ma. Anything special you want me to make sure they do for you?"
His voice shook as he asked it, and she smiled sweetly at him.
"There's only one thing I want from you, my son. Find happiness… find love… find… life. You spent your whole life doing what I told you, or what your teachers told you. Before long, you'll have to do something for yourself, and I'm sure it will be wonderful."
He hugged her and she wrapped her arms back around him, silently praying for the man she loved more than any other in the world.