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Inside the Mind of a Kid Genius
When you’re 13 and already in college, some parts of life can seem slow—while other things come on way too fast.
Tori Borland notices a girl about her age coming toward her. Please don't ask the dreaded question, she thinks.
The rock-climbing class was going so well. Tori, 12, learned to tie a rope harness. She climbed to the top of an artificial rock face. Now she's just watching. She takes a deep breath as the girl approaches.
"Hi," the girl says. "What grade are you in?"
Tori hates it when kids find out she's different. Some think she's a braggart. Others accuse her of lying or just walk away.
"It's a long story," Tori says.
The girl waits.
"I'm in college."
Tori regrets telling her. "Does she think I'm a freak?" she wonders. She's afraid to ask the girl what grade she's in—she might think Tori's trying to compare.
Finally, the girl says, "I've heard of kids like you, but I never thought I'd meet one."
Tori has been different for as long as she can remember. When she was five, she scored more than 180 on an IQ test. It's estimated that one in a million children is that intelligent.
Tori's brain has outdeveloped her growth since birth. At three years old, she felt six. At six, she felt 12.
Her mother, Margaret, likens her daughter's brain to a sponge: Tori absorbs information quickly, making connections between disparate ideas as she files them away.
"She doesn't understand what a normal brain like mine comprehends," says her grandmother Amelia.
When people find out she's a genius, some drill her: "What's the square root of 476?" After each college semester, a fellow student will ask: "Why aren't you at MIT?"
Tori's father, J.C., teases her when she uses big words: "Are you trying to use words I don't know?"
Tori is uncomfortable with the genius label. She says it makes people assume she's conceited. She often plays down her intellect—she'll joke that her poodle has the highest IQ of anyone she knows.
Raising a kid like Tori is a challenge. Margaret can't help her with homework; Tori doesn't need help with the novel she's writing or figuring out her biology assignments.
Margaret says Tori's life experience hasn't caught up with her intellect. Tori, who turned 13 in April, may understand quantum physics and laugh at adult humor, but she's still a kid. Margaret struggles to see why it's hard for her to relate to children her own age and why adults are sometimes irritated by her maturity.
When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Tori faced the most difficult problem of all.
Sixteen weeks pregnant, Margaret Borland left her job at the Defense Department, where she worked as a cartographer, and rushed to her obstetrician to talk about her ultrasound test. The news was a shock: Margaret's baby might be developing without a brain or spinal cord.
Margaret, then 28, was devastated. She and J.C. had met in high school, and she had talked often of becoming a mother. She wanted a girl with blond hair and blue eyes.
A few weeks later, doctors gave her a second ultrasound, which offered a better view, and admitted to a mistake. The brain and spinal cord looked fine.
Margaret was still rattled. She was prepared for the worst when her baby was born in April 1992. But Victoria Ann Borland was alert and healthy—blond with blue eyes.
J.C. was working as a congressional fellow in Representative Dick Durbin's office when he and Margaret brought Tori home to Elkridge, Maryland. He worked 12-hour days, leav-ing Margaret, who had taken leave, alone with Tori. Motherhood was hard. To-ri cried for four months.
Margaret subscribed to a newsletter that outlined milestones she could expect from her child. Tori sat up at three months, not six. She walked at seven months, not 13. By the time Tori was a year old, she spoke in sentences.
At the time, nothing struck Margaret as out of the ordinary; she had walked and talked early, too.
One afternoon, Margaret and her mother took 18-month-old Tori shopping at Giant. They were choosing a cereal when Tori pointed to a box.
"You should get that one, Mommy," she said. "It's free."
Margaret looked up. A banner on the cereal box read BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE.
At age two, Tori could add, and she knew the colors in a rainbow. She devoured books and used words like "lapidary"—a gemologist—in conversation, because she'd read about precious stones. J.C. found books face down on the bathroom floor; Tori was reading all of them.
At a preschool program for two-year-olds, Tori tried to get the other children to play games like Candy Land or organized elaborate games of pretend. She'd stare at the ceiling during naptime, thinking what a waste sleep was. She knew she could learn more at home.
Two years later, Margaret enrolled Tori in a program for four-year-olds. The first week, Tori took the doors off the cupboard of a toy kitchen set. She said she wanted to know how the hinges worked. Her teacher called her behavior destructive.
She knew her daughter was bright, but it seemed teachers didn't take to Tori. Parents were standoffish, too. Margaret and J.C. learned that the more advanced Tori appeared, the less nice other parents acted.
One day Tori was asked to read to the class so her teacher could run to the bathroom. Tori sat on the stool up front, her legs dangling as she showed pictures and read to the class.
Her classmates teased her the next day. "You can't read," they said.
By the time kindergarten rolled around, Margaret was worried. Tori had read 106 young-adult novels that summer. How could she manage in a classroom where kids were learning colors and the alphabet?
Before the first day of kindergarten at Ellicott City's Hollifield Station Elementary, Margaret asked a friend: "How can I get Tori into first grade?"
Hollifield's vice principal rolled his eyes when Margaret said her five-year-old was brighter than most of her peers—lots of parents say that. The school agreed to test her the summer before kindergarten.
Tori was brought to a reading specialist, who asked her to read a book from the Young Cam Jansen series, geared to four- to eight-year-olds. She had finished the series two years before and now felt silly reading the simple language out loud.
In the principal's office, a teacher handed her a math-placement test. It asked Tori to add two plus two and subtract one from four.
She placed out of fifth-grade reading and third-grade math—the highest levels the school tested for. The principal said she'd have to attend kindergarten for a week to fulfill a state requirement, but then they'd move her to first grade.
The reading specialist told Tori: "Don't tell the other children how many books you've read."
First grade was boring. On Tori's first day, her teacher gave her a worksheet with pictures of crayons on it. Each said "red" or "blue." Tori was supposed to color them the appropriate colors. When she finished, the teach-er handed her another worksheet. When she finished that one, she was told to check her work until the other kids were done.
At lunch, Tori played alone on the monkey bars. Later, she was assigned to an advanced reading group. She glanced at one of the books: "The boy has a ball. The ball is red."
At the library, she begged her teacher to let her take out fifth-grade books. "Only first-grade books," her teacher said. Tori asked if she could bring books from home and read them during recess. The answer was no.
The next day on the playground, Margaret—who was volunteering at the school—found Tori on the sidelines crying.
Tori started pretending to be sick before school. During class, she'd ask to go to the bathroom and prolong her stays.
At a loss, Margaret decided to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist in Towson who administered the Stanford-Binet, a widely used IQ test. Afterward, Tori waited in the room next door to her parents. Margaret and J.C. sat down across from the psychiatrist, who said: "I'm glad she's yours and not mine."
For a long time, teachers complained that Tori could not follow directions or do the work, but at home she sped through lessons. J.C. and Margaret knew Tori wasn't the problem.
The psychiatrist they'd consulted recommended taking Tori out of first grade and placing her in sixth grade at a private school. Margaret imagined her five-year-old sitting in a class with preteens—she'd be teased. While Tori was intellectually ready for the work, she was still emotionally five. She played with stuffed animals and loved arts and crafts.
Margaret had begged her own mother to home-school her when she was in kindergarten. While not as bright as Tori, Margaret had always been ahead of her peers. Now she proposed that she become Tori's full-time teacher.
J.C. was hesitant. He worried Tori wouldn't be socialized, that she'd be labeled. But the more he and Margaret talked, the more they realized there wasn't another option.
Margaret bought a first-grade curriculum from the Calvert School, a company that provides home-schoolers with a correspondence teacher. Tori zipped through the work in five months. She could have gone through the workbook in one sitting, but Margaret felt they should space the curriculum out.
To keep Tori stimulated, they went to the library, to the symphony, to story hours at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater, on factory tours. They attended physics lectures at the University of Maryland. If Margaret cooked, they talked about measurements. If Tori became interested in flowers, they researched how they grew.
Tori skipped third grade, and at age six she started work on the Calvert School's fourth-grade curriculum. That year, J.C. knocked a lamp over and Tori rewired it. She joined Girl Scouts, karate, a swim team.
Tori had no trouble making friends, but she had to talk about things other kids knew about, like movies, Disney World, and children's books.
Sometimes she wasn't invited to birthday parties. Margaret could think of only one reason: Parents feared Tori would upstage their kids.
In march 2000, Tori was on her computer when her grandmother Amelia sat down on Tori's bed and took a deep breath: "Mom has cancer."
Tori wasn't surprised. She had watched her mother get dozens of tests, then overheard her parents and grandmother talking about chemotherapy.
Tori, then seven, had learned about cancer in the New York Times. She imagined the rogue cells that had invaded her mother's body, multiplying like a silent army.
"I've known for a while," she said.
"Do you have any questions?" Amelia asked.
Margaret had ovarian cancer. Half of those at the same stage of the illness lived one more year.
Amelia started: "We don't know how long—"
"I know," Tori said.
Margaret worried that her illness would affect Tori's academic progress. She and J.C. had deviated from the home-school curriculum and hired tutors, including a neuroscientist from the National Institutes of Health. Then there was Tori's emotional development.
That week, Margaret put a spiral notebook in the bathroom for any questions someone didn't know how to voice. It remained blank.
Tori gave her mother a present. She had read about a Japanese legend that said if somebody is sick, you should make 1,000 paper cranes and the person will get well. Tori had learned origami from a friend. She folded colored paper until she filled six boxes, then gave them to Margaret.
That month, Margaret and J.C. asked Amelia to move into the spare bedroom, mainly to take care of Tori while J.C. was at work. They needed someone to organize her tutors, make sure she had lunch and dinner, and drive her to the library and piano lessons.
Margaret joined a cancer support group, and J.C. got a job at the Social Security Administration, ten minutes from home, and stopped commuting to DC. With his long hours, he'd played a peripheral role in Tori's life. He wanted to get closer.
They started "two nights," when the two of them would eat and go bowling or play mini-golf. J.C. tried to talk about Margaret's illness, but Tori didn't respond. He started to tell her how much he was going to miss Margaret but then stopped. He didn't want to unload on his daughter.
Tori felt that her nights with her father were helping her get to know him. "I learned little, unimportant stuff," she says, "like the kind of stuff he likes to eat or what he likes to read or that he's sillier than Mom."
When Margaret was in the hospital recovering from the exploratory surgery that identified her cancer, a priest had come into her room and asked if she wanted to talk.
Margaret told him, "My daughter isn't going to remember me."
The priest said he could recall everything about his mother, who died when he was 11.
"But Tori's only seven," Margaret said.
There was so much she wanted to teach her daughter. She wanted Tori to recall her mother's voice. She wanted her to know how much she was loved.
Margaret tried to reassure herself that Tori's ability to remember would rival her ability to learn—but she wasn't convinced.
She vowed: "I have to live long enough for Tori to remember."
Tori was waiting to see her science tutor who'd arrived from NIH. Amelia had pulled the tutor aside.
"Teach her what she wants to learn, but don't go over anything related to her mother's condition," Amelia said.
Her tutor started with chemistry.
Tori, who had just turned eight, quickly mastered the periodic table of elements, so they moved on to chemical reactions. Later, in biology, when they talked about DNA structure, Tori wanted to know how genetics was relevant to medicine: "If you knocked out part of the sequence, what would happen?"
Her tutor noticed holes in Tori's knowledge. During a unit on molecular biology, they had jumped ahead and talked about what went on inside a cell. But Tori hadn't learned the basics, such as how a gene is made or what a cell's structure looks like.
Sometimes she mispronounced words. She might say "cordial" as "kor-dee-al" because that's how she'd sounded it out when she was four.
Tori talked little to her science tutor about her mother. She would mention that Margaret had had radiation. If her tutor called to cancel, Tori would cry: She looked forward to those sessions. They took her mind off her mother.
That year, Margaret heard of an organization called the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, dedicated to bringing young geniuses together and helping them get a proper education. Geniuses who aren't stimulated sometimes attempt suicide or give up on their intellect altogether.
In 2000 Tori and her family flew to a gathering of the group in Lake Tahoe. One afternoon, she played Clue with a six-year-old and an 11-year-old. She was surprised that she didn't relate to the young geniuses. Many were introverted. But on the drive back to the hotel, Tori said: "There are other people like me."
In the summer of 2001, Tori decided she wanted to learn Japanese. Margaret called a professor who taught classes at Towson University.
"I'm too busy to tutor her," the professor said. "Why don't you enroll her in my class?"
That fall, nine-year-old Tori walked the low brick walls at Towson University as if on a balance beam. Grandmother Amelia followed on the sidewalk, pulling Tori's backpack on wheels.
In Japanese class, the students stared at the little girl with bangs, ponytail, and silver-rimmed glasses. When Tori saw an old woman and a younger-looking student sitting at a table, she thought, "That's the misfit table." She sat there.
Her grandmother had promised not to stay in the classroom; she waited in the hallway reading the paper. Unlike J.C., who trusted that his daughter would assimilate, Amelia and Margaret were nervous about how college students would treat her.
Tori hadn't been in a classroom since she was five. Sitting still for 90 minutes wasn't easy. When she got restless, she finger-spelled songs during a lesson—a deaf girl on her street had taught her how. Other times, she felt "bouncy"—like her favorite Disney character, Tigger—and talked during class.
One day, she heard classmates talking about anime, Japanese cartoons for adults. "I've never really liked cartoons," Tori told them, "but anime can be interesting." The students changed the subject.
At the end of her first semester at Towson, Tori begged her parents to let her take two more classes. College was the first time she felt challenged.
"It's going to be a lot more work," Margaret said.
On the first day of her computer-science class in the spring, her grandmother and mother introduced themselves to the professor and pointed out Tori, who had already walked into the lecture hall and sat in the front row.
"You'll see her grandmother more than me," Margaret said.
The professor nodded but wondered if it was a good idea to put such a little girl in this class.
After a few weeks, the professor realized that Tori, just nine years old, was serious about learning; she listened and was studious. One classmate started relying on her for help. For an assignment, Tori designed a Web page about vacationing at Walt Disney World. The site had navigation buttons and frames.
Tori's small hand didn't have the motor strength to take lots of notes in her human-geography class, so she tape-recorded lectures and transcribed them at home.
One day, her geography professor discussed the global impact of birth control. He paused when he noticed Tori. After class, he asked her grandmother if it was okay to discuss sexuality in front of Tori.
"You know about birth control, right, Tor?" Amelia asked.
Tori didn't know how she knew, but she did. "Yes," she said. "There are condoms and … ."
Tori didn't make friends at Towson. After class, she'd skip out and hug her grandmother, who would take her to lunch. They'd play on the swings at a park before Tori had a test. At the end of the day, they'd head home to see Margaret, who was too weak from cancer to walk Tori around campus.
In spring of 2003, after two years of taking college classes part-time, Tori wanted to go to Towson full-time. But first she had to get her high-school diploma.
An organization catering to home-schoolers, the Learning Community, had been tracking Tori's educational credits. It said she had double the amount needed to graduate. Officials at Towson were convinced she could handle a 15-credit course load, too. The school offered Tori a full scholarship.
The second week in May, Margaret and J.C. threw 11-year-old Tori a high-school graduation party at a hall in Baltimore. Amelia borrowed a friend's cap and gown. Tori invited her Towson professors, some tutors, and a bunch of her young friends.
She took the podium. A banner behind her read HARRY GOES TO HOGWARTS. TORI GOES TO TOWSON. Two stuffed Tiggers wearing caps and gowns and holding balloons sat on a table next to her.
Tori took a deep breath. "Because I am a class of one," she said, "I guess I can be the valedictorian.
"High-school graduation is often described as a progression from childhood to adulthood. But since that doesn't quite work for me, I like to think of this as a start of a new adventure."
Tori talked about teachers—how the best ones teach you about life, not just lessons out of books.
"Mom was my very first teacher, and she meant the world to me. Mom, as you celebrate my graduation, I celebrate you."
Margaret walked to the podium. Her cropped hair used to be straight but had grown back curly after chemotherapy. She kissed Tori, and Tori handed her a butterfly, tightly sealed and sleeping in plastic. When the plastic is opened, the butterfly senses the light and flies off.
They had released butterflies before—when Margaret was diagnosed with cancer. Margaret lived to her next birthday, so they had a party. A Native American tale says if you make a wish on a butterfly, it will come true. That afternoon, they sent several butterflies off into the light.
Going to college full-time was a breeze. Tori decided to major in biology. She told her mother she wanted to be a doctor.
But she didn't like all of the homework. When she heard something in class, she remembered it; repeating it at home seemed a waste of time.
When classmates asked the professor to go over a concept he had explained weeks before, Tori finger-spelled songs under the table. If she got a B in a class, her mother joked that it stood for "boring."
J.C., who had worked for the departments of Education and Agriculture, helped her edit her papers. Tori would get angry with him for changing her wording or suggesting transitions—she wanted to feel she could do the work on her own.
Tori thought some of her professors didn't like her. Amelia tried to help her understand why: "How would you feel if you studied your whole life and you're an expert in something, and then a ten-year-old comes in and asks you questions you don't know the answers to?"
One professor wanted to show Mighty Aphrodite in class. She took Tori aside and asked whether she could watch R-rated movies. Another worried she might not be comprehending his biology lectures. She surprised him when she did well on his exams. Later in the semester, when she came to his office for extra help, he began to explain a concept. She interrupted with a question three steps beyond what he was saying.
Some of the undergraduates asked Tori whether they could borrow her biology notes. In one of her biology labs, Tori was partnered with two football players, who talked about their wild weekends while Tori and another classmate did the work. They looked at Tori for her reaction. She ignored them.
The preteen in her yearned to be accepted, but most of her classmates weren't comfortable around her. If they cursed, they apologized. Tori would say, "It's not like I've never heard that before."
The day of Tori's biology final, her mother had a block in her nephrostomy tube, which drained her one remaining kidney. J.C. rushed her to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Amelia wasn't sure Margaret would live to the end of the day.
She got Tori to her exam early. If she got a call that Margaret was dead, she wanted Tori to be immersed in her final. Margaret had insisted that Tori's life not be interrupted by her illness.
For her 12th birthday, in April 2004, Tori had two parties. One was for her young friends. She liked spending time with little kids: "They think differently. They know I'm gifted, but they're not uncomfortable around me." They played pin-the-eye-on-the-smiley-face and ate cupcakes.
She had a second party with her older friends, who were in their early teens except for a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old. They played "personality bingo," and Tori organized an Easter-egg hunt.
Tori loves birthdays. "They're as big as Christmas in our house," she says.
Around her birthday, she decided to start a charity called Make My Day Special, using money in her savings account to buy presents and cakes for children in shelters. Amelia and Margaret drove her around to deliver them.
That spring, Margaret mulled over where they should go on vacation. They typically went to Disney World, a place Margaret calls "magical." She and her husband honeymooned there. Tori went for the first time at eight months old. They were supposed to go on September 11, 2001, but all flights were canceled. They drove.
Margaret and J.C. see Disney World as an escape—a place, Margaret says, where "no one knows I'm sick and no one knows Tori's a genius."
Tori had always dreamed of taking a Disney cruise. She begged her mother to go last May, but Margaret feared being at sea. She had just finished a round of chemotherapy. She didn't want to end up in a helicopter bound for a Florida hospital.
Margaret booked a last-minute four-day cruise. Weeks later, as they got on the ship, Margaret thought: "Please, dear God, just let me make it."
Tori liked the cruise and the freedom she had on it. In an activity group for teens, she played till 3 AM. The late nights made Tori feel more grown up. She imagined that must be how the kids at Towson feel. Tori thought her home life seemed "tethered."
Margaret didn't notice her daughter changing. She only knew Tori was happy.
"Tori's my motivator," she said later. "If I didn't have Tori, I'm not sure I'd still be here."
In the summer of 2004, Amelia surprised Margaret and Tori with a limousine for the day. Because Margaret was too ill to drive, she and Tori didn't get to go places alone anymore.
"Take us to Target, please," Margaret told the driver. Tori wanted to buy purses that read MRS. BRAD PITT and resell them for profit on eBay.
They went to lunch at Red Robin, a restaurant in Columbia, and ordered their favorites: a fried-chicken sandwich for Tori and fish and chips for Margaret. They talked and laughed like friends.
Neurologists know little about kids like Tori, but they believe young children rely exclusively on the right side of their brain to learn. As they get older, they optimize their brain power by engaging both sides.
In a child with exceptional abilities, both sides of the brain work together early on. Tori has probably used both of hers since she was in a crib.
Emotional development takes longer. Tori still has a dozen stuffed Tiggers lining the shelves in her bedroom. But she has added a book by comedian Jon Stewart. She heard college classmates talking about him.
Margaret forces her daughter to turn off her light at midnight. Tori needs her room pitch-black to sleep. If she sees the numbers on her alarm clock, she starts thinking of all the things she could be doing.
She's converted a second bedroom into a sitting room, figuring it's how the kids at Towson live. Hugging her mother and father in public now seems embarrassing.
Tori isn't interested in boys. Those her age are too immature, and college boys are too old. Tori believes crushes are "a social construct."
"If girls my age like boys," she says, "it's because it makes them feel more grown up. Maybe I'll find a guy in graduate school."
Tori is learning to entertain herself. She has started writing a book—a fantasy novel like the ones by her literary idol, Terry Pratchett, a British science-fiction author.
"I'm better at other people's lives than mine," she says. "I take my experiences and twist them around into stories."
She won't let anyone read the 150-page novel. But she will say this: The main character has the power to heal.
The Borlands have mostly stayed out of the genius subculture. They say parents are very competitive. "It's like 'my kid is smarter than your kid,' " Tori says, "even though everyone's kid is smart."
There are online listservs for parents and kids involved with the Davidson Institute. If kids hear of a child going to a community college, some will say, "I go to a real college." Parents will e-mail in "problems" when really they're listing their child's accomplishments.
Sometimes Margaret gets annoyed. Other times, she understands. Anything parents say about a young genius can be construed as arrogant—they have no one else to brag to.
Margaret, J.C., and Amelia play down Tori's achievements. They won't tell anyone her exact IQ. If someone asks if Tori is doing well at college, they'll respond modestly. If the person pushes, they'll say, "She's on the dean's list."
When Tori started her sophomore year at Towson in the fall of 2004, she didn't walk the brick walls as if on a balance beam. She wheeled her backpack along the sidewalks.
Over the summer, she had grown three inches and filled out. No more skorts and lime-green-striped shirts. Now she wore what she called "refined stripe shirts" and her favorite green cargo pants.
The first week, Tori went to student services and asked whether she could change the picture on her student ID; it had been taken when she was eight.
She won't let her grandmother walk her to class. Instead, they set up a meeting place for Tori to check in with her between classes. Sometimes Tori makes eye contact and keeps walking.
Tori wore headphones and listened to Avril Lavigne. She noticed that students didn't seem as uneasy around her. One girl vented to her about her roommate. Another said she'd heard kids saying that Tori thought she was better than everyone else; the student stuck up for Tori.
Tori liked hearing that college kids who got to know her could look past her age. "I just want to assimilate," she told her parents. "I want the students to treat me like they treat each other."
A lesson in her human-development class made Tori worry about Amelia. She learned that many grandparents are asked to function as their grandchildren's primary caregivers, and some are reluctant to take on the role.
On the drive home, Tori told her grandmother she was sorry she didn't have time to go out with her friends. Amelia assured her she was happy to care for her.
Amelia knows that Tori worries about her grandmother's aging. Amelia does, too: "I just need ten more years with Tori, and then she'll be ready."
Tori hasn't pulled away from her mother since she got sick, as children dealing with a parent's illness sometimes do. She told her mother she wants to be with her when she dies. She wants to hold her hand.
At the end of the semester, Tori's advertising professor had a holiday party and invited all of the students. A few said they'd bring beer. One offered Tori a ride.
Amelia saw the professor on campus one afternoon while Tori was in class. She explained her predicament.
"Tori wants to go into the party alone," Amelia said. She planned to park out front and wait for Tori. Amelia often sleeps when she's waiting for Tori or Margaret. "Remember that she's 12," Amelia reminded the professor.
The night of the party, Amelia parked with the car running. It was a frigid December evening. She tried to sleep but then had to use the bathroom. Tori's professor came out and insisted Amelia come inside.
Amelia called Tori's cell phone. "I feel rude not going in, Tor," Amelia said. "So here I come—but I won't talk to you. I won't even look at you."
One afternoon in December 2004, Tori, Margaret, and Amelia went to ShadowLand Laser Adventures, a laser-tag center in Columbia, with some friends. Before Amelia turned off the car, Tori was on her way inside. Margaret yelled for her to wait.
Tori turned around. "Patience is a virtue that I do not possess," she said.
The inside of ShadowLand is painted like a castle. There are arcade games and tables. Margaret and Amelia settled in with Margaret's friend Sally.
Sally's kids—12-year-old Geoffrey and six-year-old Aurora—followed Tori, who was on college break. They suited up in plastic laser-tag armor with several others in the next room, then waited for the doors of the cavernous playground to open.
Tori was relieved she'd finished the fall semester. She'd been bored—many of her classes had required rote memorization—which was why Margaret and Amelia had been brainstorming how to stimulate her.
"Mentors!" Amelia exclaimed one day. They could find Tori people to shadow. Maybe she'd meet someone whose mother had passed away or who could help her apply what she'd learned.
Within weeks, Tori had a meeting with a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The doctor invited her to spend the last day in December shadowing residents in the emergency room. The meeting was now days away.
Tori sat down with her mother and grandmother and popped sour candies into her mouth. Her friends went back to play in the laser-tag arcade. She rolled her eyes when her grandmother said she was going to come into the hospital with her. "You won't even know I'm there," Amelia said.
Tori glared at Amelia.
"I know you think you're 18, and you act it—" Amelia said.
"But we're responsible for you," Margaret said. "Hopkins is a very big place."
Tori crossed her arms. "But if I look 18," she said, "and I act 18, then why can't I be treated like I'm 18?"
Amelia explained that Tori's experience hadn't caught up with her intellect.
"But where does the experience come into it?" Tori said.
"In a million different places," Margaret said.
Tori pushed her bangs off her brow.
"She wants to move out, Gram," Margaret said jokingly. "She's ready. We're holding her up. We have her wings clipped."
"You say that as if it's something to be proud of," Tori said.
"What are we supposed to do, Tor? There are laws."
Tori was silent.
"You're supposed to be in school until you're 16," Margaret said, "but you're going to finish college at 14. Then what?"
"Then I'm going to go off and do something else on my own—in a place where no one can yell at me."
A couple of days before Christmas, Margaret's shoulder and arm began to hurt. The doctors said it was a blood clot. She went to the hospital for exploratory surgery a few days after the holiday, on the morning of Tori's moviemakingparty.
Tori had picked up a second major, in theater, the previous semester; it exercises a different part of her brain, she said. She loved her script-analysis class. Over break, she decided to make a movie.
She had already invited several friends over when her mother went into the hospital. Amelia decided she'd handle the party; J.C. would stay with Margaret.
Tori's best friend, Brittany, 14, was the first to arrive. The youngest friend was nine, the oldest 19. Two were young geniuses. Everyone sat in a circle and discussed books they wanted to adapt into screenplays.
Amelia announced that the pizza had arrived and started handing out slices. She kept glancing at the clock. It was 12:30; Margaret's surgery had begun at noon.
"It's been too long," Amelia told a friend who had come over to help. "They said if it took less than an hour, then it was nothing."
"Your grandma is a waiter!" one of the kids yelled, laughing. One boy cracked jokes while another insisted they go run in the woods. The older girls giggled at how silly the little kids were.
"I'm not sure where this is going," Tori said to no one in particular.
When the phone rang around 12:45, Amelia jumped to answer it. Tori kept talking as her grandmother walked into the living room. In between bursts of conversation from the kids, Amelia could be heard saying "her heart" and "we have to make choices."
Tori and her parents were supposed to go to Disney World in a week. Margaret had already told Tori they might not be able to.
Tori was worried that everyone at the party was bored. Finally, she pushed the kids to choose her book—Messenger by Lois Lowry, a coming-of-age story about a boy who realizes he has special powers. She told her friends she'd write the screenplay. Some complained that they'd have to read the book and the screenplay.
"How about you read one or the other?" Tori said.
When the party ended, she went up to her room and wrote a 51-page screenplay.
The weather in Orlando was perfect the first week in January—warm and sunny. The family checked into Margaret's favorite hotel in the Magic Kingdom. Margaret had skipped her chemotherapy appointment to come.
"Am I giving the cancer the upper hand?" she wondered.
This trip was different than others. J.C. had to give Margaret shots of a blood thinner every 12 hours and flush out her nephrostomy tube.
"Tori doesn't understand what it's like to be tired," Margaret said.
J.C. tried to provide comic relief: On a previous trip, he had sung "Under the Sea" to a diner full of people. One night he and Tori went to play in the arcade while Margaret rested. He often jokes that he should write a book on how to entertain a genius at Disney World.
Margaret was weaker than usual, so they rented her a motorized scooter to get around the park. Tori and her father hauled it in and out of the car. Tori wanted to go from 7 AM till midnight. By 10, Margaret dropped into bed exhausted. Tori stayed up reading or writing.
A few days into the trip, Margaret asked her, "Do you think we should go home?" She felt guilty that she couldn't do as much as she used to. Tori said it was okay.
Tori and her father collected Disney pins. At the park, she approached a woman and asked to see hers. "May I trade you for that one?" Tori said.
"Aren't you cute!" the woman said.
Tori felt defeated. "Kids are cute," she thought. "Older kids are pretty."
One afternoon, Margaret and J.C. decided to go on a ride in Epcot that Tori wasn't interested in. She wanted to go on Mission: Space, which simulates trips to the moon.
"You can either wait for us to finish," Margaret said, "or go to Mission: Space on your own."
Tori had never walked around the theme park by herself. She stopped to buy chocolate-covered ice cream in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. It felt good to be trusted.
"All I've wanted is for my family to acknowledge that I'm older," she thought, "that I'm mature enough to be on my own."
Last year, when Tori was 12, Margaret bought her a wedding present. She got something for Tori's first apartment. She got her a 16th-birthday card. J.C. has been told to give the items to Tori over time. Margaret wants her to know her mother was thinking of her even if she's no longer there.
Margaret's doctors promise they have another treatment that might help, but she and Tori know the reality—she could go at any time.
J.C. says he's ready to be a single parent. "I'm not in denial," he says. "It will tear me up inside, but my daughter is just as important to me as my wife."
Margaret has told Tori to sprinkle some of her ashes on Main Street, USA, in Disney World. She wants Tori to go there and remember the happy times.
When her daughter becomes a doctor, Margaret says, she's going to whisper in Tori's ear anytime she's not honest with her patients or is reluctant to say, "I don't know." These are Margaret's pet peeves.
One afternoon, Tori is listening to her mother talk about her illness. They're sitting on Tori's orange Tigger comforter. On the wall of Tori's bedroom is Rudyard Kipling's poem "If—":
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too … .
"You know what I just realized?" Tori says, interrupting her mother. "We're just too darn young."
At first Margaret doesn't understand.
Tori says more softly: "You and me both. We're too darn young for the cancer, for college—for everything."