Notebook: My Character Clemency Begins Chemo

Editor’s note: In the months since I last wrote to you at Joyous Paradox, I have begun a novel. Four women meet and bond in a healing garden, a cancer support center modeled after the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden in the town of Harvard, MA. GrubStreet Creative Writing Center has given me a scholarship to the Novel Generator, a nine-month program for writers working on their first draft. In the following excerpt, Clemency Weems, a Boston widow in her mid-sixties, has begun chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer. In this scene, she is imagining what she will talk about in a support group at the garden. — MAB

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (detail)What story will Clemency tell today? A chemotherapy treatment regimen comes with its own built-in narrative arc, no matter how changeable the side effects, no matter how variable the outcome.

First you enter the cave, then the poisons are pumped into your body, and then you go home to await the symptoms, which could be fatigue, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, diarrhea, itching, weakness, mouth sores, dizziness, tingling and numbness in your feet, or a profoundly convincing sense that you’re better off dead. Or that you’re dying. Or that you’ve abandoned your Life, like abandoning a small child in the middle of a crowded street fair.

You float above the crowd at the fair, watching your Life scan the strangers’ legs and call out for her mom.

“Mommy, where are you?” she screams. She cries, her face pinched tight around her eyes/nose/open-and-astonished mouth.

Someone comforts her, arm around her shoulders, and rubs her back, the flowered cotton dress soaked with sweat between her young shoulder-blades. She buries her face in the Comforter’s broad shoulder.

Then, Kleenex administered, trip to Porta-Potty completed, your Life stands hand in hand with the Comforter at the fried-dough stand. Powdered sugar or maple syrup? Both? Both.

Where is your Life when your body reaches the nadir? More precisely, the nadir is the point at which the chemo drugs have killed their maximum number of white blood cells for this cycle, as well as their maximum number of cancer cells and red blood cells, and swift-dividing cells in your mouth, digestive tract, and hair follicles. Fewer white blood cells mean that your immune system is at its weakest.

For these few days of nadir, you stay home, avoiding crowds, imploring your family and friends not to come if they have colds or other infections.

Do you have to worry that your daughter-in-law Rhonda, who makes no secret of her frequent yeast infections, will use your toilet and leave little yeast organisms behind to attack you from within?

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Barbara Dürer, Dürer's Mother (detail)Is your use of disinfectant wipes compulsive yet? Or do you pray before grasping the glass knob on your bathroom door that everyone has washed their hands thoroughly before leaving the facilities? Is your Life in isolation, that young creature in flowered cotton, cared for by masked and gowned attendants?

Finally, the hoped-for recovery. Symptoms recede. One morning you wake from restful sleep. You and your Life, joined in one shaky body. Unutterably weary. Unutterably relieved. Yet the ground is no longer the ground, the stone no longer the stone. You float in the knowledge that true North is no longer true.

– Mary Ann Barton, 9/24/2016

Notebook: Opal’s Madonna

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Hewitt Fund, 1911.

Another Friday morning. Mim showers in Opal’s salmon-pink bathroom. The smell of Cameo brand soap, wet in her hand, reminds her of kissing her mother-in-law’s fragrant cheek.

Already, though Opal has only been gone for a week, Mim craves her sturdy kindness, her laugh billowing out over the dining table like oceans of acceptance. When Opal opens her side door — nobody but the mail carrier uses her front door — she greets you with the heedless energy of a rough-coated dog who has waited all afternoon for your return. A short, wide woman, her hands wet or floured, a drift of her gray hair falling out of its bun, her sensible shoes polished black and sprinkled with flour. She waves you into her kitchen and bends down to open the oven, where baked cinnamon apples burst out of their skins.

How could a woman like this have died? How could she have faded away? Opal, a woman as lavish in her affection as anyone you’ve met. Shrewd, mind you: an eye for a sound bargain. Mim can see where her husband, Opal’s son, got his head for business.

Mim shuts off the water. She steps out of the shower onto Opal’s plush bath mat. She dries her sad self with a striped beach towel, blows her nose, and shimmies into a set of underwear. Black pants, black top; salmon-pink socks, in honor of Opal, the lover of all warm colors: orange, marigold, cerise.

Then, at the breakfast table: “Sweetheart,” Mim says to Arnold, “shouldn’t I bring the Madonna to the funeral home? I want your mother to feel comforted. Those parlors at McMurphy’s are so impersonal.”

Opal had brought the Madonna home from Austria after the war, along with other treasures she’d found in antique shops in Salzburg. Her husband, Arnold’s father, was stationed there with the U.S. Army of Occupation after the German Reich surrendered. In the chaos of war, so many families had sold their treasures. The Madonna and Child, a devotional figure twelve inches high, was probably German, the antique dealer said, perhaps 18th century, polychrome on walnut.

“I’ll find you a box to put her in, Mim,” Arnold says, shoving his chair back from the table. His mother’s cardboard box collection, like other repositories of useful items, is in the basement.

As Mim lifts the Madonna down from the bureau in Opal’s bedroom, she sees that the Virgin Mary could be any young mother. Her watchful gaze; the mild gesture of her baby’s hand reaching out toward the visitor.

Underneath the statue Mim sees a deep gouge in the base that shows charred wood inside. Has the Madonna come through fire, or been treated roughly for an invasion of wood-boring insects? The unpainted surface on the bottom has darkened, over the centuries, to the color of roasted chestnuts. On the Virgin’s neck, where paint has flaked off more recently, the raw wood glows a soft umber.

Who else, Mim wonders, has prayed before this figure of the Virgin and her son? Who else, praying or reminiscing, has wept for kinfolk lost to old age, war, or execution in the street?

“I am not myself a believer,” Mim says now to the Madonna, “but Opal believed. She loved you; she loved your son. Give her peace.”

Spoken out loud in the quiet room, the words bring Mim a sense of relief so vivid as to be almost tangible. It’s as though nothing else matters. Only this moment. Only one woman, breathing and remembering love.

— Mary Ann Barton