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Watermarks: Novel excerpt



Chapter 1: Water Borne

Art saved my life. Then it almost killed me. Finally, we called it a draw. The summer I turned 13 years old I felt tired all the time. My mom thought it was pre-puberty stuff. She sat on the edge of my pink floral bedspread, patted my leg, and said with whispered pride,  “Your body needs rest to grow into womanhood.” In my sleepy stupor, I took a moment to realize that “grow into womanhood” was Mom-code for getting my period which I already had three months earlier during art class. I’d bought what I needed for nickels in the vending machine at school and never told anyone. It was my one and only period. Instead of “growing into womanhood,” over the summer I got smaller, thinner anyway, and by September when I couldn’t rise with the alarm clock to tackle the first day of 8th grade at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mom and Dad finally realized that there might be something to my need for sleep and took me to a doctor. They suspected mono. The diagnosis was leukemia.

Mom’s response that night was to call a family Rosary session in the living room with my three little sisters taking turns reciting the Hail Marys and Glory Bes out loud kneeling in front of the old green sofa where I, sanctioned by sickness, was laid out like a saint. I might have enjoyed the attention if I hadn’t felt so crummy.    

     Dad, normally reserved about religious expression, prayed along with them because he had talked with the doctors and knew the odds. They weren’t good. The year was 1970 and the survival rate of this particular cancer at this particular stage was close to zero. Of course, no one told me that. They didn’t have to. I knew from the way my parents stopped using my nickname, Di, and started calling me Diane Elizabeth because it sounded nothing like death. I knew when the young doctor, studying to be a psychiatrist, took special interest in the drawings I made during art therapy in the children’s ward. I felt it in the way some nurses were way too nice to me, and others kept a cool distance, knowing better than to become too attached.

Mom figured God was testing her. I wished God could come up with a test for her that didn’t involve me getting stuck full of needles and throwing up chunks of my stomach, but His will be done, and all that. She believed that I would get better if everyone just prayed hard enough. The doctors explained that the treatment process would take years, and there would be ups and downs.  Mom just nodded and started a prayer chain letter.  She brought in stacks of response cards that she read to me in the hospital as I puked my guts out from experimental treatments. The sicker I got, the louder she read.

I spent weeks at a time in the children’s oncology ward at Good Samaritan Hospital watching the leaves on the trees outside my window turn from green to gold. When I did get to go home, I was in no shape to attend school.  My teacher sent my little sisters home with a reading list for me, and some math work sheets to do if I was bored, but said my “assignment” was to get healthy. “We’re saving your place for you,” she wrote in a note. The truth was no kid dared sit at my desk for fear of cancer kooties.

At the hospital, therapists encouraged us to draw pictures of our cancers. Some kids drew monsters with sharp teeth and claws. Some drew detailed battles between bad guy cancer cells and good guy pills. One kid, who lost his pitching arm to cancer, just scribbled black all over the paper. I preferred to do sketches of the other patients in the ward, the doctors and nurses that I used as studies to do water colors.  I gave one of my paintings to the young psychiatrist named Dr. Beaumont, a deep purple and blue picture of him talking to the kid with just a stub of a right arm. The doc  sat beside me on one of the orange plastic chairs around the table expressing admiration for the painting. It wasn’t until blurry spots formed on the purple background that I looked up and realized he was crying.

Good Samaritan Hospital was a 45-minute by bus ride from our house. Dad needed the car to get to work at the power plant so after Mom got my sisters off to school, she hopped the 33 and transferred to the 13 to visit me, and then reversed the order to make it back home just in time to serve after-school snacks to my little sisters. After supper, she drove back to Good Sam to say goodnight to me. Dad came too when he wasn’t too tired from the plant. My germ-ridden sisters weren’t ever allowed to visit. That made me feel good in a weird way; even though I was sick I was still somehow cleaner than them.

I sat up in my hospital bed drawing one night waiting for Mom. She was late. Finally, I heard her heels clicking hurriedly down the halls until a nurse stopped her. Visiting hours were over.  Mom started crying.  This wasn’t the soft whimpering I’d heard before when she thought I was sleeping, but deep, gasping hysterical sobs. Another nurse came. Then another. They tried to calm her. One nurse said, “Men aren’t as strong as women in these situations.” That’s how I learned: Dad had left us.  When Mom finally calmed down, the head nurse cleared her to see me after hours just this once, but when she walked into my room, I pretended to be asleep until I really did.

  I woke two days later with a high fever and the green glow of electronic read outs, and the whirling sounds of machines beside me and the chemical stench of the hospital, and the stink that was cancer clawing at me, and Mom and Dad on either side of my bed, and I felt good to see them together, until I realized why. The man at the foot of the bed, who I at first mistook for yet another doctor, was actually a priest in layman’s clothes performing last rites. Grandma Jean was there too, even though she’d been dead more than a year.  She stood in one corner of the hospital room and smiled her perfectly white false teeth smile, and waved for me to join her, her wrinkly arms flapping the way they did. Then came a bright light, almost like a skylight had suddenly poked through the hospital ceiling above me, and I looked up and saw a long vertical tunnel opening directly overhead, stretching infinitely upward, and felt my soul lifting out of my body, floating up, spiraling toward the bright light. Not angels with golden harps, which you might expect from a good Catholic schoolgirl, but an abstract, warm, white light that didn’t only envelope me but seemed to become me, or me it, and I just knew that what I was feeling was death and God and it was okay.

Then a weird thing happened. I didn’t die.

Instead, like the guest who stays longer than is polite, I lingered. My body was exhausted but my spirit stubbornly refused to leave the party. They were at odds. And while the two of them sorted things out, little by little in almost imperceptible ways, I began to get better.

Mom’s visits to the hospital became sporadic. She was a single mother. She had other daughters, growing girls who needed her. Dad’s work kept him busy.  When I had to have bone marrow pulled from my hip and cried; it was Dr. Beaumont who held my hand and brushed the hair from my face.

They released me for what turned out to be the last time, when I was 17 years old.  Mom drove up with the old car, honked and I just slid in the passenger side. I said I was hungry. She turned her head slightly as if to acknowledge my presence but then looked right through me, as if I were a slightly smudgy window.  We drove the rest of the way without a word between us. That night she boiled a bag of frozen peas in a pot and made mac-and-cheese without reading the back of the box.  My sisters straggled in to the kitchen one-by-one to serve themselves. No one bothered to say grace. I waited for Mom to sit but when she stepped outside for a cigarette, I ate without her.

 A couple months later, I moved in with my dad. But he had moved in with a woman who had kids of her own, and that didn’t work out either.

The first time I took the bus down to the hospital to visit the pediatric cancer ward, the doctors and nurses thought it was sweet that I’d come back to say hello. But on the third visit, when I asked if I could sleep in one of the empty beds, Dr. Beaumont took me aside to ask what was going on. He said he’d talk to my parents. I begged him not to, not because I thought my parents would deny it, but because I was embarrassed by the truth: Nobody wanted me.

     It was decided that the best thing was for me to be declared an emancipated minor and move out on my own.  It wasn’t anything I sought: It just seemed to make the most sense. Dr. Beaumont knew of another girl, also 17, in a similar situation, and thought we’d make good roommates. Una McCarran and I made plans to meet at a coffee shop near the hospital.  When a curvy girl in faded blue jeans and an old army jacket breezed in 40 minutes late, I knew immediately it was Una.  Her hair was a dark coppery color that fell into wild ringlets past her shoulders. Smaller curls framed a pale round face with large dark brown eyes. Her jacket flapped open to reveal a little girl’s undershirt two sizes too small with a pink ribbon flower at the center. She wore no bra beneath. She glanced around the room; her jaw working a wad of gum, then came directly to me without hesitation.

“You’re Diane,” she said, sliding into the vinyl seat across from me, flagging for the waitress with one hand and up-righting a ceramic cup to indicate she wanted coffee with the other before I even had the chance to say yes. The waitress came with the hot pot, poured and left without the two of them exchanging a single word.  Una kept her eyes on me the entire time, as if she just looked hard enough, she’d be able to see if we’d be good roommates.

Una shook and tore open four pink packets of artificial sweetener, then dumped them all into her coffee.  She pealed back the foil tops on two plastic creamers with dirty fingernails then, simultaneously and ceremoniously, poured them into her coffee, stirring until it turned the color of caramel candy.  She took the gum from her mouth, pinching in between her thumb and pointer finger, swallowed half the coffee in one gulp, and stuck her gum back in her mouth.

“So, what were you in for?” she asked.

I just looked at her.

“The shrink?”

It took me a second to realize that because Dr. Beaumont introduced us, Una assumed I’d been in a psychiatric unit.

“Gees, I’m not crazy,” I said trying to sound smart and snide like her. “I had cancer.”

“Cancer. Good for you,” she said. “Me? I’m fucking nuts.”

She signaled for the waitress as if to go, and I sputtered a panicky apology. But when the waitress came, Una just tapped the rim of her cup with her spoon for more coffee. She repeated the cream and sweetener ritual, stirred, and this time, parked her gum in the back of her mouth before taking a sip. “So why don’t you want to live with your parents?” she asked. “Wait, don’t tell me: You got cancer and you’re an orphan.”

 I gave her an abbreviated version of my life story. The cancer; the treatment; the weeks at a time spent in the oncology ward; the divorce; my near death and the gradual realization that I wasn’t comfortable at my Dad’s new house or my mother’s home, because they weren’t comfortable having me there.

“So you are an emotional orphan,” said Una with a slight smile.

I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but I supposed what she said had some truth to it. Una had obviously paid more attention in Dr. Beaumont’s sessions than I had and learned to apply that knowledge. In comparison, I was fumbling through life in a fog.

“Hey, I showed you mine. Now you show me yours,” I said.

Una laughed which made me feel good. She had a deep laugh that made the curls on her head bounce like hundreds of tiny copper springs.  A few stray hairs fell over on eye and stuck to her lashes that were goopy black with mascara. I didn’t wear makeup.  My face suddenly felt naked. I slurped the last of my Coke through a striped plastic straw, both hands resting on my lap beneath the table as if I were six years old invited to sit at the grown-ups table. Una traveled a lot when she was a kid. Her parents took her and her little sister to London, Paris and Rome. They lived in a big house in the West Hills with a swimming pool. She had her own car.  Life was good.

“Then there was this accident,” Una said slowly.

 Twice a week, Una was expected to pick up her little sister from elementary school and drive her downtown to ballet class. Una got busy with her boyfriend behind the stadium one afternoon, lost track of time, and was late picking up her sister. The little girl was furious.  “Keep your tutu on,” Una said and blasted the radio louder. She took the left turn too quickly.

“I didn’t even see the other car,” she said.

It slammed into the passenger side. Paramedics took almost twenty minutes to pull her sister from the wreckage. By then, their parents had both arrived.  Una’s mother sobbed hysterically. Her father sought to comfort his wife on the curb where she collapsed crying. Una was left standing alone on the side of the road. She said she still remembered the faces of the drivers who slowed down to get a better look at the crumpled cars. When the emergency medical team didn’t bother to put the plastic brace around her sister’s limp neck, Una knew she’d killed her little sister.

“She was their favorite,” Una said without jealously. “My parents couldn’t forgive me.”

But they weren’t half as hard on Una as she was on herself.  She slit her wrists and lay down, fully clothed, in the empty Jacuzzi tub in her parents’ master bathroom because she “didn’t want to leave a mess for them to have to clean up.” The cuts weren’t deep enough, however, so Una merely bled until she passed out, then woke up an hour later, cold and sticky. Her parents came home and found her cleaning out the bath with a sponge and can of Ajax and knew something wasn’t right.  That’s how Una ended up in the psychiatric unit at Good Sam and met Dr. Beaumont. After almost a year of thrice-weekly therapy, she’d stopped cutting her arms and decided to get out from under her parents’ roof.

“So, I’m killing myself and you’re Diane,” she said pronouncing my name like a death sentence.

“I’m not dying. I’m living,” I corrected.

She considered me for a moment between sips of coffee.

 “Then ‘Liv’ it is,” she said raising her coffee cup as a toast to my rechristening.

Dr. Beaumont hooked us up with Children’s Services. We got approved for state aid and while our social workers hunted for low-income housing willing to take two minors, Una got a waitressing job, and I surprised everyone, including myself, by landing a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts in Bath, England.  I felt a little bad about ditching Una but she said we’d have made crummy roommates, anyway.  Three days before I was scheduled to leave, Una got fired for yelling at a customer so bought a ticket on the same flight. She paid a flipping fortune for it. I sat in row 17 D. Una sat three rows behind me sandwiched between a fat German couple that booked an aisle and window seat in hopes of keeping the center seat empty. They talked right over Una as if she weren’t there.  She offered to trade seats with one of them.
They declined. When the man fell asleep and the woman got up to use the lavatory, Una took a Swiss Army knife and a handful of American dollars from the guy’s carry-on.  She reasoned they couldn’t spend the money anyway.

“And the knife?”  I asked.

“Every trip needs a point,” she said.

 When we touched down at Heathrow I felt that I was, for the first time in my life, ready to start living.