Taylor Swift came to visit during a burst of summer rain. She tracked mud from the construction site on Route 252 in on her boots—the ones with the faux snake scales. She had walked a long way and smelled of petrichor. I gave her a bedroom with blackout shades and double-pane windows. Water dripped from her hair onto the pillow I’d needlepointed as a child for my grandmother. I drew Taylor a bath, then brought my mother Zofran, Oxy, and Gabapentin.
“What kind of person rushes into a stranger’s house in muddy shoes when there’s stabbing pain?” my mom asked, accidentally knocking How to Fix Anything off the bed—a book she studied like she might be called upon to spackle or replace a spark plug.
Taylor stayed for days. Every night, she needed help removing her face: a sheet of skin shed brutally in an instant. Underneath, she was still Taylor Swift. Again and again. Taylor Swift. This was disappointing to both of us, as if there could be something better than Taylor Swift. I carried the sheets of skin to the trash while my mom was down the hall dying. Life was seeping through the vast darkness out of which I, too, had seeped. Taylor looked like life itself when she emerged, enveloped in soft swaths of pastel fabric, from the darkness under the stage. I had gone to her show before the metastasizing began. A feverish migration of cells. While jumping up and down, I had filmed Taylor’s entrance to “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince.”
In the afternoons, we sat on the queen-size bed—Taylor, Mom, and I—propped up on pillows, popping apricots into our mouths, watching the concert video I had taken. Apricots were good for Mom’s constipation. A rugged fruit, they held their sweet under thick, satisfying skin.
“Magnificent,” my mother said every time Taylor appeared on stage. She watched the clip over and over even though my wobbly camerawork made her dizzy. To steady herself, she placed a hand on the True Cross beside her bed. The bishop had given my grandmother that cross for her service to the sick, and she’d left it to my mother to protect her in times of illness. The way my mother said it—mag-nif-i-cent—softly and utterly moved, like it was a benediction, I wanted to put the word in a frame, hang it on a wall.
I started doing everything more carefully, with more reverence. I tried to slow things down. Stop please, I whispered. Put a red light here, I pleaded. Mag-nif-i-cent, I prayed. I turned up “Marjorie.” I played “Marjorie” again. I put “Marjorie” on repeat. I wanted everything, the whole world, every sigh and crinkle on repeat.
Taylor came with us to Mom’s last infusion. She lifted the red walker into the trunk and helped Mom get settled in the car. On the way to the hospital, she watched the scenery and ate popcorn from a bucket in the backseat.
“This isn’t the movies, Taylor. The smell’s making me sick,” Mom said, closing her eyes. “What are you doing here anyway?”
Taylor shook the popcorn out the window, a few kernels at a time. It fluttered in the air like buttery clouds.
“I want to feel less shiny,” she said. “Just for a while.”
“Well stop it,” my mom said.
The last of the popcorn fell as we approached the new house they’d built on Route 252 where an old Pennsylvania farmhouse once stood. It had been a small, precious thing with bird baths and flower boxes. Now it was a modern fortress with walls of glass so big you could stage the Eras tour inside, fill the place with sound and friendship bracelets. Last winter, excavators had heaped dirt along the road in front of the house, blocking our view of it. Its view of us. Neither of us could see each other anymore. They made a berm, like maybe war was coming. War is always coming. They were ready for it. I wondered where the dirt came from. What did it mean to take earth from there and put it here?
My mom was on Cisplatin and Taxane when the excavators had arrived. It took hours for the bags to empty into her vein, for the dirt to drop into place. The chemotherapy caused neuropathies in her hands and feet. She could no longer drive, could no longer hold glass jars. So I drove the car. I carried the water. The mound of naked earth stood still for months. With nothing to hold it dear, I worried rain would wash it out, make 252 impassable for our trips to the hospital.
Bending over herself, my mother grasped at her side.
“Sing something,” I said to Taylor.
Mom’s body relaxed as “Lavender Haze” filled the car. She stopped wincing, and, out of nowhere, I smelled the frosted cookies she used to bake when I was a girl. The drip would be Keytruda today. We were done with chemotherapies, onto immunotherapies. They would slither into Mom’s vein in mere minutes, barely long enough to take root.
In the August heat, driving slow—like I said, I wanted to stop the moments, to peel the layers back and back, to catch words, heartbeats, history, not so fast Taylor, don’t sing so fast—I saw them: the wildflowers. There on the berm, holding the line, stood sunroots and coneflowers and tiny purple blooms I could picture on a skirt my grandmother might have worn. Or maybe my mother wore. I wanted to wear them too. I pressed the brakes, not hard but gently, with respect for the moment, for what was about to occur. The transformation of the berm was remarkable. Taylor stopped singing, and I cried out with delight. My mother opened her eyes and cried too. The sunroots waved back and forth in the wind. There was wind. An ache somewhere close. Swaths of fabric delivering us.