Kitty’s aunt sewed her a pink satin boob. Kitty showed it to me on my third night at her house. She sat at the antique vanity in her bedroom and placed the small, soft cushion in my hand. The color made me think of 1930s Hollywood starlets. Kitty would never wear it, of course. She hadn’t worn a bra before the mastectomy, and she wasn’t planning to start now. But she smiled up at me and said, “Isn’t it sweet?”
I agreed that it was.
Kitty seemed to be feeling pretty good that night. She’d told me before how utterly sick and in pain she’d been after her first chemotherapy treatment; how the doctors, not knowing what else to do, had offered her codeine; how she’d been terrified and had needed someone with her at all times; how her friends were getting burned out and her mother’s blood pressure was rising to dangerous levels. But recently she’d gone to a cancer center in Tampa where they’d figured out a new treatment schedule for her. With chemo administered weekly, instead of monthly, Kitty seemed like her wonderful old self.
Before coming down to Tallahassee, I’d heard from a friend that things were bad, though “bad” wasn’t clearly defined. When my daughter Celina and I arrived, laden with suitcases, and tumbled into Kitty’s little house, we found her propped up by pillows in her bed, her head completely shaved. “I didn’t want to wait for it to all fall out,” Kitty explained. I was startled but impressed with the simple elegance of her long neck and the perfect mannequin shape of her head. “She looks like that Vulcan woman in the Star Trek movie,” Celina observed with reverence. Then we immediately forgot that Kitty looked any different than she had before. My daughter, buzzing with a ten-year-old’s energy, showed Kitty picture after picture she’d painted for her — waterfalls and birds and even a poem — while our cat chased Kitty’s toy poodle around and around the house. Kitty’s prosthetic leg — her “Barbie leg,” she called it — lay by the bed, a pink garter around the top.
Kitty had lost her leg to bone cancer when she was fourteen. Now, at thirty-one, she’d just lost a breast. The cancer had metastasized into her lymph nodes. She was scheduled to lose the other breast as soon as she finished six months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation.
My daughter and I hadn’t been there long when a man I’d never met came over. We heard his voice calling from the living room, and then he was sitting next to Kitty at the head of the bed, smiling and kissing her forehead. He had black hair, bright white teeth, and beaming brown eyes. She introduced him as her friend who owned the international-foods store down the street.
“I brought you something from Iran,” the man told Kitty, and he produced two scarves, one that he’d bought and another that his mother had sent for Kitty, a scarf “soaked with her prayers.” The scarf from his mother was black with thin lines of gold thread. Kitty’s hand trembled as she examined it. Then Celina tied the prayer-filled scarf around Kitty’s shaved head.
While Kitty and her friend talked, I unpacked and began settling into Kitty’s familiar guest room, with its enormous foam-rubber flowers and ivory crocheted coverlet on the bed. I’d stayed there only a few months earlier, just before Kitty had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I’d lived in Tallahassee while attending graduate school, and the town was still home to me, the place where my friends lived — and sometimes died.
When I returned to Kitty’s room, tears were streaming down her high, protruding cheekbones. She said she needed to go to sleep, and her friend patted her hand. Her tears obviously disconcerted him, but I understood Kitty’s exhaustion in a way that not everyone could. I knew what it was like to hold a conversation as if it were some impossibly heavy bag of stones, and I knew, too, the tears — the way the emotions fragment under an onslaught to the physical self. Living with hepatitis C has taught me these things. It isn’t cancer, but it has given me new insight into frailty.
On the third day of our visit, Kitty’s mother, Catherine, came over to take her to a doctor’s appointment. I was making calls, trying to get Kitty some financial assistance as she dealt with the chemo. What a situation she was in: several months earlier, her boss had forgotten to do the paperwork that would have made her eligible to receive donated sick leave from co-workers.
When I was done, Catherine sat down by the phone and made a call. I knew that her best friend also had cancer and was dying. Catherine seemed ready for an end to her friend’s slow, painful decline, and when her face crumpled, I knew it had happened. I went and told Kitty, “Her friend died. She needs you.”
While Kitty and her mother went into the bedroom and tearfully comforted each other, I sat on the stiff green couch in Kitty’s living room, admiring a painting she’d done of her plastic leg with flowers coming out the top and a disembodied hand plucking them. Suddenly feeling very thirsty, I went to the kitchen and poured a glass of ice water. Then, holding the cool glass, I realized I wasn’t thirsty at all. So I brought the water to Kitty’s mother, who drank it gratefully. The three of us sat on the bed, hands touching. It was a lot for a woman to bear: losing her best friend while her daughter sat next to her, bald and missing a breast. And Catherine had already been through this ordeal once with Kitty. Now, seventeen years later, they had to endure it all over again.
That night, I made angel-hair pasta, and we decided to go to the movies. My daughter was spending the night with her best friend. Like me, she’d left behind many friends in Tallahassee, and her social calendar was full that week. But my only obligation was to Kitty.
Thinking that Kitty wouldn’t want to go out, I had offered to get a video, but Kitty had said, “No, let’s go out to a movie.” She put on her plastic Barbie leg and a sleeveless flowered jumpsuit. Her head had a five o’clock shadow. I wore the nondescript, don’t-pay-any-attention-to-me pants-and-shirt uniform that I’ve worn most of my life. Now that I am middle-aged, it works quite well.
When we got to the theater, the sullen seventeen-year-old at the ticket window said, in a voice devoid of life, “Seven dollars.”
Neither of us had been to an evening movie in years; we thought she meant seven dollars for both of us. Kitty gave her the cash.
“Seven dollars,” the teenager repeated.
“Apiece?” Kitty asked incredulously, and we laughed at our own naiveté and at the look of scorn in the girl’s eyes. I realized how we must have appeared to a seventeen-year-old: a bald woman with a strange, limping gait and her middle-aged friend, both of whom have the unforgivable audacity to be out in public so close to sundown.
Once inside the theater, I realized I’d forgotten my water bottle. While I went back to the car to retrieve it, Kitty practiced her tai chi in the deserted lobby. Through the windows, I saw her Grasping Bird’s Tail and Brushing Left Knee. Kitty had always done whatever she wanted, wherever and whenever she wanted. One time, we went to the beach with a large group of friends, and Kitty wore her bathing suit with her leg off, her stump hanging from her hip. It made me happy to see her that way, so unselfconscious and comfortable with her body, a trait I envied and admired. In an age when so many girls have learned to loathe their bodies, I was grateful that my daughter would grow up knowing someone like Kitty. Then one of the men in the group — someone who was usually kind and generous — muttered something about “bad taste.” His remark both angered and disappointed me, because I wanted to think my friends were more open-minded.
At the theater, we saw the latest film adaptation of Hamlet. The modern setting was hilarious — Hamlet brooding in a Blockbuster video store — and yet it was still Shakespeare, that wisdom shooting like an arrow from four hundred years ago straight into our Y2K lives: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s probably true of cancer and hepatitis, as well, I thought.
The next morning, I went to San Luis Park, where I used to jog with my dog every morning. It was still early, so the temperature hadn’t yet reached the hundreds. The former lake was now a mere puddle surrounded by enormous grasses. I crossed the boardwalk over the mud and took off down one of the paths.
As I climbed the path through the woods, my thoughts were on the dead. At the corner of a nearby street, a man I’d once loved had died of a heart attack while driving his van, which had crashed into another car. He was thirty-nine. Two years later, another close friend and writing partner had died of a brain tumor. I missed them both.
I stopped and stood on a small wooden bridge only a hundred yards from the house of my daughter’s best friend, whose teenage sister had recently been killed in a car crash in Morocco. The eleven-year-old son of one of my friends had died in a boating accident not long ago. We’d attended his fifth-grade graduation just before we left Tallahassee. There’s no escape from loss, I reminded myself. Every single person you know is going to die. But even on my most cynical days, I do not believe that the death of the body is the end.
After I came home from the park, I drove Kitty to the hospital for her chemo treatment. As we wandered the maze of hallways, Kitty drank from a big Mason jar of green tea, which looked more yellow than green. On the elevator, a nurse eyed the jar and asked, “Is that . . . ?”
Kitty just smiled enigmatically and took a sip. As soon as we got off the elevator, the two of us burst out laughing. “These patients just don’t follow directions,” Kitty said. “You tell them not to drink the urine sample, but they drink it anyway.”
We were still laughing when we entered the chemotherapy room, but we quickly quieted down. Three patients were camped out in easy chairs, receiving treatment: a man in a security guard’s uniform, who slept, snoring softly, while toxic chemicals pumped slowly into his vein; a woman, obviously terrified, who looked about my age and still had all her hair; and an older woman wearing a scarf around her bald head, who seemed to be an old hand at this.
Kitty chatted with the nurses. “Do they talk about me at the meetings?” she asked. “You know, my case is special. I’m among the first generation of bone-cancer survivors. Now we’re all getting these other weird cancers. They did radiation on my chest when I was fourteen. They think that’s why I got this.”
I had seen Kitty’s mastectomy scar before. Now she showed me her “port” — a tube for inserting chemicals or drawing blood. The port protruded just beneath the skin above her remaining breast. It made me think of a faucet.
“The port is great,” Kitty said. “This way, they don’t have to keep sticking you. It goes straight into a blood vessel.”
The nurse came over and poked a needle through Kitty’s skin and into the port to draw some blood. Kitty winced just for a moment. I clutched her hand.
“I’m nervous,” I told her.
“You’ll be all right,” she said.
“Thank you for comforting me,” I said.
I stayed with Kitty while they got the chemo going, and we drew up plans for the mural she wanted painted on the back of her house. She wanted a picture of her poodle, her garden, and a kitty-cat in a flowered dress watering the garden. She also wanted her little pink house in the background. We had six young girls coming over that evening to paint the mural. There was no doubt which one of them would paint the kitty-cat in the flowered dress — my own Celina, Kitty’s goddaughter.
That afternoon, Debbie, a friend from graduate school, showed up with her daughter, who was helping with the mural. Debbie is a pretty good artist herself, and I was glad the kids would have the added adult guidance. We bought pizzas for the girls and the parents, and I made spinach salad for Kitty and me. I have to be careful what I eat, because of the hepatitis; too much fat depletes my energy until I can barely function. But when one of Kitty’s mother’s friends brought over an ice-cream pie, which the girls devoured in the sweltering late-afternoon heat, I guiltily tasted a spoonful.
“Frank is coming over,” Debbie said.
“I heard,” I said, giving her a meaningful glance.
I’d never in a million years have put Debbie and Frank together. But now that they were, they seemed a surprisingly good combination, and I was grateful for that. Frank is quiet but intense — one of those men you get the feeling is just smart as hell but has no interest in showing off for anybody. Buried treasure, is how I think of him. Plus he plays the banjo the way Tiger Woods plays golf.
I’ve been interested in Debbie’s love life for years. Once before, I thought she’d finally met someone just right for her, someone who would respect her independence and share her worldview. He was my writing partner, the one who got the brain tumor; three months later, we were skinny-dipping at his memorial service.
After the girls had done all they could do on the mural, they went out front to paint Kitty’s mailbox while the adults put on the finishing touches. The mural looked almost exactly the way Kitty had drawn it that morning at the hospital. Frank watched us paint from the picnic table on Kitty’s back deck.
“Frank, can I ask you something?” Kitty said as she filled in one of the flowers. “I didn’t want to with the kids around.”
“Sure,” Frank said.
“If I die, my mama is going to scatter my ashes in the Wakulla River. Will you come out and play the banjo while she does?”
The heat finally seemed to be breaking, dropping from close to a hundred to the midnineties.
Frank nodded his head. “I’ll do that,” he said.
The rest of us kept painting.
Later that night, when everyone had gone home and my daughter was taking a bath, I said to Kitty, “I know you’re going to die, but I honestly don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon. I mean, I could be wrong, but I just don’t think you’re finished here.”
“Thank you, honey,” she said, smiling that wide smile of hers. She was in bed, and the small pink boob lay on the nightstand. I kissed her on the cheek. It was funny how, even in her worst moments, Kitty smiled. She told me later that her smile was a habit she’d developed while trying to overcome the horror of losing her leg as a teenager. She would smile to make people feel comfortable, but she sometimes smiled at inappropriate times, because she also used it to battle her worst feelings.
“One time,” Kitty said, “I was telling someone about a girl who had been eaten by an alligator in the Wakulla River, and he thought I was creepy because I was smiling. I didn’t even know I was doing it.”
I hadn’t known until then that Kitty’s smile was a crutch, every bit as necessary as the two green metal ones she used when she didn’t want to wear her prosthesis. But it didn’t matter: I was grateful for Kitty’s smile. I believed it was more than a polite facade to disguise pain. I saw her smile as a light beaming through the darkness of the unknown.
I went to bed. We’d had a good night. The mural was beautiful, the girls had done a great job, and I was surprised at how well Celina’s rendition of the kitty-cat in the flowered dress had turned out. The rest of the week, though, would be harder for Kitty. The fatigue from the chemotherapy had already begun to kick in.
Despite what I’d told Kitty, I was under no illusion that I could predict when a person would die. After all, who would have thought that a fanatically healthy thirty-nine-year-old man would keel over in his van from a heart attack? And how could anyone think that an eleven-year-old boy was finished with his life when it had barely begun? I’d seen enough in the past few years to know that I didn’t know how long anyone had. But maybe that was a good thing, because if there was no knowing, then who could say that Kitty wouldn’t survive this? Plenty of women who have lost their breasts are still walking, driving, working, and getting into arguments with their husbands over whose turn it is to take the kids to soccer practice. Kitty’s cancer was more aggressive than most, but that didn’t mean the end was near.
Earlier in the week, I’d told Kitty about something I’d heard: that the people who survive cancer are often those who are the most in denial. “Denial sounds good,” Kitty responded. Every day after that, we spent a few minutes telling ourselves that we were radiantly healthy beings, impervious to harm. It made us feel better, as if we were taking a stand and improving our chances. And maybe we were.
Of course, once the chemo set in, there were moments of despair. The worst came after we watched Man on the Moon, the movie about comedian Andy Kaufman, who died of cancer. Kitty saw herself reflected in Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the bald-headed, dying man.
“That’s not you,” I told her, rubbing lotion on a rash that had developed on her scalp.
The morning after we painted the mural, Kitty, Celina, and I got up early to go horseback riding. Kitty had found a horse farm that specialized in equestrian activities for disabled people. We drove through the country along a shady two-lane road and arrived at the farm by about 8 A.M. As soon as we stepped out of the car and into the sun, we began to sweat. We quickly moved into the shade of the barn, where we petted the foals and played with the puppies.
After a while, the manager of the place showed up. She matter-of-factly pointed out a foal she’d recently rescued from neglect. It was smaller than the others and had a red sore on its chest. Standing in a stall with its adoptive mother, a big red mare, the foal watched us with curiosity. Then the manager saddled up a couple of horses, and soon Kitty and Celina were being led on horseback down a trail by one of the farmhands.
I found a shady spot and began to write in my journal. Despite the heat, I felt good sitting there in the grass, a tree at my back, a mockingbird scolding a crow nearby. It seemed to me that if you could relish moments like this, no matter what else was bothering you — whether it was heat, or disease, or even grief — then you had learned life’s one and only lesson.
When the riders came back down the path toward my little clearing, I saw Kitty in her helmet, sitting tall on the horse’s back, a regal smile across her face.