Sunday, July 1, 2007

Pat MacEnulty's Essay in Stella Magazine (U.K.)

First person

I drove along Interstate 75 towards Tallahassee, where my friend Kitty was dying of breast cancer. She was 33 years old; the first time she had cancer she was 14, and she'd had a leg amputated.When I met her she was in her twenties, wore rhinestone glasses, carried vintage handbags and sometimes dyed her hair pink.

She adopted my worshipful daughter and almost never missed spending a Hallowe'en with us - even after we moved eight hours away.

As I sped towards Florida I couldn't think. I hadn't slept the night before. I was like a migrating bird, flying on instinct and nothing else, wings steadily flapping.

Before I left home I had grabbed an old cassette, a home-made compilation, including Elton John's Candle in the Wind and Laura Nyro's Been on a Train. Not the cheeriest of tunes, but they got me through most of Georgia.

Then I got off the interstate and drove past field after field of dead cotton plants, a few brown stalks still clinging to a tuft of white.

Side two of my tape was devoted to Rickie Lee Jones. I listened to one particular melancholy song over and over as I drove down the nearly deserted highway through small towns with pre-war mansions and abandoned petrol stations.

The sky slowly greyed. Rickie Lee Jones sang about missing someone's company, while a few hours south my friend's body was being devoured by cancer.

It was dark when I got to Tallahassee. I drove to a friend's flat. He was gone but had left the door unlocked for me. I used the bathroom, checked the fridge and called home to say I had arrived safely.

After hanging up I stood in the flat, alone. The silence pressed against me like the palm of a giant hand, and I knew I couldn't stay. An urge to keep going, a feeling that my journey wasn't done, propelled me. I wanted to see Kitty. Right away.

Many people loved Kitty, and I wasn't 'scheduled' to be with her until the next day, but perhaps it would be OK if I stopped by briefly.

I got back into the car. I wasn't even sure how to get to the hospice but, a few minutes later, somehow, there I was. I parked in front of the building. Then I went inside, wondering where to go, and finally found someone who directed me to Kitty's room.

The hospice was so quiet you could hear yourself breathe. I peeked into the room and saw a nurse adjusting Kitty's drip.

Several people stood around the bed. I didn't recognise anyone, which seemed odd. I knew all of Kitty's close friends, I thought, and most of her family.

A pretty teenage girl stood at the back of the room, preoccupied with a book.

I felt as if I had stumbled on to a film set and didn't have a part to play. I backed out. I sat down on a cushioned bench in the hallway to wait. The air seemed lifeless. I stared down at my hands and didn't know what to do.

Just then someone called my name. It was the girl, a friend's daughter I'd known since she was five and simply hadn't recognised.

'Pat,' she said, 'come in the room.'

I stood up and went inside. The people in the room weren't strangers at all. My heart leapt as I recognised these old friends of mine - Debbie, Frank and Valerie. I hadn't got close enough really to see Kitty yet.

I came to the side of the bed. The room was lit by a single lamp in the corner. Kitty's skin was so pale it was almost blue.

The end of the bed was raised and her head lay back against the pillows. She seemed semi-conscious. Perhaps because I had just spoken to Kitty on the phone two days earlier, I was stubbornly obtuse about what was transpiring.

I looked at Valerie. We'd been in writing groups together over the years, and had grown up in the same part of Florida.

'How you doin'?' I asked, as if we had just run into each other in the supermarket. She gently ignored my question and turned to Kitty.

'Kitty, Pat's here,' she said. 'Can you hear me? Pat's here.'

Kitty's eyes were shut, but she nodded. Debbie and Frank exchanged looks. I didn't understand anything.

Suddenly Kitty tugged at the gown on her thin, scarred chest as if she were burning up. Frank took a cool cloth and placed it on her skin. I stood at the side of the bed, helpless.

The others all operated as if in a choreographed dance. Some silent communication passed among them, unintelligible to me. I looked on, stupefied.

Finally, Valerie turned to me and said, 'Hold her hand, Pat. She wants you to hold her hand.'

And at that moment I finally understood. I took Kitty's hand in mine, and a few moments later she was gone.