944. Breathe Deeply Now

I don’t know why everything involving my family required a negotiation. Agreeing on who was going in which car to Pizza Hut could be more complicated than the Warsaw Pact. Actually, I do know why: it’s because Claire could never just let anything happen. She had to be managing everything, all the time. When we were kids I guess it just seemed natural that our mother was bossing us around constantly, telling us where (and how) to sit, what to do, what not to do, etc.

As adults it was more glaringly obvious. Especially when that adult was Remo and he was trying to change lanes on the highway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about chemo first.

This is not a cheerful subject–and it especially wasn’t back in 1991 when the survival rate for a lot of cancers was worse than it is now. So I understand if you want to skip ahead. I sure as hell wanted to.

I probably could have gotten out of going with her for her treatment that day, if I didn’t mind having a prolonged negotiation about it. It was easier to just accept that if we’d come all this way to face this, shying away from it would be pointless. Claire fussed only a little about who was coming along: but in the end was partly pleased to be accompanied by three “handsome fellows.” (Her words, I swear.) In my mind it was Remo to support her, me to support Remo, and Ziggy to support me, but if she wanted to think of us as her entourage? Fine. Knowing she was dying made me cut her a lot of slack.

We had to get up early for the drive to the treatment center, which was on the outskirts of Memphis. Remo drove, and I slept most of the way leaning against a car door, and Ziggy slept leaning against me.

The treatment center wasn’t a hospital itself, but a separate building, one story brick with an angled brown roof. From the outside it could have been a law office or a veterinary clinic or any number of things. Inside it was split into two sections: the waiting room and the treatment area.

We started in the waiting area and a young woman in a maroon scrubs top brought Claire a clipboard.

Claire glanced at it. “Oh, but I’ve filled this out before,” she said, trying to hand it back. “I was just here last week, remember?”

The woman, who had a pen stuck through her auburn ponytail, blinked at her. “Um, ma’am, we still need you to sign the liability waiver each time, and to confirm your weight.”

“Oh, well. In that case.” She plucked the attached pen from the holder on top of the clipboard and settled herself primly with the clipboard on her knees as she checked off the boxes and signed her name.

They had her step onto a scale as they took us into the treatment room. All three of us looked away from the number.

The treatment area took up most of the interior of the building. Each patient had a large reclining chair, the kind they advertise during football games. The walls were done in wood paneling and there weren’t dividers between the treatment stations. As a nurse or assistant or whatever she was brought her to a treatment chair, Claire said, like she would to a hostess in a restaurant, “Oh, could we have the one in the corner? That would be so much nicer.”

“Sure,” the woman said, and ushered us to the one Claire had indicated. There was only one smaller chair beside it for a visitor. Remo took his place in it while Ziggy and I hovered. The woman ignored us. Another technician of some kind came next, I think… I was still pretty sleepy at that point. My impression was that her actual doctor wasn’t here or anything like that. This was just to get pumped full of chemicals that the doctor ordered.

Pump isn’t quite the right word. I guess it’s more like drip. A slow drip. There were a couple of people being treated already when we got there, and room for five or six more. I wondered if it would fill up.

Claire looked like she was about to say something when the technician or nurse or whatever suggested that Ziggy and I take seats in the waiting room. So we did.

Ziggy had brought a book, but he ignored it in favor of reading some of the magazines that were sitting around. I mostly stared into a fish tank for the first hour. Some of the fish seemed to swim by flapping their fins while others seemed to wriggle their whole body back and forth in the water.

I fished around in my pocket and realized I had not brought a rubber band with me. I decided I’d ask the receptionist if she had one I could borrow, later.

I ended up reading a pamphlet they had sitting there that was basically everything you ever wanted to know about chemo but were too afraid to ask. I wondered when Claire was going to start losing her hair. The theory is they are putting a bunch of drugs into you that will attack cancer cells, but they also attack any other fast-growing cell and that includes your hair and the lining of your stomach. Claire was getting hers through an IV and it was going to take a few hours.

Remo had to come through the waiting room to get to the restroom so that’s how I knew he’d gotten up.

I peeked into the treatment room. Claire was on the far side. She had a magazine in her lap but wasn’t reading it. She was staring at the wall.

I went and sat in the chair Remo had vacated. She didn’t turn toward me, but now I could see what she was looking at. A child’s hand-drawn picture–crayon on a piece of white typing paper–of a vase of flowers next to a cartoon dog.

“They told me,” she said, “that a little girl drew this for her mother so she’d have something pretty to look at during her treatment.”

“Do you want me to draw you one?” I asked, and then thought, that was stupid, why did you ask such a stupid thing?

Claire’s reaction wasn’t what I expected. “Are you talented at drawing?”

“Um, not particularly,” I said. “Ziggy is, though. He went to art school at one point.”

“Oh, really. You haven’t told me much about him, you know.”

It had ever occurred to me I should tell her much about him, but I guess it was now or never. “He grew up in Baltimore and New York and then went to art school in Boston.”

“Maybe just a little bit like you?” she said with a lilt.

The lilt meant she was treading carefully and she wanted me to, too, I think. “Just a little bit, “ I agreed.

“How did you two meet?”

I tried to keep my smile to myself. How we met was such an infamous story, by now it was unusual for me to talk to anyone who didn’t already know it. “I was busking with my friend Bart in the park, on Boston Common, and Ziggy jumped in and started to sing with us.”

“Is that the real story?” she asked, sounding incredulous. “Or the one you tell the press?”

“That’s the real–” I stopped myself suddenly. “Ziggy claims we met at a party before that, a couple of months before, but I don’t remember it. I think Bart was there but not me.”

“The park story is a much better story,” Claire nodded as if she were choosing to believe that one instead.

“I would’ve remembered him,” I said quietly.

“He’s hard to forget,” she said.

“And you haven’t even seen what he’s usually like. This is Ziggy in stealth mode.”

She clucked her tongue. “You can tell he’s made of charisma. Turns heads everywhere we go, or hadn’t you noticed?”

You should see it when a mob of screaming girls are outside the door, I thought, but didn’t want to say. Especially not with the next patient just a few yards away. “I notice.”

“But you’re not jealous?”

I thought about Ziggy’s idea that Claire controlled conversations by constantly changing her opinion or the rules or whatever you thought the conversation was about. Did that explain why I kept being surprised by her questions?

“No, I’m not jealous. His job is literally to make people worship him. I knew that when we got together.”

She nodded again and we lapsed into silence while I thought about that. Ziggy and I worked as a couple when a lot of other people wouldn’t, I realized.

Claire’s face was white. Whiter than usual I mean.

I realized she was gripping the fabric of her skirt rather tightly in her fist. “Are you all right?”

“Just a little–” She breathed in and out through her nostrils, hard. “It’ll pass.”

I put my good hand on hers and she gripped it instead, not quite as hard as her skirt. She seemed to relax a little. I’m not sure if my hand had anything to do with it or if the pang of nausea or pain or whatever it was lessened on its own.

She seemed to want to say something, but didn’t. Maybe she was waiting for me to say something first. Whether that was so she could take control of the conversation or because she didn’t want to be the one to bring something up or what, I don’t know. But you know I’m not one to talk just to fill the space.

The silence stretched out and I turned her hand over gently and began thumbing the stress out of her palm the way Ziggy often did for me.

When I looked up some minutes later, two clear tear tracks had riven the powder on her face and she pulled her hand away so she could dab her eyes with the back of it.

Remo loomed over my shoulder then. “Ziggy has a question for you,” he said to me. “Claire, you all right?”

She sniffed and narrowed her eyes at him as I ceded the chair. “You had best get your prostate checked, Remo Cutler. It says here that frequent urination is an early warning sign for prostate cancer.”

I hurried away before I could hear any more of that.

(Anyone want to pitch in with looking for typos in the PDFs of DGC Volume 9 and 10? Email daron.moondog@gmail.com if you have some time this week to check a section! -ctan)

(A British rock hit from 1991 — the lyrics seem fitting. -d)


  • Aunt Muriel says:

    Oh gosh, Claire, if Remo was not a nice man, he could just pretend he had gone to get checked out, did in fact have cancer, and would from now on need all the attention from everyone…

    • daron says:

      You want to know something terrible? Until we actually went to the chemo center part of me still wondered if Claire was putting us on about the cancer.

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