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Thursday, February 7, 2008
Or Would You Publish This Sad Story?
Here's another much-rejected story that's been slightly disguised by the author (plus title withheld) for your consideration. Does it merit publishing?
Sandra and Janice sat on the bed, memorizing what they could of Marion, who, now dying, seemed nothing like the woman who’d given them life. The days slipped by quickly, and yet it all seemed absurdly slow. Weeks of the same; slack jaw and fever with no movement whatsoever, so that even hoping for something––progress in either direction––seemed cruel. Time threaded apart and added confusion. They might as well still have been little girls, perched on the bed frame, waiting for their mother to wake and make them breakfast, take them swimming. They sat on the bottom half of a pilly hospital blanket, ankles tucked under, knees splayed. They were all grown up, and yet, now, presiding over their mother's dying body, it didn’t seem so.
"What about a priest?" Sandra finally said. "Maybe Mother would want one?”
“Mrs. Robertson,” Janice said, speaking loudly into her mother’s ear. “Do you want a priest?”
It took most of Marion’s energy to reach the surface of consciousness, what was left of it—life was so fragile now—but she managed to wave off the suggestion. She wanted nothing of religion. Not any more, not now. She made the gesture again, bony arm barely lifting off the bed, fingers flicked decisively and suspended in air. How lovely, Marion thought; communication with her daughters should always have been so clear, so well executed.
“Take it easy, Mrs. Robertson,” Janice said, still very loud. “It’s not your fault."
Marion hadn't spoken for days; the sound of her voice, strained and sickly, came as a surprise. “Of course it’s not my fault.”
Janice touched her sister’s arm, as if in the act of reaching out for their mother she'd somehow missed the mark. “It’s okay, Mrs. Robertson. We're here."
“Yes, here,” Marion said, or maybe just thought. “But not going very well.”
Sandra jumped to her feet. “Should we call for the doctor?”
These revivals were alarming, although they’d been warned that the process of dying was anything but linear. Some people get very lucid just before they go, Dr. Alberts had said. Janice hated his euphemisms –– just before they go –– “Go where?” she'd wanted to say. Sandra, on the other hand, hated everything but these comforting bits of wisdom from the doctors. There was so much to hate: the slow decline, the hushed conversations, the way her mother's wardrobe underwent a metamorphosis. Bulky gold amulets, jaunty knit slack suits –– usually navy blue or lime green –– and something like soft leather hiking boots. Who but their mother would treat cancer as an excuse for a make-over? And yet there she was acting as if it were a minor inconvenience that warranted immediate updating of clothes and attitude. She insisted on being dropped off at her Chemo treatments, rather than accompanied? “Wait in the car,” she demanded, as if she were only running into the deli to get a loaf of bread. “It'll just take a few minute.”
Now in the bed, Marion flapped her eyes at the ceiling.
Sandra, about to enter her second trimester of pregnancy with twins, looked around frightened. “What should we do?”
“It’s just a little burst of energy,” Janice said. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Robertson?”
Marion’s voice was like fine grade sandpaper. “Why is everyone yelling?”
“Extremes,” Janice said in a normal voice. “It’s what we’ve come to.”
Later, when they'd all gone home for the night, Marion thought it over. Her family came often, stayed late, said little –– a sure sign. And here it was, unexpectedly, a moment alone.
“What's not my fault?” Marion said aloud. She was thinking about the fact that once she had loved another man as much, if not more, than she loved her husband Richard.
The night nurse sighed deeply and took Marion's temperature. “None of it is your fault, dear. Really, not a thing.”
Sandra didn’t want the babies’ names to rhyme.
“Of course not, sweetheart,” her father said on the way back to the hospital after an emergency appointment with the obstetrician when it seemed like something might be wrong. “Why would you?”
Outside, the weather was mild, Indian summer. Good for business, Sandra's husband, Paul, had said. Paul Pirot Construction did its best work in dry weather, and timing was everything. Paul wanted to work as much as possible, so he could be around when the twins were born. Still, Sandra felt bad about prevailing upon her father for transportation, especially now, of all times, when her mother was so ill. But there was bleeding, and an appointment was made early in the day.
“A couple of stitches to the cervix,” the obstetrician had said cheerfully, “and those babies will stay right in place!”
Seated across from an educational model of little matching fetuses, Sandra’s father seemed pale and tired.
In the car Sandra said, “Daddy, they're going to sew me up like a sack of flour.”
He patted her hand. “Don't worry, Princess. Everything will be fine.”
Sandra could feel the babies moving under her ribs, heartburn wearing tennis shoes. She missed being thin and light on her feet. Missed her elastic figure and the appearance of youth, though she was 34 and beginning to wrinkle around the eyes. She missed spin class and making love with Paul on Saturday morning, because now she was too nervous. Her skin felt tight as football leather, which seemed to prompt her new favorite phrase, which she uttered all the time, even when no one was around: If you touch me I’ll pop.
Her father turned expertly against traffic into the hospital lot. He pulled into a parking spot several yards from the entrance. “Put the seat back and lie flat. I just want to check on your mother.”
“I'm starving,” Sandra said.
“Cafeteria?” her father offered brightly. “One toasted cheese and chocolate shake coming up!”
Sandra watched her father traverse the neat black pavement, heading toward Emergency, a short cut Janice had discovered after their mother’s first terrible surgery, which ended when they sewed her back up without even attempting to remove any tumors. When at last Sandra’s father seemed a safe distance, Sandra took from her purse a pack of Marlboro Lights and a can of Lysol. It was a soft day late in September, unusually pleasant. The parking lot was surprisingly busy.
Opening the car door wide, Sandra lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, reviewing the facts. On the ninth floor of the mammoth brick building, which had come to feel familiar now, her mother was dying, which had given her sister a reason to pull herself together emotionally. As usual, the crisis had become yet another excuse for the two of them (Janice and her mother) to gang up on Sandra, to all but obliterate the otherwise happy news that she was giving birth to twins. Her mother had always wanted babies.
Sandra let the realization drift into smoke.
When it came to family dynamics, Sandra was always the one who got the short end of the stick. For instance, when their mother carried on like a teenager with the junior high school principal, who at a tender age was employed to act as cover? Who turned a blind eye, sated with secret ice-cream sundaes and long afternoons at the movie or mall? All that subterfuge turned Sandra, the baby of the family, bitter at an early age. When things went downhill with Principal Howe, and their mother was secretly broken hearted, who acted as confidant, keeping it all under raps, so Daddy wouldn’t find out?
Sandra sighed, remembering how Janice had escaped the entire sordid mess by being a moody teenager, a normal high school girl with love interests of her own and friends who drove cars that could take her away. A matter of timing, or just plain luck.
Even as adults, Sandra carried the brunt of the responsibility. For instance, when Janice suffered from nervous exhaustion after her divorce, sleeping on Mother’s sofa and heading straight for a nervous breakdown, who suggested she see a shrink, someone unrelated entirely to Janice’s ex, a man she married after years of seeing him as an analyst? And did Sandra ever criticize or say I told you so, while Janice ran around the house, straightening the bedspreads and aligning the fringe on Mother’s throw rugs? Instead she kindly suggested medication. But was there ever any room for her in her mother or her sister’s life? Did they ever offer her constructive criticism, or God forbid, a helping hand?
And now there was this ––– her mother’s discovery of cancer exactly coinciding with Sandra’s first happy moments of double gestation.
“Jesus,” she said to herself in the empty car. “I really can’t catch a break.”
All in all, pregnancy was worse than expected. The stress and gas made Sandra feel like drinking again. Not real drinking, like when she was in college and used to wake up with naked people she didn’t even know: cab drivers, professors, and once a woman from town. Not like after college, when she used to drive the car to Connecticut and wake up in jail. This was different; she longed for the pleasure of a lovely red wine, something mellow to calm the nerves. A glass of Merlot would be good. She’d heard the Australians had perfected the art sometime after she’d gotten sober. Why not? Sandra thought. People do it all the time. She didn’t tell Paul because he’d only worry. They’d met each other at AA, after all, a fact that Sandra tried to downplay around her family because she could just imagine the kind of conversation her parents would pursue:
“Sandra and Paul go to AA together, Richard," her mother, all whispery and conspiratorial. “You know alcoholics anonymous.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Her father lifting his scotch glass cheerfully.
Her mother, bemused: “Alcoholics don’t have a sense of humor, darling. Let’s just keep this little tidbit entrez nous.”
Sandra could also picture her mother’s distress in conjuring up all sorts of terrible images: a smoky little circle of alcoholics in the basement of the local church, confession about a lousy childhood, a lousy life. Her mother had somehow managed to twist Sandra’s teenage drinking into an accusation, as if Sandra had manufactured some irrefutable proof of early neglect or emotional abuse. Anyway, she wasn’t really going to drink, and no one knew about the smoking.
Paul would be horrified to know. He wanted to elope: “I think the twins should have parents who are married.”
The generic reference to their babies as ‘the twins’ irked her. “Loving parents is all any human being needs.”
Sandra stepped outside the car for a moment, although the doctor told her not to stand up at all until after the procedure. “They might just fall right out of there,” the nurse had joked in a way Sandra didn’t appreciate. She stubbed out her cigarette on her father's tire and flicked the nub across a Subaru Wagon parked to her left. She hadn’t seen the driver approaching on foot, loaded down by a huge black purse the size of a suitcase. The woman was small and dressed in a red coat with incongruent white running shoes.
“Oh sorry,” Sandra said.
The woman gave her a dirty look.
“What? You’ve never seen somebody expecting twins before?” She sprayed Lysol directly into the air near her father’s car.
The woman looked stunned. She was younger than Sandra, despite the matronly outfit. “It’s cruel, you know,” the woman said, trembling. “Some people would give anything.”
Sandra slammed the car door and felt bad. Some people, she thought, jamming a stick of Double Mint into her mouth.
When Marion woke again it was dark. Richard was there, sitting by the bed, reading aloud from the paper. Leave it to Richard to think of the New York Times at a moment like this, and yet the more she listened, floating in and out of wars and crimes, political scandals –– even bridal announcements! –– the happier she was knowing that there were people around to carry on. Someone had to be responsible. The others, Marion thought, unable to stop herself from wondering about God. She’d been expecting this kind of reasoning to surface; it was predictable, drivel that brings comfort to the unquestioning: her daughter Sandra, for instance. Well, certainly she didn’t begrudge her daughter a faith in the higher power or whatever it is she believed in these days.
But no, Marion didn’t want God.
She hadn’t needed Him while giving birth to her girls (Life! after all Creation!), or while going through the battering ram of every day life. She wouldn’t need him now. Besides, who was to say who God was? Maybe she was God. Or Gerald Howe, Principal at Westchester Middle School, and in truth the only man she’d ever desired with every inch of her mature body. They’d made passionate love on the living room sofa, where they were caught in the act one afternoon by Sandra, a mere child, at the time, disguised as a budding teenager. Maybe God was the look of awe and disgust on a teenager’s face. Or the pain Marion felt when Gerald broke things off. Or maybe God is Richard, the patience nad loyalty of a humble man, Marion thought, listening to Richard drone on now about the stock market, as if she were perfectly well and able to chat with him over evening cocktails. Sweet predictable Richard. There it was before her now: the delicate shape of his skull showing through thinning hair. There were his nostril hairs stirring gently as he dozed off at the end of the paragraph about the downfall of Internet companies. He'd been so patient with her through the years. Richard! His ears protruding comically and wrinkling slightly at the lobe. She knew those ears better than she knew herself, and maybe that –– that exact feeling of knowing –– maybe that was God.
Marion tried to fend off the undertow of morphine.
In her cloudy mind, a memory floated up, phone message playing quietly, Sandra’s voice: Not your little girl anymore, Daddy.
“I should say not,” Marion had said, standing by the answering machine after her second round of Chemo. “Hell of a way to announce the future.”
“She’s eloping?” Richard looked stunned, hurt. He replayed the message twice more. It clearly stated that Sandra was running off to marry Paul and that no one in the family was invited.
In those days, Marion could clock the hours before she started feeling ill; she still had a little more time. “I suppose a private affair is better in her condition.”
“We’re really not invited?” Richard didn’t have much of a poker face. He paced around the room silently, mulling the insult, before giving in completely. He sighed deeply and muttered something about saving a bundle.
Marion patted his back. “That's the spirit, dear.”
Now, she lay in the hospital bed, dreaming of Gerald Howe, who’d broken things off so completely 17 years ago that it still took her breath away to call up the pain he had caused her. She remembered the sad sweet words he’d spoken during their last phone conversation: Darling, did you really think we could go on like this forever? He loved his wife; he’d taken a vow. By constitution, he was no habitual liar. Besides, they both had children and marriages to protect. It was absurd, and yet somehow completely forgivable that in fact Marion did believe that they could on forever, couldn’t help it, really. Yes, she’d said. Why not? No one ever has to know. Besides, if anyone could pull it off, we can.
Good-bye, Darling, he’d whispered with conviction. Don’t call here again.
In her most recent dream, Gerald arrived for lunch, as if no years had passed, and Marion tried not to focus on the obvious questions: What was she doing there, riddled with cancer? Could she possibly sit in a restaurant with Gerald Howe with tumors spreading like beach pebbles along the banks of her colon? Could she order wine and laugh about the good old days, which maybe (now that she’s had some years to think about it) weren't so good after all? In the dream, she carried on gracefully, ordering chicken Picatta, smiling over a white tablecloth and a setting of decent China. When her meal came, she ate silently, relishing the food, which had been served on a platter by Sandra wearing a black tuxedo –– two small pieces of chicken stuffed inside two tiny wooden boxes, shaped like little coffins.
Most everything seemed pointless now. The aids came by anyway to make Marion choke down a few driblets of applesauce and mashed potato. Squatting like sheep at the gate of her bed, they counted and measured every drop that went in, and, mortifyingly, every drop that came out. On the morning of whatever day came next, Marion brought up the soft substance in a mess on her gown, and suddenly remembered her father, now long dead. Once he'd taken her ice skating, long ago, it must have been, though she could see him kneeling at the foot of the bed to help her tie up her boots, a grown woman wearing Peggy Flemming powder-pink skates. This is what they want from you, Marion thought angrily, realizing her mistake. A Lifetime TV version of dying. Her father cared very little for her; that's what she should remember. The present, not the past; that's what she should catalog.
She tore the I.V. out of her arm and threw it in the air.
“Now, now, dear,” said the private day nurse Richard had hired. She was blonde and young, but had little patience for disturbances.
“Yes, I know,” Marion screamed. “Now! Now!”
Later, when the sedative wore off, Marion managed to identify the exact indignant feeling: It's an insult.
“We know, Mrs. Robertson,” Janice said, as if she could read minds. “No one likes it very much.”
Janice had taken on the role as family spokesperson, making grand pronouncements over afternoon milkshakes from the cafeteria and hurried dinners of Chinese take-out. I don't think Mrs. Robertson would want anyone giving up. And, We really ought to take turns rubbing her back and holding her feet. It was just like Janice to assume leadership, Marion thought proudly, ignoring as best she could her quirks. She’d been calling her Mrs. Robertson since the fifth grade. Affectionately, of course, Marion reminded herself, aware of the early signs of mental illness. Still Janice had come a long way since the divorce and her most recent nervous breakdown. She was even talking about moving back out on her own again and dating, always a positive step under any circumstances.
She hadn't meant that the insult was the cancer, or the cancer treatments. It wasn't even the cold certainty of dying, but the insufferable act of a lazy mind producing some sentimentalized idea about what was happening. (Is this happening? She thought, Oh my God.) She tried to concentrate: What is this like? What is the experience of dying like minus the violins?
“What do you think it means, Daddy?” Sandra said, leaning in and observing her mother's grimace.
Sandra’s husband Paul was the one who answered. “I think she’s smiling.”
Sandra leaned her head on Paul's shoulder. He was so gentle, even when he was wrong. He patted her burgeoning stomach timidly, as if to say, How are my twins? It was nice to be able to read someone’s mind. The stitches had worked; the babies were fine. She whispered in his ear: “Do you know what the last thing my mother said to me was?”
Paul shook his head.
She leaned in to whisper again, and this time smelled the familiar fragrance of his hair: sweat and soap. “She told me: Love hard, baby.”
“Love's hard?” Paul crinkled his nose.
“No,” Sandra laughed. “It was a command.”
“Oh,” Paul said, still looking confused.
Janice checked the morphine drip, and looked at Paul and Sandra. “What are you two whispering about?”
Sandra shook her head, returning her gaze to the bed. There lay her mother, completely unembellished, bald. She seemed to disappear into the white hospital sheets. It was more of what Sandra had expected from the start, and there was a certain comfort in having the moment finally arrive. In fact, during the months of chemotherapy, Sandra had hated how normal it all seemed, how misleading. Her mother fully dressed, sitting up and chatting with a nurse, as if she were getting her nails done. Tuesday had been her regular treatment day; funny that Sandra should think of that now. (Today was Tuesday, she realized.) Before long, her mother had known everyone by name and diagnosis. Having won the fight to accompany her inside, Janice and Sandra trailed her through the waiting room, each with a cup of chocolatey coffee from Starbucks.
Behind a white curtain, Marion motioned to the cup of coffee in Sandra's hand. “That stuff's going to kill you.” But before Sandra got a chance to pretend it was Decaf, Janice butted in. She motioned to the clear bag of 5FU hanging on a silver post above Marion's head. “Ditto to you, too, Mrs. R.”
Marion smiled. “You always were the witty one, Janice.”
“I'm serious, Mrs. Robertson. Why don't you try something alternative: acupuncture or Chinese herbs? That stuff's going to kill you before it stops any tumors.”
“This is just the Benadryl,” Marion said. “The toxic stuff comes next.”
Janice felt her mother's arm in the splint. “It's so cold.”
Everyone at the treatment center loved Marion, and praised her for being brave. The other patients stopped in behind Marion's curtain, patting Sandra sympathetically and asking questions, eyes lighting up at the mention of twins, as if the treatment room were one big family room. Cancer reunion, Sandra thought, where some relatives die chatting about weather. The only grim proof of reality was the tube dripping poison into her mother’s arm. Even though Sandra had started to warm toward her mother during those final weeks of chemo, she sometimes just wanted the whole thing to end.
Do something, Sandra thought, hold her hand, tell her a secret––anything!
Finally she managed a confession: “Paul wants to name the babies Daniel and Anabel.”
“Danny and Annie?” Marion snorted.
Janice looked alarmed. “Don't do that horrible rhyming thing, Sandra. You'll totally regret it.”
Sandra shrugged. “I'm not going to. But do you have any ideas?”
“Well now, let's see,” Marion said.
In the silence, Sandra cleared her throat.
Janice sighed; her divorce had gone through and she was sliding down a slippery slope. Marion leaned forward, wistfully patting Janice's hand. “Oh buck up, Sweetheart. All men are shits.”
“Perhaps you might have mentioned that earlier," Janice said. “Like before I got married.”
Sandra spread her hand out over her lap and looked at the beautiful antique diamond ring from Paul's dead grandmother. She saw the sweet-faced old woman from the photograph on Paul's piano beaming out at her and felt comforted.
Her mother smiled. “Never too late to become a lesbian, dear.”
A passing nurse chuckled.
Sandra looked up, suddenly panicked. “You don't mean Daddy, though, do you? Daddy's not a shit.”
“No, no, not Daddy,” said both Janice and Marion at the same time.
“Of course Daddy is a little absent at times,” Marion said, as an afterthought.
“Yeah,” Janice added. “Like when you really need him.”
Sandra's eyes filled with tears, which she knew had to do with the hormones of the pregnancy. Nothing else happened until the oncologist came by, stepping behind the white curtain to deliver yet more bad news.
Later, when the residents came around with tubes to thread down Marion’s throat, she realized that dying was a lot like living, except there were fewer obligations. Death was like life but without banking, dishes and radio stations. No Q-tips, Marion reasoned, though she wouldn't miss them –– not now.
“Is she trying to say something?” Janice asked.
“Maybe we should take dinner out to the hall?” That was Sandra, ever timid.
“Nonsense,” said Richard. The only word he'd spoken in days.
Marion knew that Richard thought all this was somehow his fault. Just this afternoon he'd ordered another day on the feeding tube; he couldn't figure out how to let go. (At least she could still discern that this was an act of love; that must be a good sign.) Richard, she thought, Oh, Richard. Where have you been? He was only now just catching up with her, a race he'd been losing since they'd had the children. Now that it was finally just the two of them, it was unfair of her to leave. A part of her wished she could confess and be forgiven. It was possible that Richard really was wonderful after all. These many years, standing at her side. Maybe. And so maybe she did understand something about love. Maybe just then, at that precise moment, finally. Love and pain—and the space in between ––Richard and Sandra, Janice, and Principal Howe. Maybe she understood in the way that needed no explaining, the way that was beyond all the words she had ever spoken, or ever needed to speak.
Marion's family gathered around the hospital bed, trying to read her lips.
“It must be important,” Sandra said.
“She’s saying she loves her family,” Paul said, assuredly. He held Sandra’s wrist in one hand and a carton of broccoli with garlic sauce in the other, unaware that he sounded sentimental, unconcerned that he knew Marion not at all. “Maybe she just wants you to know.”
“That’s not it,” Sandra answered in her softest correcting tone. “Not our Mother.”
“Sandra’s right,” Janice said. “Daddy, I think she’s saying your name.”
Richard stood: “It’s okay, darling. I’m right here.”
“No, wait,” Janice said, “it looks like something else.”
Even now, Marion was a commanding presence; they could feel her desire to communicate at last. They could see it in the way she thrashed her head with a sort of fevered Anne Sexton appeal. She let her hand remain lifted in air, for no apparent reason, pinky slightly extended. She was still raw, still sexy, even in death; anyone could see it. When she shifted in the bed, opening her eyes suddenly, it looked as if she'd had a revelation. Janice was still clutching a pair of plastic chopsticks; Paul still glancing down at the carton of Chinese. No one said a word. Sandra watched silently along with the others, as Marion's mouth opened and closed, parched and searching, lips puckering noisily, once and again, as if she were blowing kisses good-bye.