When I was ten, and my sister, Eunice, was eleven, we made a suicide pact. With a rusty hacksaw we snitched from my father’s workbench; we huddled on the wooden stairs leading down to the cold, damp basement of the barn. Eunice, as the eldest and most fearless, made a rough, shallow cut along her wrist. I watched in horror as her blood began to trickle down and drop onto the worn plank below. She sat stone-faced and passed the hacksaw to me. I hesitated for only a moment then quickly ran the blade along my own wrist and watched fascinated as red spots erupted along a white line. Facing each other, our arms bent, palms forward, we brought our sawed wrists together rubbing into each other’s cuts, mixing our blood. The pact was sealed as we diabolically chanted, Death at twenty-nine, over and over again.
One night three years later, Eunice cut both her wrists with a razor. I still remember lying in bed, pissed that she was taking so long in the bathroom. I was the bathroom hog. Eunice, with her flawless skin, zipped in and out, while I spent hours studying my pimples and hoping for a miracle. Thirty minutes passed and no Eunice. My only thought as I tiptoed to the decrepit folding door that was falling off its runner and peered through a crack into the tiny room was, I need my clearasil and I need it now! I spied her at the sink, staring straight ahead as if mesmerized by her own face. The only sound was the hushed groaning of rusted pipes as water trickled from the faucet. Then I heard her voice. A low growl I barely recognized, muttered, Get the fuck away from the door.
I retreated. On tiptoe, I passed the bunk beds of my two younger sisters, both sound asleep, and waded through the discarded, stale smelling clothing blanketing the floor to the bunk bed I shared with Eunice. And waited. I sensed something was wrong, but at thirteen I did not know what to do. In a sudden panic I took several long strides to the door and banged as I screamed, Eunice!
From downstairs my father, annoyed at the interruption in his eleven o’clock news ritual yelled, What the fuck are you two up to?
I froze, and blurted out, Eunice won’t get out of the bathroom.
Things jumble together after that. I can still see my father ripping the door from its only remaining upright threads, tossing it aside, and pulling Eunice down the stairs. I remember blood dripping from her wrists and her face hard and expressionless. As he rushes to the car, Eunice’s flopping body behind him, my mother follows doing that frightened whimpering thing that she had pretty much perfected by then. I huddle into a corner of the downstairs window seat to wait and plead with God not to let Eunice die—or not to let my father kill her. I don’t remember which. I just remember that I didn’t want her to leave me behind.
Eunice was never the same after that and neither was I. We had been inseparable, but now she backed away into her own isolated existence, leaving me in mine. As she became more and more secretive, so did I. Her presence was like that of an exotic animal pushing against the bars of a cage. She didn’t trust me. In the dark at night, I would listen. Was she above me sleeping? Breathing? Would she do it again? Without me? Would she keep the pact?
After that night whenever Eunice got angry because my father wouldn’t let her go out, he’d whack her and sneer, saying, What are you going to do? Kill yourself? Then he would chuckle, a mean, low chuckle, and I’d wish he were dead. If I had known then about the increasing abuse he would inflict upon both Eunice and me in the ensuing years, I would have wished harder.
Although Eunice survived that initial suicide attempt, she was more successful at 29. Eunice kept the pact. Drunk, frenzied and worried about an impending divorce and raising two small sons alone, she swerved into an oncoming car.
Our suicide pact weighed heavily on my mind throughout the ensuing years. At first, I entertained myself by imagining heroic feats like flinging myself in front of a shooter to save my students. In frustration, I went from saving others to fantasizing about driving into cement pillars. Wham. Gone. Done. Walking along the sidewalk I’d think of stepping out in front of a Mac truck. Whack. But . . . what if? What if I didn’t die and ended up just brain dead and drooling in a corner until I was 95? So, I began to think of things that would be more final, like throwing myself off the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry. Peering over the side, I’d catch a glimpse of my body being sucked into the propellers like a food processor pulling the still solid materials in and heaving them back in smaller and smaller chunks. Sometimes, at night, I’d leave my back door unlocked. I’d imagine someone coming in and stating, Give me all your money or I’ll shoot!
I’m not giving you any money.
Then I’ll shoot you!
No, really. I’m going to shoot you if you don’t give me money.
Well, I’m not giving you money because then you’ll just leave and not shoot me.” This scenario plays on and on, until we end up sitting opposite each other playing Russian Roulette at the kitchen table.
After almost fifty years of planning, you’d think I’d have come up with something. While many people entertain fantasies of becoming rich or famous, I morosely entertain myself with death fantasies.
Several years ago, a golden opportunity strolled into my life and I blew it.
It began quietly. After months of pain and bleeding I underwent a myriad of invasive gynecologic tests. When my doctor’s receptionist called and asked me to come in at 6:30 PM because my doctor wanted to review some results she had just received, I had my first clue. When I got there and she called the doctor and whispered, She’s here, I had my second clue. When I was led to the doctor’s office and not the exam cubicle, I pretty much knew that it was a done deal.
Your latest test has come back.
Yes, I’m sorry, but it’s not good news. It seems you have advanced uterine cancer, which would explain all the bleeding and pain.
Oh, I calmly mutter, while I secretly scream, Yeessss!
I didn’t want to lose my uterus. Friends said, Well, you don’t need it anymore, but I was rather attached to that body part and afraid to get rid of any possible stray ray of estrogen that might stabilize my brain functioning and keep my face free of sprouting hairs. After going back and forth for a few weeks, I agreed on a hysterectomy. They said, It will give you time to get your affairs in order. My affairs . . . I liked the sound of that. It made me think that they might think that I was important, that I had important affairs to take care of. Much to my chagrin, I’ve had plenty of affairs, but not of the business variety. Unfortunately, after the surgery I was told that they were able to remove all the cancer and I’d be fine. Opportunity gone.
A year later I was handed another chance. Some sneaky little cancer cells had dive bombed into my bloodstream and attacked at will. What a relief! I remember my stunned reaction when Dr. L called and began ranting something about removing my vagina and rectum ASAP. I was stumped. Standing, the phone to my ear and staring out the window, I couldn’t wrap my head around the removal of my vagina for two major reasons. First, does that mean that I don’t need it anymore? Second, how is something that’s basically hollow removed? Removal of the rectum? Again, a stunner, but a quick easy, NO! My primary care doctor (who never remembered who I was from one visit to the next) stated, What’s the big deal? A lot of people have bags. But, as a high school teacher, shitting in a bag while in front of a class of teenagers wasa big deal. Without the removal of these important body parts, I was given 9–12 months to live, and, well . . . I could live with that.
It was a simple “No” for the surgery option. However, Dr. K insisted that I should get a round of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor in my pelvis and relieve the constant pain and pressure. Again, I just thought I’d have a little more time to put my affairs in order. Once I got the hang of it, chemo was a blast. I sat like Queen for a day in a big comfy chair with my dear girlfriends around me while seven hours of toxic drugs streamed through my veins. The nurses, and entire staff were the kindest people I have ever met. Elderly, smiling cancer survivors pushed around little carts offering cookies, coffee and juice. At home my phone rang off the hook as word got out and people who I hadn’t spoken to for years reemerged. I felt loved and basked in the glory. The Chemo shrank the tumor in my pelvis and completely zapped the one on my left lung.
Fortunately, the pelvic tumor began to grow. Radiation was suggested to give me more time. I reasoned, yah, a little more time would be okay. (Ultimately, it seems everything revolves around too much or too little time.) Having become a meticulous planner, there was still a lot to do. Basically, a health-freak most of my life, the chemo went against my beliefs, but I reasoned that the drugs were actually natural. Radiation was a different story. Instead of lounging in a comfy chair, radiation was basically a drive-by. I’d zip in, lie on a cold table and actually let someone pull down my pants and expose my ass to the world. A huge revolving machine with arms like a giant robot would rotate around me. I constantly felt like jumping off the table and ripping out my hair in frustration. At one point I stopped going for a week too horrified to continue with the humiliation.
Dr. K threatened me, If you don’t continue with radiation the tumor will push further into your colon, burst it, and you’ll end up in the emergency room, with a bag after-all.
Well, won’t that happen eventually anyway?
Not necessarily. The cancer could appear somewhere else, but if it stays where it is and continues to grow it will burst your colon.
I didn’t really understand, as it seemed to me that whatever happened I’d have to go through some painful period right before death anyway.
I felt like a tightrope walker. In a frenzy, I would dash out of each radiation treatment, run up the stairs from the nuclear basement through the connecting corridors and stairways of Beth Israel Hospital to the Shapiro Building elevator, and zoom up to the ninth floor oncology unit looking for reassurance. Every week I got the assurance I needed from my doctor. No. The radiation would not get rid of my cancer. It’s just palliative. Hallelujah, I thought. Maybe there is a God?
Being thrown into the world of cancer, a place you’ve heard about and seen in too many shmaltzy movies is indescribable. Everything moves fast and in a language with similar sounds to your own, but nevertheless, unintelligible. The order of events mesh into each other and time revolves around doctors, nurses, surgery, chemo and radiation. Sheep-like you wander through hallways; get stuck for hours in waiting rooms reading year-old copies of Good Housekeeping and Entertainment Weekly. You lie on cold, metal tables that glide into claustrophobic tubes, as radioactive dye is shot through your veins. You wonder if it’s really you lying there in two hospital johnnies, one backwards—shivering. You go through each scenario as someone else—someone you don’t know, someone you pity. At times, a muffled whimper escapes your dry, cracked lips and you plead to have everything mercifully end.
A few months after radiation, I sauntered into the oncologist’s office for my update.
Well, Mia, I’ve got good news. You’re in remission—again.
Wham! I remember jabbering, But you said . . . —you said the radiation was just palliative.
I know, he responded, I was wrong. Your response to radiation was remarkable.
I stammered, heat rising, face flushed, feeling trapped and repeated, You said I would not survive this.
Well, yes, but it turns out there was actually a 1% chance.
Why didn’t you tell me that before?
I’ve never had a patient who survived. I didn’t want to give you hope when I thought there wasn’t any.
But I had never wanted or looked for hope. Some people whine, Why me, I was the opposite, I screamed inside, Yes, me! A little extension was helpful, but not this. Survival was out of the question.
I blurted out, But I’ve gotten ready to die. I’ve got this mind-set that I can’t change. I’ve given away all my shit. I’ve fought with my daughter over the will. I’ve checked out hospice sites. I’ve watched helpless, old, sick people being wheeled in and out of medivans outside the Shapiro Building. I don’t want to be one of them. I’m in constant pain. I’m ready. I celebrated my last birthday in July. I’m done!”
Dr. K. first stared, not sure how to handle a woman with hysteria, but obviously concerned. Finally, with a nervous twitch, he asked, Do you think it might be helpful to speak with someone? Do you think you might be suicidal?
I wanted to scream out, Are you a fucking idiot. What do you think? But how could he, an innocent man who focused on life, even begin to comprehend that I wanted, deeply and completely, not to be?
Instead of responding with the truth, and knowing the impossibility of offing myself locked up in some psych ward, I answered, Of course not.
From then on everything blasted into disappointment. Disappointment is too mild. This was gut wrenching, mind-boggling, heart stopping—wanting to shoot myself in the head disappointing. I expected to die, all my friends expected me to die. And now, more than ever, I wanted to die. A week, maybe just a few days too long in radiation and I screwed myself. Now with hips that burned, a faulty digestive system, and a grueling, non-stop ache in my rectum, I began to think about going back to the original plan. Suicide.
Even before the “remission” setback, I had begun to stockpile prescription drugs thinking that when the pain got too much, I’d have some control. In two brown paper bags in the pantry behind the dishes are medicine bottles full of morphine, oxycotin, percocet, lorazepam, and some unknown pills stolen during visits to my dying ex-boyfriend, Nate. Before my diagnosis we would routinely torture each other on whether or not we should get back together. In actuality he was nearly a goner from lung and brain cancer, so the getting back together became a mute point. Anyway, I took to stealing his drugs. He didn’t need them anymore. If the hospice people noticed his supply was low, they’d just leave more. I realized that when you’re dying of cancer, you can basically get any drug you want and as much as you want.
Because of the lump of now fried and useless cancer cells in my pelvis, that pushed and prodded every nearby organ, I was in constant pain. This basically gave me access to enough legal prescriptions to go into business. Only when the pain was intolerable would I succumb. One time with pain so severe I couldn’t move, I downed morphine for a few days and ended up with hellish hallucinations—dead people walking in and out of the room—someone pulling me down from the bed—someone trying to have sex with me—(What was that all about?). Anyway, that was it for morphine. Next was oxycotin, which made me loopy. Standing in front of a classroom full of teenagers after hallucinating all night and likely appearing drunk wasn’t workable. And work was a necessity. Far beyond health insurance, work gave me an escape from my miserable self.
To get through the day I found a pleasing and mellowing regimen of percocet and lorazepam that curbed the pain. And to keep hording, I simply lied about how many I took—and therefore continued to stockpile extra. I figured that when things got really bad I could always down them all with a glass of Chardonnay.
Three months after my “remission” diagnosis, on the last day of school in June, 2010, I walked into Stringray Body Art in Allston, a place that blinds you with purple and black paint and almost terrifying “works of art.” But nothing, not even the receptionist with “Daddy’s Little Girl” tattooed across her chest could deter me. Nor could the fact that at 60, I was 30 to 40 years older than anyone else in the shop. Directed to the lumpy couch behind me, I sank down about a foot from the floor and immediately wondered how the hell I was going to get up again, when Chico saved me from a possible overload by pulling me up and whisking me immediately into his small, private cubby. In old English Script he gently engraved the first six words of Hamlet’s soliloquy, ”To be or not to be . . . ” along the inside of my right forearm. Later, while driving home I studied the letters and realized that the “o” in “To” looked more like an “a” and the “or” looked more like “ax.” I wondered if the little black curls that caused the confusion could be removed. In a panic I realized that I had messed up again, and just as quickly I knew it was not supposed to be perfect. It represented my life. I had planned the tattoo for months, and it still came out notquite right. Classic.
Regardless of my many attempts at planning, I am basically, in all things, a fuck up. I can’t even die right.
Now, my hands on the keyboard, with a slight, almost graceful twist of my arm, I furtively glance at the tattoo, which has become part of me, and at the litter on my desk that is the draft of my life. Tears of frustration soon blur everything as I listen motionless to Marianne Faithful’s As Tears Go By.
My mind drifts back to all those joyous, before-remission-days. Drawing up a will, giving away my shit, and cleaning and organizing so that no one would have to wade through piles of junk after I was gone. I even planned my own memorial service with my friend, Anne. (I hate dead bodies and didn’t want anyone looking at mine.) Besides, a funeral would be ludicrous considering, Oh my fucking God, was the closest I ever got to prayer.
It would be a small, intimate service at the stately, sophisticated Longfellow Hall at the Harvard School of Education. (It might remind people that I went to Harvard and was probably not as dumb as I seemed.) “Imagine” and “In My Life” would play softly as people gathered. Some friends would quote lines from Dickenson, Shakespeare, and Austin, while others would tell amusing stories of my life. One of my students would rise, teary eyed and talk about being forced to memorize Hamlet’s entire, To be or not to be soliloquy.
The finale would rock as “Here Comes the Sun,” belted forth. I actually stole this idea from a friend in Germany who had died of a brain tumor. I wanted my friends to smile at each other and exchange comments like, that’s so Mia. They wouldn’t know that it was actually so Sydney.
For a year I had a cancer buddy. My dear friend, Scotty. One of the last text messages he sent me said, Don’t call me. I’m full of shit. He was literally lying on a metal table having the shit pulled or pushed out of him because of a blockage caused by the melanoma tumors rapidly growing inside his body. Even during what he called the most humiliating episode of his life, he was funny. When Nate and I broke up and I bought my first house, Scotty was there. He sauntered into the basement, took a look around, and announced that the best thing I could do was take a match to the place and collect the insurance. But the place is still standing, primarily due to Scotty’s care. Scotty was diagnosed two years after me and was dead within the year. He wanted to live. He wanted to husband his wife, and father his two high school aged daughters. He wanted to see his girls off to college and finish his house in New Hampshire. He wanted life, but died. I wanted death, but lived. I don’t understand. It all seems like a cruel joke.
It’s 5 PM. Still sitting at the computer I feel the increased pressure as the mounting pain shoots through my body. (I still can’t figure out why remission is so painful.) I decide that I’ve waited long enough. I rise, walk to the kitchen, and reach for the bottle. With hands shaking, like the addict I’ve become, I finally manage to get the security cap off. Picking up a pill, almost lovingly, I begin to anticipate the comfort. One small shake too many and the pill falls from my fingers and rolls under the table. On hands and knees I crawl to retrieve the precious percocet. As I reach out, looking down, my eyes rest on the tattoo. I contemplate each letter slowly. I wonder if I have the guts. I carefully retrieve the pill, brush off the matted strands of cat hair, and pop it into my mouth. Guts or not, To be or not to be, maybe I need a new plan.
Mia Manduca co-authored a book on storytelling entitled, Len Cabral’s Storytelling Book in 1997. She teaches English and Psychology at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in Boston, MA, and workshops her writing at GrubStreet. She often likes to throw in that she has a degree in Counseling Psychology from the Harvard Ed School—just so people will take her seriously. Mia spends a great deal of time writing. Years. But does not send anything out because she feels each piece needs just a little more work. She’s in the process of reversing this tendency. This is an excerpt from her memoir, and her first creative nonfiction.