‘I’m writing a memoir’ may be the most pretentious words to come out of my mouth. And this comes from someone who used to regularly ask my restaurant customers if they wished to add a course of seared Hudson Valley foie gras paired with a glass of late-harvest Riesling to their seven course tasting menu. A memoir? I mean, who do I think I am anyway? I haven’t recently retired from serving as the Secretary of State; nor did I survive a horrific natural disaster or random act of violence or been unjustly accused of a murder where I already served a twenty-year sentence. I am a white, blue-eyed woman in my forties who is married with two daughters and lives in Kansas. But I also have a story; we all do. I’ve read many memoirs; the good ones have me whispering ‘me too’ – even when I have little in common with author. So I have been furiously writing, attempting to keep my rule of ‘Finish What You Start’. But I am stopped in my tracks. My dear friend Sandy has cancer and I simply don’t care about my story. My story is a dinner fork plunged into my heart, too deep to pull out even with both hands.
When Sandy walked in New City Café twenty years ago for her interview as a part time server I was confused. She strode back to my office, pumps clicking on the white linoleum, wearing a two-piece navy business suit. Her brown hair shot out from her scalp in bursts with the confidence that infused her presence.
“Why do you want to work here? It looks like you have a real job,” I said, reading the resume she had handed to me and glancing at the pager clipped to her waist. I was twenty-five, dating the owner (who was later to become my husband) and felt overwhelmed as manager of this busy restaurant and catering business.
Sandy’s mouth opened to an enormous smile, her front teeth like two smooth Chicklet pieces of gum. “What can I say? I like a little walking around cash,” she said holding out her hands in explanation, “And it’s fun, keeps me off the streets, so I don’t have to resort back to my life of crime and return to the big house.” Another smile – she was joking of course, but I furrowed my brow in response. Just what we needed around here, I thought to myself, another smart-ass.
“Can you start right now?” I asked. “Corey no-showed and we could use an extra set of hands on the catering that’s going out.” Qualifications I looked for in someone to cater included having two hands and walking upright; she should be just fine.
“You betcha, sister. Shall I wear what I have on?” she asked with mock seriousness. And that made me laugh. I’ve been laughing with her ever since.
The email last week explaining her new cancer prognosis made me want to throw up. That back issue that caused her to reschedule lunch wasn’t a pulled muscle after all. Tumors on her spine caused a compression fracture; the CAT scan was lit up like a Christmas tree with tumors in her liver, bones, lungs and God knows where else. An aggressive cancer was moving fast, seemingly grabbing on to everything it in its path inside her. Her forty-six year old body that exercised for two hours a day could now not get out of the hospital bed without assistance. When I first saw her in the hospital, her head tensely resting against the crisp white pillowcase, she smiled, but I saw beneath her pupils. My story is the pain and fear behind the smile.
“Table twelve requests your glorious presence with a refill of their New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” I told her back in the food-slinging days – years before she changed careers a few times and published three novels.
“I’m sure they do,” she replied, pulling her black pleather ticket holder out of the deep pocket of the long apron that was part of the server uniform. “Those guys don’t even recognize me from the Governor’s office. It’s like wait staff are invisible to them. Unbelievable.”
“You work with those stiffs? Ugh. No wonder you want to work here.” I grabbed the bottle of wine from behind the bar, “Let me get the wine.”
“No, no. It’s my job,” she said, grabbing the bottle from me. “And don’t go pulling rank on me, hot stuff. No one’s the boss of me,” she said with a wink.
Which is exactly what I want to say to the hundreds of well-intended messages posted to Sandy’s Facebook wall after she publically announced her diagnosis. Stay strong. You’ve got this. Fuck Cancer. Walk in the light. Kick cancer’s butt. Have faith. I want to personally pull each person who wrote one of those lines by the collar and shove them up against a brick wall Olivia Benson-Law & Order-style and get up in their face with this message, spittle flying from my mouth – Don’t tell her what to do; no one’s the boss of Sandy. My story is the empty wine glass at the table, waiting to be refilled.
“I’m a optimistic realist,” Sandy told me in the hospital after declining a bottle of Insure and apple crumb cake. “I want to finish the novel I’m working on, and I’ve got another one in me I want to write. And maybe we can collaborate with some non-fiction – that’s your strength, Molly. I’d like to do something together. With the time I have left.” She went on to tell everyone in the hospital room about an essay that I wrote about my parents as my father was dying of AIDS. Ever my writing cheerleader, she reminded her wife Cheryl to show it to her later. Sandy shared my first novel with Bedazzled Ink, giving me a publisher without having to shop it. Our books share a release date in April of next year. She’s planning her next books as she lay uncomfortably clutching the pain medicine dispenser; I can’t seem to return to the manuscript that is almost done – the story of the hometown, the pointe shoes, the vial, the tainted needle, the picketing signs, the spilled bottle of pills, the cement stairs, the love. How do I finish this essay? Will this be the story to be of the half written manuscript?
“Walgreens at two?” Sandy asked me as we were wiping down tables and buffing silverware to close down the restaurant.
“Can you do three? I’m working lunch tomorrow.” I was always working, one big meal, a constant circle of delivering plates of beautiful food only to clear the empty, soiled remains.
“Meet you at three. What’s the budget this time – eight dollars?”
“Let’s spring for ten. I’d like to work in some mascara.”
“Roger that, ten dollars at three o’clock at the world’s perfect store.” We could go on for hours about our mutual love of Walgreens – its contained size, the diversity of the products, the ‘As Seen on TV’ section.
“Hey Sandy, why don’t I set you up with Robert’s friend Bob? It would be fun going out all together don’t you think?”
Sandy set down her drying towel and paused, then tilted her chin down and said, “Molly, I’m gay.”
You may think that because my father was gay that I have some sort of special gaydar powers. I do not.
“Oh,” I replied, “Well, you don’t have to fuck him.” And we laughed.
“I don’t talk about it a lot because of work, a Republican administration in Kansas after all,” she said. I nodded because I understood. I was acutely aware of the environment of our city of Topeka whose residents had to breath the poisoned air of the Westboro Baptist Church and their harassment and hatred of homosexuals.
“Bob’s kind of a jerk anyway,” I offered as I pulled a couple of beers out of the cooler for us. “I don’t think you’re missing anything there.”
I bought a Sunday newspaper just so I could have a Walgreens ad to put with the gift that I took to the hospital. I tucked two Walgreens gift cards in the envelope, our names written on each with a sharpie. FIELD TRIP! ONCE YOU BLOW THIS JOINT, FIRST STOP WALGREENS! My story is the gift card, still waiting to be redeemed.
“I want my funeral flower to be peonies,” I told Sandy over brunch last year, “I don’t care what season it is. Will you remind Robert of that?” I asked, pouring syrup over my pancakes. I had just lost my first patient as a hospice volunteer; I had no idea it would be so hard.
“Roger that,” she said as she picked out the goat cheese from the omelet now that she was on the Paleo diet. “You’ve got to read this article from the class I’m teaching on the cultural differences in funeral practices. The funeral industry in this country is so corrupt. Do not let me end up in a concrete encased tomb, ok?”
“Never!” I said, the actuality of such an occurrence not even conceivable.
Sandy held her I-pad from the hospital bed, looking for the video she wanted to show me. She wanted me to laugh, to entertain me. The young nurse interrupted by shuffling in with her blond highlights and violet-painted fingertips. “How would you rate your pain Sandra?” she asked, looking at the board on the wall, checking the time for the next dosage of narcotics.
“Let’s see,” Sandy answered, “two and a half.” The blink of her eyes took too long. I thought of my dad’s flat chestnut eyes gazing at me after his shots of morphine.
“That’s great,” the nurse said, “let’s keep that number under three so we can get you home.”
Sister Pooh is a large black woman with strong opinions who gives advice in her videos. Tips like, “Don’t swim in the shark’s house; Bring back the courtesy flush; Let’s bring classy back.” She is indeed hilarious; Sandy quotes the lines with her – This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and eat meat in it. The honey badger video is National Geographic footage with a comic narration in the lisping, effeminate voice of Randall – Honey badger don’t care, honey badger don’t give a shit, it just takes what it wants! Like always, Sandy has succeeded in amusing me. I make a mental note to look for nature footage online so that we can make our own narrated video. When Sandy is up to it.
At home, I sit with a book for distraction from my mind grind but my attention keeps drifting. I open my memoir, going to sections where I have written ‘go deeper’ but the spade of my words hit a shallow, hard surface. Maybe poetry, I consider and pull out a book from Mary Oliver. In ‘Franz Marc’s Blue Horses’ she writes,
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
But the desire is not enough for me, I am greedy, I need something divine to actually make it so. I can’t figure out how to arrange my words correctly to make what is happening to Sandy beautiful. I want it to be beautiful. My story is finding that beauty.
The October leaves in my neighborhood know the days are shorter; the trees have stopped trying to make food for them. Lacking what they need, they shimmer with the hues of what was underneath the crisp arrogance of their green all along. The petals flutter and remind me of the dress I wore in my first ballet solo, a buttercup yellow. My dog Lucy watches from a taunt leash as a squirrel climbs the bark with plump cheeks, an acorn in its mouth. I want to plead with the tree, to clutch its trunk and beg it – keep your leaves, don’t let them fall to the ground! The word hospice was said out loud in Sandy’s room yesterday and I can see that the fire-red leaves are already beneath my feet.