Like most human beings, we have a great deal going on in our lives right now. Some things I can write about, others not so much.
But here’s something: I just returned from a glorious week at the 2014 Heartland Film Festival in Indiana where I always come home inspired and renewed. So inspired, in fact, that this morning, I finally did it. I finally hit “send” on my first query letter for my new novel, PARTING GIFTS.
I never imagined clicking a button could be so hard.
Releasing your words to the world after four years of writing and rewriting and crying and rewriting again leaves you feeling vulnerable and open… and best of all, excited. There is a great deal of possibility out there.
For those of you who enjoy contemporary fiction, I’d like to give you a little taste.
Here’s a quick synopsis:
PARTING GIFTS is the story of sisters, Catherine, Anne, and Jessica. Broken by their past and scarred by their emotionally absent parents, the sisters search for love, acceptance, and worth, often in the most unlikely places. Each woman grapples with her own personal demons – both real and imagined – until an incomprehensible loss forces them each to examine and embrace what truly matters. Told from varying viewpoints, PARTING GIFTS illuminates the consequences that result from unintentional, reactionary living.
And here’s Chapter 1, from Catherine’s perspective. If you enjoy it, I’d love to get your feedback. If you don’t enjoy it, please at least be kind. 😉
(Warning: This excerpt contains some profanity. But that doesn’t really surprise you, does it?)
As always, thanks for joining me on this fabulously fun ride!
~ ~ ~
Catherine didn’t fear the chemo as much as the molasses hours she spent in the infusion room. It took far too long to wait for the Cytoxan cocktail to drip into her veins and search for its target. Time to think about how she’d failed to create the idyllic family she’d so desperately craved as a child, how the poison that was supposed to save her was all but killing her in its noble quest, how very much she’d squandered the forty years she’d been given. Time to wonder whether forty was all she’d ever see.
Her feet were cold. Her feet had always been cold. On the day of her 10th birthday, in a cake and ice cream frenzy, she’d slipped and fallen while running through the kitchen, showing off for her friends, ignoring her parents’ vodka-laced indifference, her little sulking sister, Anne. The four layers of socks she’d managed to pull over her feet were thick ice skates on the chilled linoleum; the corner cabinet, unforgiving. Catherine’s fingers traced the line of the scar that remained on her forehead.
“Dr. Mathers, can I get you some more water?”
Catherine looked into the eyes of her favorite nurse, Jenna. Young Jenna with the full lips and the fuller boobs. Jenna, who had her entire life ahead of her, stuck in this dreary room with too much sickness and too little hair. Jenna, who respectfully called her “Dr. Mathers” even though Catherine’s academic credentials were earned by studying Faulkner and Hemingway while those with her life in their hands were MDs, were cutting out chunks of cancer and sewing human bodies back together.
As she commonly did with people she didn’t know well, Catherine wondered where Jenna went when she left the confines of this room; what constituted her life outside these walls that smelled of disinfectant and antibacterial soap. Did she work out? Read? Did she have a boyfriend? Someone she slept with on a regular basis? Did she go to church on Sunday? Or did she prefer to sit at home and drink coffee alone on her patio while she listened to John Mayer sing about broken relationships?
All these questions, yet Catherine had never bothered to ask during the past four months.
“Water would be nice.”
Outside, a fragile autumn had begun. Yellows here and there, a burst of red, a hint of orange, a promise of cabled sweaters and chai tea. But today the air was hot and thick, Indian summer temperatures with a little extra sizzle. Weather was like that in Indiana. One day you could be sweating in your tank top and shorts; the next, reaching for your favorite IU sweatshirt. Indiana weather was fickle, volatile, equally beautiful and exasperating in its unpredictability.
Catherine glanced at her legs, her pink fuzzy socks. She’d purchased the socks for herself after her first chemo when she began to grasp the kind of physical havoc the medicine would wreak on her body. She wished someone else had bought her the fuzzy socks. This would have been a warm embrace from a friend, a thoughtful gesture from a lover. “Here,” the giver would have said kindly, so as not to jar her cancer-addled body. “They’re to keep you warm, to let you know I’m thinking about you. And they’re pink – you know, for breast cancer awareness.”
But she had bought the socks by herself and for herself at Target. Into the cart went a box of Oreos, two bottles of Cabernet, some frozen Lean Cuisines, a package of Lysol wipes, the latest Julia Glass novel, and the socks. She had placed everything on the conveyer belt – working diligently to avoid the milk condensation left by the young mother in front of her – as the toddler in the cart ahead screamed for a candy bar.
“Not now, Honey. It’s almost time for dinner,” the mother had said sweetly.
“Now! I want it now!” the child had answered, not so sweetly.
“If you’re a good boy, we’ll get one and save it for later.”
Catherine had wanted to slap them both, to stuff the fuzzy pink socks into the toddler’s screaming mouth to silence him… just for a moment. The chemo, it seemed, was rendering her a little less patient, a tad uncharitable.
As Jenna walked away, Catherine’s iPhone vibrated in her hand.
Michelle. Her oldest friend, her confidant, her one true-blue.
“Thank God you called,” she said, fumbling with the phone. “I need a little Michelle sunshine right this very instant.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there today, Cat,” Michelle said. “If Jake didn’t have a basketball game an hour away, you know I’d be with you, right? But there’s dinner, and the twins’ homework, and…”
“I know, Michelle,” Catherine said, “I know. You’d be here if you could. And you’d have brought some damn good Malbec, too, right?”
“Do you have to ask?”
“Then, my friend, all is forgiven. It’s the thought that counts. Unless, of course, you’re looking for the buzz. Then it’s the wine that counts.”
Catherine smiled through her infusion haze. Michelle had accompanied her to the majority of her chemo treatments. If Michelle wasn’t already committed to driving one of her kids somewhere else, she was there. Catherine would have been embarrassed to have anyone else watch her turn twenty shades of green while she drooled all over herself in a dreamless sleep, but she was always grateful for her friend’s presence. Long ago, Catherine had held Michelle’s hair while she vomited one too many upside-down margaritas into the Sigma Chi toilet, had stood beside her on her wedding day with a white calla lily bouquet in a dress she’d never wear again, had attended the births of Michelle’s four children. In turn, Michelle had wiped away Catherine’s tears as yet another romantic relationship with the seemingly perfect boy imploded, had shared gallons of paint and bottles of wine when Catherine bought her first home, had stood proudly beside her on the day she was awarded the letters PhD. Theirs was the one relationship Catherine had somehow managed to sustain, Michelle’s picture-perfect family the one Catherine simultaneously feared and coveted. Michelle was Catherine’s one and only pink fuzzy sock friend – even if Michelle hadn’t thought to buy the pink fuzzy socks. Whether it was through her own clumsy efforts or by the sheer grace of a God Catherine didn’t really place much faith in, Michelle was Catherine’s one steady.
“I’ll bring you a banana shake tomorrow after I’m done volunteering in Molly’s class,” Michelle promised. “And I’m doing your laundry, so don’t argue with me.”
Catherine didn’t argue. There was nothing more decadent than having someone else wash, fold, and put away your dirty clothes. Not worth the cancer diagnosis, of course, but a welcome consolation prize.
All around Catherine, people in various stages of healing or death – however you chose to envision it – were mired in the sleep of the acutely tired while toxins were pumped into their bloodstreams. Devoted parents, children, friends, and spouses sat beside their loved ones. A baby rested in her car carrier next to her father while her bald mother tucked a blanket around her own ears and chin. They were surviving individually while they struggled to survive together. Some visitors brought books, some watched TV, all looked nearly as broken as the patients they accompanied. Except for that sweet, pink-cheeked baby, smiling in her sleep. Some patients sat alone. It was easier to look at the ones who closed their eyes throughout their treatments. The ones who stared without focus – like the new patient with the white hair who always shared the same corner as Catherine – made her uncomfortable.
But it was the walls that bothered Catherine the most. Why the St. Mark’s Oncology Care designers hadn’t thought of chair rails was beyond reason. With 20 cheap recliners bumping continually into the beige walls in their deliberate dance, scuffs and chips were inevitable. The resultant state of the walls, however, was unkempt and depressing, a canvas of disregard that left Catherine and her cancer colleagues with a distinct sense of abandonment.
How important were those red exclamation point emails now? How critical was that deadline at work? What they all wouldn’t have given for another chance to bend under the weight of an unanswered voice mail. What a luxury to have those things be the worries that filled an eight-hour day.
When Catherine turned 40 five short months before, she did what every responsible woman her age did. She scheduled her first mammogram and winced as the nurse twisted and flattened her breasts into unfamiliar and increasingly uncomfortable positions. She stared with fake interest at the picture hanging to her left, the purples and blues of the abstract floral painting transforming into a bruise before her eyes. After the second mammogram was ordered, followed immediately by an ultrasound, and then a biopsy, Catherine knew something was wrong. But when Dr. Bingham took her hand and said with the sad resolve of a man who’d grown too accustomed to delivering bad news, “Catherine, it’s Stage II,” her heart still skipped a beat. One, then another.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
During those first moments when she understood her existence would never be the same – that, perhaps, her existence might even be cut short – she noticed the family pictures lining Dr. Bingham’s bookshelves. His wife was a lovely wisp of a woman, his daughters smiled from their frames. The girls were both blonde, and they wrapped their arms around each other with convincing ease. Love emanated from those photos. Love and belonging. Catherine thought about her own family pictures. She was certain there were shots of Big Jim and Eva lined up side by side; Catherine, Anne, and little Jessica standing dutifully in front of them. But for a moment, she couldn’t remember any pictures. Not one.
As a five-year-old, Catherine would proclaim to everyone within earshot that she wanted to be a horse when she grew up. Her parents’ friends giggled into their vodka tonics when her innocent announcement was encouraged at dinner parties, but to Catherine, there was nothing funny about aspiring to be a horse. Horses had strong legs that carried them with purpose and intent. They were exotic, fast, mysterious, and powerful with their muscular torsos and dark eyes. Catherine knew, even at her tender age, there was more to life than being a good, white, well-educated Catholic girl who someday grew up to be a good, white, well-educated Catholic suburbanite. But living the charmed suburban TV life she’d never had was still what Catherine wanted most… even now. Never in her childhood aspirations, though, did Catherine say, “I want to have cancer. I want to go through chemotherapy. I want a handsome doctor to lop off one of my boobs before he returns home to his perfectly coiffed wife, his adoring children, and a well-balanced meal awaiting him in his gourmet kitchen.”
Later, when she could escape from the circles of her own mind, Catherine found that Stage II (because breast cancer liked to present every patient with a unique bag of tricks) meant the tumor was nearly three centimeters in diameter and had not yet spread to her lymph nodes. A lucky diagnosis as breast cancer diagnoses go. So Catherine underwent a lumpectomy to remove the evidence and was eventually able to look at the scar left in the wake of the surgeon’s scalpel.
Almost unconsciously, Catherine’s hand went to her left breast – the damaged mess that landed her in this purgatory of sickness. She glanced down at the port that had been sewn into her chest to make infusion easier.
As if any of this could possibly be easy.
“Here you go, Dr. Mathers,” Jenna said as she set a cup of water on the table. Everything here is beaten down, Catherine sighed. Even the cheap-ass furniture.
“Thank you, Jenna,” Catherine replied as a wave of fatigue threatened to pull her into semi-consciousness.
“Get some rest,” Jenna whispered. “I’ll wake you when you’re done.”
Yes, Catherine thought, allowing her eyes to close. Yes. Just let me sleep until this is all over.
~ ~ ~