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How We Wait Through Winter

by Grace Talusan

When my sister Liza informs me that my two-year old niece Joli needs chemotherapy, I ask, "How will we get through the next six months?"

With no children of my own and a flexible work schedule, for the past year, Joli is mine every Friday. We visit the children's museum, attend music classes, and play at the park. The one or two times Joli has a bad cold, we stay home and read books.

Liza and I are standing outside of her first house, surveying the leaves beginning to turn autumn yellows and reds.

"We will just have to deal with it," my sister Liza answers. "But it's going to be long winter."

I'm digging my shoe into the earth and knock over a pot of orange mums wrapped in purple foil next to the walkway. I'd seen enough cancer and chemotherapy in the movies to dread it.

How would we help Joli cope through six months of chemo when as a toddler, she didn't understand yet the concept of 'later' or 'tomorrow' or 'after your nap'?

And suddenly, it occurs to me: Bulbs.

Just a few weeks before, the doctor had looked into Joli's right eye and diagnosed retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer. Joli's prognosis was hopeful, but we had months of treatment ahead of us.

I count the months on my hand. If I plant spring bulbs now, the very early bloomers will appear in February, just as Joli's finishing her last treatment. I can't visualize life six months from now, after the chemotherapy, after the cancer.

There are photos in my seed catalog of crocuses with names such as Spring Beauty, Snowdrop, and Glory of the Snow. I fantasize about returning to Joli's house after her last chemo treatment and spotting the purple, blue, and yellow crocuses blooming amidst the crusts of melting snow.

Several days before Joli is admitted to the hospital for her first treatment, I am on my knees in the flowerbed. Joli watches me from the picture window above.

"Tita, Tita," Joli calls. Tita is the Filipino word for aunt. "What doing?"

"I'm planting bulbs," I tell her. "When spring comes back, flowers will grow."

"I want to see the flowers now," Joli says.

"You have to wait until spring," I tell her.

"When is spring?" she asks.

"When you don't wear a hat and mittens and boots," I say. "When the leaves on the trees come back and it's sunny and there are flowers again."

"But I want spring right now," Joli continues. "I want the flowers now."

"You have to wait, Joli. You have to be patient."

When I'm done planting bulbs, I tell my sister Liza, "Just wait till those flowers come up."

Joli finds fun outside the parenthesis of cancer. She adjusts to the IV that trails behind her as she plays kitchen in the hospital playroom; she jokes with the nurses and doctors as they examine her several times a day; she plays with the hair that's fallen to her pillow.

Joli's immune system is compromised, but there are a couple of days in the next six months when her white blood cell count is high and we attend music class again, just like the old days before she was sick. We sing children's songs about farms and spiders and lambs. The children and parents at the music class avert their eyes when they see Joli's bald head. They stare at her right eye, how the lid droops closed. She doesn't have her prosthetic eye yet.

I marvel at how Joli adapts and adjusts, how she copes with the sudden changes to her appearance and the months of discomfort in her body. There are also horrible moments when Joli is in pain and the adults in her life can't help crying, too.

At Thanksgiving, we celebrate with both sets of Joli's grandparents and extended family and friends. Joli runs a fever that week and this scares us. In our own ways, we are tell her how grateful we are to have her in our lives so that we can experience loving her. At Christmas, Joli inserts her prosthetic eye and for the first time since August, she smiles at her reflection in the mirror. In January, Joli is declared cancer-free. And suddenly, it's February, the final round of chemo.

By the last treatment, the chemo drugs are built up in Joli's body and she's very nauseous. But when I visit, Joli waves to me from the picture window. "Tita, Tita, your flowers!"

I stand by the flowerbed. It's been an unusually warm winter in New England and already the blue and white crocuses are peeping from the ground; the beginning nubs of daffodil and tulip greens are emerging. The flowers are here. I never thought we would get through the winter and the frightening experience of helping this beloved child, a baby really, survive chemotherapy treatments.

I pick a flower and raise it to the window, "Those are your flowers, Joli. Those flowers came out for you."

Grace Talusan earned an MFA in Fiction from UC-Irvine and teaches at Tufts University and Grub Street. Her essay, "Foreign Bodies," was a finalist in Creative Nonfiction's Silence Kills contest and her story, "Japanese Times," won First Prize in the Ivy Terasaka Short Story Competition. She has published in The Boston Globe, Colorlines, Tufts Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and other publications. For more, visit www.gracetalusan.com