Cheez-Its

“So then I said, ‘Cheese it, it’s the cops!’”

My poor mother’s face was so full of confusion as the laugh rose from the pit of my stomach and exploded out of me so forcefully that tears started streaming down my cheeks.

“What?! Cathy. That’s just what we SAID back then.”

“I’ve never….I’ve never heard….all I can think of is a giant Cheez-It in a police hat chasing you down…”

That was the end of my mother’s story about the night her cousin Johnny set off fireworks during a house party and she had to cover for him.

I pulled the car over and held my stomach as the laughter poured out and the tears flowed, and I couldn’t help but notice how nice it felt to laugh until it hurt. To cry until my nose started to run.

It was almost….cleansing.

I’ve been sorely in need of a good, hard, purifying laugh lately- we both have.

We’ve been too busy for this. Too busy researching symptoms and discussing our expert “I read this on the Mayo Clinic’s website” diagnoses. Too busy discussing how unfair life and death and illness are. Too busy telling each other that no matter what happens, we’ll get through it together. Too busy crying and wringing our hands and biting our lips when no one is watching. Too busy being terrified that someone we love, someone who completes us and is an integral part of us, might be leaving us well before we are ready to say goodbye.

We’ve been too busy to laugh.

But in that car, in that moment, in that Bonefish Grill parking lot, bellies full of lobster and filet mignon and sautéed veggies, we laughed.

Oh my God did we laugh.

And as my body shook with this pure, uncontrollable wave of happiness, I took a break from being terrified. I took a break from feeling sad and angry and helpless and in pain. And I thanked God or the Universe or my lucky stars or whatever you choose to believe in, that I had this moment, in the middle of this weekend, to refuel my resolve.

I looked over at my mother, who was giggle-crying as she shook her head and declared, “You’re such an idiot, Cathy Rose…” and I knew, somehow, that it was going to be ok. I watched her letting herself get swept away in our ridiculous moment and marveled at this whole other woman that I was suddenly getting to know.

I saw a woman who had decided that we were going away for a 3-day weekend to celebrate my birthday- the same woman who hasn’t been away from her husband for more than a night in 38 years.

I saw a woman who had sipped wine at not one, but TWO wineries earlier that day- the same woman who gives my sister and me worried glances every time we pour 2oz of sangria into a glass at a party.

I saw a woman who had spent hours relaxing in the indoor pool and jacuzzi at our hotel in the middle of the countryside- the same woman who has often declared she only likes “beach motels and outdoor pools- I just don’t do the whole “country” thing.”

I saw a woman who had climbed 7 flights-SEVEN FLIGHTS- of stairs while excitedly touring a castle earlier that afternoon- the same woman who sometimes struggles to get up the 3 steps from my porch to my front door.

I saw a woman who had jumped out of the car at every stop on the self-guided driving tour at Valley Forge the day before, telling me, “Who cares if it’s raining, let’s go see the huts! I love this stuff!” as I grumbled and shivered through the rain and wet grass.

I saw a woman who had spent the past 2 days telling me story after story about her childhood, her early days with my dad, her marriage, her career, her relationships with her family members, her regrets, her hopes, her dreams, her fears…all while we meandered through the peaceful, winding roads of Pennsylvania, on our way to this place or that, not really caring when we got there.

I saw a woman who was stronger than she gave herself credit for- maybe stronger than any of us knew.

I saw a woman who could stand on her own- a woman who LIKED standing on her own.

I saw a woman whose company I wished I hadn’t missed for so many years while we were busy being too stubborn to get through a long lunch, let alone a long weekend.

I saw a woman who I was so grateful to call my mom.

I saw a woman that I was so endlessly proud to call my friend.

I saw a woman who was going to be just fine.

We eventually pulled ourselves together enough to get back to our hotel, throw on our bathing suits and unwind in the jacuzzi. We looked like two women on a fun, spur-of-the-moment trip together, two friends who had been this close forever- two people without a care in the world.

The other people in that pool had no idea that we’d almost cancelled our trip because we both felt too heavy to celebrate anything. They didn’t know we had stopped at a chapel on the way to the hotel, lit candles, kneeled in a pew, prayed our asses off, and given each other a reassuring embrace in the middle of the aisle when no one was looking.

They didn’t know that 5 or 10 years ago we both would have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested we take any kind of trip together.

They didn’t know how grateful I was to be making these memories with someone with whom I had prayed I would one day share any kind of relationship.

They also didn’t know that this trip had told me everything I needed to know about the kind of woman my mother is, and the pillar of strength she will be when the time comes for her to hold herself up.

So we haven’t had much time to relax lately. We’ve been quite busy worrying ourselves into the abyss over something that may or may not be happening to someone we love (in my family, we have honed the art of patching together the worst-case scenario and then wearing it like a coat).

But in that brief moment- imagining a hat-wearing, badge-flashing cheese cracker ringing the doorbell of my parents’ first apartment- we shrugged off the coat, and we laughed.

And I know now, without a doubt, that no matter what happens, I’ll have one hell of a strong woman in my corner.

I also know that I’ll be bringing Cheez-It’s to every family function for the rest of my life.

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