I learned that I was sick again on a Wednesday. The following Saturday, I took my five-year-old son to the county fair. I planned for us to ride the Ferris wheel together, eat corndogs, pet baby animals. I wanted to give him memories that would stick: cotton candy shrinking and sweet on his tongue, a view from higher than he’d ever been—mountaintops, roads, the river. I would take pictures of everything with my phone. The fair came every August, and my death wouldn’t stop that. I wanted him to have a place to find me after I was gone.
The instant we entered the fairgrounds, he sprinted toward the pony ride.
“Can I do it?” he asked. “Please?”
Suddenly, for the first time since I learned my cancer was back, I felt ill.
“I can’t go with you,” I said. “It’s only for kids.”
He looked at me, puzzled.
“Of course,” I said, smiling. “Go for it.”
We waited in line, watching other children ride. Four stout ponies were harnessed at the ends of two crossed poles. Birdseye would have revealed a Celtic cross, each arm with an equine anchor. The ponies were thick with feed, brown and dusty. Occasionally one would bow down to gnaw at some brittle tuft of yellow grass. Then it would jerk forward, whip-stung. When it was my son’s turn, he released his grip on my hand. Only then did I realize he had been holding it.
On the pony’s back, he stared bravely ahead like a Crusader. I imagined him bearing the weight of real armor, a carapace of steel simultaneously protecting and injuring the softness that seemed to be all of him. In a few months—five, six, maybe ten—I would be gone. Soon I would have to warn him about what was coming, explain what it might look like—“so it will be less scary,” is how my ex-husband, my son’s father, had put it. How would I explain agony in all of its permutations to a child who’s never endured so much as a bee-sting? How would I explain forever when there is only ever this?
The intensity of my son’s focus atop that pony, a combination of fear and glee, brought a strange urgency to his features. It became hard to remember that he wasn’t going anywhere. It seemed as if the circle was winding up toward some cool heaven. The day was very hot. Or as if the circle was winding down, and those ponies and poles were part of a great machine, the inner workings of which were a miracle of technological efficiency. The ponies grunted, plumes of dirt spraying from their dark nostrils. My son shrieked with laughter. I took pictures that would never have anything to do with remembering; they would be a circle to travel—to say, this was it, this was it, that was a day.