A young adult novel about a teen who finds hope and a fresh start after a terrible loss, and learns that being strong means letting go.
When Max Friedman’s mother dies of cancer, instead of facing his loss, Max imagines that her tumor has taken up residence in his brain. It's a terrible tenantisolating him from family, distracting him in school, and taunting him mercilessly about his manhood. With the tumor in charge, Max implodes, slipping farther and farther away from reality.
Finally, Max is sent to the artsy, off-beat Baldwin School to regain his footing. He joins a group of theater misfits in a steam-punk production of Hamlet where he becomes friends with Fish, a girl with pink hair and a troubled past, and The Monk, an edgy upperclassman who refuses to let go of the things he loves. For a while, Max almost feels happy. But his tumor is always lurking in the wingsuntil one night it knocks him down and Max is forced to face the truth, not just about the tumor, but about how hard it is to let go of the past. At turns lyrical, haunting, and triumphant, Ready to Fall is a story of grief, love, rebellion and starting fresh from acclaimed author Marcella Pixley.
About the Author
Marcella Pixley is a teacher and the author of two previous books for teens, Freak, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and Without Tess, which was described in a starred review in School Library Journal as "[a] lyrical,heartrending novel." She lives in Westford, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.
Read an Excerpt
When Mommy finally comes home it's almost bedtime.
I'm sitting on the top stair wearing my green railroad pajamas. Grandma is sitting next to me, our knees close together.
Daddy opens the door and they come in.
She walks into the house first, with slow shuffling steps. Daddy holds her around the waist very, very gently, almost not touching her.
He is carrying a white plastic bag with her things in it.
The dark winter sky gasps behind them.
Daddy closes the door.
He puts down the white plastic bag.
He takes Mommy's coat from her shoulders and drapes it over the arm of the couch.
Mommy is wearing her Vassar sweatshirt that zips up the front. She is wearing yoga pants and slippers. She is also wearing a plastic hospital identification bracelet.
Daddy takes Mommy by the elbow and leads her to the rocking chair, which is waiting for her like a grandma with purple velvet arms. This is our favorite chair in the entire house because it is where we used to rock and cuddle and drink milk when we were new. I almost remember it. My head in the crook of her arm the way it is in my favorite baby picture. I am one day old. Just a furry black head. Max.
Daddy helps Mommy into the chair.
She leans back and closes her eyes and doesn't rock or move at all, which is very strange because Mommy is usually moving all the time.
Daddy lets her sit there a minute. He hangs up their coats. Then he closes the closet door, goes to the white plastic bag, opens it, and places things on the coffee table one at a time. There are pamphlets and bandages and boxes and medicine bottles and tubes of ointment. Then he comes back and kisses Mommy on the head and they both stay like that for a while, his cheek resting on the top of her head, not saying anything, just being there together.
Grandma holds my hand and hushes me so I won't interrupt them.
Don't go down yet, she says. Let them settle in first.
But I haven't seen Mommy for two days and one night and I'm not about to stay up here. I want to tell her a joke about a boy and a dragon.
I yank my hand out of Grandma's and crash down the stairs in my pajamas feet like a green hurricane, with Grandma close behind me step by step, holding on to the banister saying, Here we come. Welcome home, honey. Oh, look at you.
I am tumbling and twirling down, stomping and slobbering like the Tasmanian Devil, growly and monster-crazy, whooping and leaping off the last three stairs all at once, so I land with a thump and slide in my pajamas feet toward Mommy, who is not rocking in the rocking chair. She opens her eyes and smiles at me. Her eyes are still as blue as they were before she left, and her smile is still filled with the same pretty white teeth. I think she is going to tell me a joke. But instead she holds out her arms.
Baby boy, she says.
It is the same voice she had before she left.
But she looks smaller than Mommy.
I stand in front of her and don't know what to do.
I want to jump in her lap and scrunch up under her chin and kiss her cheeks and put my fingers in her hair and rock like I used to when I was a very little Max-Max. But Daddy told me it might hurt to have me press, so I need to be very careful with Mommy and not hug too tight.
How about an air hug, Daddy suggests.
Yes, says Grandma. An air hug would be just right.
Mommy holds out her arms and closes her eyes and kisses the air.
I hold out my arms and close my eyes and kiss the air too.
Not good enough, I whisper.
Not good enough at all, Mommy says, laughing. Come over here. Let me take a look at you. It's okay. Come on up.
I tiptoe to the rocking chair. She smiles and nods, which is the same as permission, so I climb up on Mommy's lap and hug her really gently around the neck with both my arms.
Good job, honey, says Grandma.
Mommy kisses my nose and my chin and she tickles my back with her fingers up and down like dancing spiders and then she blows a slurpy raspberry in my neck and I growl like a monster.
I forget what Daddy said and lean in a little too far.
Mommy pulls back.
Okay, she says. Her voice is tight. Time to climb down now.
Daddy lifts me off.
There you go, champ, he says. Give Mommy some space now.
Grandma takes one of my hands.
He's been such a good boy, Grandma tells them.
Mommy's eyes go all soft and watery.
I'm so glad you were here, she says.
Oh sweetheart, says Grandma, I'm just glad I could be here for you. I wish I could do more. You know that, don't you?
I know, says Mommy. But tell me, was he really okay? Did he get upset at night?
Grandma swings my hand back and forth and then kisses my fist.
He was just fine, she says. Her voice is light and cheerful because she is pretending I was not upset so Mommy won't feel bad about leaving us.
Mommy looks doubtful, so Grandma finally admits that I cried at bedtime. But we told stories, didn't we, Max? And the stories helped calm him.
Grandma told me a story about a magic toy store, I say. You want to know what toy I picked at the magic toy store?
What did you pick? Mommy asks.
A magic jack-in-the-box that when you wind him up and wind him up, he finally pops, zoing, out of the box, he zoings up and then he keeps on zoinging higher and higher and higher until he reaches up to the moon.
Holy moly, says Mommy. Grandma sure is a great storyteller, isn't she?
I nod. I want to keep on telling, but Mommy looks small. She is putting her head back in the chair and closing her eyes again.
Listen, Max, says Daddy. Why don't you go upstairs for a while and let Mommy and Daddy talk with Grandma.
I want to be with Mommy, I say.
I know, Daddy says. But we need some alone time with Grandma. You've had her all to yourself for two whole days. And now it's our turn, okay?
I don't say anything.
You know what I really want, Maxy? Mommy asks me.
Her eyes are still closed.
I really want you to draw me a special feel-better picture of something that will make me laugh. Would you do that for me? Would you go up to your room and get your sketch pad and imagine me something funny with lots of colors?
Mommy opens her eyes. Even though they are the same blue they've always been, they are full of something new. Something that hurts.
My lip is quivering like a big baby.
Hey, she says. Hey, come here.
I come over.
Mommy kisses me on the forehead.
Go on, son, says Daddy. Be a strong boy.
He looks me in the eyes.
Being strong means you're not allowed to show them you're scared.
Okay, I say.
Promise? says Daddy.
Okay, says Daddy, I promise too.
We do pinkie swears.
Daddy rubs his eyes. I don't think he will be able to keep his promise.
Go on upstairs, says Grandma. I'll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in.
Can you tell me the magic train story again? I ask.
Anything you want, says Grandma.
So I march back up the stairs to my room like a soldier wearing boots.
I am a strong boy. I am the strongest boy in the house.
I take out my colored pencils and my sketch pad. I find orange and purple.
I draw a purple dragon with a little orange boy riding on its back.
I want to know which color is Mommy's favorite, because I will use that color for the fire coming out of the dragon's mouth. If Mommy says her favorite color is green, then the fire will be green, but if Mommy says her favorite color is blue, the fire will be blue.
I go to the top of the stairs.
Daddy and Grandma are talking.
They are talking in soft voices so I won't hear them, but I do.
I crouch behind the banister and listen.
I hear lots of words I don't know like prognosis and recuperate.
Give it to me straight, says Grandma.
Daddy tells it straight. His voice is flat like the kind of line you make with a ruler that stretches all the way across the page without any lumps.
Okay, says Daddy. After the first five years she has an eighty-one percent chance of survival. Then after that, the odds go up to something like ninety. That's pretty good odds. Plus the surgeon said the tumor was contained. It had not spread to the lymph nodes and they think they got the whole thing. So we have reason to be optimistic.
Mommy is crying.
It is not a quiet, hiccupping, sniffling cry like I make when I don't want anyone to hear me. This is a cry that comes from Mommy's heart, which used to be covered with breasts that fed me milk, but is now only covered by stitches and gauze and bandages, which are all thinner than breasts, which is why I can hear the cry coming so loud from beneath her Vassar sweatshirt, breaking out of her chest like a huge bird and rising into the house, its great wings casting shadows on each of us.
Oh, honey, says Grandma.
Grandma and Daddy go over to her. They put their hands around her shoulders and lean in their heads. They hold her while she cries.
I want to run down there so they can hold me too, but I pinkie-swear promised I'd be strong, so instead of running into their arms, I scramble as fast as I can from the banister back into my room, slipping and sliding down the hallway on my pajamas feet with my mouth pinched tight so nothing comes out. I jump into my bed and scrunch myself up in the corner and put my blanket over my head like a tent and cry into my hands under the blankets, holding on to my sobs so no one can hear, keeping all the howls inside my mouth with my fingers, all alone in my room until Grandma comes up the stairs and finds me.
Max. Max. Oh sweetheart.
Grandma takes the blanket off my head and takes my hands away from my mouth and gathers me into her arms so I can press my face against her shoulder, and she rubs my back and holds me and whispers into my hair that it's okay, it's okay, and she rocks me and rocks me and rocks me until my head droops against her shoulder and she holds me and kisses me and lowers me down onto the pillow that feels like a cloud.
I wonder if in heaven the angels sleep on pillows made of clouds. I hope so. I hope they have someone nice to tuck them in. I wonder if God has warm lips like Grandma. I hope he sits on the edges of their beds when they are too scared to go to sleep. And then when they have finally stopped crying, I hope he closes the door slow and quiet so the light in the hallway makes a triangle across the pillow and they can curl up in the light and pray that everything is going to be all right.
FUNERAL ON RYE WITH MUSTARD
The bell rings and I open the door. Would you look at that? It's Great-Tanta Sarah. She's flown in from Florida, rented a car, and picked Grandma up from Green Meadows Assisted Living Facility. They are both dressed to the nines. Great-Tanta Sarah is going all Old-World on us. She's wearing a black woolen dress even though it's the middle of August, she has a black lace doily on her head, and she's carrying a leaning tower of deli platters from Barry's down the street because let's face it, nothing in this godforsaken world tastes better with grief than a little corned beef on rye. Except maybe some chopped liver and a pickle on the side. Great-Tanta Sarah stretches up to kiss my unshaven cheek and bustles past me into the house. She wants to make herself busy. Grandma reaches for my hands just like she used to when I was little. She swings them back and forth with gnarled fingers.
"Look at you," she whispers with tears in her eyes.
She hugs me as hard as she can, but it feels like being hugged by a sparrow.
"It's the wrong order of things," she rasps into my shoulder. "Last year I buried Marty. And now I'm going to bury my Anna."
The top of her head smells like salt.
"They don't prepare you for this. No one prepares you."
"I know," I say.
But who am I kidding? I don't know a goddamned thing.
When the cancer came back, it was in her brain.
After ten years of remission, no one could have guessed it would come to this.
In the last few weeks, her left eye bulged out so far she would joke, The better to see you with, my dear. Which was almost funny. What was funnier was the fact that she referred to the tumor behind her eye as he, and occasionally gave us blow-by-blow reports of what he was doing. He's watching football. He's scratching his armpits. He's sitting on the couch with a bottle of beer and a half-finished cigarette. He was a lousy tenant. But what can you do? Inoperable means you better say goodbye. And we did.
In the limousine on our way to the synagogue, I lean my forehead against the glass and watch the sunlight stream through the trees.
Dad grabs my hand. "Be strong for me, okay, Max?" "Yeah," I say. "Okay."
"What's going to happen to him when I'm gone?" Mom asked toward the end. She was so far gone already, at first we weren't sure if she was talking about me or the tumor. Who's going to take him in, with his smelly feet and his hairy armpits and all his rottweilers? Who's going to give him a place to stay? I told her not to worry. We would make sure someone took care of him, and she quieted and sighed, her left eye bulging like a horrible secret.
In the synagogue lobby, Rabbi Birnbaum, who looks like a fish, makes an announcement in his practiced, baleful voice. "As you requested, Mr. Friedman, before the service begins, we'll open the casket in the sanctuary for a short viewing so close family can say goodbye. I'll take you and Max in first to have a private moment with Anna, and when you're ready, the others can join you. Then we'll close the casket, you all will be seated, the rest of the mourners will enter, and the service will begin. Okay?"
"Okay," Dad mutters, brushing the wrinkles from his slacks. "Thank you, Rabbi. Let's go, Max."
But I can't move.
"Come on," says Dad.
"Just a minute," I say.
Last night I stayed awake until three in the morning googling embalmment photos. Black-and-white ones from the turn of the century when they used to pose the dead with their loved ones before burial. One corpse was sitting propped up in a chair with her eyes open, a pale arm around the shoulders of a freaked-out little boy in a black suit. Another was lying in his bed in a cowboy hat, holding a rifle in one hand and a rabbit skin in the other, his head cocked, his mouth half open, smiling like a puppet. But Jews don't believe in embalming corpses. We leave the body pretty much as it was when it died. That means no embalming fluid. No makeup. No wig. Nothing to fool us into thinking they are going to wake up.
One thing on this earth I know for absolute certain is that I do not want to see my mother in that coffin.
I do not want to know what twenty-four hours in a funeral home has done to her face.
The rabbi opens the door to the sanctuary.
There is the casket that Mom picked out. Plain wood. Nothing special. How could she fit into something so small and still? She never sat in one place, and she was always throwing back her head and laughing so hard that you couldn't help but laugh along with her, even when it felt like your life was cracking down the middle. You might think that a person who is dying would stop laughing, but this was not the case with Mom. She laughed right through to the end. Well, not the very end. In the very end, when she was mostly trying to breathe, no one was laughing. Not even her. That last day we sat around her bed and held her hands and stayed quiet so she could concentrate on leaving us. But the day before that, she tried to laugh as much as possible. Dad said she was doing it for us. To help us through. But I think she was doing it a little bit for herself too.
"Tell me a joke, Max," she had said.
And I did. Even though I felt like I was dying too.
The rabbi opens the lid.
She's in there.
From where I'm standing I can see the tip of her nose.
The world spins.
"It's time to say goodbye," says Dad.
He leads me to the casket and we look inside.
"Oh God," says Dad, holding his heart. "Oh my God. Look at her."
I look. My knees buckle. Dad puts his arm around me.
How can this be?
Lying in her bed at home, she was Mom. She was Mom when she took her last breath. She was Mom when the men came with the stretcher to take her away. But now she's something else entirely. A wax sculpture. A mannequin. All the raucous, snorting, swearing, moving, bigger-than-life attitude snuffed out like a candle.
I put my hands on the edge of her coffin and I look and look.
Her face is white and fallen, but the tumor is still there, bulging behind her eyelid. If Jews believed in embalmment, they would have sucked him out with a straw, vacuumed him from her cranium along with her brain, or maybe they would have sliced him out with a scalpel and thrown him away. But they left him just as he was the moment she died, and here he is now, reaching out to me, the last piece of my mother left on this earth. Her favorite tumor. Starving. Licking his lips as I lean forward.
Who is going to take him in?
Now the rabbi leads the rest of our family into the sanctuary to pay their last respects before the service begins. They cry when they see us standing alone by her casket, two lost men with our hands in our pockets.
Excerpted from "Ready to Fall"
Copyright © 2017 Marcella Pixley.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Funeral on Rye with Mustard,
Welcome to the Hotel Glioblastoma,
The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: And Other Unfortunate Platitudes,
Assisted Living Facilities Have Good Ice Cream,
Dark Side of the Moon,
Measure for Measure,
Morning Has Broken,
We're Off to See the Wizard,
Yellow Smiley Sickroom,
Truth and Truancy,
Bottle of Cow,
Bildungsroman and Other Four-Syllable Words,
Ernie's Junk Shop,
Beef Lo Mein,
Thomas A. Trowbridge the Fourth,
Sophomores Are Sophomoric and Other Tautologies,
To Be or Not,
Lady J. and the Age of Aquarius,
All Things Fragile and Desperate,
Misery Makes Good Fiction,
Get Thee to a Nunnery,
Triangles and Other Three-Sided Polygons,
Birds to the Slaughter,
Perchance to Dream,
Concussion with Extra Cheese,
Early-Morning Singing Song,
Laughter and Tears,
Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune,
Long Road Home,
Ready to Fall,
The Fall of a Sparrow,
Also by Marcella Pixley,
About the Author,