Monday, February 23, 2009


Elk tooth necklace
Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

November 2019

Myra decided she wanted to hear Ginny's conversation with Sima first. She sat down on a stool and looked at Ginny across the counter. Ginny faced her, eyes pale blue and clear. She mouthed at Myra “Voice mail” before saying “Sima, it's Ginny. Listen, honey, I have some urgent news for you. Please call me back, at home or on my cell, when you get this. I appreciate it.”

When she hung up, Myra said “I don't want to have to tell Allie.”

“You want me -- “

“No, it has to be me. I just don't want to.”

“I'll call Jane, tell her we can't take the kids today” said Ginny.

As she did that, Myra dialed Carly, getting his voice mail also. She left a message asking him to call. She hung up and listened to end the of Ginny's talk with Jane. After Ginny hung up, too, she said “Jane's going to call Gillam on his lunch hour, tell him herself.”

“Everyone else we can text, then” said Myra. “Ginny, we -- “

She stopped because she heard the front door open. She called out “Margie, that you?” and leaned to the side for a view. But it was Allie.

Ginny said “Hey. Where's Edwina?”

“I dropped her off on Broadway. She's shopping for shoes. Not my thing and she takes forever, so I thought I'd pop in here. Chris back from the doctor?” Allie's smile began fading as she took in Ginny and Myra's faces. “What happened?”

Myra swallowed but her throat still felt blocked. Ginny said “It's metastasized all over her, Allie. It's in her bones.”

“No” said Allie. “No, I was sure she'd licked it. In her bones? Isn't that pretty bad?”

Myra finally found her voice. “As bad as it can be. Except the bone part isn't the worst.” Ginny now turned to look at Myra with the same expression Allie had.

“What's the worst?” asked Ginny.

“Her liver. It's a sliver away from being shot. And – well, that's part of the reason she's refusing further chemotherapy. She can't qualify for a liver transplant, and more drugs in her system are going to do her in anyhow. But – with bone cancer, the pain becomes unbearable a long time before it kills you. The only way to handle it is narcotics, lots of them. But that's going to blow up her liver, too.” Myra was putting into plain English what had taken her many repetitions by the doctor in medicalese for her to comprehend.

“She's refusing chemotherapy?” said Allie, her voice high and thready.

“She says this is it. She's out by the pond, trying to – I don't know what she's doing. She asked for you, says she'll come in to talk with us when she's ready.”

Allie actually staggered on her feet, and Ginny reached her swiftly, putting her arms around her and walking her to a chair. Myra got her a glass of orange juice, which Allie set down on the table without drinking. Her gaze was fixed on Chris through the window.

Myra looked, too. Anthea was sitting on Chris's shoulder, something she never did with any other human. She was hunched in a stalk pose. Myra thought it likely that Anthea could see motion under the water's surface from that vantage point. She noticed Chris's lips were moving: Was she talking to Anthea or praying? Or singing to the leviathan, maybe.

Allie turned to meet Myra's eyes. “What are we going to do?” she whispered.

“I don't know. I don't know how to do this” said Myra.

Ginny came to put her hand on Myra's shoulder. “Allie, does Edwina have her cell?”

“Yeah.” Allie's glazed expression shifted. “I need to call her, go get her.”

“I'll do it, if you want” said Ginny.

Allie looked out the window again. “All right. I want to stay here.” She said, after a minute, “What about the kids?”

“Margie was here when we got back and blew up at Chris because Margie thinks she's not fighting” said Ginny, dialing her cell. “Edwina? Listen, Chris got a bad diagnosis today, I need to come get you so you can be part of our talk. Yeah, Allie's fine. Where are you? Okay, be there in five.”

Allie is not fine thought Myra. Allie may never be fine again. She said “Jane is going to tell Gillam. I have a call in to Carly. Frances is with Margie at the moment.” She leaned up for Ginny's goodbye kiss. “Be careful” she whispered.

As the front door clicked shut, Allie turned to look at Myra, a frown on her face. “Sima” she said.

“Ginny left a message. If the phone rings here, I'll be getting it” said Myra.

Allie said again “I thought – the way she played her flute last night, it sounded like she was truly okay. I really thought – she's so strong, you know, she's indestructible.”

This comment sat in the air like it was almost visible. After a couple of minutes, Allie said “I met her once before she went in the hospital, you know.”

“Fuck. No, I didn't know that. How -- “

“She came to a party at a friend's house, a friend I had who danced in a titty bar. She was high and loud, tweaking, you know. I didn't remember it was her, but she remembered me” said Allie. “Told me I made it plain I was avoiding her. I tried to apologize but she laughed and said she'd have avoided someone like her, too.”

“I can't quite imagine her like that” said Myra.

Allie put her forehead in her palm for a minute. “We'll see her high again, won't we? Strung out on – what do they give 'em, morphine?”

“It won't be the same” said Myra. “We'll make sure of that.”

Her cell rang. She looked at the caller ID and saw it was Carly. She answered and told him the news. He began crying. “Oh, sweet boy, I'm so sorry to dump this on you at work” Myra said.

“I'm meeting Eric for lunch” choked out Carly. “What – can we come over after work?”

“Of course. We'll all be here, you come crawl right into our laps” said Myra.

He gave a brief, congested giggle. They talked a few more minutes before he had to go.

Allie had gotten up to pace. “I wish the hell she'd get her ass in here” she said to Myra, looking out at Chris. A few seconds later, as if she'd heard them, Chris looked at the house and saw Allie. She started to stand, remembered Anthea, and eased her off onto the bench. By the time she reached the back step, Allie was outside, sliding her arms around Chris under the robe.

Myra couldn't remember the last time she'd been jealous of the connection between Allie and Chris, but she felt a pang now. Because there's no longer unlimited Chris to go around she thought.

Still, it was only a pang. She didn't know where most of her emotion had gone, disappeared in the doctor's office. As Allie and Chris came inside, she heard the front door latch and simultaneously saw the side gate start to open, with Gidg and Moon pushing through. Behind them were Frances and Margie, both of them red-eyed and puffy-faced.

Chris said “I'm fucking freezing.”

“Come in the living room, I'll start a fire” said Myra. Allie sat with Chris on the couch, sliding under the robe to add body heart. Edwina claimed Chris's other side. That's my spot thought Myra, but she kept building a fire. She said to Ginny “She's cold” and Ginny went to the kitchen to make tea. Margie squatted at Chris's knee, beginning to say “I'm so sorry -- “

“Can it” said Chris. She bent forward and kissed Margie's forehead, then Frances's. “You need more information, for starters.” She looked at Myra and said “Will you bring Allie those pictures?”

Myra obliged. Allie held them gingerly, as if they might be toxic. “That's the bone involvement” said Chris. “But it's permeated my lymph system. And the thing is, since my last scan was clear, it spread this fast while I was on chemo, has to be. Plus...”

She told them about the liver problems and consequences. Her tone was so matter of fact, Myra wondered where Chris was getting her calm, until suddenly Chris's voice broke and she said “I...I don't want to be the first of us to check out of here. I don't – I don't see myself as expendable.” She sucked in a full lung of air, then began sobbing.

Allie more or less pulled Chris onto her lap, Chris's legs across Allie's, her forehead against Allie's temple. Allie was crying too, saying “I don't know what I'll do without you.”

“I'm so fucking scared!” Chris cried. Ginny set a tea tray on the table and came to Myra, motionless by the fireplace. Margie was now in Frances's arms, weeping again. Ginny whispered “Did we get any calls while I was gone?”

“Carly” said Myra in a normal voice. “He and Eric are coming after work.”

Ginny poured a cup of tea, added honey and milk, and handed it to Edwina for Chris. She made a second cup for Myra and did the Ginny back-me-up step as she held it to Myra's lips. After one sip, Myra realized she was deeply cold inside, too. She sat down on the brick ledge directly in front of the fire, watching Chris and Allie, as Ginny settled beside her and kept sharing tea with her.

After Chris blew her nose on a cloth napkin from the tea tray, she accepted her cup from Edwina and said “Did I hear you say Carly and Eric are coming?”

“Later. I'm sure Jane and Gillam will be here, too” said Myra. “And the little ones.”

“What are we going to tell them?” asked Chris. “The little ones.”

“I think we leave that to Jane and Gillam” said Myra.

Chris took a few more sips before saying “I have a lot of people to contact. All the folks who did that sweat for me last weekend, to begin with.” She looked at Myra again, hesitating, and Myra said “Ginny called her. Left a message.”

Chris's gaze stayed locked on Myra. She blew on her tea, then said “You're my power of attorney. Including for medical decisions. You might want to rethink that now.”

“No, I knew what I was in for when I agreed to it last spring” said Myra slowly. “I'll go every inch of the way with you.”

Margie looked around at Myra, comprehension flooding her face. In the sudden silence, the flames behind Myra felt very loud.

Ginny said “Will you eat something, Chris? Scrambled eggs, maybe?”

Chris considered it. “I feel too nauseous. The tea is good for now. Mostly, what I'd like more than anything, is to sleep. I don't know if I can, though.”

“I'll lie down with you” offered Allie. “If you can't, we'll figure out something else. A tub soak, maybe.”

“All right” said Chris. She put her cup on the table to stand, then leaned on Allie, saying “Funny how the pain in my hip suddenly seems much worse.” They walked down the hall together.

Myra wanted to tell Frances to take Margie home and keep her there, away from this house of loss. But Margie, and Gillam and Carly, would need the lessons they were about to learn. She didn't know how to shield them from the inevitable.

“We're making orzo with porcini at the store tonight” said Frances. “I'll do enough extra to send over a pan.”

“I'd planned to roast chickens, easy to add more” said Myra. Ginny said “I'll make creamed spinach, she loves that.”

“What about the fava beans?” asked Myra.

“Soup for lunch tomorrow. Speaking of lunch -- “ said Ginny.

Frances stood and said “I'm coming for dinner tonight, so I need to go back to the store for now.” She whispered something to Margie, who said “I want to stay here. But I'll call you.”

Myra went to the freezer, lifting out chickens, adding two pecan pies to her armload – Chris's favorite. Ginny said, as the entered the kitchen, “Fried egg and avocado sandwiches for lunch? With endive salad?”

“Sounds good” said Myra, lying to herself. Nothing sounded really edible at the moment. “Leave the eggs on the counter, I'm going to make more individual custards to keep in the fridge.”

Margie and Edwina joined them in the kitchen, finding the motions of making lunch together a welcome distraction. Margie made the salad while Edwina toasted bread and cut pears into slices before sprinkling them with almonds and sliding them under the broiler for a quick heat-through. Ginny made plates for Allie and Chris, covered them with wrap and put them away from cat reach.

At the table, Myra said “I've got a list in my e-mail of all the women we knew from way back when. Not all of the addresses will be current, but I'll send out a mass letter this afternoon.”

“It's started raining” said Margie, looking out the window. “I don't think I can handle work. Maybe I'll go grab the kids and take them on a rain walk with the dogs.”

“That would really help out Jane” said Ginny.

After a few minutes of silence, Margie asked Myra “How long? Did the doctor say how long?”

“Well, not clearly. For one thing, Chris hadn't told him her decision yet. And he kept hedging, saying any number even with salvage chemo would be guess work. But finally he said six months would be optimistic.”

The color drained from Margie's face. “Yesterday was her last birthday, then” she said tonelessly.

“We have to not do this” said Myra with sudden force. “We have to stop counting hours and days, thinking about the end. She'll hate it. I mean, she's going to be doing that, if we take up space focusing on it, we won't leave enough grieving room for her.”

“So what are you suggesting, just shove it down deep?” demanded Margie.

“Scrub it out once a day, like the compost canister” said Ginny. “In the midst of life we are in death. It's true all the time, has been every day we've lived.”

Myra looked at her. “Remind me to call Nancy.”

Ginny said to Margie and Edwina “We'll make appointments for you, too, if you'd like.”

Margie said “Yeah. I could use her help. As well as my guy.”

Edwina said to Ginny “Did you tell Sima what had happened, in your message?”

“No” said Ginny.

“If she doesn't come for this, she'll have damned herself for all time” said Edwina. “But if she does come, won't it add to Chris's burden? Trying to deal with whatever their relationship drama is as she's -- “ Edwina couldn't say the word.

“I don't believe in damned for all time” said Ginny softly. Edwina gave her a hard glance. After a minute, they began talking about Allie's latest review as her book moved into paperback.

Chris slept for two hours. Allie got up after an hour, saying her blood sugar was talking to her. She ate a quick lunch, ran an Accucheck, and had to take some insulin, which caused Edwina's jaw to tighten. Allie then let herself quietly back into Chris's bedroom.

Carly and Eric arrived together as the smell of roasting chicken began to make itself known. Chris had settled on Myra's daybed with one of her boxes to sand. Edwina was at Myra's other computer table, and Allie was in with Ginny, going through sketches.

Carly and Eric settled on either side of Chris for a while, their arms around her, telling her funny stories from their work, until she said “Okay, I want to finish this one part.” Carly asked Myra if there was something he could do for dinner.

“You can take the foil off the chicken, turn the over to 350, and put in the pies” said Myra. Eric opted to stay on the daybed, leaned against the wall with his eyes closed.

Half an hour later, the sound of high voices poured in the back door. Leah was yelling “Gramma! Gramma, we're here!” Myra went to the airwell and said “I'm coming down in the elevator.” The motor rumbled down and the noise dissipated as the doors shut again. A few seconds later, those upstairs heard distant shrieks from the direction of the elevator as it started upward.

“Wonder what she was this time” Eric said to Chris, his eyes still closed.

The children flooded Chris, making further sanding impossible. Gillam and Jane walked upstairs, Gillam wrapping himself around Chris, his eyes full of tears. After several minutes, Gillam said “Okay, kiddos, will you please go downstairs and hang out with Uncle Carly for a while? We need to have a grown-up talk with the elders.”

“What about?” said Mimi. Eric stood and said “The federal reserve bank” and picked up Lucia to carry her. “Come on, I'll take you down in the elevator. Do any of you happen to have astronaut masks on?” he asked. The other four streamed after him.

Ginny and Allie came into Myra's study with Ginny's rolling chairs and sat facing Gillam and Jane. Chris filled them in, passing around her images. Gillam's hands were trembling as he held them to better light.

He said “Where's Margie?”

“She and Frances are coming any minute now for dinner” said Myra.

“Well...we need to get some advice” said Gillam. “Jane and I – we don't agree on what to tell the kids.”

“We definitely do not” said Jane acerbically. “Gillam wants to dump it all on them, tell them Chris is going to die.”

Myra thought We're all going to die. That's not new information.

“But I don't think any of them, even Mimi, is developmentally ready for the whole ball of wax” continued Jane. “They expect us as adults to provide them with a safe world. They expect us to deal with things. And if we say 'Look, your beloved Aunt Chris is dying and we can't do a thing about it', it's going to shatter their security.”

“So it's better to lie to them?” said Gillam heatedly. “Talk about an assault on their security -- “

“Not lie, just don't give them more information than they can handle” interrupted Jane. “You talk about how you were given too much details sometimes, and here you are repeating it with your own kids.”

Myra and Ginny looked at each other. Gillam's face was going red. “This isn't optional information” he said, his voice raising. “They're going to see all of us in grief every fucking day. If we lie about what's going on, that will do a lot more damage to their trust than any kind of honest conversation.”

“One of them is going to ask immediately if we're going to die, too” said Jane. “They're not old enough to suddenly face the possible loss of every adult they love and need. They're not ready to encounter the helplessness of mortality.”

Myra wanted to tell them both to shut up, do this elsewhere, it wasn't what Chris needed to be hearing right now. But after looking at Chris's face, which had become animated, she changed her mind.

Chris said “Gillam's right about one thing. Sooner or later, I will die, and if you've danced around that with your children, they'll wonder how reliable your version of the world really is. And Mimi's a vegetarian because she's figured out that animals die when she eats meat. I bet she's not the only one who understands the basics about what death means.”

“Watching a fish gasp its last is not the same as...” Jane finally stopped herself. They're in shock thought Myra suddenly. They're not coping any better than they claim the kids can.

“I don't want them there at the end” said Chris. “If they were older, maybe.'s not going to be pretty.”

Gillam's face lost its florid hue in a matter of seconds. He put his arm through Chris's. Jane looked abashed.

“It's not true that there's nothing you can do, nothing you will be doing. This family is going to give me a good death” said Chris. “We're going to stick together and talk about what's happening. Only yes, Jane, only as much concrete information in front of them as they are really asking for and can process. It won't damage them to see their mommy and daddy have broken hearts, but they need to not feel responsible for mending those hearts. And Gillam, you will have to guard against letting them try. In a way Myra didn't quite pull off with you.”

Gillam looked at Myra then. She nodded, thinking This is why you're indispensable, Kash-Kash.

“So. You two keep talking, you'll agree on the fundamentals. Let's go put dinner on the table, and clean up, and then we'll all talk with the kids. If that's okay with you” she said to Gillam and Jane in turn.

Allie slept with Chris that night, and Edwina stayed over in the spare bedroom. When Myra joined Ginny in the warmth of their bed, she finally let go, crying for almost an hour. The next morning at breakfast, Ginny said “I want to go to the next doctor visit with you all.”

“Okay” said Chris.

“Someone has to get trained in placing IVs, how to give medication, all the stuff that makes folks have to go to a hospital” said Ginny. “I want to be that person. I can handle it.”

She and Chris stared at each other. Chris said quietly “I'd like that.”

They went on eating. When the doorbell rang, Ginny went to answer it and returned with a small package. “It's for you” she said to Chris in a hollow voice. Myra could see the handwriting was Sima's.

Chris looked at the postmark first. “Mailed last week. Before my letter could reach her” she commented. She looked up at Ginny and said “She ever call you back?”

“Not yet” said Ginny.

“She's gotten my letter, you'll have to bust through her anger” said Chris. She opened the box carefully, not ripping through the address. Inside was a handmade silver necklace in tightly wrapped spirals. Engraved on the end of each spiral was a miniscule sunburst. Chris reached into her neckline and pulled out the elk tooth necklace she never removed from her body. She slipped it over her head and tried to loosen the knot on its leather strand. After watching a minute, Allie pulled her pocketknife from her khakis and handed it to Chris. Chris cut the cord and slowly beaded the elk teeth and wooden discs over the silver, in the same order as they came from the leather.

“Perfect fit” she whispered. Myra stood to hook the clasp behind Chris's neck. She left it outside her shirt.

“No card?” asked Edwina.

“No need for one” said Chris. She saved the paper containing the address and returned Allie's knife to her. She turned to Ginny and said “Will you take a photo of me in this? I'd like to send it to her. Not right now. Let me finish my bacon.”

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

Jesse Wendel said...

Really beautiful.

I especially love the part about what to tell the children, about how it's okay to tell them, but how they can't be made to feel responsible for mending the broken hearts of adults.

This strikes a major cord personally. It is especially a generational issue for late Boomers to late Xers/early Millennials, which children all too often were asked to bear weight no child should be asked to bear, simply because their parents were too self-centered to see what was genuinely appropriate for those children.

I am not talking here necessarily of parents who in an abundance of caring gave too much -- although that is one way to overburden a child -- but thinking more of the parents whom were so self-centered that they demanded their children hear adult conversations for which the kids weren't ready, because the adults (so-called) didn't do the work of adults to be full adults. And thus, the children were not given the time and space to be children.

This is the issue so beautifully raised in the writing. It is a middle road.

I first came to love GB (the book) because of these teaching moments. I've stayed of course because I love the characters and want to see how their lives turn out. But it's these moments of learning, especially when it's in areas I don't know, which from the very start have made GB such a wonderful treat. (If I didn't think it'd drive you a little nutty, I'd call them moments of wisdom. *laughs*)