We all had stories, each one more heartbreaking than the last. One person whose reason for being at Death’s Door puzzled me. Lucy was a forty-something psychiatrist with a medical practice based on the principles of Zen. She was a large woman, statuesque, probably six feet tall, with light brown fuzz on her head. She had breast cancer, for which she was on a yearlong regime of chemo. She was nine months into it, and “I’m blessed to be in remission.” She played the ukulele and surfed, although there were no beaches nearby, unless you counted Salton Sea, which you couldn’t. We met when I was eating breakfast alone, reading the “Good Goings On” page of the daily Death’s Door newsletter Words to Live By.
Lucy and I began meeting for breakfast. I liked her very much and looked forward to our conversations. I didn’t usually ask residents why they were there, but I asked her.
“Except for this damn cancer, I’ve had a pretty good life,” Lucy said. “Until I moved out here to Death’s Door, I lived in Newport Beach, surfed nearly every day until I had the mastectomies. I had a nice medical practice in an affluent area where there is no small population of overachievers who want to figure out why they’ve been hardwired the way they are. I have friends I’ve known since college. Even joined a band called the Ukulele Underground. I’ve had pretty good luck with the cancer, since I’ve been in remission.”
“Then why?” I asked. “What am I missing?”
“That’s just it,” Lucy said as she put milk in her tea. “I’m not missing anything, and I’m afraid I’m going to lose everything, have my life be something else, something less than. I’m afraid that when I wake up one day, all the good things in my life will be gone.”
I took a bite of sausage to give myself a moment to think. Considering her profession, she should have been asking herself this question: “Does that seem realistic, that you’ll lose everything?”
Lucy poured a puddle of Maine maple syrup on her waffle and cut it into squares. I was evidently not the only person who didn’t worry about weight gain anymore.
“I thought that exactly,” she said with food wedged into one cheek. “Not reasonable, right? And then I got diagnosed with cancer. Initially I was focused only on getting rid of it, and there were periods where I couldn’t surf because of surgery or right after a chemo treatment, and I thought ‘this is it. This is where my life changes dramatically.’”
She speared two more squares of the waffle and ate. Then she pointed her fork in my direction while she was speaking, and I was afraid I was going to get sprayed with syrup.
“But I have whistled past the graveyard, too, because the cancer hasn’t come back since my mastectomies. So I’m not here because I’m battling cancer. I’m here because I’m afraid my life is going to turn to shit.”
I flagged down a server. I needed the fortification of more sausages to carry on that conversation. “This is probably a dumb question considering your line of work, but have you thought about talking to someone, a therapist?” I asked.
“Of course, I have.” She sighed as though she was going to say more, but stopped and ate a piece of bacon and looked around the café. “The consensus of the psychologist I talked to formally and my therapist friends informally is that I’m nuts.”
“Wha…” I burned my mouth on my coffee. I hadn’t noticed the server filling up the cup. But I had been drinking tea. “That’s what they said? They said you are crazy?” I whispered, leaning over the table on my elbows.
“They all used very long words, but that’s basically what they said.” She chuckled through her nose.
“How is that helpful?” Frowning I looked at her brown eyes to see if she was kidding me. “Have you self-diagnosed?”
She slurped her tea. “Not at all and, yes, I have. Frankly, I didn’t want to go through a long therapeutic process. And I didn’t want to wake up every day and say, ‘Is this the day? Is this the day it all goes south?’ So, I’m here.”
Thinking of my own situation, I asked, “What about your family? What do they think about your being here?”
She sighed and groaned. “My ex-husbands, plural, have different opinions. One of them thinks I’m being irresponsible, because my son is young, twelve. My other ex understands. I haven’t told my son.”
“You have a twelve-year-old son, you’re here, and he doesn’t know what you’re doing?” My voice got loud enough that other residents looked over at our table. “What are you doing?” I said, whispering.
“He thinks I went away for treatment of the cancer. Don’t you get it? Every day, every damn day, I wait and wonder: is it going to be today? Is the cancer coming back today? I can’t get the thoughts out of my head.” She demonstrated by putting her hands on her temples.
I shook my head while I swirled a piece of sausage through the egg yolk. I couldn’t eat any more, but needed something to do while I was listening to Lucy. “Don’t you think your son is old enough for you to have a conversation with him?” I was instantly sorry I said this, because my adult daughter and I couldn’t talk about my being here. “Forget that question. That was stupid on my part.” I touched my hand to my chest. “Who is going to raise your son?” I got tears in my eyes, and I sniffled while I asked the question. I reached for a paper napkin.
Lucy looked around the café, possibly looking for a rear door where she could make a quick exit. “My first ex, Brandon’s father, will take him. He is the ex who thinks I’m both nuts and selfish to do this. He is going to be the death of me, the way he rags on me. But, hell, he is a good father. He’ll do a good job raising my son. I’m waiting now to get a Death Date so I can get the hell out of here. Brandon will be told I died from cancer. End of story.”
“Wow!” I said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this, Lucy.” I pushed my breakfast plate away from me. I was afraid at that moment that I’d throw up. “I think I need to go right now.” And that’s what I did. I walked out of the café, full on crying by that point. What was I doing to Bethany?
When I read or heard something interesting, like Lucy’s story, I thought, “I have to tell Jonathan about this.” He was constantly on my mind. I thought I was like the fatally ill residents at Death’s Door. I’m sick inside. Although I wanted to die right away, I waited because of Bethany. I hoped she would come around and accept what I was doing.
I don’t mean to deify Jonathan, making him into something more than he was, but he was, no secret, my best friend. Like best friends, there were times when one of us wasn’t happy with the other one. When we got to high school, he became busy with his classes, sports, and school politics. I complained infrequently—to my mind—about his activities leaving little time for us. He argued that—he had acquired good debating skills—he enjoyed playing baseball and golf and needed excellent grades and extracurricular activities to get into a top-tier university. I was no slouch academically and was in the Latin club and contemporary dance but always made time for him. I blew a gasket in our junior year when he started up a club for the arts: painting, sculpture, and architecture. He wouldn’t back off, and so I broke up with him. At the time I decided that if he wouldn’t make more time for us, then I was through.
“I’m not playing third, fourth or fifth fiddle so you can hit a ball with a stick and start a club for people who throw pots,” I said, my righteous indignation bubbling over. I have been known to have a temper.
“You’re being unreasonable,” Jonathan said. “It’s only a club. It’s only one day a week.”
He emphasized his points by pointing his index finger at me. I think he intended the gesture to be playful, because that’s the kind of guy Jonathan was, but having that finger close to my face made me angrier.
“You could join. Learn how to throw pots yourself,” he said.
“I think you don’t need me in your life,” I said and stomped off —my method of choice to show I was hurt—already crying.
Jonathan didn’t follow me. I wouldn’t have stopped, but I was disappointed he didn’t at least call out to me to stop.
I didn’t go to dance practice that day. Jonathan had driven me to school, so I walked home six miles, hot tears clouding my vision. I laid on my bed and cried into my pink satin bedspread, leaving wet spots that looked like bruises. There is no greater hell on earth than teenage angst. I didn’t think I could live without him, but I decided to cut Jonathan off completely: wouldn’t answer the phone, told my parents not to let him into the house, went to our shared locker when he wasn’t there, acted like he didn’t exist when he walked up to me. He sent me long, apologetic conciliatory letters that I didn’t respond to.
I was able to stay angry for a full three weeks, not only because he had started the club, but, also, because he had made me angry for those three weeks, if you can follow my teenaged reasoning. Then one day we were walking toward each other down the hall of the first floor of the science building. When we stood in front of each other, I put my head on his chest and cried. He put his face into my hair, and I think he cried, too, but I couldn’t tell anyone that then. Jonathan had already started Arts Club, and twenty-three people had joined. For me, the grand gesture would have been for him to walk away from the club. He didn’t offer. But I did feel that he owed me one.