About the Author:
ERIC WALTERS' young adult novels have won numerous awards, including the Silver Birch, Blue Heron, Red Maple, Snow Willow, and Ruth Schwartz Awards, and have received honours from UNESCO's international award for Literature in the Service of Tolerance. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"I just can't believe that you're not coming with us," my mother said to my sister.
We were in the car on our way to the airport, but this time only three of the four of us were bringing luggage.
"I'll be with you in spirit," my sister answered.
"Spirit isn't the same thing, Beth. It's just going to-"
"Seem so strange," I said, cutting her off. If I'd let her finish, it would have made about the eleven millionth time she'd said that.
"Yes. It will be strange," my mother agreed.
"Christmas without both of my kids with me will be . . . well, worse than strange. It'll be just . . . awful!"
"You're going to make her feel even more guilty than she already does, Ingrid," my father said. "Sooner or later this was going to happen. Children do grow up."
"Well, of course they do, but I wasn't expecting it to happen so soon." My mother's voice sounded teary.
"Beth, can you slow down a bit?" my father said.
"Not really, Dad. I mean, it's like you said, I am growing up, and-"
"I meant your driving," my father explained. "Can you slow down? The roads are a little slick." Beth was driving, and being in the passenger seat was not a comfortable place for my father.
"Yes, Father," my sister answered, in that formal tone she always used when she was sure he was wrong but she was prepared to humor him.
She slowed the car down. I was grateful. I knew she was a very responsible driver- a responsible everything-but I was never as easy going with her behind the wheel as when my father was driving. And the roads really were a bit icy- what else would you expect for December in New York?
"Besides," my mother said, "Beth's not the one who should be feeling guilty. I'm the one who's going to be lying in the sun and leaving my baby stuck up here in the snow and cold."
"I like the winter, Mom."
"But you love Phuket," my mother said. "You're always saying that Thailand is your favorite place in the world."
"Not anymore," I said.
They all looked at me quizzically- including my sister in the rearview mirror.
"Now her favorite is any place where her Tadpole is."
My father snorted a little and then choked back the laugh. "Tadpole" was the nickname I'd hung on Beth's boyfriend, Tad. She didn't like it, which of course made my father and me like it even more. They'd been together almost six months now, and it was beginning to look like a serious sort of thing.
"You all know that Tad has nothing to do with my decision to stay home. He's not even going to be around the whole the time."
"He's not?" my mother asked.
"No. His family is heading up to Vermont to ski. They go skiing every Christmas the same way we go to Thailand."
"I didn't know that," my mother moaned.
"I didn't tell you because I was sure, if you thought I was going to be alone for even a day, you'd want to cancel your trip and you'd end up ruining everybody's Christmas."
"So this way it's just your Christmas that's ruined?" my mother said.
"It won't be ruined," Beth said. "Tad's parents even invited me to come along with them."
"And you turned them down?" my father asked.
"I would have liked to go, but I couldn't."
"Why not?" my mother asked.
"For the same reason I can't go with you. They're not getting back until the twenty- eighth, and by then I have to be in Minnesota."
We all knew what that meant. Beth's swim team was heading out on the road for a swim meet on December 27. My sister was in first-year university on a swimming scholarship.
"That is so stupid," I said to her. "Couldn't your coach find a swim meet in Alaska? How did he manage to find a meet in one of the few places in the entire United States that's even colder than New York?"
"I would have preferred Hawaii," she admitted. "Or Thailand."
"I just wish that my baby didn't-"
"I just wish that everybody would forget it!" Beth said, cutting her off sharply. "I'm not a baby, I'm a woman. I would rather have gone on vacation with my family, or even Tad's family, over Christmas, but it can't be. Tad's almost as bad as you- he offered to not go with his family so he could be here to babysit me. Honestly, everybody, I will be fine!"
We drove in silence for a while, the only sound the beating of the windshield wipers as they cleared away the snow.
Finally, Beth said, almost as an apology, "I really do wish I could go with you."
"It's the end of a family tradition," my mother said with a sigh.
Going to Thailand for Christmas was something my mother's family had been doing since long before Mom even met Dad. When Dad came along he joined in, and then when Beth and I were born we became part of the tradition too.
"It's just so sad," my mother said. "One after the other."
I knew what she was thinking about. I just hoped she wasn't going to cry. This was going to be the second Christmas since her mother died. Her father had passed on two years before that, so last Christmas had been the first with just the four of us . . . and this year there'd only be three.
"We'll call you," my mother said.
"If we can get a line," my father warned.
He was right to mention that. Phuket was beautiful-maybe the most beautiful place in the whole world- but the phone service could be a little sketchy. Especially at the small resort where we always stayed. It was on an island, a wonderful place, but there were no televisions or computers. They'd put phones in the little bungalows where we stayed only two years earlier. It was sort of like the Land That Time Forgot. My mother called it Paradise, and apparently Paradise came without broadband wireless, Internet, or reliable cellphone reception.
Usually my father liked that. It was his chance to get away from the world- more specifically, to get away from his law firm. Christmas in Thailand was the one time he could leave his BlackBerry behind and not have the office calling and pestering him about his clients. But being out of touch this year wasn't going to be such a bonus. It wouldn't have been nearly as hard on my parents to leave Beth behind if they could have been tethered by a telephone line. They were worried about her.
That almost made me laugh- like they really thought they had to worry about my sister. She was, without a doubt, the most responsible nineteen- year- old in the world. She didn't smoke or drink- not even a beer or a glass of wine. She was an honors student who had never skipped a class or failed a course- she'd never even had a grade below the high 80s. She was always where she was supposed to be, and on the rare occasions she couldn't be, she called. She helped around the house. She made meals and cleaned up without being asked. All of my parents' friends just loved her. She was on a full athletic scholarship, so even though my parents could easily have afforded to send her to school, she was there for free. Even her choice of boyfriend was perfect: Tad was in law school, he came from a good family, and he had a wonderful future in front of him. My sister was, in other words, probably the worst older sister a twelve- year- old guy could have.
I knew they tried not to compare the two of us, but it was just an inevitable, unspoken thing. I felt sort of like Supergirl's younger brother- no X- ray vision, couldn't fly, and was much slower than a speeding bullet. Not that I was a problem for my parents- I did well in school and sports and I had lots of friends- but I was no superhero fighting crime or evil super- villains, either.
Beth slowed the car down as we entered JFK International Airport. "Which terminal?"
"Three. Thai Airways," my father said. "Are you going to drop us off or come inside?"
"I'm going to park. I want to come inside and see you off- you know, wave goodbye."
My mother reached over from the back seat and gave Beth's shoulder a little squeeze.
"Just go to short- term parking," my father said. "I want you back on the road before the weather gets any worse."
"I'll be fine," Beth said.
"I know you'll be fine. Just indulge me on this, okay?"
My sister swung into a parking space. My father got out and fed the meter and I climbed out to start getting the luggage out of the trunk. It was cold and the wind was whipping the snow around. It probably wasn't falling as much as it was blowing. My father came around to help with the luggage while my sister offered my mother her arm and helped her toward the shelter of the terminal. I watched her move, slowly but steadily. I was looking for some telltale sign that it was starting to pass again, or that her symptoms were getting worse.
"She's going to be okay," my father said.
"I know. Beth can take care of herself."
"I meant your mother."
Why did it still surprise me that he could read my mind?
"She's already going into remission. I can tell," he said.
I wanted to believe him. I really did.
He pulled the last of the bags out of the trunk and we started to wheel them into the terminal. I tried to move quickly. It was cold and I wasn't dressed for it. None of us was, except Beth. We always left our winter coats and boots behind rather than take them with us on these trips. Better a mad dash in the cold than looking like a bunch of Eskimos lost in the tropics when we arrived.
My mother had navigated the slippery path without falling. She hadn't fallen in days. Maybe my father was right, but I just couldn't tell. Multiple Sclerosis was tricky like that. There were so many little symptoms-being tired, dropping things, losing your balance. Those things happened to everybody sometimes- no big deal- but in an MS sufferer they could mean the disease was getting worse. We'd learned that Multiple Sclerosis is an auto immune disease that affects your body's whole central nervous system. My mother's type of MS was called "relapsing- remitting." She could have an episode and then, almost like magic, all the symptoms might fade away, and it would be like she didn't even have MS, or like she was cured. It could be that way for months. Once it had lasted almost two years. I'd even forgotten she had it that time.
My sister, though, never forgot. Even during the healthy times, the remissions, she was always there, watching, taking care of things, waiting for the relapse, when the symptoms would come back. Sometimes she seemed more like my mother's mother. Which of course meant that she was acting like my mother . . . or my grandmother . . . or whatever. Anyway, instead of acting like a big sister, which would have been bad enough, she was more like a third parent.
After passing through the sliding doors and into the terminal, I stomped my feet to shake the snow and slush off my sneakers. Wet feet for a twenty- five- hour plane trip was not an appealing thing.
"That is always the coldest two minutes of the winter," I said absently.
"Second coldest," Beth said. "Coming back to the car at the end of the trip is worse."
She had a point.
"Easy for you to say," I told her. She looked all warm and snuggly in her ski jacket and leather boots and gloves.
"That's the one and only tiny advantage of missing out on a tropical holiday with my family."
"Hey, it was your choice, so you're wasting your time if you think you can make me feel the least bit guilty." I started to walk away.
"Sorry. Wait," she said, and she grabbed me by the arm to slow me down. Mom and Dad were walking ahead. "Sam, I need you to help out Dad," she said.
"What does Dad need help with?"
"Watching Mom, of course!"
While she hadn't said, Watching Mom, of course, you idiot! that was clearly what she was actually saying.
"She's doing okay," I said. "She's in remission again."
"I don't know about that."
"Dad can never be trusted about that. He sees what he wants to see, and he only tells us what he thinks will make us feel better. Haven't you figured that out by now?"
"I think she's in remission, too."
"You're not much better than him."
"Thanks a lot." I paused. "So, you don't think she's in remission?"
"I don't know . . . maybe . . . yeah, I think probably."
"Then why are you giving me a hard time?" I demanded.
"I just want you to watch. And help. Make sure she doesn't have to carry anything heavy, or if you pour her a glass of water make sure it isn't too full. Offer a hand going down stairs-"
"I understand," I said. "I'll help where I can."
"Good. It's not fair to Dad if he has to do everything."
And maybe it wasn't fair to ask a twelve- year- old to take care of his mother. But, then again, what was fair about MS?
We swiftly caught up to Mom and Dad in the lineup at the ticket counter. We really didn't have to wait in line. My mother had a letter from her doctor explaining her condition, which would have allowed her- and her family, of course- to skip the lineup and pre- board the plane. But my mother wouldn't have any of that. She insisted on never taking advantage of her situation. She said if she were in a wheelchair it would be different. I hoped it would never be different. At least not for a long, long time. I knew where the MS road could lead- unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, not able even to hold a glass, or dress herself. I just hoped it would be a slow trip with lots of stops along the way, and plenty of times when the whole train would turn around and head back toward total health.
We slowly shuffled forward, pushing and pulling our luggage along with us. The line was long but it was moving fairly quickly. We got to the front and a ticket agent waved us over.
"Welcome to Thai Airways. Four?" she asked.
"I wish," my mother said. "Just three." She placed our tickets and passports on the counter and the agent took them.
"How many bags?" the ticket agent asked.
"Three to check and three carry- on bags," my father said. He put the first two bags on the scale and I added the third.
"Did you pack the bags yourself, and have they been out of your care since you packed them?" she asked.
"We packed them, and they've been with us at all times," my father said.
The agent put tags on the three bags. She then handed back the tickets and passports. "Boarding is at nine- thirty so you should head through Security within the next fifteen minutes."
"Thanks," my mother said.
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.