A letter to Tessa, age 17, from her best friend, Sylvia
[Ed. Note: Full text of letter not provided]
… This heart thing you’re going through, I admit it scares the hell out of me. I can’t help it, but you have me thinking about the problem of suffering, all suffering, not just being sick like you are. It’s a fact that if something hurts and that pain lasts long enough, you become numb to it. You just start to accept that life sucks, and you forget about anything but yourself, what you’re going through, and forget about what other people are going through. I mean, it gets easy to be selfish and ignore the fact that other people matter, too. I just wanted to say you matter to me.
I wanted to tell you this before, so many times before, but I was a coward. Afraid of what might happen if I told you. But I’ve been putting this off for too long. My heart being broken is a silly thing to worry about when the person who may break it might die. And I didn’t want to lose a friend. My best friend, when I think about it. But here you are T, sick and I kept thinking I would lose you and you would never have known that I love you.
See, I said it. And I don’t mean love like we’ll be best friends forever. I mean I really love you, the kind of love where I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I’m scared out of my mind right now imagining you reading this and thinking of me as some sort of pervert, but it isn’t fair to me or you that I keep this to myself any longer. I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long you can’t know. Every time we sit together and your hand reaches out to touch mine, or we hug, or I hear you laugh, my chest swells up with this impossible sensation, like my heart’s being lifted out of my body and I get dizzy, and I spend the rest of the day fantasizing what it would be like to be with you every second of every day.
I know we talk about boys, but the truth is I don’t like boys that much, at least not the way I’m supposed to. No boy ever made me as excited just thinking about him, not like you do. I don’t know why I feel this way, and I’ve given up caring. If I could, I would take you in my arms right now and hold you forever. I know you probably don’t think the same way about me, as someone you could fall in love with. I understand that what I feel about probably will always be stronger than what you feel for me, but if you could just try once, maybe give me one kiss, not a girlfriend kiss but a real one, you might feel something maybe. It could happen.
I wanted to tell you this in person, honest I did, but I hate hospitals. They freak the shit out of me, ever since my dad died. I can’t stand them. I didn’t want to spring this on you while you were lying in a hospital bed, all sick and drugged up and in pain and all. So, I chickened out and sent you this letter. I hope it will give both of us time to consider it, in any case. You don’t have to decide anything about me right away. Really, I can wait. I’ve been waiting for a long time already.
You want to know something? I keep a picture of you under my pillow each night. It’s the only way I can get to sleep, knowing you are close by. Sometimes I pull it out before I turn out my light and just stare at you. I love your red hair. I love your page boy haircut, and that you can’t help brushing it with your hands because you’re never satisfied with how it looks (it looks amazing, btw.). I like your smile in the picture, which is just a little off center, a real smile, not like all those fake smiles from everyone else I know. I like it that your nose is just slightly crooked and has this cute little bulb at the end of it. And your eyes. They’re always so bright, like they’re shining. I know I sound like an idiot, but I can’t help it.
Your Mom said you might be home in another week. She said the doctors finally got you on the right medicine for your heart and that they told her you should be a lot better soon. I’ll see you then, ok, if you still want me to.
I’m sorry if this upsets you. Don’t hate me Tessa. It’s just me being my usual crazy self. Love does that to a person, you know?
Ps. I suppose I don’t need to tell you this but please don’t tell anyone, even if you decide we can’t be friends anymore. My parents don’t know. Nobody knows. Only you.
* * *
A letter to Tessa, age 25, from her sister, Jessica, posted from Madrid, New Mexico.
[Ed. Note: Full text not provided]
… It really is just an ugly, stupid desert with dead clumps of grass and scrub fried brown by the heat. Whenever I look up at the sky here, there’s always vultures up above. They look like smudges of black paint drifting along, circling back and forth. It’s just them and that nasty sun that I am really beginning to hate. I’m in a place where the dust blows just to show you where the wind once was. Knowing you, you’d probably love it here.
The houses around here are weathered. Nothing looks new. They are worn down like the people inside them, hiding the liver spots on their arms and necks and cheeks with their sunburned skin. I swear that the only things that grow here are mounds of eroded red and grey rocks. You see them for miles and miles, little mountains with old gritty roads that wind through them, like dusty rivers at the bottom of canyons. Someone told me the mounds are the leftover tailings of coal mining operations back when this was a mining town. It was a ghost town for a while until some hippies moved her and turned it into an artist colony and tourist stop on the way from Albuquerque to Santé Fe. Some days, I think it should have stayed dead, you know.
. . . Sunset is my favorite time of the day, the only time beauty visits the double-wide trailer where we live, right up against a mesa, spreading its tablecloth of red-spotted light across the landscape’s stubborn existence. It’s so fucking gorgeous T. Too bad it doesn’t last long.
… Bob is usually gone by then, off to work as a waiter at a ritzy, overpriced resort restaurant near Santé Fe, thirty miles north of here. He gets home late, after 4 am most nights. Sometimes I’m up when he gets home and sometimes not. He says the only hours he can get is the late shift, but when I’m in one of my paranoid moods I imagine him flirting at some bar with other women, or going out with one of the waitresses after work, or worse.
Once, I thought I smelled tequila on his breath when he got home, and we had a real blowup. It ended with me crying on the carpet at his feet after he threw some lawn chairs against the trailer and kicked the trashcan over. Then he got in his truck and just drove off, wheels spinning and dirt flying like a scene from a bad romcom. He came back the next afternoon and apologized all over the place. Even brought me a bouquet of wild flowers he said he picked himself. Of course, he made the usual promises about not letting it happen again, etc. Now, I don’t talk to him about work or what he does in his spare time. I don’t want to think about it.
… I try to paint, you know, I really do try. Yet when I set up my easel or take out my sketchbook and try to pick a subject to work on, I freeze up. That big blank empty space begins to expand until it sucks whatever motivation I might have had right out of my dumb little brain.
A lot of days, I find I’ve spent an hour or more just staring at nothing. And I can’t remember a single solitary thing I saw or heard – not one fucking thing. I thought moving here would inspire me to work again, but it’s been the exact opposite. I’m turning into a zombie.
… The sky out here is so big, but its dead, and the land is dead and the people here might as well be dead, too, for all they acknowledge me. When the wind picks up it whistles in these weird high-pitched tones that drives the dog nuts and she runs around howling at nothing. Those are the times that make me feel that the ghosts that supposedly haunt the old mines are alive. More alive than anything else in this place, including me.
… To be honest with you, I’d probably be drinking or smoking again if I weren’t pregnant. I don’t really know anyone in this town, but the clerk at the grocery store. There’s one bar that serves food in town, and it’s the meeting hall for the local chapter of “Dirty Old Men Without All their Teeth Drinking Coors at Noon in Cowboy Boots.” I went there one time and walked out ten minutes later. Yes, it was that bad.
… I walked into one of the art galleries in town once, just to look at the paintings, but the owner made it clear she didn’t want any “locals” around who might scare off the “clientele” (her words). As if anyone around here considers me a local! Real piece of work that one was, wearing no less than ten pounds of silver and turquoise around her neck, her wrists, and some earrings dangling obscenely like big blue green dung beetles from her earlobes. You know the type – frizzed out Carole King hair and scrawny as an old witch, but trying hard not to show her age. She had a one-inch streak of white running through her black hair (which I bet she bleached herself). And get this – a Bronx accent to boot! I should have laughed in her face, but people around here look at me strange enough as it is. I don’t need to become the focus of the townies’ gossip.
… I’d really love it if you came down to see me, T. I know you’re busy getting your Masters, but you could come down over spring break, right? I’ll pitch in for gas money if you need it. Plus, I guarantee you will be able to feel your little nephew or niece kicking my tummy when you arrive. You won’t get an offer like that from any of the guys you’re dating right now (you are still dating right?). I just want to hear your voice again for more than a few minutes each month. Damn, I wish I could afford to visit you, but we only have the one car, and Bob doesn’t make enough money to buy plane fare or a bus ticket. I feel guilty as hell because I know you don’t have the money to waste on your silly older sister, but it would mean a lot to me.
If you do come, we’ll take a day trip to Santé Fe to gawk at all the rich bastards and their trophy wives and check out all the stores and galleries they have there. And maybe we could visit Taos too. Bob wouldn’t be around much, so it would be just us two, like when we were kids hanging out in our room, hatching plots to go to the Mall and sneak into some R-rated movie.
Please come. You know you want to, and it would mean the world to me. What else is there to say? It’s an old country down here and I’m lonely.
Your Big Fat Sister, Jessica
* * *
Tessa, age 30: Selections from her deceased Father’s journal
[Ed. Note: Dates of journal entries not provided]
Today my dear old mother-in-law showed up, bantering away like an anxious crow and feeling the many-colored walls of our newly painted house with her nails: the teal one, another in burgundy, one in dark brown, others in pale blue, beige, slate, and some sort of muddy purple that reminds me of dark grapes. I explained that I hadn’t picked the color scheme, that it was her daughter and granddaughter who made all the selections, not me. She said they made some bad decisions.
Dora stayed away the whole time at T’s place. When she came back, she had that look about her where she really doesn’t see me, the look of a crazy person about to lose it but keeping it together somehow. She had new bruises on her arms and legs. I was going to say something about them, but the words wouldn’t come once I saw her eyes and the fear in them. I kept my mouth shut. Or to be honest, it kept itself shut for me.
I’ve become a robot, wandering around the house when she’s here, performing all the little chores she used to do for herself. T tells me I should try to get her to do more for herself, that it would be good for her, but T isn’t here all the time like I am, doesn’t see what I see. She can’t possibly understand how much of Dora has gone missing, how much will never come back.
* * *
This morning, about 30 minutes after Dora took her meds, we were talking and suddenly, I don’t remember exactly why, but she flashed a smile at me as broad and bright as the ones I remembered from our wedding. After she left to go sit at the park and feed the ducks, I went and dug out our wedding album. There it was: the same big grin that stretched over her entire face, the one I remembered of her in her gown beneath the blue stained windows of the church.
That blue-lit church was so damned hot the day when we were married. The temperature was 98 degrees outside, the hottest day all that summer. Except for one room, the church had no air conditioning. Where the pictures were taken, in the Nave, there was a big rotating fan. Everyone in the wedding party took turns standing next to it while waiting to be called up front by the photographer. Dora, being the bride, was in more pictures that anyone, and stood in the heat the longest.
As I remember it, her bridesmaids lifted up her white-princess gown, all heavy silk and lace, to get some cool air to her legs, everyone laughing together at the absurdity of it, like little kids at a playground, but no one laughed more than she did. Her face was rounder back then, and lacked the broken lines the years have put there; but the smile, when it comes, still forces me to recall why I fell so madly for her. Why I still love her.
She had such an intense personality, and I still see that in her when she smiles, rare as that may be these days. It’s hard for me to look at that smile for long without smiling back. A thousand, thousand candles bright, that smile is.
* * *
We have become a word no one can name. It doesn’t exist in any dictionary or any language I can imagine. I lie awake to write these words, and as I do, all I feel is dread emanating from the walls of this house. We call it our home, but it’s not one anymore.
In my mind, I’m always thinking about our unpaid bills and shrinking bank balances, fuel for my nightly insomnia. Tomorrow I must go to the pharmacy and pick up more of her meds, swiping my credit card and hoping I haven’t exceeded my credit limit. If they don’t approve her disability claim soon, I’ll have to break into my 401k. All the rest of my savings are gone except for sixty ounces of gold, and that has to be kept for the girls. Just has to.
Friends suggest herbal cures and potions and other alternative treatments, all ones we’ve tried before; but none worked. My email inbox has row after row of suggestions and miracle cures. I don’t bother to read them anymore. I no longer desire to wish on stars.
Oh, the money I wasted on hopes and dreams.
* * *
I went to see Dora’s oncologist today at the clinic where she was treated. She’s quite young for a cancer doc. An attractive woman somewhere in the vicinity of thirty, she’s very striking. She made quite an impression as she rose from behind her desk and offered her hand to me. I refused to shake it. After a moment, in which she seem confused, she smiled and offered me a seat. Such beautiful white teeth she had.
I gave her copies of the research papers I found on the internet, printed out, nice and neat. The long term effects of chemotherapy on the central nervous system, Duffner, Journal of Biology 2006, and Systemic 5-fluorouracil treatment causes a syndrome of delayed myelin destruction in the central nervous system, Han, Yang, Dietrich, Luebke, Mayer-Pröschel and Noble, Journal of Biology 2008. They were in a folder I tossed on her desk.
“Ever seen these before?” I admit my tone was rude, nasty even. What can I say? I have good reasons.
She glanced at the title pages of the papers and casually flipped through them. I looked out her large office window. She has a great view of the parking lot. When she finished, she looked up at me and her cheerful demeanor was long gone. “I’m not sure what this is about,” she said.
“It’s about that damn fucking 5FU you gave Dora, I said. “You knew what it would do to her brain! Or you should have fucking known! If you say otherwise, you’re a damn liar!
Now she was upset, too, which was fine by me.
“There’s no need to raise your voice, Mr. Evanston. And no need to curse. As for these, I’ve never seen them before you handed them to me today. I have no opinion as to their relevance to your wife’s treatment. I can tell you your wife received the best care available and, as you must know, all her blood work shows she is effectively cancer free.
I was in no mood to shut up, however. My temper got the better of me. Who was she to lecture me anyway? Did she have to take care of Dora now that her brain was fried? Of course not. I kept yelling.
“If I could find what your precious 5FU did to people like Dora with a simple Google search, you sure as hell should have known. The first damned research paper was published two years before her diagnosis. You knew that crap was poison. You knew it would strip her nerves bare. You knew it would short-circuit her brain.”
She objected to that. Said she knew nothing of the sort. Claimed anyone can write an article and get it published. That the conclusions the authors reached weren’t necessarily correct. That the treatment Dora received had little if anything to do with her current cognitive issues.
Now I was royally pissed. Did you look at the names on those studies? The people who did them? Harvard Medical School, lady. The Neurology Department of Massachusetts General. Did you go to Harvard? Do you have a specialty in Neurology? Do a residency at Mass General?
“I think you’d better go,” she said. She picked up the folder with copies of the research papers and tried to hand it to me, but I laughed. I really did, right to her face.
“Keep ‘em,” I said. “It’s obvious you need them more than me.”
Then I stormed out. And here I am, mad as hell and up late writing this all down, and for what? It serves no purpose. I’ve got to stop doing this. I’ll never get any sleep if I keep making myself angry over this crap.
* * *
I told the girls today. They took it well, all things considered. I guess I underestimated my daughters, but what else is new?
I should have told them months ago when I first found out, but I was afraid. I found out my diagnosis only a month after I had to put Dora in an assisted living facility because I couldn’t take care of her myself anymore. Guess I was afraid the girls would break down and we’d have a big weepy scene, the sort of thing I hate. I just don’t have the energy for that kind of drama. But there were no scenes, no big whatever. I guess I shouldn’t have been so concerned. Maybe I was just scared to face them, together, and deliver one more blow after all they’ve been through these last few years.
J looked the most anxious, but she hid it well, I thought. Of course, she has to worry about my grandson and getting child support payments from that bastard ex-husband of hers. I figured he’d skip out on her the minute he heard the doctors tell them his kid was autistic. To be honest, I was surprised he stuck around for three months after getting the news.
J showed me some of her paintings (prints really) and naturally I liked them. I was more pleased to hear she actually sold some, and at a decent price, too. The gallery she deals with is asking for more of her work, so that’s a good sign. I said I was impressed.
She was holding little James while we talked, and he was off in his own world, but every once in a while he’d look at her, and you could see he has a connection with her that he doesn’t have with anyone else. Somewhere he has a mind behind all his wary stares, his failure to talk and the fits he throws every time someone other than J touches him. I wish I could say I love him, but I’m not that good a person. Mostly I just feel pity, and that’s the last thing he needs. It’s probably best he’ll never remember his grandfather. I did add him as a beneficiary to my life insurance and re-did my will so that some of the money will go into a trust for his education or care or whatever. That’s something, I guess.
Later, while J and James took a nap together in the upstairs guest bedroom (the one Dora painted a bright yellow of all things) T told me not to worry about anything, that they’ll make sure to take care of their mother after I’m gone. Which means T will have to do it, of course, because I know J has too much on her plate, what with James, no husband, and no steady income. I just hope J can find someone who appreciates her. Going to be hard to find another man as a single mother with a small child, much less one that’s “developmentally challenged,” but maybe I’m being old-fashioned. Maybe it’s not a man she needs. Maybe with the boy, J already has what she needs. God I hope so.
While J slept, I showed T all the paperwork she’ll need to deal with and introduced her to my lawyer on the phone – we’ll pay a visit to his office next week. I also gave her a copy of my living will. There will be no chemo for me and no “extraordinary measures.” If I have to die, I’d rather do it with all my wits about me.
I’m not as worried about T. She has this hardness to her. I don’t know where it comes from, frankly. We were so close once, when she was the last one left at home, before college. She was happier living at home, I think. Sillier, more playful, always taunting me and twisting me around like young girls do. She was always a Daddy’s girl. More than J was.
Now I never see T’s old self. She’s so serious. It’s as if I’m staring into the mask of an automaton that has her face, but nothing else. She still smiles, tells her little jokes, pokes fun at me, but it’s not the same. Something got lost. I don’t know what changed her when she went away to school. She won’t tell me. I suppose I could play the dying dad card, but that would probably backfire. Maybe she’ll talk about what’s happened before I leave the building. I doubt it, though. She’s like her mother. Keeps her secrets.
J says she doesn’t know anything about the changes in T, though at least she told me she’d noticed them too, that I’m not crazy. She says they aren’t as tight as they used to be.
* * *
This afternoon T and I drove out to the hospice I picked for when I’m no longer “functional.” It’s a nice place, an old East Avenue mansion retrofitted to offer what they call “palliative care” for up to 20 patients at a time. All patients have two staff members assigned exclusively to them. It’s a bit pricey, but I don’t expect to last long. In any event, the people seemed very friendly, cheerful even.
Everyone who stays there gets their own room with at least one window that looks out on to either the street or the grounds. Every room has trees outside the windows, I believe, and lilac bushes surround the place. I figure by the time I’m ready for it, spring will be here. I’d like one last spring with the trees blossoming and some birdsong to listen to.
T asked a lot of questions of everyone but when we finished our tour , she seemed satisfied. I told her at least it was cheaper than a hospital, which got a laugh out of her. She said something funny back, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it now. Maybe later it will come to me.
She didn’t cry until we were leaving. I saw her eyes water. It was uncomfortable.
“Are you all right,” I asked.
“I’m fine, Dad.” She was a little snippy, almost defiant.
“Well, you look like you’re about to cry is all.”
“It’s okay,” I said, “you can cry if you want. I – I cried the night I found out, you know. That wasn’t easy for me to say, but it was true. I bawled like a little kid after a spanking. I hate to admit it, but I still do a lot of nights.
“I’m not crying! Why are you talking about crying anyway?” She was angry, wouldn’t look at me. I reached for her arm, but she pulled it away. We got into the car. I was tired, so I didn’t object when she climbed behind the wheel.
“I really don’t want to talk about this right now. Just drop the whole subject of crying and whatever else you think you need to say, because I’m not in the mood.”
So that’s what I did. We had a quiet ride home.