I played hooky on Friday, save for a home visit in a guardian ad litem case. I had personal paperwork to manage, so I re-arranged my schedule for the week, stayed home, and slogged through it. At four o'clock I opened the front door, bound for an errand. I halted at the sight of a white, flat package, two inches thick, stuck in my mailbox protruding into the spider's web which had been accumulating on the wall for the past week.
The package yielded to an earnest pull. I held it clumsily, furrowing my brow, studying the stamped return address and the addressee. Bold and bright: NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, addressed to PATRICK CHARLES CORLEY.
In the lower left-hand corner, a single word in half-inch letters: DIPLOMA.
My mind instantly jumped backward in time, and I again climb the stairs from the first-floor Purple Dragon Pre-School towards PS1 Elementary.
Patrick's golden curls fall across his forehead as he cranes his neck to see his mother's face. My weary shoulders droop. The mysterious illness that has not yet been diagnosed as a reactivation of my old nemesis stirs in my chest and claims my breath as we move from flight to flight. Patrick reaches for my hand and stops walking for a moment. Mom, he says, his voice only quavering a little. Can I ask you a question?
I drop the bag of first-day supplies on the steps and sit down so that my face levels with his. My hands find his two small shoulders and I steady us there, halfway up the second flight. A downward glance shows no one has started towards us; we have time for whatever pre-kindergarten jitters have overtaken my five-year-old child.
Go ahead, Buddy, I tell him, using his baby name though I know he wants to discard that label. Ask me anything. I'm thinking: What do I do if I need something? Will the teachers be nice? What if nobody plays with me? Will I get to read? What time do we get to come home? Can I come down and see Mrs. Helmuth -- he's asked this last before now, and I've assured him that we will stop to see his beloved Magda, the owner of the pre-school, every day.
But no; It's none of these. His sky-blue eyes find mine and he says, Are you going to die before I'm big? My heart clenches.
I cannot really answer him. We do not yet know why I cannot breathe. It will be another two years before I make my way to the Infectious Disease specialist who will identify the virus, the bug which I'll explain to seven-year-old Patrick bit me on the brain when I was a baby, and apparently now wishes to claim more territory. But at that moment, on his first day of kindergarten, we know only that every few days I fall into a physical panic and have to go to the emergency room where they test for everything all over again, before sending me home. So far only oxygen has helped, and a tank of that graces the living room.
I draw in air and speak. No, Buddy, I'm not going to die before you get big. I'm going to live to be a hundred and three, and I'm going to nag you every day of your life.
I wait. I see that smart brain of his chewing on my pronouncement. I feel the tension in his body under my hands, which still rest on his shoulders. Below us, the door to the building opens and other children enter. Another look over the railing shows them to be Purple Dragonners. We still have time. Patrick debates and then, answers me:
Then I'll annoy you every day of my life, he says. His shoulders relax under my hands, and he turns away, starting up the last few stairs, his little black cowboy boots clicking on the tiles. I follow. I will always follow.
I stood on my porch yesterday holding the package from Northwestern, the days between that kindergarten morning and now crowding my mind. The travels we've made -- to the southwest, where we climbed a mountain; northward to the Dakotas, where he rode a bicycle down a mountain; to Chicago, where he found his cousin-friend Jacob; to the southeast where he learned to shoot a rifle while his mother fretted in an isolated clearing in the Great Smoky Mountains. I remembered the night we spent in a hotel in Greencastle, Indiana, making a Venn diagram to compare the relative merits of the two universities he was considering for college -- one in Chicago with a killer honors English program and full-tuition scholarship; and the one just a half mile from our room, with its old buildings and quadrangles.
The next day he walked the paths of campus at DePauw University, from which he would eventually get his Bachelors in Creative Writing, leading to this very day, this very moment, when I would stand on my porch holding his Master's degree, in the grueling heat of the last Friday of the month he turned twenty-five. I do not know for certain what he felt during that momentous tour, but I spent the entire time in awe -- not just at the beauty of the campus, but at the poise which overtook my son. He shook the hand of the admissions counselor whose visit to his high school had prompted this journey to Indiana, and he left me sitting with my laptop over coffee while he went to shadow a student. He did not look back. I watched him go, suddenly realizing that my life had changed in ways that no one who is not the single mother of an only son could ever understand.
In 2014, when I made my first trip to California to confer with the gurus about the newest rampage of my virus, I listened as the fancy ID guy assured me that the medicine could send the little bugger into remission. In the sterile air of the exam room, I let him finish his diatribe about the drug's efficacy. The lilting tones of his Colombian tongue fell silent, finally, and then, he spoke again to ask me if I had any questions.
Will this drug help me live a long life, I asked. His brow furrowed, as though he had not quite expected such directness. I continued. You see, I promised my son that I would live to be 103, and I intend to keep that promise. A smile broke across his face and he laughed. But I was not yet ready for mirth. I told him: I've taken care of the first 59 years; the next four decades are on you.
Dr. Jose Montoya, of the Stanford University Medical Center Infectious Disease Clinic, rose from his chair and I did likewise. He reached two large and sturdy hands to grasp mine. I felt the weight of his heritage in those hands. I knew, somehow, that he came from good people, kind people, and a long line of them. I looked into his wide warm face and the depths of his dark eyes. He said, then, without laughing, Mrs. Corley, you will keep the promise you made to your son. We will do it together.
And I believed him.