Daytona State College

Candle Wick - Grace Neal

 Meg could not have been more thrilled. It was coming up on 10 years ago that she married the love of her life. She had just come from the travel agent’s office and was on her way home to meet Jason. She had made a special meal before she left and had a couple of things to surprise him with. Meg could not wait to see his face. They had not lived a hard life, but it was busy enough to warrant a getaway. She pulled into the driveway and was surprised to see that Jason wasn’t home. His shift ended at 5:30 and he was always home by six. 

Jason stood there in shock. The color had drained from his face as he slowly set the results of the MRI down. The white lights flickered, and the smell of the sterile clinic hit him. He wanted to puke, but instead, he swallowed hard and sat down. The doctor turned from his computer in a swivel chair. He began spouting off treatments and jumped into a frenzy of condolences and options. Jason heard none of it. He thought about his wife, the children he had hoped for, the happy years that he had lived. He stood, shook the doctor’s hand, and left. It was seven o’clock and he had received five missed calls from Meg. He got into his car and wept. He did so uncontrollably. Then he gathered himself and drove home. He pulled into the driveway and sat for a moment. He held still and felt the silence around him. He glanced down at the pamphlet the doctor had kindly given him. The front pictured a bald and sickly-looking man. He was smiling weakly and held onto an IV pole. At the top, it read, “Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.” He blinked back a tear from his eyes and got out of the car.  

Meg met him at the door breathing a sigh of relief. “Jason! Don’t ever do that to me again! Where were you?” He chuckled like nothing was wrong and put his arm around her. “I’m right here, and that’s all that matters.” 

Together they walked inside, and Jason breathed in deeply. The smells of home hit him. His favorite meal laid out on the dining table. Meg’s favorite vanilla maple candle burned, and finally, Tide laundry soap all came at once. He struggled to keep back the sob. Meg was beaming this evening, in fact, she was glowing. God, he loved her so much. 

Meg squeezed his arm and pulled away. “You ready to eat?” 

Jason nodded and walked to his usual spot. To the right of the window at the head of the table. Meg sat at his right and put the last dish down as she did. She fiddled with her napkin and could barely suppress a smile; Jason could barely suppress a sob. 

“How was your day at work?” Meg began casually. 

“As good as it always is.” 

“I have some news!” She couldn’t contain herself any longer. 

“I do too. But I don’t think it’s as good as yours.” 

Meg hesitated to try to apprehend what it could be. Finances, the marriage, what? She thought they were fine; they both worked good jobs, they were happy together. 

“I have been careful with the budget, I didn’t scratch the car. So, it can’t be that bad?” She finished with a slight smile but then saw Jason’s face. She knew it wasn’t any of those things. 

He had been trying to keep a good face, to enjoy one last night without the open knowledge of his diagnosis. He knew it was unfair to do that. Jason needed her support, it was cruel to keep it from her. To have her act in ignorance. He needed to mourn with her by his side. Before he could speak, she jumped in. 

“It’s our tenth anniversary and I splurged a little. I got a cruise for next year, it’s only a week-long so you wouldn’t need to take too much time off.” She spoke faster as she continued. “I probably should’ve told you before I booked it, but I was so excited to surprise you.” 

A lump formed in his throat and he felt hot tears ready to flow. 

“Jason, please just listen to me, it’ll be so much fun! A little break, just the two of us.” 

He wouldn’t look at her, his eyes were locked on his plate. Meg had already filled it with steaming roast and potatoes. She kept talking anyway. 

“Jason, I’m pregnant.” His hand trembled and his fork clattered to the plate. 

She continued, “I know the doctor said it would be impossible for us, but I saw our baby this morning. I had an ultrasound.” 

Jason began to sob, without caring. He wanted to scream. When they got married, they both knew it would be impossible. Jason would never be a father and Meg would never get to raise a little family. It was their dream, but fate had a strange way of laughing at them it seemed. She began talking faster, not realizing why he was weeping. 

“I promise it’ll be ok, I’ll take care of him. You can still have any free time you need. Please don’t be upset-” 

He stopped her and said, “My love, I could not be happier for us.” 

Her voice trembled as she spoke. “Jason, why are you crying?” 

“I could not want anything more than to be a father. You know that. I’m just happy Meg.” He sobbed again. 

She took this excuse and laughed through tears of her own. He couldn’t do this to her, not yet at least. She enthusiastically dove into her plate. She chattered on and on about plans, what their baby would look like, and what kind of parents they would be. The cruise was also a hot topic. Meg spoke with enthusiasm about her dream of snorkeling. Jason listened quietly, pulling his fork back and forth through the pulled meat. Should he tell her now? No, he shouldn’t. He would wait until Meg had time to process. It hurt him not to say anything, but he wanted to live a lie for a few more days. She hadn’t found out about the appointments, follow-ups, or the biopsy. Two or three days wouldn’t hurt anything. 

“We should pick a name,” Jason said, he stopped playing with his food. He had eaten as much as his nauseous stomach would allow. 

“What about after you?” Meg replied. 

He shook his head, “I don’t want our child living with me as a shadow over her. Give her a new name, a new life. One that she can forage for herself and live free of our grief.” 

“What do you mean grief, Jason?” She laughed, “You’re quite poetic all of the sudden.” 

“I worded that wrong, I want her to live free of us. Besides, I never liked juniors anyway.” That was too close of a call and Jason knew it. Yet he stayed quiet. Emotions have a strange way of toying with us. 

“You’re that sure it’ll be a girl, huh?” Meg said. 

Jason laughed and sat quietly for a moment, “I am.” 

Meg sat up suddenly. “Juniper! That’s it! We can call her Junie.” 

Jason smiled, “Juniper May. Good choice.” 

They smiled at one another and finished the meal off with chocolate pie. Jason had never tasted anything so bittersweet. He knew he wouldn’t be eating that any time soon. The doctors said he would lose his appetite. He pulled himself from his thoughts, and together they cleaned the kitchen. Slowly, relishing it like they never had before. Such a menial task had become something that meant so much more. Just a few extra minutes together. To laugh and talk. 

The candle still flickered, and the scent had turned into a sickening odor. The wax began to melt, and the wick stood limp in the jar. Jason stepped over to it and blew it out. He staggered and found himself steadying his weight on the sofa. The headaches and bouts of dizziness were the first things that he noticed. He figured it was dehydration or lack of sleep. The biopsy said otherwise. He eased himself down and called Meg over to sit with him. They relaxed in each other’s arms and dozed off through the evening. 

“Are you excited about the cruise?” Meg said with drowsiness in her voice. 

“Mmm, did I ever tell you I suffer from severe seasickness?” 

Meg punched him in the arm, “Jason, come on. Are you excited? 

“Of course, I am! I’m just teasing you.” 

“How should we tell my parents? They are going to be thrilled.” Meg sat up and looked at him. 

“We’ll think of something good. A Pinterest worthy reveal.” 

They both smiled and relaxed again. 

The days passed by slowly for Jason. The treacherous honey of lies was thick around him. What he was doing was unfair and he knew it. But he still didn’t want to ruin it for her. He came home two days later and was feeling especially sick. He knew he needed to start treatment soon, but he was afraid. 

Meg was sitting on the living room sofa, leaning over and resting her elbows on her knees. She sniffed in and then shuddered. Jason knew she had just been crying. His stomach dropped when she stood up. She was holding the MRI results. Tears ran from her eyes. 

“Jason, please tell me this is not what I think it is,” Meg said, fully knowing the answer. 

Jason set his bag down and slowly walked to where she stood. 

“It’s lung cancer Meg.” He had rehearsed the way he would say that for the last two days and it came out completely wrong. He practiced it like a speech all day long. The droning had numbed his ears. Yet here he stood. No tears, no shame, no feeling. 

“I know I should have told you, but I wanted you to be happy about the baby without a dark cloud over it all.” 

“Jason, we’ll fix this. They have cures for cancer.” Meg let the hot water run from her eyes and burn her cheeks. 

“I have stage four lung cancer. It spread to my brain. Meg I – I” his voice broke off, “I have four months.” 

“You won’t meet our baby?” A sob came now. 

“Can we reschedule the cruise?” Jason asked back. He still could not face the reality that he couldn’t meet the new love of his life. The one he would have lived for. 

Meg crumbled back to the sofa and threw her face into her hands, she quaked. Jason got up and pushed the couch back from the coffee table. He knelt in front of her. 

“Be strong for me. Four months is still worth living. We can decorate the nursery together. We can still go on a trip. Maybe something closer and shorter.” 

He put his hands around her face and moved next to her. He made her look at him. “I love you so much. Thank you for all that you do for me. Thank you for being my rock, my support. I need you Meg, more than anything else in the world. I won’t be here for you and I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive me. Our dream is coming true and I won’t be here.” 

They wept together. For an hour they sobbed, holding each other tightly. The sorrow gripped them with a hand as cold as ice. Finally, the river began to dry, the two of them sat there. Meg was under his arm with her face buried in Jason’s jacket. Jason had both arms wrapped around her. She looked at him and the tears began to cease. She put her hands around his face and looked deeply into his eyes. “That’s why you were late the other night.” 

Jason laughed through tears. “Yes, that’s why I was late. The doctor gave me the results after work that day.” 

The candle Meg always burned flicked its snake tongue. The flame rose and fell with their breathing. 

“I’m going to be very sick,” Jason said. He placed his arm back around her, and she shifted closer under it. 

“I’ll be here, every step of the way.” She looked up at him and kissed his cheek. 

Meg let a tear slip out of her tired eyes. Then, they slept. 

Over the next few months, they prepared for the little girl they were expecting. They painted the extra room grey with green accents. It was a difficult task for both of them. Meg’s belly had started to bump into everything it could find. The little life getting fuller inside a small rib cage. Meg sang to her and told stories. She would talk about Jason and how he would have been a wonderful father. Meg wanted her daughter to know him. She would take home videos constantly. They celebrated everything and life became a big party. Meg was not going to let the last days she remembered of him slip through her fingers in a storm of grief. The treatment that Jason went through, in hopes of a possible extension of his life, made him sickly. He vomited all the time and Meg was always careful to leave a garbage bin near him. He would joke that he made more messes than the baby ever would. Meg didn’t mind though. She wanted every second with him, if that meant wiping up vomit and clearing his feeding tube, she would do it. And not only do it but relish the task, remembering every little thing. The smile lines around Jason’s eyes and the soft laugh made her think of how well he had aged. It seemed like they were twenty just yesterday. But she loved him more for the crease lines and days that had passed since then. She remembered the first time they met. She was seventeen and Jason was twenty-one. At a bonfire, they were both at, he offered her his jacket and that’s when she fell. She didn’t care that he was too old, she loved him since the beginning, and she would always be the one to take care of him. 

Their Saturday ritual was to go to Pottery Barn and pick out a new item every time. This week, Jason had his heart set on this little pillow that read, “no matter where I am, I am here with you.” Finally, they put the finishing touch in his room. A fresh linen scented candle. Meg wanted everything perfect. Every night, Jason would record a new book for Juniper. Some were about bear families and others about a life lesson. But in each one Jason left the remnants of a father she would never know. He left her with the knowledge that someone loved her and was looking out for her. Meg would sit on the floor and listen as he read. Never had children’s books been more captivating. Jason poured into them the emotion of a childless father. 

They took the trip Meg had hoped for. A four-day cruise in the Caribbean. It was a hard trip, Jason was almost unable to move at that point. His skin was translucent, and his heartbeat labored. His hair and nails were gone, and it was always a battle to stay warm. But through it all, they were together. They loved one another and lived through every second like nothing was amiss. Meg finally got to snorkel. She had always wanted to but never went. Jason had to wait above, but he didn’t mind. She was thrilled and that’s what gave him a reason to live. When they got home the days went slowly as Jason’s life shortened. Like the wick of a candle, it went out.