Monica comes to me with a hug, and I can feel the authenticity in it; Jett’s mother is happy to see me. And then Steve is next to me with an outstretched hand. I place mine in his and he says, “It’s lovely to meet you, Presley. Would have been better under different circumstances but we can’t always dictate how life goes, can we?”
His voice is so much like Jett’s I’m taken aback a little, but I nod and agree, “That’s true. And it’s good to meet you both, too.”
Jett had let me go when his mother hugged me but he pulls me close again. Looking at Claudia he asks the question I know he doesn’t really want the answer to, but it’s a question he must ask. “What’s the diagnosis?”
Her eyes close for a moment and the lines around them crinkle a little as she squeezes them shut. When she opens them again, the tears are visible. “I have stage four ovarian cancer.” Her voice catches in her throat, and she visibly fights to not fall apart, but the tears begin flowing down her cheeks and Jett lets me go so he can comfort her.
I cover my mouth with my hand as tears prick my eyes again.
A shiver runs down my spine and my legs feel weak.
The words ‘stage four’ lodge in my brain.
Jett runs his hand lovingly over her hair, over and over, and presses his lips to her forehead. They stay like that for a long time and all I can do is watch and fight my own tears. Claudia doesn’t need to see me cry. Her mother is crying while her father holds his wife – I don’t need to add to the heaviness in this room with tears.
Eventually, Claudia wipes her face and gets herself under control. She pulls away from Jett and says, “I was diagnosed five weeks ago and - ”
He cuts her off. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demands to know. I can see him battle his torment at not being told against his desire to support her through this. I’d be upset too, though, and feel for him. He would have dropped everything to be there for her.
She shakes her head as if to say ‘don’t give me grief’. “I didn’t tell anyone, Jett. I didn’t want to burden them with this. Again.”
He moves off the bed, his anger and hurt now clearly visible. Running his hand up and down the back of his neck, he loses his way for a moment and yells, “Burden? You’re not a fucking burden, Claudia!” He sucks in an angry breath. “Fuck!”
I hold my breath, waiting for him to explode further, but his father steps close and says something in his ear. Jett listens and then nods as his father steps back away. Claudia watches him, her face twisting in pain, and in this moment, I understand her desire to protect her family from all this.
From the distress of watching a loved one battle a deadly disease.
A disease they’ve already lived through with her.
A disease they had prayed would never return.
Jett sits next to his sister again and takes a deep breath. His chest heaves as he attempts to calm himself. “I’m sorry, Princess,” he says softly, “but you have to know that I want that fucking burden. I don’t want you to have to go through this alone…none of us want that. So promise me you’ll tell us everything from now on, yeah?”
He puts his hand to her forehead and says, “You’ve got pneumonia?”
I can hardly hear her voice when she responds. “Yes.”
“Fuck,” he mutters as he scrubs his face.
Monica moves to the other side of the bed and looks at Jett, the pain flashing in her eyes again. “The chemo’s wearing her immune system down, Jett. You know how this works.”
“So they’re treating you with chemo? No surgery?” he sounds confused.
Claudia takes hold of his hand. The look on her face reminds me of the look someone gives you when they are about to prepare you for bad news. “Jett, the cancer has spread so the doctors are trying to shrink it with chemo before they operate. I’ve had two lots of chemo and am scheduled to have at least one more, maybe two, before the surgery.”
He stares at her in silence. “How long have you been in here?”
“I was admitted this morning.” She covers her mouth as a coughing fit takes over and when it doesn’t let up easily, she grimaces in pain.
Jett’s hand moves to her shoulder to try and comfort her but I imagine he feels helpless. There’s nothing any of us can do to take this away from her. “God, how the hell did I not notice you were sick?” he asks.
When she stops coughing, she answers him. “I did everything I could to avoid you while I was having chemo. I told you I was busy studying, that I was out with friends, anything to not see you…and I locked myself away at home and told Mum and Dad I had the flu. None of this is on you, Jett. I concealed it well.”
“That’s why you were so eager to cancel our trip away.” Understanding dawns on his face.
Realisation hits me in the gut. This was why she was a little off when she came to visit me at my home.
Claudia yawns and Steve joins his wife next to the bed. Looking at Jett, he says, “It’s late and Claudia needs sleep so you should go home.”
Jett shakes his head. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says firmly.
“Jett, we’re going to be here. We’ll call you if - ” Monica says, but he cuts her off.