My next book is almost done. Let’s all just ignore the fact that I said it would be done in September, k? We moved, I grieved, I put my big girl pants back on… that all takes time. And I must admit the closer I get to finishing, the more hyperventilating I engage in. Birthing a book is a lot like birthing a baby. I just wish a handsome doctor could anesthetize me, cut my belly open, and pull this one out. It seems infinitely less painful.
At the urging of various and sundry writing professionals, what was once called “See How They Run” has become “Three of Eva.” The premise is the same, only the title has changed. And “Three of Eva” is still a working title. It may be called “Get the Damn Thing Out the Door Already” by the time it’s all said and done. This is the novel for which I was named a Midwest Writers Fellow. This is the one that’s been consuming me for the past year.
As many of you know, “Three of Eva” is — in a nutshell — the story of the Mathers sisters, their ailing mother, Eva, and their fractured past. It’s a story about relationships, about identity, about love and trust and healing. There are three Mathers sisters. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Catherine, the oldest. Hope you enjoy meeting her.
She didn’t fear the chemo as much as the mind-numbing molasses hours she spent in the infusion room. It took far too many minutes to sit and wait for the Cytoxin cocktail to drip into her veins and search for its target – minutes that stretched into foggy hours. Time to think about how alone she was, how the poison that was supposed to save her was all but killing her in its quest, how very much she’d squandered the forty years she’d been given. Time to wonder whether forty was all she’d ever see. Time to bargain with everyone else’s God for a second chance.
“Dr. Mathers, can I get you some more water?”
Catherine looked into the hopeful and unjaded eyes of her favorite nurse, Jenna. Young, sweet Jenna with the full lips and the even fuller, wholly intact boobs. Jenna, who had her entire life ahead of her, stuck in this dreary, godforsaken room with too much sickness and too little hair. Jenna, who respectfully called her “Dr. Mathers” even though Catherine’s academic credentials were earned by studying Faulkner and Hemingway while those with her life in their hands were MDs – the kind who earned their titles with cell mutation research and organic chemistry prowess.
Catherine wondered what Jenna did when she left the confines of this dreaded room. Did she work out? Read? Did she have a boyfriend? Someone she slept with on a regular basis? Did she go to church on Sunday? Or did she prefer to sit at home and drink coffee on her patio while she listened to John Mayer sing about strained relationships? All these questions and yet Catherine had never bothered to ask.
Of course, that was always how she’d chosen to live her life. It was safer to be a spectator, to watch from the sidelines than to risk actually participating in the game. She thought wistfully about Mrs. Elkins, her fifth grade teacher. Remembered how she’d worshiped her young instructor, how she’d volunteered to clean erasers after school just to be in her presence. Catherine longed to be loved by Mrs. Elkins, ached to be admired and accepted. She’d complete every extra credit assignment, would volunteer for every committee, would raise her hand to answer every question. And there was no doubt that Mrs. Elkins liked having Catherine as a student. But did she love her? Could she fill such a great need in an empty 10-year-old heart? Catherine clung to her beloved teacher, but she never dug below the surface. Love me, love me, love me was all that Catherine could muster in her developing brain. Love me, accept me, take care of me. The holes that her mother had been unable to fill stood gaping and empty. And yet, Catherine had never learned how to fill them on her own. Had never learned how to nurture and maintain important relationships. Had never truly felt what it was like to love herself. Guarded, always guarded.
“That would be nice,” Catherine replied with genuine graciousness. Her lips were cracked, her body heavy.
Outside the beginnings of autumn were evident. Yellows here and there. A burst of red, a hint of orange. But today the air was hot and thick. An Indian summer day turned steamy. Weather was like that in Indiana. You could be wearing a winter coat one day and a pair of shorts the next. It was fickle, volatile, equally beautiful and exasperating in its unpredictability. Catherine looked at her pale legs, her pink fuzzy socks. She’d bought herself the socks after her first chemo when she realized what kind of physical havoc the medicine was going to wreak on her body. Hot, cold, sweaty, clammy, nauseous, exhausted. She wished someone else had bought her the pink, fuzzy socks. They would have been a nice gift from a friend, a thoughtful gesture from a lover. “Here,” the giver could have said. “They’re to keep you warm, to let you know that I’m thinking about you. And they’re pink – you know, for breast cancer awareness.” Trite? Perhaps. She wouldn’t have cared. But she had bought them by herself and for herself at Target. They had sat in her red cart alongside a box of Oreos, two bottles of Cabernet, some frozen Lean Cuisines, and the latest Julia Glass novel. She had put them on the conveyor belt as the toddler in front of her screamed for a candy bar.
“Not now, Honey, it’s almost dinner time,” the mother had said sweetly.
“Now! I want it now!” the child had answered, not so sweetly.
“If you’re a good boy, we’ll get one and save it for later.”
Catherine had wanted to slap them both.
As Jenna walked away, Catherine’s iPhone vibrated beside her.
“Thank God you called,” she said as she answered the phone. “I need a little Michelle sunshine.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there today,” Michelle sighed. “If Jake didn’t have a basketball game an hour away, you know I’d be there with you, right?”
“Of course you would,” Catherine agreed. “And you’d have brought pinot noir, right?”
“Do you have to ask?”
Catherine smiled through her infusion haze. Michelle had accompanied her to the majority of her chemo treatments. Catherine would have been embarrassed to have anyone else watch her turn twenty shades of green while she drooled all over herself in a dreamless sleep, yet she was always grateful for her friend’s presence on her darkest days. Catherine had held Michelle’s hair while she vomited after too many fraternity party margaritas, had stood beside her on her wedding day, had attended the births of Michelle’s four children. Theirs was the one relationship Catherine had managed to sustain.
“I’ll bring you a banana shake tomorrow after I’m done volunteering in Molly’s class,” Michelle promised. “And I’m doing your laundry, so don’t argue with me.”
Catherine didn’t argue.
“Tell Jakey good luck,” Catherine said. “Love you, Sweetie.”
“Love you back,” Michelle replied. “Take care of yourself.”
All around Catherine, people in various stages of healing or death – whichever way you chose to envision it – were sleeping the sleep of the acutely tired while toxins were pumped into their weary bloodstreams.
But it was the walls that bothered her most. Why the St. Mark’s Oncology Care designers hadn’t thought of chair rails was beyond reason. With 20 cheap leather recliners bumping continually into the beige walls, the black scuffs and chipped drywall marks were inevitable. In fact, they created their own brand of sad and unintentional chair rail, much like the room itself fostered its own brand of sad and unintentional human beings accepting their fate, sleeping through the nausea, and dreaming of the life they’d all taken for granted until the diagnosis was made.
Like every person sharing this space, Catherine remembered with laser precision the moment her life took a hard left turn.
After two mammograms, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, Catherine knew in her heart that something was wrong. But when Dr. Bingham took her hand and said with the sad resolve of a man who’d grown accustomed to delivering bad news, “Catherine, it’s Stage II,” her heart still skipped a beat.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
That’s what cycled through her brain. Profanity… and little more.
And during those moments when she understood her existence would never be the same – that, perhaps, her existence might be cut tragically short – unconscious tears streamed down her cheeks and into her mouth where she tasted with striking clarity her own regret and loss.
When Catherine was five, she’d proclaim to everyone who would listen that she wanted to be a horse when she grew up. Her parents’ friends giggled into their vodka tonics, but to Catherine, nothing was funny about being a horse. They were exotic, fast, mysterious, and powerful with their muscular legs and dark eyes, and Catherine knew there was more to life than being a good, white, well-educated Catholic school girl who someday grew up to be a good, white, well-educated Catholic suburbanite. Never in her childhood aspirations, though, did Catherine say, “I want to have cancer. I want to go through chemotherapy. I want a handsome doctor to lop off one of my boobs before he returns home to his beautiful wife, his 2.5 kids, and a well-balanced dinner waiting for him in his gourmet kitchen.”
Later, when she could escape from the unrelenting circles of her own mind, Catherine found that her particular brand of Stage II (because breast cancer liked to present every patient with a unique bag of tricks) meant that the tumor was nearly three centimeters in diameter and had not yet spread to her lymph nodes. A lucky diagnosis as breast cancer diagnoses go. So Catherine underwent a lumpectomy to remove the evidence and eventually was able to look at the ugly, discolored scar that was left in the wake of the surgeons’ scalpels.
Almost unconsciously, Catherine’s hand went to her left breast – the damaged, irreparable mess that landed her in this purgatory of sickness. She glanced down at the port sewn into her chest to make infusion easier.
As if any of this could possibly be easy.
“Here you go, Dr. Mathers,” Jenna said sweetly as she set a cup of tepid water on the stained end table. Everything in here is beaten down, Catherine sighed. Even the cheap-ass furniture.
“Thank you, Jenna,” she replied with a strained smile as a wave of fatigue threatened to pull her into a riptide of semi-consciousness.
“Get some rest,” Jenna whispered. “I’ll wake you when you’re done.”
Yes, Catherine thought. Yes. Just let me sleep until this is over.