When you die, your will designates the beneficiaries who’ll receive the residue of your estate, basically the junk that’s left after your assets and significant possessions have been dispersed. I’d never seen the word residue used this way until I read my father’s will and realized he’d left his entire estate to his young wife and the residue of his life to my sisters and me. That is, we got the dust he left behind. His faded plaid shirts and broken down shoes, a Burl Ives record collection. So when I did an exhaustive weeding out of my old clothes last weekend, I was reminded of that awful word, residue. I sorted through probably eight years of clothes that had been stuffed into “Winter” and “Summer” tubs stacked in the basement. Dreary old cardigan sweaters (what was I thinking?), short skirts, ill fitting jeans, purses and pointy shoes, now thrown into heaps. I thought about my father and the worn shirts he’d left me, and how when I’d received them, I’d put them on to see if I could still feel him inside the cloth, but they hung lifelessly against my skin. The younger me who’d once filled out the residue now piled on the basement floor had disappeared too. The younger me was gone forever, while my residue awaited resurrection at Good Will.
My friend Anne has a lump in her breast. She sends me a text when I’m in a meeting: “How about a visit to Frankenstein’s castle?” she asks. She wants me to go with her for the surgery, but the deal is, hospitals don’t set well with me. I don’t like the long halls and seascape art, the clatter of IV poles wobbling across tile, those families sitting glumly at bedsides.
If you’re female and over 40, a good percentage of your life is spent wondering if you’ve got a lump growing somewhere inside your breast. Any day, out of nowhere, there it is. You get those diagrams on self breast exams, how to stand in front of a mirror and look for puckering or changes, how to press your fingers into your breasts and arm pits while you’re taking a shower. There’s a process for checking when you’re lying down too. Then, when you’re not self-examining, you’ve got the mammogram, so cruel and barbaric that machine is, flattening your breast like a grilled cheese. First you put this arm here and that arm there, then you turn your head to the left, now lean back, hold your breath. Yes, just like that. Steady. Ho-o-o-ld it. Perfect. One in eight women will have invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Those greedy little cells will gobble up your insides, taking over your body like they own the place, all while you’re making a presentation at work or trying on shoes at Nordstrom.
At 5:30 a.m. three days later, I pick up Anne at her house. It’s dark and cold, a fall morning. She’s wearing green sweats and tennis shoes, her hair still wet from the shower. Someone going for surgery would look just like she does. Shiny and clean. We drive across the sleeping city and pull into the hospital’s back lot to enter through the outpatient wing. Signs on the walls direct us: Having surgery? This way. Having surgery? Down this hall. Having surgery? Please come in.
The receptionist in the waiting area is disinterested when we approach, but she checks her roster against the computer, and then snaps the ID bracelet on Anne’s wrist. I peek from the corner of my eye at the people in the room. A woman by the door shakes her leg, while her husband watches TV. A small child fusses at their feet. No one’s bothered to open the curtains, even though a hint of sun is forcing its way through. We sit down, and soon a woman in blue scrubs arrives, marching briskly into the room. “Anne?” she calls, looking at no one. What can we do but rise and follow this woman toward the future before us? Down the hall and past the work stations we go (what good soldiers we are!) until we get to the prep room, with its gurney bed, clean and waiting. Anne sits at the foot of the bed while the nurse explains how the morning will go. The anesthesiologist will come in, then the surgeon. Surgery will last about an hour, and then there’ll be two stages of recovery. All visitors who enter Anne’s room must wash their hands, and she has a right to request that they do so. There’s a coffee cart for me, down the elevator and to the left. Anne puts on her gown and lies down. Blood pressure normal. Lungs good. When was your last bowel movement? What time did you eat? Do you have any pain? Here, take this pen and mark an X on your breast, over the spot where the lump is. That’ll help the doctor. Can you make a fist? It’ll burn just a bit once I start the IV.
When the nurse finally wheels Anne out on the gurney, I make her stop so I can get a picture. Anne’s wearing a wrinkled paper scrub hat. She smiles at the camera. “Wait for me, okay?” she says and lifts her hand to give the peace sign.
I used to tell people I went to the University of Wyoming because all they did in Laramie was drink beer and make babies. That was 1971. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do in college. One day, early in my first semester, I cut classes and went to a park to sunbathe. I hadn’t been there long before this guy walked up and asked me if he could bum a cigarette. He was from Ohio, a business major. I told him I was from California, from near the beach, close to Hollywood. He hadn’t been to a beach before, had never seen LA.
We smoked and flirted and decided maybe we should drive out to California, stay at my mother’s house, she wouldn’t care. We could go to the ocean, hang out in the city, miss a couple days of school and drive back in time for the next week’s classes. He had a van, and we had some money for gas. He’d pick me up at the dorms by five. I would make up a story to tell my mother once we got there.
We drove across I-80, into the dusk, smoking dope and cigarettes, getting to know each other. He was tall and stocky, and I liked the confidence of his voice. Maybe he would be my boyfriend. It was possible.
In Salt Lake, I took the wheel, and he slept through the night, pushed up against my side. We drove until late the next morning when just short of Baker, a small California desert town, the van started choking and rolled to a stop. He got out and poked under the hood, while I tried restarting the van, but the engine was done. How far it was to town, I can’t say, but we walked the highway for quite a ways before coming to a small gas station by the off-ramp. One of the station guys drove him back to his van while I waited inside on a bench. A thermometer on the door said 113 degrees.
A good two hours passed before they returned in a truck, the station guy pulling the van by a chain. By that time I’d forgotten the reason I’d made the trip. The station guy told us it’d cost $600 for parts to fix the van, or he could give us 50 bucks to buy it. We took the cash.
Still over a 100 miles west to my house, we thumbed down a string of rides until the last driver dumped us at the corner of my street, after I insisted he not drive us up to my front door. We got out of the car and stood there on the corner for a moment, not speaking a word. Then we carried our suitcases down the street, me and this guy, with nothing more in common than the dirt on our faces, until we got to my house, where my mother had just stepped out on her front porch to grab the mail.