© 2000, Julie Orlando
Chris softly shut Donna's bedroom door behind him and headed down the hall to the living room, where Lance was waiting for him. He took the offered can of soda. "She's resting. Katie's going to sit with her for awhile."
Lance nodded and sat wearily.
"How's she been lately?" Chris asked him.
He passed a hand over his eyes. "She has her days." He paused, not wanting to say more, but knowing he should. "Today's not a good day. Neither was yesterday, or the day before that."
Lance and Donna had been together for nearly 8 years, married for just under 6 of them. He hadn't believed in the idea of soulmates until he met her, but that's what they were, he was sure of it. So was everyone else, for that matter. Chris had been the emcee at their wedding reception, and when he gave his speech he had compared them to the two sides of a coin. They seemed completely different on first inspection, but once you scratched past the surface differences they were one and the same being. He knew it was cheesy, but it was as close to the truth as he could figure out, and everyone there that day had eaten it up.
Their marriage hadn't been without its bumps, some bigger than others, but happiness had always found them. Donna had been lucky enough to get a teaching position at the University of Mississippi, where she had gotten her PhD, so Lance had kept the house that he had built early in *NSYNC's career and they made their home there. Canuck that she was, the heat and homesickness often got to Donna, but she thought the trade-off was worth it. As the years wore on, *NSYNC toured less often, though they did keep recording, so Lance was able to spend more time working on his production company and relaxing at home with his family. Their only daughter, Kaitlyn, was 3 (*and a half*, as she loved to remind everyone), and she had her Mommy's big brown eyes and her Daddy's crooked smile. But nothing lasts forever.
Six months ago, Donna hadn't been feeling well and she had some sores on her arms, so she went in to see the doctor. The diagnosis came back: SLE - a type of lupus that attacked not just the skin but the internal organs as well. They had started her on immediate treatments, but nothing seemed to work. Lance had gone on a complete hiatus from the group, insisting that they continue without him for the time being. They could - he had finished recording all of his parts for the new album, and once it had finished production they were just planning a small promotional tour, no concerts this time around - so they did, albeit reluctantly. By the time they returned home from the last bout of interviews, Donna had been sent home on heavy pain meds. The doctors all shrugged and shook their heads. "Make sure all your affairs are in order" was all they had to say. Cold.
Donna and Lance never lost hope for new treatments, but they knew what was happening. She was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She did what the doctors had said, and everything was arranged so that when the time came her family would hardly have to do a thing. She also recorded some videos for Katie to watch as she grew up, and set aside cards and letters for special occasions like graduation. In addition to quality time with her family, Donna had set aside times to spend one-on-one with each of her friends. She actually considered herself lucky to have this opportunity, in a strange and twisted way. They would be able to say all the things they wanted to say, leaving less chances for "shoulda coulda woulda".
Chris and Donna had grown to be quite close friends over the years, due at first to their mutual love of psychology, so although his "appointment" had already come and gone he was up for another visit. He was trying to delude himself; he thought that maybe if he kept seeing her it would never have to be the last time.
He and Lance sat in the living room, trying very hard not to talk about the only thing really on their minds. How had the tour gone (well), how was Chris' family (good), how was New York (cold), how were sales going (better than ever)... finally, though, the pink elephant in the room could be ignored no longer.
Lance sighed. "She keeps saying she wants me to remarry after..." he cleared his throat... "later on, in a few years."
"She just wants you to be happy."
"How can I be? God, even the thought... I already feel like I'm cheating, even considering it."
"Yeah, it feels that way now. It probably should."
Lance shook his head, still lost in his own thoughts. "It wouldn't even be fair to whoever I do marry. She'll always be second, always the replacement."
"Don't think about that yet. You've got plenty of time before you'll need to. Just let things happen."
"Yeah, I know." He stared down the hall, thinking again. "Kaitlyn shouldn't grow up without a mother..."
Chris let that thought hang for a moment, then made an attempt to lighten the mood. "Hey, lemme tell you about this radio interview we did in Chicago. The DJ was hilarious, he was totally rippin' on Joey..."
Lance laughed as he listened to his friend tell the story, glad for the diversion. He wished he could have been there to see it for himself. He missed being out on tour, having fun, joking around with the guys. He was well past the "why me?" stage of things, but there were still moments when he had to wonder.
Chris was just describing the look on JC's face in reaction to a caller to the radio show asking a particularly hairy question, when a little voice floated down the hallway.
"Daaaddyyyy..." Lance looked up to see Kaitlyn standing just outside of his and Donna's bedroom. "Can you come here?"
"Hold that thought," Lance said to Chris with a chuckle. He stood, stretched, and turned towards the end of the hall.
Kaitlyn turned as though she'd just heard something from inside the bedroom, then she looked back down the hall at the guys. "Mommy says to hurry!"
Lance froze. Or at least he felt like he'd frozen, but the next thing he knew he was standing at the doorway to the room where his wife lay. She was sitting up in the bed, her back propped against the headboard with a pillow, but her eyes were shut.
"Donna..." he whispered, as if he was afraid to make too much noise. In the next moment he was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding her limp hand between his own.
She opened her eyes slowly and tried to smile at him. "I'm still here." She took a laboured breath. "But it's time for me to go." He couldn't speak. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. She freed her hand and stroked his cheek lightly. "You'll be okay."
"Shhh... You'll be okay," she repeated a little more forcefully.
He took her hand again and looked into her eyes, though he could barely see her through the tears in his own. "I... I love you. You know that."
"I do. I always have." Her voice faltered. She shut her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she opened them again, she looked down at Katie, who had crawled onto the bed on her other side. "You know Mommy loves you, right?" She lowered her voice as if telling a secret. "Now you take good care of Daddy, okay sweetie?"
"Okay," the little girl replied dutifully.
"That's my girl." She turned back to her husband, and hesitated before speaking again. "I'm scared, Lance."
He smiled weakly and threw her earlier words back at her. "You'll be okay."
She nodded, as though that was the confirmation she needed. She gripped his hand a little tighter. "I love you." She shut her eyes, then opened them again. "Oh..." She rested her head against the headboard and let out a long, slow breath.
"No... Donna... oh, God... no, please, no..."
After Lance had run down the hall to his bedroom, Chris stayed where he was in the living room for a few more minutes. So this was it. He had always figured he'd find out by a phone call. In fact, every time the phone had rung for the past 2 weeks, he'd been afraid to answer it. He stood and paced the room for a few moments, then started slowly down the hallway. He wanted to be there when his friend needed him, but he didn't want to get close enough to be able to overhear. No, this was too personal a moment, he didn't even want to risk that by accident. Thoughts were flipping through his head a mile a minute, completely incoherent. He was a little more than half way down the hall when he was halted by the sounds of a man's cries coming from the bedroom. Shit. He leaned his back against the wall and slid to the floor. He curled his legs up, folded his arms across his knees, and rested his head against his arms.
He wasn't sure how long it was before he felt a small creature trying to worm its way in between his arms and legs. He opened his eyes a crack, then unfolded a little to allow Katie to crawl onto his lap. She sat quietly for a few minutes, then she looked up at him and spoke.
"Is Mommy in her forever sleep now?"
In the months leading up to this, Donna had done her best to prepare Katie for what was going to happen. She had tried to put it in terms a 3-year-old could follow, and Chris remembered that this was one of the ways she said she'd explained it.
"Yeah, sweetie, I think she is."
"Oh." Katie looked down for a moment. Then: "Is that why you and Daddy are crying?"
Chris bit his lip. "Yes it is. We're sad because we're not going to be able to talk to her or spend time with her any more."
"Oh," she said again, but this time she kept her eyes on his. She spoke thoughtfully, as if she was reciting something from memory. "Mommy said it's okay to be sad but we hafta 'member that she's always with us right here and right here." She pointed first to a spot on his chest and then to his head.
He blinked hard. "She's absolutely right..." he managed to choke out, then he just held the little girl tightly while they cried together. After a time, he stood, scooping Katie up with him. "Let's go see how your Daddy's doing, okay?"
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