The Last Six Cookies in the Package

by Hannah Grieco

For the middle of the night, sneaking out of your bed, wide awake and hungry: a peach, leftover spaghetti, the last six cookies in the package. Eat fast, before your parents wake up, before the furnace kicks in downstairs, before monsters creep toward you from the shadows. Slink back to your room, bursting but not sated.

For the hole inside you, never filled: a stolen bag of cherries. Spit the pits into your hands and go to sleep with stained palms against your hard, round stomach, pretending you can feel kicking feet. You will be a mother one day. You will fill this belly with love. Name your children out loud to the dark room: love, love, love.

For the night you meet your future husband: shots of tequila and appetizers, the kinds on toothpicks. Tiny meatballs. Mini egg rolls. A former football player at your high school leans close and spits in your ear, “You’re way hotter now.” You slide toward the end of the bar. A man that looks familiar with a glass of red wine—he once took biology with you, is that right? You ask him for a sip.

For a birth: carrot cake, slightly burnt around the edges, brought to your hospital room in uncomfortable silence. Your mother was never really the baking type. She places a slice next to you as you unwrap your son, unclench your jaw, hand your baby over.

For the first day of school: cinnamon doughnuts and orange juice, laughing as your three-year-old grimaces at the bitter sips, as he holds the straw so carefully for his baby sister. Sobbing as you drive out of the school parking lot and down toward the highway, the baby asleep in the back, three cherry pastries in the box in your lap. Eat them fast, one after the other, until your chest hurts, until you can’t picture him panicked at recess, at lunch, at circle time. Fluttering, stimming fingers and rocking groans.

For the appointments and meetings, seemingly endless: black coffee.

For teaching your son how to take a pill: a tic-tac on the back of his tongue, a chocolate kiss in the palm of his hand.

For the mornings he refuses to go to school: a butter croissant at the local bakery. Take all three kids, hiding your panic in this early morning adventure for treats. Your daughters laughing in pajamas. Your son silent, staring out the window. The bag oily and warm in your lap as you drive them home. Put on a movie in the living room as the sun rises, then sneak into your empty bedroom. Slide into the big bed, pull the quilt up and around you, and call your husband. He is in Boston for work again this week. He’s still in bed, just now waking up, but he’ll call later to check on you, he says. Can you make it, he asks?

For chasing your son up the street: promises of ice cream. When he stops at the corner and veers down the block instead of into oncoming traffic, remember to breathe. Yell his favorite flavors: Chocolate, Cookies-n-Cream, Lemon Ice from Rita’s. Come back, baby.

For a new med trial, another med trial, the eighteenth med trial: an empty stomach.

For the post-911 call quiet: a sleeve of saltines. Crumbles fall from your lips as you cram more and more in, jaw unhinging, refusing to take even the slightest sip of water. Maybe you’ll choke. Maybe you’ll die here on the cold floor, your husband and daughters in their beds upstairs, your son’s begging echoing through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room with its broken window and overturned chairs.

For the hospital: a ham and cheese sub with lettuce and pickles. You stop at a deli on the way because the nurse says your son won’t eat. In the elevator, every floor is announced by a child’s recorded voice, the full car emptying level by level until you are the only one left. Past orthopedics, urology, endocrinology, neurology. Past asthma. Past epilepsy. Past cancer. The doors open at the top floor: the children’s psych unit.

For the meetings with the doctors, psychologists, nurses, the social worker who questions your fitness as a mother: a bowl of wrapped chocolates in the center of the table. You take one and it melts in your hand as you listen, leaking out of the red foil into your palm.

For the handoff of your daughters on your way home: a plate of leftovers from your mother, who wrings her hands and begs you, “What else can I do?” You don’t answer, don’t shout, “Just leave me alone!” like an angry teenager who knows there must be a different world than this.

For knowing there is no different world than this: Miller Lite and gummy bears. A late-night candy binge with your child, giggling in the dark kitchen, relieved tears running down your face. “Don’t tell,” you whisper. “I can’t keep a secret,” he whispers back. “I know,” you say and kiss him with sticky lips. “Ew, mom,” he says and curls up in your lap like a baby. His legs, longer than yours now, tuck into your belly.

For eating every feeling that is too big to endure: an entire bag of carrots. An entire box of Thin Mints. An entire container of blueberries. An entire loaf of French bread. An entire month without looking at yourself in the mirror. An entire year of promising that you’ll stop eating carbs. An entire series of appointments with a very young, kind-faced therapist who promises that you are so much more than your weight. An entire marriage wondering if your husband will ever tell you that you’re pretty again.

For diagnosis after diagnosis: a skipped dinner, whispered questions to the sky, an uneasy coming-to-terms. “This hole is not bottomless,” you lie to your husband before bed. “This climb is not solitary,” he says, resting his forehead against yours.

For watching your mother play Yahtzee with your kids: three-bean chili with homemade cornbread that fills your house with the smell of honey. Your husband comes into the kitchen and puts his arms around you while you stir. He whispers in your ear: “I love your chili.” 

For the moments lengthening, the years progressing, the diagnoses changing: burgers grilled in the backyard while your children swing. Toast the buns just so, extra pickles just so. Sit and watch. Quiet, relaxed breathing. This is how other families live, you think.

For the bond between your children solidifying, the scar tissue dense and strong: banana bread, cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies. Fingers dip in the batter, bites of raw dough when your back is turned. Pretend you don’t notice, their secrets swelling inside you. Not hope, no, but not grief.

For the climbing and falling, the glow of a day’s reprieve, the darkness of another week’s driving back and forth through city traffic, the full hospital parking garage, the stamped ticket so you can return for a visit the next morning: a peach, leftover spaghetti, the last six cookies in the package. Whatever you can find, whatever gives you the energy to push, to pull, to wait quietly. Your husband kisses your cheek on the way out. “You’re so beautiful,” he says. “Bring him home.”