Kim Drew Wright
In my earliest memory with my two older sisters, I’m toddling around a South Carolina backyard, past a metal playset with one of those face-to-face swings you have to pull and push on opposite sides or you won’t get anywhere. My vision narrows on a dried white dog turd in the grass. My sisters egg me on to eat the white chocolate candy. Of course my memory is blurred, but I envision clutching it in my tiny grasp, then a scrunched-up face and my tongue pushing out the clump while my sisters scream ewww and run across the yard giggling at their mastery over their baby sister. A few years later they did the same thing with bitter cooking chocolate in the kitchen. You’d think I’d have become leery of eating things they offered while eagerly watching my face, but at least that time it looked like a real candy bar. Of course it wasn’t as gross as a dog turd, but it still left a twang in the mouth.
Debbie was eight years older than me, and Michele five. I was the baby that sometimes tagged along. Later, on my sixteenth birthday, Dad would look at Mom and ask, Should we tell her? Apparently, my mother had an IUD, intrauterine device, in the early 1970s for birth control. It was a Y shaped bit of plastic that bumped around her uterus aiming to dislodge any fertilized eggs. I know, because they gave it to me that day in one of those white cardboard jewelry boxes, like it was my sweet sixteen present. Maybe they thought it made me a miracle baby. Although the fact that Dad got a vasectomy while Mom was pregnant with me sort of counteracted that idea. Still, I said stuff like, I was clinging on, and, I’m a survivor!
I’ve rented a flat near the medical center in Houston, within walking distance to Hermann Park with its wide walking paths and McGovern Centennial Gardens’ menagerie of plants impatient for spring. Surgery had taken longer than expected, rooting out cancerous nodes from my previously excavated chest, and the length of retraction time for however they had my pieces pulled out of the way, clearing a path for the surgeon’s instruments, had left severe pain and weakness in my right arm and hand.
Still, the doctors were hopeful they had scraped out the cancer in time to save my life. A biopsy had come back triple negative, indicating a more aggressive cancer with fewer treatment options than hormone positive. An unusual eye exam had prompted my scans. My ophthalmologist had said, We’ll come back to that eye, then whispered behind closed doors to his assistant. I stood at the front counter pleading for them to figure out the bill quickly, saying, Charge me anything you want. I have to get out of here. I may have brain cancer. A lumbar puncture came back clear. Scans showed suspicious nodes, but luckily they were still contained in my chest. Surgeons had been consulted to determine if the areas were resectable. I’d been on that fine line between operable and inoperable.
After a couple lonely nights in the hospital, I am glad to be back at the flat with my husband, who places a gigantic bouquet of flowers on the dining table, pointing out the roses and birds of paradise. He holds my hand, trying to straighten my fingers, which seem determined to curl in on themselves like fern sprouts furled.
We slowly walk to the gardens, marveling at the pale pinks and yellows of clinging roses even in February. We touch purple cauliflower and giant red-stalked lettuce in the community beds. We rest on a bench, watching a grandfather follow alongside a toddler, urging him on with a little pull of his hand when the child stops to stare at us.
By midweek, the day Michele flies in from North Carolina and my husband flies back to our home in Virginia, the temperature drops from the sixties into the forties. It’s still walkable weather if I don’t linger. Two tubes exit the right side of my chest with hand-sized squeezable bulbs that collect blood and other fluids at their ends. I safety-pin them to my surgical bra and shove the extra tubing in my pocket. Careful not to trip over the tree roots cracking the sidewalk, I lead Michele into the heart of the park, where we squawk at strange-looking ducks and girls in tulle quinceañera dresses. We pause for the miniature park train, waving at the passengers stuck in tiny seats, daring them to wave back. A thin layer of ice covers another miniaturized imitation, this one of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. In Texas, instead of the Washington Monument, there’s a scaled-down version of the obelisk called The Pioneer Memorial and, at the opposite end, a statue of General Sam Houston on a horse. He served as the first president of the Republic of Texas after its revolution against Mexico, we learn from Google. Texas savored its independence until joining the United States a decade later. I take my sister’s photo by the reflecting pool. She shoots me the bird.
The age gap between my sisters and me was large enough that I don’t recall all three of us doing much together as kids. Debbie was a teenager on the go while I was reading books to stuffed animals. Sometimes she’d ask us to lie for her when she went off to meet a boy. Our parents figured out what was happening when Debbie got pregnant at sixteen. She moved out and married the boy but ended up back home with the rest of us. I don’t really remember her moving out. She was there and then not there. After a while, she was back with a baby. I was nine, halfway between my sister and my new niece. The night our dad raged over the news, I went to Michele’s room. She was crying and told me to get out. I got in my own bed and sang “Tomorrow” from the Annie soundtrack: When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely, I just stick out my chin, and grin, and say… Oh, the sun will come out tomorrow. So you gotta hang on ‘til tomorrow, come what may.
By Friday, the world-famous cancer center has already announced its plans to close on Monday and Tuesday ahead of the cold snap. My oncologist appointment switches to virtual in the patient portal and the plastic surgeon consulted for lymphedema cancels altogether, asking my advanced breast cancer surgeon to cover his part. The lymphedema department advises I not fly for four weeks after surgery due to the effects of air pressure on delicate vessels stitched together, though at my initial appointment, the surgeon mentioned a man who’d traveled all the way back to China after two weeks. I’m not sure the air pressure matters much at this point, since my hand is so swollen. If I can at least keep my follow-up with the main surgeon and have his nurse pull my drains before leaving Texas, I’ll be satisfied. That appointment is Wednesday. Michele and I have seats together on a flight to my home on Thursday. Surely the center won’t close for any longer simply because of the possibility of bad weather. Since neither of us brought a winter coat, Michele finds us heavy zip-up hoodies at Target in the only color still available in our sizes, white. She keeps asking if the surgeons “got it all.” That night, we make the grownup decision to split a massive piece of chocolate cake for dinner and watch scary shows before bed.
The next day is freezing. Still, we put on our matching hoodies and take bad selfies at the Houston graffiti park, trying to get in frame with Black Lives Matter, Kobe 24, SKY’S THE LIMIT above angel wings, and Spongebob. The senate acquits Trump in the Capitol Insurrection. We yell at the television, but are more surprised that a North Carolina senator voted guilty than with the outcome. Afterwards, Mitch McConnell agrees with the prosecution’s evidence of Trump’s responsibility for inciting the riot, but says that since he is no longer president, it’s unconstitutional to try the case in the Senate—even though McConnell was the one who refused to call the Senate back from recess in time.
On Valentine’s Day it is too cold to walk. The window units in the rental flat are having a hard time keeping up. In the living room, we crank the space heater on high. My right hand is still not functioning, so my sister performs tasks like opening pill bottles and cutting my food. She strips my bloody drains twice a day by pinching the tubing near my skin then pulling down the length of the tube with her other hand until reaching the collection bulb. As the days go by, the fluid changes from bright red to a paler orange. She pours it into tiny measuring cups and records the output before flushing it down the toilet.
We are on opposite schedules, with her an early riser and me a night owl. We’ve been tiptoeing around each other, but the squeaky floorboards of the old rental have cut into both our sleep quotas. When she comes into my room before dawn to inform me she’s crapped and the toilet won’t flush, I scream some expletives and tell her to get the hell out.
I have more memories of Michele growing up than Debbie. In the house Dad built, down a long dirt road off a South Carolina highway, Michele would sneak into my bedroom at night and lay on the floor so she wouldn’t have to be alone. I felt brave since she was older and needed me. I also felt annoyed because she was older and needed me. There were nights growing up when we slept in the same small bed. She taught me the skills of cover-yanking wars, quick tactics like rolling away and tucking so that the edge of the blanket stayed underneath your side. For a while, after we moved and she went to college, it was just my parents and me in the house. Michele came back, though, and chose the twin bed adjacent to mine rather than the second bedroom across the hall.
Since it was the 1980s and the legal drinking age was changing around the country, Michele often drove from our new house in the northern Piedmont area of North Carolina to the Virginia border to buy California Coolers and beer. Sometimes my friends and I would ride with her. Other times there’d be a drop off at our neighborhood stop sign and my friends and I would go for a walk, sipping and giggling, playing with the rush of adulthood in early teen bodies. Once, Michele and I smuggled the bottles upstairs past our parents and into a cardboard box we’d rigged into a homemade cooler in our closet. The thrill of getting away with something was just as sweet as the sugar-packed drinks. When the ice melted and sogged the box, leaking into our closet carpet, we laughed even harder.
The pipes are frozen. There’s a thin layer of ice on the road. Newscasters say things like Houston has never had wind chills and You have to be seventy-five years old to remember weather like this. The city doesn’t own a snowplow. Not long after I kick Michele out of my room for waking me, the window unit abruptly stops, and I know we are truly screwed. The high temperature on the day of my surgery was 69. Today’s high is a measly 27 with a plummeting low of 16.
Michele has taken my phone into her room to try and contact the flat owner about the lack of running water so she can figure out what to do about her early-morning poop. I struggle to a sitting position with my sore chest and useless right arm, down the step ladder provided to help me navigate the elevated bed after surgery, and across the hall to search for a nearby hotel that still has power. The first few hotels are full. A disconnected buzz sounds on a couple others, and I assume they don’t have power either. At one hotel, they won’t let us in earlier than regular late afternoon check-in. The booking agent is nice and calls some sister hotels. There’s a Day’s Inn Motel about six miles away that has power, and we can pay an additional fee to get in the room immediately. We agree to brave the ice, in order to not freeze to death.
For a while, after Debbie died and my cancer came back, I thought she might be sending me signs, pointing me toward the right health decisions. I saw patterns in numbers and good luck grasshoppers in my kitchen. Her first birthday since her death occurred during a prior trip to Houston. I was driving back from the medical center while on a call with Michele. Distracted, I made a wrong turn. Of all the driveways in Houston to turn around in, the one I pulled into had a yard sign that read, over and over in rainbow colors, It will be good again.
I brought my daughter on one of the trips to Texas. Determined to make it about more than just my illness, we took a walking ghost tour in Galveston. The guide kept instructing us to take photos of haunted houses’ windows and tell him if we saw any faces looking back. He pulled up photos on his phone taken at the same location on different nights, pointing out blurry orbs and exclaiming, See?
Michele and I throw clothes and snacks in bags. She’s already freaked out about driving the rental car because she’s not used to a big SUV and can’t afford another ticket. I grab my medications and the bandages we’ve been cutting in strips to cover my wounds. There’s a dusting of snow and ice, and we are yelling at each other before we even get out of the driveway. Repeatedly, in increasing volume, I tell her to tap the brakes. She looks at me while gliding down the driveway toward the street without ever touching the brakes. Out on the road, the tension escalates, and then we’re yelling back and forth, as if we’re teenagers again.
Shut the fuck up!
No, you shut the fuck up!
No, YOU shut the fuck up!
You think everyone else is a bitch when you’re the biggest bitch of all, I say.
Michele nods while strangling the steering wheel. Well, I know!
We pause for a second. We’re approaching an intersection.
Tap the brakes. Tap the brakes. Tap the brakes!
Shut the fuck up!
I clutch the armrest. Stop the car. I’m going to drive.
You have one hand. You can’t drive. Now, shut the fuck up for real or I’m going to kick you out of the car.
Good, I want out!
We stop at the light. There are no other cars.
To get to the motel we have to merge onto a highway headed straight toward the downtown skyscrapers. It looks like a scene from an apocalyptic movie: frozen overpasses, not another person or car anywhere. The entire city is shut down. Trapped in the passenger side, I take a deep breath and trade my shut-the-fuck-ups for words of encouragement. I tell her, I tell myself, we’re going to be okay.
After we get inside the motel room, I examine the sheets. There is more than one pube. I think they’ve been washed, I just think they haven’t been plucked. Despite her terror of driving on ice, Michele leaves in hope of coffee at the McDonald’s we can see from the room’s window. As soon as she leaves, an alarm sounds like there’s about to be an air strike. I poke my head out the door but don’t see any danger worth standing in the cold for. Michele is gone for so long that I wonder if she’s abandoned me. When she does get back, she says it’s crazy trying to find a place that’s open. When I seem timid about calling the front desk guy about the hair on the sheets, she says, Oh, hell no, and calls for a new set. The alarm goes off a few more times. The man who delivers the sheets is the same man who was behind the front desk when we checked in, only now he has a red circle on his forehead. He says someone burnt popcorn in the microwave. When he had asked why I was in town, I’d told him it was for surgery. He had knocked fifteen dollars off the early check-in fee and said they, presumably the hotel chain, understood.
Each time Michele drives out for food or water it’s like she is on a hunt with the rest of Houston. More than once she sits in a wrap-around-the-building-and-out-onto-the-street drive-thru line only to realize that the restaurant isn’t even open. Once she comes back with Whoppers, another time Chick-fil-A. One dinner consists of a mix of nuts and candy she harvests from a gas station.
The next day, I take a virtual call with my oncologist, who has driven to the medical center since he has no power at his house. On the call is a manager for an immunotherapy trial he says I qualify for. We decide to stay another night at the motel since the power is still out at the flat. Newscasters say it is worse than Hurricane Harvey. They question the people in charge of power. At first, Michele and I think they are being unnecessarily accusatory since the cold is so unusual. Then we slowly realize how fucked up it is that Texas has their own power grid while the entire rest of America is on another two grids: one for west and one for east. Senator Ted Motherfucker Cruz takes off with his family to warm Mexico, leaving the rest of us to suffer. A mom and eight-year-old girl die of carbon monoxide poisoning from a running car in the garage. A home burns down when a family tries to heat it with a grill.
The ice melts. The entire city is still in chaos, but everything appears normal.
When we were younger, Dad would drive us in the family station wagon to visit our grandparents. Michele would end up in tears because she had the world’s smallest bladder and Dad would never stop for her to go pee. I could hold it for hours, but I did get motion sickness. One trip, she held a paper plate up for me to puke on. As we grew older we found ways of making our distress less obvious. Those were the days before smartphones and DVD entertainment systems on the backs of seats. Bits of cotton escaped trucks and stuck in the underbrush alongside the highway. Once, when we were teenagers, we made a game out of throwing peanuts from the backseat through the driver and passenger windows, past our parents’ heads without them noticing. Their quizzical side glances had us rolling.
When Debbie was dying, neither Michele nor I knew. Mom said things like, She’s a really sick girl. I had seen her at Thanksgiving. She’d been in bed, but cheerful. She had a sore on her lower abdomen that wouldn’t heal, and she had just been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was about to start treatment. I gave her tips on chemotherapy, told her it wasn’t that bad. Her lungs filled, and she died February first, right before the newscasters started talking about the new virus coming to America. Michele called me that morning, and we both whispered over the phone that we didn’t understand. She said mom had said Debbie’s boyfriend said the doctor had said if anyone wanted to say goodbye, they needed to come do it. Michele said that was crazy, How sick could she be? She said she would go see and let me know. She called a few hours later, while I was at my youngest son’s basketball game a state away. She said it was awful, There’s so much swelling you can’t even recognize her. She asked if I wanted her to hold the phone up to Debbie’s ear before they pulled the ventilator. I said, No.
The power goes out at the motel. We sit in the rental car for heat and to charge our phones. Back in our room, Michele makes wisecracks when I stuff plastic bags under the door to block the wind. The room is still warmer than the old flat that isn’t warm even when it has power. We use our phones as flashlights. We huddle through the night in one bed like we did decades ago. We stream shows on Michele’s iPad propped on a pillow between us. I am now paying for two places for the night and neither one has power.
The next morning, the water dries up at the motel. The flat owner messages us that the power is back on. We shove our things in the plastic bags from beneath the door and head back over. The lights are on. Water comes out of the faucet. Michele finally flushes her days-old crap. We throw dirty clothes in the washer in the kitchen. We are overjoyed for an hour until the power goes out again. We hang up wet clothes. I use cellular data to access my virtual appointment with a radiation oncologist, who is himself at a hotel for power. He tells me it is too soon to radiate my area of concern and too close to the nerve that is already causing the loss of my dominant hand. My follow-up appointment with the advanced breast cancer surgeon gets canceled. The medical center will be closed for the rest of the week. My drains are putting out less fluid as my surgical site begins to heal. I am sore and have to be mindful not to snag the long tubing on clothing and objects like door handles. Michele helps me detangle the lines and pin the bulbs to my surgical bra, like a maid of honor adjusting my veil. The physician assistant calls and tells Michele, over speaker phone, how to pull out my drains. She says it will be easy.
Michele, a middle school guidance counselor, declares one of her favorite shows is Dr. Pimple Popper. She says she’s kind of excited to pull my drains. She says she thinks she’ll be good at it. I’ve had lots pulled that weren’t easy. Sometimes scar tissue caused the nurse to yank like she was fighting for covers while sharing a twin bed. Once, instead of the slender tubing, the end looked like a mini power cord surge protector strip. Almost always I can feel it snaking through my body.
We gather a tiny pair of scissors they gave me at the hospital to cut bandages, alcohol wipes, and gauze. I lay on the bed trying not to freak out. I know I will feel better once I get them out and can move freely. My skin is sore from the friction of the rubber. First, Michele needs to snip the stitches holding the tube in my body. The hospital scissors are dull and insufficient. She opens the blinds for light and lifts her glasses to the top of her head, peering down and putting her face close to my body so she can see. I grimace through the first few attempts at cutting the stitches but cry out when the pulling irritates my sensitive skin. She raises her head and hands and both our breathing becomes shallow. I’m scared we’re about to devolve into a shut-the-fuck-up situation. I leap off the bed as best I can in my condition, walk to the kitchen, and take a Xanax. She digs out the fingernail clippers from my toiletry kit. I take a minute for the Xanax to kick in and a few deep breaths before I resume my position. The clippers work a lot better. Michele asks if I’m ready and when I nod she counts to three and pulls the tube all the way out. It’s short and comes out easy. We’re both pleasantly surprised and relieved. Still, I decide to leave the second drain for the next day’s activity, since it’s collecting more fluid than the other. Just having the one out already feels better.
At four-thirty we’re in a Chick-fil-A drive-thru line that winds through a strip-mall parking lot. A young man walks from the building and waves a couple cars ahead of us away. We roll the window down, and he says the cut-off is now the car in front of us. He’s the manager and wants to let his workers off by five since another freeze is coming. I hold up my remaining drainage tube and beg him to let us stay in line. He looks away, then looks back and says, Okay, you can be the last one, then waves away the cars already lining up behind us. Michele and I are happier than anyone has ever been in a fast food line. He repeatedly comes over to wave cars away behind us. A car cuts in from another direction and both a man in a truck in front of us and the manager go over to tell them to leave. It’s cut-throat fast food survival we are living through. We eat warm sandwiches in the parking lot. Back at the flat, we gather all the throw blankets and jackets to huddle under layers in the main bedroom until the power blasts on around eleven, the overhead light blazing and the window unit cranking up. We shout yay and I can’t help but think the on-and-off power in the city that never freezes might be a clear way to make my sister understand my alternating hope and despair, my sister who keeps asking if the surgeon got it all.
One time Michele told me that I was adopted and that my real parents were a pirate and a princess he had captured. She said that seemed about as good an explanation as any for why I was the way I was. I laughed and said I was flattered, that it seemed about right to me, too.
The days keep getting warmer, but my hand feels like it will never wake up. The next morning, while we are on our second cup of coffee, an emergency alert that Houston is under a water boil advisory pops up on our phones. We pour out the pot made from the water from the faucet. Michele pulls my second drain. I tape a Ziploc baggie over the holes left behind and take a shower in the contaminated water supply. I hurriedly start to dry my hair so I won’t freeze if the power goes out again. A fuse blows. The tenant next door fixes it. We are ecstatic that the restaurant across the street has reopened after a water main break. We order burgers for lunch and salads for dinner.
Our Thursday flight gets canceled and rebooked for Friday. Even though Friday’s high is 52F, that flight gets canceled and rebooked for Saturday. When that flight gets infinitely delayed, I call and switch it to another flight at another airport. When my husband calls to extend the rental car and change drop-off locations, they tell him the fee will be two thousand dollars even though the airports are approximately twenty miles apart. Michele returns the car to the original airport that day, where they simply keep her in the same car but change the rental agreement confirmation number. Since gas has become a scarce commodity, she has them fill up the tank. She’d already tried to get gas at a station before she realized their pumps were shut off. A man had come over and asked if she could help a veteran. Michele said, No, I only have my brother-in-law’s credit card.
Saturday is warm enough to walk around the block and eat lunch on a patio before driving to the airport. I boil a pot of water for face washing and teeth brushing. We get to the airport hours early. We aren’t missing our chance to get out of Texas. Michele has been planning on accompanying me all the way home, concerned about my loss of motor function, but with the abundance of misery and lack of outgoing flights, we decide we can handle splitting up in Dallas. We hunker down near our gate in an area that’s clear of people except for a man that starts walking around with no mask while talking loudly on his phone. He open-mouth coughs everywhere. Michele hears him say something about his therapist. He is hyperventilating and crying. Michele says, I’m warning you right now, Kim, if that man gets on our flight I’m going to lose it. I tell her, Don’t do that, they’ll end up throwing us off the flight instead. After she repeats her warning, I find an airport attendant and ask him to keep an eye on the guy. I know my sister.
A couple weeks after returning from Texas, my gastroenterologist finds a metastatic nodule in my gut during a routine colonoscopy before starting the immunotherapy trial. Over the speakers in the recovery area, a classic pop song plays: When every little bit of hope is gone, sad songs say so much. In my haze of thinning anesthesia, I ask a nurse to write it down for me. Only about three percent of breast cancers metastasize to the colon. This surprising discovery means I now have metastatic triple negative breast cancer and a dire prognosis. Instead of the end of chemotherapy, it will bring neverending chemotherapy until my body can’t stand it anymore or the cancer learns how to evade the next drug and the next, until we run out of options and I get eaten up. I’ve been wondering if signs from angels are real or simply what we crave and are wired to believe. My husband had felt his mother’s presence twice since her own death from breast cancer, telling him everything was going to be okay. When I tell my oncologist about my gut, he doesn’t talk about miracles. He says, Maybe a year, or some years if we find treatments that keep the cancer at bay. When I tell Michele, she says she can’t think that way, that she has to believe in miracles.
Later, after we all get at least one of our Covid vaccine shots, we visit at Easter. We haven’t seen our parents in more than a year. We meet at their house near Pilot Mountain, with a view from the deck where you can see for days. A place where each time by the end of the drive one of us is saying, How could you live all the way out here? My daughter makes up a new game called “car dealership or Libertarian’’ for when we spot giant American flags. She has pressed flowers from our yard and a bouquet a neighbor dropped off with dinner during my chemo week, to bring for Debbie’s memorial, which we finally plan on having now that we can gather. While I’m there with them I can think about more than simply dying. My husband and my youngest son carry iron chairs and a table around to the front. My son is still small, but I am grateful he’s at least reached eye level with me. The women cover the table with a vinyl cloth patterned with cruets and grapes. Someone cracks a joke, Welcome to the Olive Garden. We prop photo canvases of our sister up with six packs of beer and my daughter arranges her dried flowers. Michele suggests we write notes and tie them to balloons, so my husband brings back metallic ones shaped like stars. Michele begins a Bible verse but her oldest daughter has to finish it for her when she starts crying. I read a poem about thankfulness for the wilderness, and nature overtaking us as life and death rearranges us. We write our notes and tie them to the balloons, watching them blink in the clear day all the way to where we are making jokes about airplanes crashing. We stand with our heads back, staring—holding on to letting go. Afterwards, our mother will hold her great-grandbaby, Autumn, for the first time, even though she’s eight months old. She will bend forward and hold her so her toes can touch the grass. She’ll say, Debbie walked two days before she turned nine months old. It was the most incredible thing. They will plan an egg hunt for next Easter. When I grow silent, Michele will touch my knee and declare, You’re gonna outlive us all. Autumn will laugh and laugh at her toes in the grass.
Kim Drew Wright
Kim Drew Wright’s writing can be found in various literary journals and an award-winning collection, The Strangeness of Men. She is the founder of Liberal Women of Chesterfield County & Beyond, a grassroots political justice organization. She advocates for awareness of PANS – Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome. Kim has triple negative metastatic breast cancer. Her journey has been featured in numerous publications and broadcasts, including with Bill Weir on CNN, The Washington Post, and international media. She is married with three children.