Sunday, July 26, 2009

Waking up

I want Nola.

Those words rang in Kate’s head over and over again, like a chant echoing as she struggled to come to awareness. But it took her a moment to really listen to her own thoughts.

Nola. She wanted Nola. She didn’t want Nola to do anything for her, to get her something or be somewhere. She didn’t want to see Nola to make sure she was all right in that automatic way a mother checks on her children without thinking. She wanted to be with Nola. She wanted nothing more at this very moment than simply to be with Nola.

And then it struck Kate hard that this was the first time she felt that way in longer than she could remember. The pain of that realization was nearly as deep as any pain she was feeling from having her body cut apart. Morphine could not dull the stab of realization that she had gone so long without just wanting to be with her own daughter. At this moment it seemed so simple, such a sweet, natural feeling. There was something eternally recognizable about it, but more than that. There was also something specifically familiar about feeling it in a hospital bed, like this; some sort of déjà vu. But she couldn’t quite place it, couldn’t hold fast to the familiarity before it slipped through her wavering consciousness.

Kate struggled to open her eyes. The surgery was over, they’d removed something, but was it both her breasts, one…just the lumps? She tried to move her head but her neck throbbed and her shoulders seemed immobile. Something was in her left hand, a button, yes, to call the nurse. Kate pushed it but heard nothing. She clicked it several times. Then she remembered something about self-administered pain medicine. But it was too late…her mind was drifting back into that other world.

Over the next 24 hours or so Kate drifted in and out of consciousness and her pain waxed and waned. But like one long continuous dream each time she came the closest to being awake before pumping the morphine back into her veins it was Nola that sprang to her mind. Nola as a baby, Nola the last time she saw her, the door glass breaking, her hiding spot in the butler’s pantry, bedtime stories, morning breakfasts. The visions were not linear, not in order; it was like a flowing spiral of sporadic imagery all of Nola swirling throughout the years of her life.

By the next day the images had become fully fleshed out memories and they’d fallen into order. They began with the morning when Nola was born, six weeks too soon, taken by cesarean when Kate’s blood pressure had risen dangerously high. Graham was out of town and trying to get a plane back from Montana…or was it Wyoming? They’d whisked Nola away before Kate could even see her and then something had gone wrong, too much blood lost. She remembered nothing until she woke up a day later. Deirdre, dear old Grandee, was beside her holding Nola, singing softly to them both.

Kate’s first thought at that moment wasn’t about if her baby was okay. It wasn’t even about whether she herself would be alright. It had been that she wished Deirdre would just take Nola, just take her right then and keep her forever…what a horrible thing for a mother to feel upon seeing her child for the first time! What kind of mother was I? How could I have felt that way? But she couldn’t help it, she tried to push the feelings away, tried to conjure up the way she thought she should be feeling, the way she felt with Ethan, but it seemed as if the control of her every thought was completely beyond her.

Deirdre had seemed to understand, told her that sometimes mothers don’t always take to their babies right away, especially when the birth had been traumatic. Just nurse her, hold her, just go do all the things she had done with Ethan and the love would come. Grandee had promised.

But had it? Had she ever let herself love Nola the same as Ethan? Or had she only gone through the motions? With Ethan it had been easy, her heart had swelled the minute he began to grow inside her. Once Ethan was born and they put him in her arms Kate felt that overflowing of emotions, almost a physical gush of heat in her heart that overtook her. She couldn’t get enough of him. All she wanted was to be with him.

That was what she felt now, that was the vaguely similar feeling!

Here she was in a hospital, that place where mother meets child for the first time, where that magical connection finally takes physical form after being merely subjective for nine long months. Now, here in this hospital bed over ten years later she felt that longing, that same warmth for Nola that a new mother might feel, or something strangely parallel to it at least. That was the familiar sensation she couldn’t quite place! She felt love for Nola open up in her that she’d closed off, walled in. She wanted to be with Nola…just to be with her would be enough. How long had she divided herself from these feelings? Worse, oh God, so much worse…how long had she robbed Nola of them, cut her off?

Nola wasn’t a baby anymore. But it wasn’t too late. It couldn’t be too late. She was still here. Nola was still here. There was time. There had to be. Why would she be given these feelings, these thoughts if there was nothing to be done? Or was this what hell realized all the mistakes you made, all your failures, when it was already too late? No. No, this couldn't be too late. Not yet.

It wasn’t until a nurse came in with a tray and tried to get her to sit up and take some clear liquids between gulping sobs that Kate realized two more things. No one from her family was there, and she definitely didn’t have her breasts. Both realizations where beyond excruciating. But unfortunately neither was surprising.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Knocked flat

“Sarah will be coming to town next week, do you want to have her over or should we go out?”

Kate barely looked up at Graham from her book, “Isn’t there a third choice, like neither?”

“Fine, I’ll just take her out to dinner myself, you do what you want.” And with that Graham slammed the side door and headed out to the garage.

Sarah was Graham’s first wife, a poet and novelist in her own right. She was critically acclaimed, though truth be told, little read by any one other than the literary elite. Once, she and Graham had shared not only a life, but also a perspective on the art and craft of writing. Or at least Graham had tried to share her singular and high-minded perspective, for a while.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t match Sarah intellectually so much as it finally boiled down to the amount of energy he was willing to spend on writing his heart out only to have it go nowhere and be read by merely a select few. What was the point of that? To Graham, the audience was as much a part of the process as the solitary time spent writing. It was the end result, the storytelling that mattered. That’s really what it came down to; he was, in actuality, a storyteller, not a writer. Once he accepted, embraced that, his career began to click. His marriage to Sarah fizzled out soon after.

But they’d shared eight years together and the split was amicable, no children, no house, no book royalties, yet, for either of them to squabble over back then. Sarah’s success in the interim years was in a different vein from Grahams, but apparently she seemed to feel equally satisfied, sufficiently proud of what she had achieved, as far as Graham could tell anyway. There was no feeling of competition between them, no awkward pretense, at least about their work. Besides, Sarah was family as far as he was concerned. He just wished Kate could see it that way.

Whenever she came to New York Graham and Sarah would get together. Otherwise she lived in Ireland, where, she said, “the line between poetry and prose was as thin a veil as that what hung between life and death, love and hate.” Sarah was always saying mystical things like that. Or maybe they just sounded mystical with that faint, albeit off kilter, Irish brogue she spoke with. This was more than keenly amusing to Graham since in reality Sarah was a nice Jewish girl originally from Brighton Beach…complete with her own distinct accent as he fondly remembered. Yet he didn’t find her new lilt disingenuous. Sarah wasn’t so much an imposter as she was…adaptable, like a chameleon.

This visit Sarah was going to be speaking at some symposium at Rutgers University, their alma mater, so rather than meet in the city they agreed to dine in New Brunswick. There was a little tavern that both knew well, still in business these many decades later. It was small and cramped but the pub food was good and it tended to be quiet on a weeknight.

Kate and Sarah had a love/hate relationship throughout the years, right now it was on the flip side -- Kate thought Sara had become a pretentious snob. To some degree she was right, but there was a charming undercurrent of self-awareness beneath it all, hidden in all the outward affectation, if you just knew where to look for it. Sarah could laugh at herself, she knew when she wasn’t fooling anyone and could take a joke, especially from Graham, a fact that was probably not lost on Kate, he could tell. She was a bit confrontational, a bit in your face, but one always knew where they stood with Sarah.

And Sarah was genuinely serious about her work; that deserved some respect. She took pride in the critics’ opinions that she held in esteem and seemed to easily dismiss the rest as hacks. Graham would sometimes read her latest piece, if she sent it to him, and she clearly made no compromises, she still wrote from the heart as she had when they were young idealists. On some level Graham admired her willingness to still take risks. But he also dismissed that at this age as a frivolous choice with consequences beyond the written word. He was firmly entrenched in a different kind of reality, so flights of fancy really didn’t impress him all that much. To him, Sarah the author was different, strange, maybe a little flaky or even, conversely, militant. But Sarah his ex wife, his longtime friend, that was who mattered. It was loyalty not camaraderie that held them together.

When he walked in to the tavern he only briefly scanned the room, no doubt Sarah would be late. To his surprise she was waiting for him at the bar. No matter how much her appearance changed through the years there was something the same about her, distinctly Sarah-like. They greeted each other warmly, she offered first one than the other cheek for Graham to kiss. He laughed and said with a teasing tone, “Oh I forgot, we are European now, aren’t we?”

“Now, now, don’t start Graham cracker, don’t start,” but Sarah was smiling brightly, looking pleased but yet a little wary. “I’ve come out to this dive joint just to see you, so don’t start in on me.”

“How dare you call our old home away from home a dive joint, I’m crushed.”

“Yes, I see that. How are you Graham, you look well, are you well?”

“I’m fine, good, great, how are you Sarah, you look real good.”

“Good, just good?”

“Radiant, lovely, ravishing, bewitching, should I go on?”

“No, I’ll take ravishing and bewitching and leave the rest, best not to push my luck with you. How’s Kate, she’s not joining us?”

“She’s good, fine, no, she had some things to take care of and then there’s Nola…”

“Ah, my very next question, how is that lovely little pixie child of yours? Honestly Graham, in that photo with the Christmas card you sent she looked so delicate and positively fairy like. She really is an astonishing looking creature, Graham. You know that right? You tell her that all the time, right?”

“Nola is great, she’s doing well at school, they’ve skipped her two grades in fact.”

“Two? Wow, that’s a lot. Two grades? Well of course she must be a genius.”

“Yeah, she’s, uh, smart, you know. We’re happy with how she’s doing right now.”

“Right now? As opposed to…?”

“No, nothing, I just mean we’re happy with the grade skipping and how it’s working out.”

“I see.”


“Nothing. It’s just that…”

“What? Say it. You know you’re going to before the night is over, just say it now while we’re both still sober and being nice,” Graham forced a laugh and tried to make a joke, but he suspected what was coming next. There was one subject that had grown more and more divisive between them over the last two years, and that was the subject of his daughter. Sarah had developed a bit of an obsession when it came to Nola, in his opinion, ever since she was at the house a few Christmases ago and Graham had to discipline the child for her behavior. Sarah had sided with Kate that Graham was too harsh and it had turned into a huge fight, the day ruined. This was only the second time he saw Sarah since then, and now it looked like it was going down hill almost as fast as the last time.

“You know what I think, and I just can’t let it go. I always see such a huge difference between how you are about Nola compared to…”

Graham could feel his chest tighten. See, this was the thing about Sarah…once she saw where you were vulnerable, where she could push your buttons, she was like a dog with a bone. She worked at you and worked at you. He knew now what this visit was about, what was coming. It figures, he thought. I should have skipped the long drive and just let her do this over the phone.

“Ok, look, last time you were here you were all over this. It’s like a year later and you’re picking up this conversation right where you left off. What, was this some kind of ambush? Can’t we just be two friends having a drink and catching up, why do you have to go there? What is going on, why do you care so Goddamn much about all this?”

“Why do I…? Honestly Graham, you don’t think I have a right to care about you and your life, about your little family. I was there, I was there when he…I saw how ripped apart you were. I held your hand and was your shoulder while poor Kate was in a grief stricken haze. Geez, I mourned that kid as if he were…”

“Well he wasn’t,” Graham snapped, wounded that this is where the night was going but unable to stop it now. “He wasn’t and Nola isn’t either. This is my family. You didn’t want a family, you wanted poetry and Irish castles and I wanted cowboys and a nice cozy teaching position in the cheesy suburbs.”

“This isn’t about what you wanted, or what I wanted,” Sarah’s eyes grew narrow and harsh, “This isn’t even about you, you stupid son of a bitch. I see you and your whole family going down the tubes and I…”

“You see? You see? You don’t see nothin’. What do you see? You phone me once in a blue moon, write cards, maybe see my face a few times a year and then you’re gone. You don’t know me. You knew me.”

Sarah’s eyes flashed darkly, so dark there was no division between pupil and iris…so black they shined in the dim light of the tavern. “No Graham. I thought I knew you. But clearly I was mistaken.” She stood up suddenly, looking down on him, staring him in the eye as intensely as he’d ever been stared down before. “Fuck you,” she said quietly, like it was a realization rather than a curse. “Fuck you, Graham Collins, you stupid blind jerk.”

He met her gaze, trying not to be rattled by her confrontation, standing his ground with all the coldness he could muster, “Right back at you,” was all he could think to say. Not clever, but it was more his demeanor that sent the message he intended…that she couldn’t get to him. No one could.

With that, Sarah grabbed her purse and stormed out of the tavern. Graham thought for a moment about following her. But he didn’t seem to be able to move. He was numb. He realized at that moment that he didn’t care at all that his oldest friend, one of the people who had stood by him for half his life, had just stormed out of the bar and probably out of his life for the rest of his existence. Graham didn’t care because to go that deep, to that part of him where caring lived, was impossible. That part of him, that place in the center of his being that cared about friends and truth and facing things had died a long time ago, gone with Ethan.

Only he just realized it now, a decade later, sitting alone in a bar in New Brunswick. He realized it too late to change it, even if he wanted to. And he didn’t really want to any more anyway.

Graham left the tavern and slowly started down Eastern Ave the opposite way from where he’d parked until he realized what he was doing. Crap, it was like being on autopilot. Graham had mechanically headed towards where he and Sarah had lived all those years ago. He shook his head, laughing at himself. As he turned around to head the other way he walked smack into someone, knocking them to the ground. “Oh God, I’m so sorry, are you alright?” Graham exclaimed, quickly bending to offer a hand to help the woman up.

“Christ, if I’d known this is what I’d have to do to get an apology out of you I would have worn some protective padding.”

It was then Graham realized the woman he’d knocked flat was Sarah.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

the doll cemetary

On Sundays Grandee used to come, making the drive all the way out from the city. Each and every Sunday it was practically the same, she would arrive and have lunch with Nola and her parents and then right afterwards she would take Nola to the cemetery. Nola’s parents never went with them, not once. As soon as everyone had finished eating Kate would make herself busy clearing the table and doing the dishes while Graham muttered something about having a few things to take care of and headed off to his study. Grandee would sit at the table and announce loudly that she was heading off to the cemetery and taking Nola with her if anyone else was interested in coming. But no one ever was.

Grandee said over and over again that it was important someone from the family look after things at Ethan’s grave. She would often say to Nola, “Promise me that when I’m gone, when I’m there with your grandfather and our sweet Ethan, promise me Nola that you will come here and take care of us, will you do that for your old Grandee?” Nola always vowed she would, and Grandee would pronounce her a good girl.

The cemetery was barely half a mile from the house, on Ramsey Road, the same main road their little street was off of. It was a small graveyard, not much more than four acres. Once there had been a church next to it, and if you went into the woods at the back of the property beyond the last row of headstones you could see the old stone foundation, the granite slab steps leading to nothing more now than a patch of scrub oaks and young birch saplings surrounded by the stacked stones that once supported the church floor. “It must have been a small congregation,” Nola’s grandmother would often muse. “Not like the great cathedrals of Manhattan.”

During nice weather Nola and her grandmother would walk to the graveyard pulling an old Radio Flyer wagon full of gardening supplies and the flowers that Grandee always brought with her, week after week. On a few especially nice days when the weather was just right they’d even skip lunch with Kate and Graham and pack sandwiches instead, eating them picnic style on the grass beside Ethan’s grave while Grandee would talk to him like he could hear her. She’d tell him all about some cookies she’d baked that were his favorite, or about some boys she’d seen playing games in the park that were about his age and how she knows they would have been, “great friends.” Often Grandee would tell Ethan about Nola, about her accomplishments at school or how pretty she looked. She would try and get Nola to talk to him too, but Nola would find herself strangely tongue-tied there in front of her grandmother. Grandee would always say, “no matter, your sister’s just shy, but she loves you dearly, know that sweet Ethan.”

On holidays Grandee would bring special things to leave there, like a heart balloon for Valentine’s Day, flags for Fourth of July, a bunny statue for Easter, or a colorful paper turkey for Thanksgiving. On Christmas Grandee paid the cemetery staff to put a blanket of evergreens over Ethan’s grave. Even in the dead of winter she and Nola would make the trip to the cemetery, only they’d just go by car instead. If it was especially bitter or snowing out Grandee would make Nola stay in the car with the heat on. Nola would watch her grandmother through the foggy windshield as she dusted the snow off the headstone, bowing her head and quickly making the sign of the cross, that’s what she called it. Then Grandee would stand there a few moments, perfectly still, head bowed, eyes closed, lips moving. Nola asked her once what she was talking about to Ethan when she did that and Grandee answered snippily, “I’m not talking to your brother, child, I’m praying, which you’d know how to do if that mother of yours ever sent you to Sunday School.”

Nola’s parents didn’t believe in God. Her father said he went to confession and mass every week until he was seventeen. Then his father, Granda, Grandee’s husband, said it was up to him. He never set foot in a church again. When Ethan was born Grandee told Nola that she begged her parents to have him baptized but “sadly they’d have none of it.”

But when Ethan died, when he was in the hospital before they turned off the machines, Grandee said she brought in a priest to give the last rites; that’s what they do if you are going to die so you can get into heaven, she’d told Nola. Grandee said, “So now sweet Ethan is our angel, he’s with his heavenly father and the Holy Mother will take care of him until it’s our time to join him, God willing.” Nola had asked her once what would make God unwilling, but for some reason Grandee got mad and told her, “that’s a question you should ask your heathen father, that is.”

Even when Grandee was mad, though, Nola liked the way she talked. In fact sometimes she even sounded better when she was flustered or angry. Grandee had what her mother called an Irish brogue, an musical accent from when she was raised in Ireland. The lilt of her phrasing made everything sound magical and believable, you would accept anything she said as inscrutable truth. When Nola was with Grandee she almost could believe there was a God and that Ethan was with Him, looking down on them all.

At Christmas time once a year Grandee was allowed to take Nola to the local Catholic church for a special service. They had a life-size creche set up in front of the chapel and everyone would stop and look at the figures before going inside. Nola could imagine that the baby Jesus was Ethan, being watched over by Mary and Joseph. She told her grandmother that once and it made her cry. Nola never knew when something she said about Ethan was going to make someone cry or smile, it was very hard to predict.

When she was very little and still played with dolls Nola would pretend that different ones were Ethan and that she was his mommy. Then he would get very sick or fall off of something really high up, and he'd die. Nola would pretend to cry and be very sad, sometimes she did it so well that she shed real tears and everything. After that she would carefully put the dead doll in a box and place little toys and trinkets all around it and slide it reverently under her bed. She would never take it out after that because once you were dead that was it, you couldn’t play anymore, you were stuck in the ground and couldn’t come out ever again, forever and ever.

Once when her mother found several of the dolls all boxed up in their pretend coffins, Nola had to tell her why they were all there under the bed and not in her doll basket. She thought Kate might get mad or cry...or perhaps even smile, it was one of those times she couldn't tell what reaction she was going to get. But Kate didn't do any of that. Instead she just closed her eyes real tight, scrunched up tight like she didn't want to see anything around her, not the dolls, Nola, not anything. Then she left the room with out a word. Nola’s mother never looked under the bed again after that, and she never gave her any more dolls, either. But that was okay, there wasn't that much more room under the bed anyway.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

a phone call

“Graham, I…we need to talk.”

Kate held the phone in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She paced her kitchen floor back and forth, feeling the smooth, warm wood against her bare feet. She was nervous about this conversation and how it would go. She’d barely spoken to Graham in the year since the separation, and now she needed him more than she ever had in her entire life. It figured.

When she found out he cheated on her everything happened quickly. In a white-hot haze she was made bold by the injustice and lashed out, struck back. She told him to leave, no fight, no dramatic scene, just get out. She even threatened to call the police if he weren’t gone by that evening. Her bravery was fueled by his acquiescence; he complied with her demands entirely. But she knew he would, knew he’d rather die than have anyone find out what went on behind closed doors. Valuing privacy was his Achilles heel.

After the shock wore off she realized his infidelity was the greatest gift of her life. She was not only glad he’d done it, she was relieved. It finally gave her permission to do what she should have done years ago, end the marriage. She'd repeatedly planned their demise year in and year out but never managed to gather up the guts to follow it through. Now he not only provided her with the motivation, but with impeccable justification…she couldn’t second-guess herself this time and no one would ever fault her. For once in his perfect life Graham Collins had been unequivocally wrong, and Kate could play that card to the hilt for all it was worth. It felt good to be in the right. Liberating. Satisfying.

During the first few monthgs he begged to come home, begged forgiveness, but she would hear none of it. He’d call and she would hang up, he’d leave notes and she’d rip them to shreds. He tried to speak to her through Nola but she silenced the girl. All those times she refused to talk to him other than to exchange the most basic information through Nola, “Tell your father this bill needs to be paid,” or “Tell Daddy there’s mail to be picked up,” nothing beyond that, nothing beyond the incidentals.

She’d even declined to let him in the house on more than one occasion. The place had been deteriorating as fast as their marriage towards the end, but now that he was gone the rapid decline was startling, even to her. She didn't want him to see, didn't want him to think she couldn't handle things without him. So Kate changed the locks and would simply refuse to answer the door when she saw his car. Who cared about a stupid mess anyway? She was done. She was free.

But now she had cancer and her bravery seemed to be as savagely stripped away as her body would soon be maimed.

Immediately after her diagnosis all Kate could think to do was numb the terror, not think beyond the minute in front of her. But anxious thoughts wouldn't leave her for long. She was alone. She was scared. Slowly she would pace her house like a caged animal, trapped, unable to find her escape. As she walked from room to room and looked at the filth her panic grew. The conditions were nothing short of disgusting. This was the home Graham had loved and bought for her, the home they’d shared together with Nola and where Ethan had lived his short, precious life with them. How could she have let it go this far? It only proved she needed help, this was too big a mess to clean up by herself. She knew what she had to do. It was time to dig out.

This house, her entire life was practically trashed, let go way beyond her ability to put it back into any semblance of order, especially now with all that was coming at her. She was going to be sick, ill beyond her imagination; she might even die. Graham was now her only hope, her best plan. Putting the marriage back together was the only thing that was, perhaps, within her control. So, she would allow him to come back. Allow, what a joke! Kate needed him to come back, to the house, to her, and most importantly to Nola. She needed to create order out of the swirling turmoil and if nothing else Graham could do that; he was very good at order.

But Graham’s voice on the other end of the phone was terse, “What do you want, I don’t have much time.”

Kate knew that was a lie, she still knew his rigid schedule by heart. “Graham, there’s no easy way to do this, so I’m just going to start, okay? But I want, I need, you’ve got to hear me out and just listen and not say anything. If you say the wrong thing I think I’ll break right now and I can’t…”

“Kate, would you just tell me what the hell this is about?”

“Okay, see, that’s what I mean, you aren’t being very…supportive.”

Graham let out a slow, annoyed breath, “I’m listening, just tell me.”

“I have breast cancer.”

Kate waited, wondering what his face looked like, wondering if it sunk in immediately or if this was going to take a while. She remembered the accident with Ethan, the episode with Nola and that awful boy, when his mother died, all the terrifying events that changed their lives together. Each of those times she’d been with him, right there with him, yet now she couldn’t remember his first reaction in any of those moments, she could only recall her own.

“How do you know? Did you have…?”

“All the tests, yes, it’s for certain, no doubt.”

“When did you find this out, how long…”

“Six weeks ago.”

“Six weeks, Christ Kate, why didn’t you tell me sooner!”

“Graham, remember I asked you to be supportive. This is about me, not you.”

“Still, that’s a long time…does Nola know?”

Kate knew now that she’d done this wrong, once again she hadn’t handled something the right way. Damn, he was her father, she should have told him before Nola! They should have told her together. She tapped her fingers nervously on the side of her wine glass, “Yes, she does, she lives here, it was hard to hide it from her,” she offered.

“I would live there too if you hadn’t asked me to leave.”

Clearly, this was not going to go smoothly, Kate thought. “Graham, you know damn well why you don’t live here anymore. And besides, that’s not the point. Look, I don’t have time to worry about your feelings, okay? Geez, Graham, seriously. I’m probably dying here, don’t you get that?”

“You’re not dying, Kate, I know it’s bad but it’s not necessarily a death sentence, Joe Donovan’s wife had…”

“I am not Karen Donovan. I am me and this is bad. Considering the way my life has gone thus far I’m not thinking the odds are in my favor. Okay, can we move on now?”

“What are you doing about this, I mean, what kind of treatment, who is your doctor?”

“Graham, I can tell you all of that, and I will. But right now I want to talk about Nola. She’s, she’s not handling this well at all, today she—“

“Can you blame her? Kate, I, I know you want to talk about Nola, and we will. I promise. But Kate, I need some time, some time to digest this, some time to get this straight in my head and figure things out.”

“Time? Graham, I don’t exactly have oodles of time on my hands right now. What do you mean you need time?” She could feel the shrillness of desperation creeping back into her voice, that voice that she just realized went away when Graham left.

“Kate, I just…let me call you back, okay?”

“Call me back, are you kidding me?”

“Kate, please, just, I’m hanging up now, I’ll call you back later, I promise.”

“Graham, don’t…” but she heard the click before she could finish. This wasn’t the response she expected. She stood looking at the phone receiver with disbelief, as if somehow the telephone itself was to blame. Kate wasn’t exactly sure how to feel. She understood not being able to process this all at once, but to essentially hang up on her after she told him she was probably dying of cancer was not even in the sphere of possibilities that she had considered!

Dying. Oh that word, it did still sound melodramatic even to her. Yet whenever she said she might be dying the ring of truth that phrase held resonated more and more with her as the days flew past.

When they’d told her it was Stage II she didn’t know exactly what that meant. She vaguely understood it had something to do with the size of the cancer itself, the tumor or lump or whatever it was you called that thing found growing in her like a ticking time bomb.

During those first days of doctor visits and a battery of endless tests she mentally agonized over what she thought were going to be her decisions, the treatment choices and options she expected to have. What a fool she was, a hopeful naïve little fool. Because once she fully understood her diagnosis the decisions were actually few and simple -- there were really none to make beyond hospital location and which doctor she thought was the nicest. Every single one of them, one by one, every doctor wanted to do the same thing. There was no difference in opinion, no glimmer of a reprieve. Bilateral mastectomy, both breasts are to go, simple as that.

As the truth sunk in she felt brutalized, under attack like the victim of an evil assailant about to hack her to pieces in some second rate horror movie. She couldn't face it. Maybe if she saw another doctor, went to another hospital? She wanted to find someone, anyone to give her another choice, something else beyond the violence of amputation.

But sooner than she could have ever imagined she gave up. It was surprising to her how easy it was after only six weeks to think of letting them go, her beautiful breasts, her lovely body, to be mutilated beyond recognition. But they weren’t hers anymore; these breasts belonged to cancer, to a villain that was trying to murder her with them like weapons of torture. Let cancer have them, they were toxic now anyway, damaged goods. Maybe her whole life was damaged goods, seeping poison that created the cancer in the first place. But she couldn’t go there. She needed to get things in order.

The doctor insisted the operation would be nothing; no more painful than a cesarean section is what she was told; tho not nearly as rewarding of course. It was the treatment after that scared her most. Being sick and alone was terrifying, unthinkable. Who would ever want a mutilated invalid? She would be alone for the rest of her life, however long that was to be. Alone except for Nola, of course.

Nola had been a trouper, at first. Taking care of so many things, not telling Graham a word about it. It wasn’t hard to keep it from him, eventually after the flurry of reconciliation attempts he’d stopped coming around or calling as much. It seemed he’d given up on both of them after only a few months. Strange how he’d suddenly just let go so easily, Kate had thought, surprised. Sure, he’d tried for a while to convince her to let him make it up to her, to take him back. Promised her everything and more. He even tried taking Nola out on Saturdays for the first few months like a typical weekend-Dad…but Kate threw it in his face, told him she knew it was just for show, just to prove something to her, to try and make himself look like the dutiful father she’d always hoped he’d be. After that he stopped calling, stopped everything.

Now she prayed with all her heart that those accusations were unfounded. She hoped with all her heart she’d been wrong, and that he really was capable of change, of loving Nola enough for the both of them, enough to make up for the years they were too wrapped up in themselves to put her first. Enough to make up for the fact that her mother now had cancer.

She always told Nola that her father loved her. She’d make excuses for his tyrannical behavior and say he just didn’t know how to show it, didn’t know how to express him self. Imagine that, a writer that can’t express him self, wasn’t that ironic. Who was she kidding? This was a man who wrote books with beautiful passages about quiet cowboys awkwardly professing true love, yet couldn’t manage to do so to his own wife or daughter. Jesus Christ, now he couldn’t even manage a telephone conversation with his dying wife.

Kate’s attention was snapped back to her surroundings; there was a knock at the back door.

It was Graham.