October 11, 2013 | Updated: October 12, 2013 10:53pm
All summer, and now into the fall, Jack, 16, has worn the same outfit: A white polo shirt, khaki shorts held up by suspenders, fuzzy socks and an aviator's hat with earmuffs.
Tina Borja, his mom, is half amused, half exasperated. Sometimes she looks at Jack's outfit and says, "What is wrong with you?"
Jack says, "These are all things you bought me."
"Yeah," says Tina, "but I didn't buy them for you to wear all at the same time!"
It's a ritual, one of those pieces of life that seem like they'll be repeated forever.
Tina got the diagnosis on Valentine's Day last year: The breast cancer that she thought she'd beaten was back. And it had metastasized to her brain.
At most, the doctors said, she had maybe five years. Internet research told her that they probably wouldn't be five good ones. She needed whole-brain radiation, a last-resort treatment that can lead to dementia. She worried that she'd lose her motor control, or her ability to speak, or her inhibitions. Maybe she'd end up running in the streets naked.
She began squaring her life away. She started with the biggest project that she thought she could definitely accomplish: finding the perfect new home for her dog ("Shuffling the Pack," March 11, 2012; "A new home for Buck," March 25, 2012). That worked: Now and then, Buck's new owner emails her reports of their mountain adventures.
Then Tina had more luck: The whole-brain radiation went better than she'd had any right to hope.
She tackled tougher projects. She was living in an apartment in the Heights: A great location, a great landlord, but not a place where you'd want to die. She wanted her boys and her boyfriend to have something more. And she knew that her mother, the counselor/minister - in charge of "the kumbaya stuff," Tina says - would want big deathbed saying-goodbye rituals. The apartment had no room for that.
So they moved a tiny bungalow to a tract of land in Acres Home. In February, even before the hot water was on, Tina moved in. Now she, her boyfriend and her two boys, Gabe and Jack, are packed tight - the house is maybe 800 square feet - but it's theirs.
On the back of the house, they built a big screened porch. We hung out there on a Saturday morning as a storm blew in: Tina, me, Jack, Gabe and Gabe's girlfriend, whom Tina adores. Tina - half amused, half serious - showed me her bottle of John of God pills, with a picture of the Brazilian healer on the label. She said that her mom had insisted that they send the guy a prayer request, a process that required a photo of Tina wearing white clothes against a white background. Tina threatened to wear red underwear.
She mimicked her mom's voice: "Tina! Just cooperate."
"Fine," she said, back in her Tina voice. "Then I won't wear any underwear."
I looked up at the porch's high ceiling, where a giant circle of men's ties radiated out from a hole around the ceiling fan. "The mandala," Tina calls it: one of her sewing projects.
I was watching the way it billowed as the front blew in. Tina was noticing its loose edges, the ties' tips that drooped.
"I need to fix that," she said. "All my projects are like that. My whole life is a series of unfinished projects. I'm like, 'OK, this thing is done.' But then I see that it's not done."
"You'd climb up there on a ladder?" I asked, startled. Tina wears her headscarf in a way that looks a little pirate, a little gypsy. But I can't forget: It's about cancer.
Earlier this year, the remaining tumors started to grow again. This summer the edemas - the liquid gook around the tumors - pressed the brain around them, causing her to have three seizures, one after another; she remembers the ambulance but not the hospital. Now she takes seizure meds, and she's had cyberknife surgery, which seems to have had a good effect on the tumors. But there still are spots on her MRI, more chemo or cyberknife in her future. She didn't strike me as someone who should climb ladders.
Jack laughed - one of the first sounds he'd made all morning. "If she wants to," he said slowly, "she will."
He fiddled with a stuffed rabbit, a toy that Buck the dog had nearly chewed to bits, while his mom described her other projects: Her battle against the crazy ants that eat the house's wiring; the children's book she wants to publish; the addition she wants to build onto the front of the tiny house so that Jack will have a real bedroom, so that she can move the washer/dryer out of the little kitchen.
Last year, Gabe was at the top of Tina's project list. He was a high school senior then, visiting colleges and filling out applications. It worked: He and his girlfriend both got full-ride scholarships to the University of St. Thomas. He's confident, funny, at ease in the world. Tina figures her work on him is done.
Now she focuses on getting Jack launched in the world. Jack, who wears a hat with earflaps on a hot day. Jack, who's in the National Honor Society, taking tons of AP classes. Jack, who fills the big whiteboards in his bedroom with equations, or with the language that he's making up from scratch, or with notes for the book he's writing.
"Jack has zero interest in driving," Tina marveled. "When I was his age, everybody wanted to drive. Driving meant freedom."
"Why should I drive?" Jack asked. "Somebody will always take me where I want to go." Somebody, meaning Gabe or Tina.
"He's pretty good with the pedals," said Tina. "So at least there's that. But he does this thing … "
Jack looked intently at the stuffed rabbit.
"You know how when you make a turn?" Tina said. "You make the turn, then you let go of the steering wheel? Jack doesn't do that.
"I'm like, 'Let go!,' " she said. "But Jack doesn't. He doesn't let go. He holds on."
For a few seconds, there's nothing but the sound of the rain.