My mom lived in a little town in the mountains just above Temecula, California, about a two-hour drive away from where I attended college in the City of Orange. The following weekend, Heath drove me up in a borrowed truck to fetch a few pieces of old furniture and bring back some other supplies for my new apartment. Heath had finally accepted the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to talk me out of my set path and, I think, he was relieved that things had resolved so easily.
Of course Brian had been ecstatic, moving in boxes the day after it was determined that I was on my way out. Yeah, sensitive to Heath’s torn feelings on the matter, he was not. Douche.
Nevertheless, for Heath’s sake, I wished them well together, though I had my doubts that they were compatible. Sure they were attracted to each other, but they fought like Pac-Man and the Ghosts. But I said nothing because Heath seemed really happy about the move. During our drive, he chatted about their plans to buy a condo in the next few months up in the Orange Hills.
Mom greeted us with a wan smile. I noticed immediately that she looked a little different, skin a little paler with ashen undertones. And bags under her eyes—like she’d gone a few nights in a row without sleep. On top of that, the B&B was devoid of guests despite it being spring and the height of the season. And truly, the high desert early spring was not to be missed.
In fact, it was gorgeous and as I was staying the entire weekend, I was able to get caught up with my mom while Heath drove out to the Anza-Borrego State Park on a photography field trip. As usual, he deftly avoided seeing his parents despite the fact that they only lived six miles down the road from us.
I spent the time helping Mom air out the rooms and give them all a deep cleaning. We stripped bedding and washed it, dusted along ceilings and light fixtures, scrubbed baseboards, even did windows.
We were finishing up one of the cottages—Roy Rogers, our nicest room. She was polishing the small rustic table set up as a writing desk while I was on the ground working scrubbing baseboards.
“You’re old enough now that I’m going to feel guilty not paying you an honest wage for all this free labor,” she joked.
I shrugged and smiled. “It feels good. Gets my mind off things.”
I shrugged tightly. “Yeah.. that… other things.”
“Anything you want to talk about?” she asked as she wiped the last bit of polish from the wood and sat back to watch me. I ran a clean cloth over the baseboards one more time.
Mom put aside her rag, looking at me expectantly without saying a word.
I raised my brows. “I want to know why you look so pale and tired. And I want to know how you hurt yourself.”
“How I hurt myself?”
I pointed the bandage on her upper arm that had slipped so it was now visible at the bottom of her short sleeved t-shirt. She grimaced. I finished up the segment of baseboard and sat back, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand.
Mom’s mouth thinned to a faint line. Then she swallowed.
“I don’t want you to get worried about something that might end up being nothing.”
“Uh oh.” I sat up. “What?”
“Nothing. Potentially nothing at all.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Spill it, Mother.”
“I had a couple moles on my arm—a group of little birth marks, actually. They started to look funny so the doctor wanted to remove them and have them biopsied.”
“What?” I shot to my feet. “What kind of biopsy? Punch? Excisional? Are you seeing an oncologist?”
Mom held out a hand. “Calm down, Mia. I’m fine. It’s probably nothing.”
I frowned, biting my lip. “But what if it isn’t nothing? I’ve been working with an oncologist, you know, doing research this year. I could talk to him more about this, get more information.”
She frowned, deepening the creases on her otherwise smooth forehead. “You’re freaking yourself out. I learned this week never to Google symptoms and I don’t want you doing the medical student equivalent, okay? I’ll get the results later this week—”
“You’re calling me the minute you find out.” It wasn’t a question.
She smiled. “Of course.”
“Mom, you need a plan…in case it’s positive.”
She shrugged. “Do people die of skin cancer?”
I swallowed a giant bolder in my throat. Yes. I wanted to say. Yes. All the time, they do. It’s insidious and wretched. Skin is the body’s largest organ—largest by far—and it plays a very important role. And this type of cancer could spread quickly. And once cancer metastasized…
I blinked and swallowed, ignoring the tears rising up and poking the backs of my eyes, trying to ignore the feeling of having just been kicked in the stomach.
What if…what if I lost her?
My mom…my only family left. I held it together—barely—for another hour as I tried to act natural, finishing up what we were doing. But then I told her I was going to take a long walk. I did a lot of thinking and still the possibilities swirled in my mind, making me more and more afraid about the future. I was so worked up that by the time I got back, I went straight to the barn to hang out with the horses until Heath got back from his photo shoot.
When he did, I flagged him down in the driveway and broke the news to him in the barn. He was much calmer than me about it, though he did have lots of questions. But he succeeded in calming me down, too.
We’d wait for the results. We wouldn’t jump to conclusions. We wouldn’t borrow trouble.
Only problem was, the day after moving me into my new place, Heath was taking off most of the week on a camping trip in the High Sierras with Brian. Their last little getaway before moving in together. Heath offered to cancel it, but it had been a chore for him to convince metro Brian to indulge in some of Heath’s greatest loves—camping, hiking and fishing. I didn’t have the heart to foil that plan, so they left with my blessing.
So when the news came in… I’d be on my own. And that thought seemed to compound the stress around this situation. It took us half a day to move my measly belongings into the new place. Another half a day for me to unpack and get settled in.
“There’s going to be someone out to repair the phone line next week,” my landlady informed me as I finished emptying the last of the boxes. “There’s been a lot of scratchy reception and static on the line.”
“Wait there’s a land line?” Suddenly I was overjoyed at the thought of not having to burn through my pre-paid cell phone minutes.
“Yes. It’s included in the rent.”
I blinked. Miracles really did happen! This place was becoming more and more affordable all the time. And Internet. That was up and ready to go the next day.
But as days progressed in that week, I got more and more tense, texting Mom to find out if she’d had any updates on her tests. She didn’t.
During the waiting, however, instead of studying for the MCAT like I should have been doing, I spent all my free time grinding on the game. After climbing a few levels above my friends who were not playing as much, I spent my time in other ways, so I wouldn’t get too far ahead of them. Heath was gone. Kat had to work and so my group couldn’t play together much.
But FallenOne was around. And he checked in with me daily.
After the third day, he brought it up.
FallenOne tells you, “Don’t you have that test coming up soon?”
You tell FallenOne, “Yeah…”
FallenOne: “Do I need to tell you to log off the game so you can study?”
Me: “You can tell me whatever you want. Doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to you.”
And I didn’t. I kept grinding away.
“Invisible Women” –posted on the blog of Girl Geek on XXX
An Open Letter Draco Multimedia Entertainment…and the leadership thereof.
And I address this unironically because you most certainly all are gentlemen in your lofty establishment. I can only assume there are no women within five hundred feet of your offices. Or if there are, then they are as invisible as your female players.
Female players? you ask, eyebrows climbing your masculine foreheads in astonishment.
Yes. We exist. But as far as you are concerned, we are invisible. Or we are nominal, collateral damage in your quest to market your product to the boys. Because if you do dare acknowledge us in your marketing materials, somehow the boys will feel alienated from all that “icky girls stuff.”
But let me clue you in on a little something…our dollars spend just as well as the half of the human race that carries their genitalia on the outside.
From the male-centered storylines and male-oriented quests (rescue the fair maiden? Win the longest, biggest sword? —wink wink– Win a kiss from the young maiden who won the village beauty contest?)
I get private messages in game from guild members and others, asking if I’m really a girl “IRL.” And of course, the obligatory, “got a boyfriend?” Once I answer accordingly. Because, naturally, I’m on the game to find a boyfriend. That would be the only reason I’d be interested in all things geeky, right?
I realize this is a symptom of a larger problem. Women gamers are not treated as equals, are not given characters and storylines that parallel the male-oriented ones. But I challenge the creators of my current favorite game to do better. Think outside the box. Remember that almost half your player base is, indeed female. And we don’t want to be invisible anymore.
With best regards,
Days later, I was still dealing from the fallout of that blog post—mostly negative. In fact, I’d been called out by the male-run blogs and other avid supporters of Dragon Epoch claiming that “it was all in my head” with a hefty helping of man-splaining on the side.
I had to lock comments on my blog post and stop looking at my inbox for a while because of the angry comments and even some threats.
It was not a good week for all of this to happen.
Because on Thursday, Mom called. And no, the news wasn’t good.
I blinked, hardly believing my ears, those words “tested positive for melanoma” echoing in the back of my head, all through my brain. I’d done as she’d asked and avoided Googling all the possibilities. But I had had a discussion with Dr. Martin, the physician whom I was assisting with a research project. We discussed the process of diagnosis, the possibilities of what she actually might have and the preferred protocols for treatment, so I was armed with at least a little knowledge.
“No radiation but…they want me to start chemotherapy. They are concerned because the margins weren’t clear on the biopsy.”
Oh God. I bit my lip and rocked back and forth in my chair as I listened to her calm voice drone on. She sounded remarkably calm, in fact, for someone who had just received this news.
“Mia? Still there?” she asked as I struggled to get hold of myself.
“Yeah,” I said—a little too breathlessly.
“Dr. Shuman is confident that with this course, I have a great chance of recovery.”
Silence. I swore I could hear every beat of my heart in my eardrum and every breath that I took in.
“Mia…it will be okay.”
I closed my eyes and bit my tongue, preventing the words on my tongue implying that she had no idea whether that was the truth or not.
I begged off soon after, using the very truthful excuse that I was almost out of minutes. But also, I did it because my mom didn’t need to hear me break down over the phone line over her news. I needed to get hold of myself.
Oh shit. Oh shit. Shit. Shit. I could lose her. That was a very real possibility. As I went through my normal household tasks—washing the dishes, tidying up. I went numb inside and my brain couldn’t take anymore.
I ended up pulling practically an all-nighter on DE. I went on a leveling binge and didn’t care how far ahead I got from my friends. Not long after I hit level 35, a familiar notification flashed onto the screen.
*Your friend, FallenOne, is online.
*FallenOne tells you, Hey, you’re on late…and…wow. Congrats on all the new levels. Planning on letting us catch up anytime soon?
*You tell FallenOne, Go piss up a rope.
Me: I’m not in the mood to joke around. You might not want to bother.
FallenOne: What’s up? Can I help?
Me: Not unless you have a miracle cure for cancer in your pocket.
FallenOne: Cancer? Okay now I’m worried. What’s going on?
Me: Bad news. Someone I care about has cancer.
FallenOne: Do you want to talk about it? I can call…
Me: That’s nice. I have no minutes left this month.
FallenOne: No landline?
Me: Oh actually, I do have one at this new place.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard, hesitating. Did I really want to open up this can of worms? It seemed so much simpler and almost fun to have a mystery friend—one I knew very little about, but who could be there for me. One whom I could vent to without any consequence. It was a little romantic, actually, the thought that we could be friends like this without anything like romantic feelings getting in the way.
The thought that I had this person on the other side of the country from me, whom I only knew in the context of cyberspace. A person I would likely never meet or never interact with on a face-to-face level.
I kind of liked that idea and found myself a little reluctant to give it up—even if it was just a phone call.
But on the other hand, Heath was not in cell phone range, up in the mountains above Yosemite and there was no one else I cared to vent to. And suddenly, I realized I wanted to vent. I needed to.
And…who was I shitting…I was still morbidly curious about FallenOne. Maybe I’d even get a real life first name out of him. So in the end, after looking up the number Lupe had typed on an information sheet about my new apartment, I typed in the number on the chat screen.
A few minutes later, the phone rang and with a slightly shaky hand, I answered.
“Hi,” a deep, distinctly male voice responded. A weird little shiver ran down my spine when I first heard it and I blinked, wondering where it had come from. Was it anticipation?
I didn’t know. The line immediately started to crackle and I remembered Lupe’s warning about how it needed to be repaired.
“Sorry about the static… apparently this is a bad line.”
“Yeah it sounds like shit,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“Um, yeah. Kinda.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” his voice sounded a little garbled, but I could still understand him.
“I don’t know. Heath’s not here and I don’t have anyone else to talk to, but I’m not sure I have anything to say besides this isn’t fair and life sucks.”
“Life definitely isn’t fair.”
I blinked. If I lost Mom, I’d lose all the family I had except for Heath. That thought brought sudden and forceful tears to my eyes and for the first time since receiving the news, they spilled from my eyes with such a force that I couldn’t just blink them back. It was like opening a floodgate.
For a while, he just let me sob without saying anything. I could hear him take a breath every now and then, but mostly I was just drowning in my own misery.
“I’m sorry,” I finally wailed into the static after almost ten minutes of sobbing. “It’s my mom…”
“Oh shit. I’m sorry.”
“It fucking sucks.”
“Yeah, it does. Will she be okay?”
I gulped. “I don’t know…” The static roared up again and I could barely hear what he said next.
“I can’t hear you.”
The static persisted and I pulled the receiver from my ear and waited. And waited.
Five minutes of this continued until I glanced at my screen and saw he’d typed a message to me in game. “Your phone is a piece of shit. I had to hang up.”
I responded. “I know…sorry! But thanks for calling…I guess I needed to get that out.”
FallenOne: I suspect you have more steam to blow off. Let’s go kill stuff. It will make you feel better.
Me: Thank you for calling. But I don’t want to keep you. It’s gotta be *really late there.
FallenOne: I am more than happy to be there for a friend—even a friend with a shitty phone line.
I laughed. And we ended up going to a high density area in the game and grinding on mobs without doing any quests. We just camped our spot and waited for them to spawn so we could beat them down. And we did this for hours. In the downtime, we’d chat.
I found out that he’d lost a family member and was able to relate to my fear of losing mine. He didn’t give details, just empathized and listened while I typed out paragraph after paragraph of my own fears and worries.
And just having someone to be with at this time helped so much. If I couldn’t have Heath give me one of his famous bear hugs, at least I could have FallenOne’s virtual presence.
It was a surprising place from which to receive comfort.
He stayed online with me until dawn. At some point, after the sun had risen, I woke up with my face on my desk. I looked up to see that he had logged off after sending me repeated messages and ended with. “I suspect you’re asleep. Or at least hope that’s the case. I’m about to collapse myself, but please send me a text when you wake up so I know you’re okay.”
I crawled over to my bed and was falling unconscious within minutes, but before I felt sleep take me, I was warmed at the thought of Fallen having stayed up all night with me to keep me company.
He kept in touch with me regularly over the next few days until Heath got back. The camping hadn’t gone as planned. Brian had complained during much of it, so Heath decided to spend some time away from him by hanging out in my “dive” (as he still called it).
But between the grinding on the game to take my mind off of things, the lack of sleep and the goofing around with Heath, I got zero work done on my MCAT prep.
And the day of the test had arrived.
I dragged myself out of bed early, guzzled some caffeine and brought my five sharpened number-two pencils and scientific calculator with me.
And I’d never been quite as terrified in my life… because while I’d been wrapped up in the present, I had no idea that I was ransoming my future.
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