Three More Months: A Novel by Sarah Echavarre
Call your mom, Chloe. Seriously.
The bold black letters jump from the yellow Post-it note stuck to my refrigerator. It’s like the words are screaming at me.
That’s a new one.
It’s not unusual for my best friend, Julianne, to leave notes for me tacked onto my refrigerator whenever she comes over for a girls’ night. But they’re usually reminders about picking up my dry cleaning or putting the bins out the night before garbage day. It’s an old habit I’m thankful she kept up from our college roommate days. I don’t even have to put reminders in my phone for errands like other people do. Julianne’s always got me covered.
She’s never reminded me to call my mom, though.
I check the calendar, which is pinned onto the wall next to the stainless-steel refrigerator. It takes several seconds of scanning the endless white squares before I even remember today’s date.
When I finally remember that it’s May 4, I sigh, then rub a fist against my forehead. The pressure eases only slightly. That tension in my head set up camp there a year ago when I was promoted to pharmacy residency program director at Nebraska Medical Center.
I loathe how one-track minded this job has made me. When I used to be just a staff pharmacist, I would drive to the hospital, clock in, report to whatever floor I was scheduled for that day, and verify medication orders. Sometimes I’d do rounds with the physicians and nurses. Yeah, days would be busy. I’d be occupied from the moment I walked through the doors of the hospital, but when my shift ended, I was done. I could go home and unwind with thirty minutes on the treadmill in my basement or a glass of wine before bed, then do it all over again the next day.
But now that I’m residency director, my life is even more work. I’m taking home a backpack full of papers and a work laptop almost every day. I’m reviewing residency and internship applications submitted by pharmacy school students. Or I’m reviewing projects that the interns and residents are working on. Or I’m proofreading journal papers or sitting in on job interviews. Things like eating, sleeping, charging my phone, and remembering to call loved ones have fallen by the wayside.
“Thank God I don’t have kids,” I mutter to myself, wondering how on earth anyone with a family manages a job like this.
That’s probably the reason for Julianne’s Post-it note. Mom likely texted her to see if I was still alive when I forgot to return her calls and texts. I left my phone on silent this past week so I could focus on reviewing a slew of residency projects and job applications. She’s probably freaking out.
I need to fix this. Now. I swipe my phone from the kitchen counter, ignoring the missed call and text alerts, and dial her. She picks up on the second ring.
“Anak!” By the way she bellows her preferred Filipino term of endearment for me, I can tell she’s grinning.
Her tone is a relief and a joy to hear. Then that familiar crushing disappointment hits me. This is the kind of love and forgiveness parents have for their kids, even when the kids are well into adulthood. If anyone else cut off communication with you for weeks on end, you’d likely not be in a hurry to talk to them.
But Mom is always excited to hear from me.
“Mom. Hi.” I do my best to inject a dose of cheer into my voice.
“How are you doing? Good? You’re not working yourself too hard, are you?”
Bombarding me with multiple questions at once is her trademark move whenever there’s been a long gap in our conversations. I pause and swallow to keep from groaning out of fatigue.
“Only a little.” I chuckle to make things sound light. It comes off like I’m being strangled.
The way she tsks on the other end of the line tells me she doesn’t buy it one bit. “You sound tired.”
“I’m fine. It’s just . . . I’m on the interview committee for this job opening we have in the pharmacy. I got bogged down reviewing applications.”
Her annoyed hum in lieu of actual words says it all. I can picture her disappointed stance perfectly because I do it when I’m annoyed too. That narrow gaze, crossed arms, the disapproving look on her face broadcasting just how much she hates that her only daughter, who used to visit home once a month, has become a textbook workaholic and hasn’t seen her in months.
“I’m sorry it’s been a while since I’ve called.” I hope my apology is enough to get things back on track. I want this conversation to at least be pleasant.
“How is work going for you?” I ask when she doesn’t say anything right away.
Mom’s job is a safe direction to veer in. She’s the overnight customer service manager for a grocery store in my hometown of Kearney, which is smack-dab in the middle of Nebraska. It’s nearly three hours away from where I live in Omaha. Her store is part of a nationwide chain that’s open twenty-four hours every day of the year. She always has plenty of stories to tell about bizarre customers or quirky employees.
“Busy as ever,” she says, her voice a tad lighter. “You wouldn’t believe what happened last night. Some customer came into the store so drunk he couldn’t even walk straight.”
“Really?” I spin around to the kitchen island and flip open my laptop, half listening as she recalls how the drunk customer crashed into a candy bar display in the middle of one of the aisles. I skim through an email from one of the pharmacy residents. She’s asking me to proofread a PowerPoint slide that she’s presenting at a regional conference next week about beta-blockers.
“There were chocolate bars everywhere,” she says. “It was a mess.”
I make a “hmm” noise as I skim through the info on my laptop screen.
“And then, he fell asleep!” Mom’s high-pitched voice cuts into my mental review. “Can you believe that? On top of a pile of candy bars, he just started snoozing. How is that even comfortable?”
“Ha. Yeah, I don’t know.” I frown as one half of my brain attempts to read through the resident’s notes while the other half listens to her story. Silently, I move my lips as I follow along with the text on the screen.
Beta-blockers are used to control heart rhythm, treat angina, and reduce high blood pressure.
Beta-blockers work by blocking the effect of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.
Beta-blockers cause the heart to beat more slowly and with less force, which lowers blood pressure.
Side effects of beta-blockers include dizziness, weakness, fatigue, cold hands and feet, headache, upset stomach, dry mouth, or—
“Did you say something about blood pressure?” she asks.
My lips stop moving when I realize I must have been reading out loud.
“Are you even listening to me, Chloe?”
“Of course I am.” My face heats out of pure shame. “How is your blood pressure these days, Mom? I’ve been meaning to ask.” It’s a shaky recovery, but I manage.
Her sigh rings heavy in response. My ears perk up, and all of my attention focuses on her. I don’t like the sound of that. When she says nothing, I press her again.
“Are you? Like, the doctor says you’re fine?”
“Yes.” She practically spits out the word.
If there’s one thing Mom is known for, it’s this: she loves my younger brother, Andy, and me to the moon and back. She’d lie down in traffic for either one of us without a second thought. But when we try to tell her what to do, even if we know better, it drives her up the wall. She hates it even more than that annoying adolescent phase I went through where I used to call her by her name, Mabel, instead of Mom.
“Chloe. I said I’m fine.”
I force myself to swallow through the sting of her annoyance. If I don’t, I’ll scoff. And if there’s one thing Mom hates more than being fussed over by her adult kids, it’s being scoffed at by her adult kids. It’s disrespectful, she says. Every single time this has happened before, even when I apologize—and try to explain that I’m only concerned for her health and well-being—she doesn’t care. She pulls her typical mom-guilt move. The one I’m one thousand percent sure she’s pulling now, even though I can’t see her.
It’s the pursed lips and the brow furrowed so deeply that I wonder if the lines will stay in her richly tanned skin forever. But when she eases her expression, her skin is always smooth again. It’s like the lines were never there at all. The disappointment lingers, though. Like an invisible damp fog in the air.
I try again, this time with a gentler tone. “Mom. I ask because I care.”
“No, you’re fussing. I don’t need you to fuss over me, Chloe.”
Whenever she says my actual name and not anak or anakko, I know I’m testing her last nerve. The punch she puts at the second syllable of my name signals I can’t sweet-talk or apologize my way out of my comment, no matter how well intentioned. It lands hard and sharp, like a rubber band snapping against the inside of my wrist. It’s enough to make the muscles in my neck tense just the slightest bit.
“The doctor says I’m fine,” she says. Her harshness fades a notch. “At my checkup last month, my blood pressure was lower than at my appointment in the winter.”
Despite the tension that still hangs between us, the muscles in my neck ease at the good news. “That’s awesome. I’m so happy to hear that.”
At sixty-one, Mom has no interest in slowing down, no matter how much Andy or I or her doctor want her to. She’s worked overnight shifts ever since we were preteens. She always said it was because the inconvenient hours paid more, and she could use the money. It’s true. She’s been a single mom most of our lives. With two kids to support on her own, every penny counted.
But now that my brother and I are adults and are capable of supporting ourselves, we’ve tried to tell her countless times to ease back on her hours. She’s always volunteering for overtime and working the holidays. Or, at the very least, we ask her to switch from overnights to the day shift. The graveyard shift is hell on sleep schedules and health—I know because I worked overnight hours most of my twenties when I was employed as a pharmacy technician and during my first couple of years as a staff pharmacist. And I still cover overnight shifts at the hospital whenever we’re short-staffed.
But I’m relatively young. I can withstand temporary stress on my sleep schedule. Mom, on the other hand, is aging. She doesn’t bounce back like she used to. I can see it every time I go home for a visit and catch her the morning after a busy overnight shift. I can see it in the crow’s-feet around her eyes, how they deepen every time I see her. I see it in the way she moves gingerly around the kitchen while making her postwork herbal tea, the way she jokes about the never-ending aches and pains in her body.
But every time Andy and I ask her to switch to an easier day shift, she rebuffs us. She tells us she doesn’t need her kids to tell her how to live. And then I bite my tongue and rack my brain for a different way to convince her to slow down, to take a break, because the older she gets, the more important it is for her to take care of herself.
It’s a vicious cycle. I hate getting into arguments with her about it. But that’s what happens every time. And I haven’t figured out a better way to go about this yet.
That’s why I always fall back into my old pattern of voicing my concern, enduring her disdain, and then crawling my way back into her good graces.
“I swear, you and your brother get on my case for the littlest things.” Her tone turns curt. “You should know by now I can take care of myself.”
I force myself to hum a yes.
“When do you think you’ll be able to come home for a visit?” she asks.
“Oh.” I clear my throat, embarrassed that I didn’t see this question coming. Every single time we talk on the phone, she always wants to know when I’ll come home. That shows just how much work mode has screwed me up.
“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know, though.”
There’s a pause, then a sad sigh. The sound sends a painful squeeze to my chest.
“You always say that,” she says.
The defeat in her tone cuts a million times deeper than when she snaps at me. Because it means I’m falling short of my daughter duties. The duty list has always been brief, and up until last year, it was a list I could complete with relative ease.
It entails regular visits to see her once a month, at least two phone calls a week, and spending every major holiday with her and Andy at home. And if I’m scheduled to work a holiday, it’s expected that I spend whatever days off I get in exchange at home.
With work getting more intense, I was bound to let the ball drop on one of her nonnegotiables. Unfortunately, it was the most important one.
“I’m sorry. I know I haven’t been home since . . . since, um . . .”
“Easter,” she says. “You haven’t been home since Easter.”
“That’s only a month.” I wince at my lie.
“A month and a half. More than a month and a half actually because it’s already the beginning of May now. Easter was early this year, remember?”
There is zero sharpness in her voice now. Just something soft and longing. It makes my throat ache. I have to swallow twice to keep my voice from trembling when I respond to her. That long Easter weekend flows to the front of my mind. Mom, Andy, and I played card games into the wee hours of the morning, lounged on the couch watching Mom’s favorite game shows, and ate honey ham and pineapple upside-down cake until our stomachs ached.
“I just miss you, anak.”
I swallow, letting the quiet despair in her words pass through me. “You’re always welcome to come visit me, Mom.”
“And do what? Sit in your empty house while you go to the hospital and work those long, ridiculous hours? No, thank you.”
“You can come when I have a day off.”
“You hardly ever have a day off, Chloe. Not since you took that promotion.”
Her retort hits like a sucker punch. She and Andy have only visited me a couple of times since my work schedule has gotten more demanding. And sadly, she’s right . . . both times, I had to leave in the middle of catching up with them because I was on call.
“I’d rather have you visit here more often,” she says. “That way you’re away from the hospital and actually have to spend time at home with Andy and me. You can’t run away to work.”
“I’m sorry about that, Mom. Really.” I sigh, wishing she knew just how much I really mean it. “This month is a little hectic, but I promise I’ll come see you in June.”
“You talk like you have to get on a plane to come see me,” she says. “You live less than three hours away. You could actually take a day off and come visit. It would be good for you to get away. You’d be more relaxed and less stressed after a day or two at home, and do better when you go back to work.”
“Mom, that’s not—”
“Why do you always try to make an excuse not to come see me? You didn’t use to.”
Her voice sounds so small, so broken, so disappointed. It makes my eyes burn. I know this tone well. Because I’ve heard it more times than I care to admit over this past year.
More than anything, Mom values time with my brother and me. And for the last several months, I’ve failed again and again to give it to her. Because I’m scared of losing the financial stability I worked my entire twenties—my entire life—to have.
This promotion came with a bump in my salary that allowed me to pay off the bungalow I bought in the Dundee neighborhood of Omaha instead of stringing along the payments for another seven years. It means that I finally have a hefty emergency fund. It means making my monthly retirement fund contributions respectable instead of pitiful.
It means that, at thirty-three, I’m finally financially secure with a thriving career.
At the cost of my relationship with my mom.
“Mom.” I take a breath for a second to regain my composure. “I’m working hard because it’s how you taught me and Andy to be when we were younger. Remember? It’s in our blood to work extra hard. You’re the one we get it from. You spent your whole life being an example to us, always taking extra shifts and long hours to support us.”
I don’t elaborate because I don’t need to. We both know why I am the way I am. Money was never plentiful for us, ever. With our dad out of the picture since my parents got divorced when I was in elementary school, Mom worked overtime constantly while raising us on her own. We were never destitute, but finances were always tight. I remember more times than I can count receiving past due bill notices in the mail and Mom quickly strategizing where in her budget she could pull from so that the electricity wouldn’t be shut off or so that we could still afford to have internet. I remember seeing the paperwork she left on the kitchen table showing that she reduced her monthly retirement contribution to zero for the better part of two years to cover Andy’s medical bills when he got appendicitis in grade school. I remember Mom venting in Ilocano to her sister, Auntie Linda, on the phone one day in her bedroom when our dad failed to send yet another child support payment, and she admitted she was going to have to work Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s for the holiday pay to cover our expenses.