“It’s an aggressive form,” Dr. Monroe said. His eyes didn’t waver; he was used to giving bad news.
“You’ve got about a year.” This time he spoke with a little more empathy, not nearly enough to soften the blow.
“So, you’re telling me I’m dying,” I said.
“I’m afraid so,” he said, scribbling something on my chart. Probably, This one’s a goner, or expiration date: one year from today.
Just like that, my life had been reduced to 365 days.
“Are you sure?” I asked
He glanced at his watch and nodded. He had to rush off to another appointment, and I was left to deal with the news alone.
I spent day one of the rest of my abbreviated life curled up in a ball on the sofa.
Mom called. I didn’t answer.
Then Derrick phoned. I let it go to voicemail.
Both wanted to know how my appointment went.
Day two I ate whatever the hell I wanted in between fits of rage and bouts of uncontrollable crying.
Both Mom and Derrick came by, but I couldn’t face them.
The next few days were a blur.
Then one day — I couldn’t tell you to save my life which day. That’s funny, huh, because I couldn’t do either, save my life or tell you which day it was. But my mother, Derrick and my landlord were standing over me, wondering if I had died. I must’ve looked lifeless in my grungy pajamas and lying in a pool of my own vomit.
“Oh, Lizzie,” Mom said, and she started to cry. I didn’t want her seeing me like this. I didn’t want anyone, for that matter, seeing me like this.
“Please leave,” I thought I said, but I’m really not sure if I actually said anything.
Mom drew me a bath and I felt humiliated that she was taking care of me as if I were a child. Is this what the end would be like? The woman who gave birth to me would be the one to usher me into death?
Derrick and Mom looked terrified when I came out of the bathroom. I knew why. I mean, I looked bad, and not the Oh my hair hadn’t been combed and I wasn’t wearing any makeup kind of bad. It was the kind of bad that announced my days were numbered. But their reactions angered me nonetheless. I was scared, and I didn’t need them showing me just how frightened they were as well.
Both stood there, wringing their hands, trying to smile, all the while speaking to me like I was that kid from The Twilight Zone, you know, the one who could wish anyone who angered him into the cornfield.
How’re you doin Lizzie?
You look great honey.
I wanted to scream, Stop staring at me!!
Instead I said, “So yeah, I’m dying.”
Mom couldn’t hold back any longer and burst into tears. Derrick tried not to, but the tears came anyway, defiantly streaming down his cheeks as he tried to be stoic.
“Why are you crying?” I asked. “I’m the one dying.”
The words came out harsher than I intended. I was trying to lighten the mood — but I only made matters worse.
Mom made dinner that night — my favorite, fried chicken, creamed corn, and mashed potatoes. It was delicious. I’d only eaten peanut butter Cap’n Crunch and Doritos for the last few days, so this meal was like heaven. And I wondered, would there be fried chicken in heaven? Of course there would be, I thought. What kind of heaven wouldn’t have fried chicken on the menu? And the idea of me eating chicken with Jesus and the disciples at a big table for my welcome to heaven dinner made me laugh. Derrick and Mom thought I was going crazy.
349 days left, and I woke up to the smell of bacon and eggs. My mother was standing over a frying pan crying. When she saw me, she tried to sound cheery. “Oh, hi, honey. Glad you’re up. Derrick went to work. He’ll be back this afternoon.”
“Is he going to tell his boss that his fiancée is dying, then ask for the rest of the year off?” I chuckled. Mom looked angry.
“Don’t do that, Lizzie. Don’t make light of this,” she said angrily.
Suddenly a wave of nausea hit me so quickly that I didn’t have time to get to the bathroom.
Mom cleaned me up. And that’s when I broke. That’s when I cried so hard I didn’t think I’d ever stop. I was dying and no one could do anything for me. No one could love me enough to keep the Grim Reaper away. And I felt utterly helpless.
Mom finally told my brother and sister. I just couldn’t do it.
My sister Trisha came over all red-eyed. “I’m going to document this time together,” she said. “Tim gave me a digital video camera for Christmas.”
Trisha tried to smile, but her lower lip began quivering.
“Trish, don’t …” I began to say, but she had already burst into tears.
My brother Patrick pretended everything was the same, joking around and punching me like I was ten.
“You’ll do anything to get all the attention, won’t you?” Pat said, his mouth formed into a smile, but his eyes were so sad.
Dinner was lasagna, another favorite of mine.
“Mom, your lasagna is to die for,” I said, laughing.
Everyone stared at me in shock. Then Derrick showed me why I loved him so much when he began laughing too. Then my brother joined in, and then Mom.
My sister ran crying into the bathroom, which made us laugh even harder.
Dr. Miller, who had the bedside manner of a Nazi SS officer, had given me the name of a support group. “It can help you deal with the fact that you’re dying,” he said, and I swore I could detect a slight German accent.
“That’s the way to sugar coat it, doc,” I said, but in all actuality, I appreciated his honesty because everyone else around me felt walking on eggshells was preferable to talking openly and honestly about my impending death.
“Just what I need, doctor: a group of near-dead people discussing what it’s like and how much it sucks. I already know that.”
He smiled. “I don’t mind being your punching bag, Lizzie,” Doc Miller said. “I can’t imagine how difficult it is for you.”
I take back the SS officer crack. I think I understand his aloofness now; he has to be a little detached, or every dying patient would slowly eat away at him.
Still, I wasn’t interested in this or any other group. The last thing I needed was a bunch of pathetic walking dead individuals like me feeling sorry for themselves as they admit to all the things they wish they’d done, but hadn’t. No thanks.
“We think you should go,” Mom and Derrick said, cornering me one night as if it were some kind of intervention.
“Did Dr. Miller call you?”
“He thinks it will be good for you, good for all of us.”
“What the hell difference does it make if it’s good for you? I’m the one dying, remember?”
“Because we’ll be the ones left behind, Lizzie. We’ll be here picking up the pieces after you’ve gone,” Mom said, and stormed out of the room.
In addition to dying, I’m also suffering from foot in mouth disease. Needless to say, I went to group the next night.
The meeting took place at the Learning Annex building, room 21, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Jose Amara was the man leading the group. I learned later that his surname meant “Immortal Being.” What are the odds that a guy with the last name Amara leads a group of terminally ill patients? Sometimes ya just gotta laugh at life’s coincidences.
“Welcome, Lizzie,” Jose who can’t die said.
I smiled, or at least I tried to. Then in an attempt to show the rest of these losers that I had no intention of being a victim, I said, “Why don’t we meet every night, Jose Amara? I mean, we’re dying; every day counts, right?”
Unfortunately, my attempt at humor went over like a lead balloon.
“You use humor to hide how you really feel,” Mr. Amara said.
No duh, I thought. 332 days remaining, and I had to listen to Mr. Obvious tell me what I already knew.
Time sure flies when you ain’t got a lot of it left, and after months of some ups and plenty of downs, I was at the 250 days left mark, give or take a few.
I loved Derrick and knew he was a good soul, but I have to admit I was surprised that he stuck around. I wasn’t the best company, often moody and snapping at him, but he has the patience of Job. Sure, sometimes he gets frustrated with me, but he always comes back. I don’t deserve him.
I was living with Mom again. Derrick even moved in to help out. If I were the praying type — and between you and me, I’ve been praying a whole helluva lot that I beat this thing, but God isn’t taking my calls right now. As I was saying, I’d pray that Derrick finds some sweet woman to fall in love with when I’m gone. He deserves the best.
My birthday was in two weeks. Mom and Derrick wanted to throw a big party. “To celebrate your life, honey,” Mom said.
I resisted saying, What life?’ I don’t know what they’d be celebrating. Hey Lizzie, congrats on being the first of your siblings to croak. Three cheers for Lizzie.
As you can plainly see, I had no desire to celebrate my or anyone else’s life. But as Mr. Amara the immortal said, “The party isn’t for you, Lizzie. It’s for them.”
I hate it when that son of a bitch is right.
“I’d like to film the party, Lizzie,” my sister Trish said one afternoon when she came over to babysit. Mom had some errands to run and Derrick was out of town for work.
“That’s fine, Trish. It’ll be fun. Maybe you’ll even get me puking on video. That oughta be a lot of laughs.”
Trish just stared at me. She didn’t cry, didn’t yell, she just stared silently at me. And I saw something in her eyes I hadn’t seen since the diagnosis — anger.
“I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling,” Trish said. “I won’t even pretend to comprehend, but do you have to be so awful to those of us who love you? Believe it or not, Lizzie, you will be missed, even if you are a stark raving bitch most days. If you don’t want me to film your birthday party, just tell me. Don’t use your pointed sarcasm to deflect from the fact that you’re scared and mad that this is happening to you.”
Whoa! If you knew my sister Trish, you would see how out of character that outburst was. Normally she would bite off her arm to avoid conflict.
So yeah, I drove my usually easygoing sister to risk entering into an argument because I was being such an asshole. This was certainly a highlight for me. And yes, I’m being sarcastic.
“I’m sorry, Trish. I would love for you to film the party. And I’m sorry.”
Trish hugged me, but still I couldn’t admit to her just how scared I was.
Mom invited all my close friends and family over for the party. I was tired and in no mood to make people feel at ease with me dying, but I was going to make the best of it because … well, because I didn’t want to ruin this night for them. Looks like I’m growing up in the little time I have left here on planet Earth.
At group the other night, someone wished they’d just been hit by a truck and died instantly. “It would’ve been a lot easier,” they said.
“Maybe for you,” Jose Amara stated. “But your loved ones wouldn’t be able to say a proper goodbye.”
Mr. Immortal was right. Just like funerals weren’t for the dead, but the living, my party was for those that will be left behind. To leave them with some pleasant final memories to hold them over until we see each other again.
I got real sick just a few hours before my birthday party.
“Do you want me to cancel?” mom asked.
I was leaning over the toilet, wondering if there was anything left to hurl up. I shook my head. “No, let’s do this,” I told her.
Everyone showed up in good cheer with gifts and heartfelt birthday wishes. I felt like a pile of shit, but I don’t think anyone noticed. Nothing to see here, just the normal haggard look of a woman on the verge of death.
I didn’t want to cry, but it was impossible not to because it hit me just how much I will miss them all.
Jose Amara was right. This birthday may be the last chance for the people I love to say a final goodbye. And I’m grateful that I can at least give them that.
So tonight, I gave death the old middle finger. Got up from the bathroom floor, brushed my teeth and greeted my friends and family.
And you know what, I had a great time.
237 days left and counting.