Circle of Grace, Chapter 1

How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?

How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?

-1-
The Persistence of Memory

Asheville, North Carolina
Present Day

Grace Benedict was fifty-two years old, and she still hated going to the doctor. Avoided it at all costs. But this time, she had no choice. Two weeks ago, a long-overdue mammogram had revealed a suspicious spot on her right breast. Probably nothing, the doctor assured her. Most likely just a cyst; women got them all the time. After a needle biopsy and a battery of other tests, they had called her back in to discuss the results.

No, they couldn’t talk about it on the telephone, the nurse had said. Better for her to come in and see the doctor personally. They scheduled the appointment for her lunch hour, promising it wouldn’t take more than thirty minutes.

“Have a seat, Mrs. Benedict,” said the young woman behind the glass-paneled counter. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

Not Mrs., Grace thought. But she didn’t bother to correct the receptionist. Instead, she left the counter and parked herself in a cracked vinyl chair in the corner of the waiting room. To her right, a bubbling aquarium, its back wall lined with a garish shade of blue, housed several  brightly colored tropical fish.

Grace picked up a dated, dog-eared copy of U.S. News from the coffee table and tried to ignore the whining child a few seats away. ELECTION RESULTS STILL IN DOUBT, the cover proclaimed, the words superimposed over photographs of George W. Bush and Al Gore. And in smaller letters underneath, What went wrong in Florida?

Grace tossed the old magazine back onto the table, but her eyes continued to fix on the words: What went wrong?

She pondered the question–the one which had haunted her for nearly three decades. And there was only one answer, which was no answer at all: Everything.

Thirty years ago, she could never have envisioned the future that awaited her. A future riddled with mistakes and heartbreak and–

Well, better not to think about that.

She shifted in her chair and watched out of the corner of her eye as the frazzled young mother tried in vain to comfort her fretful, feverish daughter. The little girl, who was perhaps five or six years old, curled up on her mother’s lap and whimpered. “It’ll be all right,” the mother shushed, pushing back a damp strand of hair from her daughter’s forehead. “The doctor will give you some medicine to make it all better.”

Grace bit her lip and averted her eyes. If only there were such a medication, something that would “make it all better.” But no miracle drug could fix a life, and even if such a miracle had existed, she wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

A nurse wearing pink scrubs with Beatrix Potter bunnies printed on them came to the door with a clipboard and looked around the waiting room. “Mrs. Bennett?”

“Benedict,” Grace corrected. She turned to the young mother. “Unless your name is Bennett?”

The woman shook her head. “Whitlock,” she said.

Grace got up and went toward the nurse.  “I guess you must mean me, then. Grace Benedict.” She forced a smile. “Like the traitor.”

“Whatever.” The nurse looked at her blankly and shrugged. “Follow me.”

Grace followed to Examining Room 3. “Have a seat,” the nurse said. “The doctor will–”

“I know. The doctor will be with me shortly.”

The second attempt at humor fell as flat as the first. The nurse shoved the clipboard into a plastic holder on the wall and pulled the door closed.

Almost as soon as the door clicked shut, a soft knock sounded. The doorknob turned, and a man entered. He was small and dark, with dense, close-cropped black hair and deep-set eyes. The name Sangi was embroidered in red over the pocket of his white lab coat. Grace had never seen him before, but a lot of physicians served the clinic, and it wasn’t unusual to get a different one every time.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Benedict,” he said, his words clipped and precise. “I am Doctor Butahali Sangi.” He flipped through her chart. “We have your test results.”

“Grace. Please call me Grace.”

He smiled. “Grace, then. Kindly sit, if you will, upon the table.”

Grace complied, scooting onto the high examining table. The protective paper made a crinkling sound under her thighs.

Dr. Sangi eased down onto a rolling stool and drew up close. For a moment or two he said nothing, concentrating instead upon reading the records in front of him. At last he raised his eyes–large, dark, liquid eyes that reminded Grace of some vulnerable little forest creature.

“You recently had a mammogram, that is correct? February 15th ?”

Grace nodded. “Yes.” Something in her stomach fluttered, a caged bird beating the bars. “Is anything wrong?”

Sangi gazed at her for a full minute. “There is no easy way to tell such news.” He shook his head.

She exhaled heavily. “The lump. It wasn’t just a cyst.”

The doctor laid the medical chart aside and touched her wrist with squared-off brown fingers. “There is no one I should call, perhaps? A husband? A friend?”

The contact was brief, gentle, but Grace felt as if she had been brushed by a live electrical wire. “No one.” She drew in a breath and raised her head. “Just give it to me straight, Doctor. All of it.”

“As you wish.” He pulled back and ran his hand through his hair, then retrieved the chart and read: “You have what we believe to be a Stage IV metastatic tumor with intrusion into the chest wall and intercostal muscles. We suspect significant lymph node involvement as well, but cannot know for certain until surgery is accomplished.”

Grace’s hand went instinctively, protectively, to her chest. She looked down at her fingers cupping around her breast, and an image rose to her mind–a dark and menacing squid, its body lodged inside her, its inky tentacles spreading out to invade her torso, slithering toward her internal organs. She shuddered.

Dr. Sangi waited while she composed herself.

“Stage IV,” she said at last. “How high do the stages go?”

“Four.”

“What about treatment?”

“I have already taken the liberty of speaking with a specialist. We can indeed attempt to remove the major portion of the tumor,” he said. “At this stage it is unlikely, however, that surgery would be successful in a total removal of the cancerous cells. There are additional options. Intensive chemotherapy. Radiation, perhaps. Bone marrow or stem cell transplants.”

The squid tightened its grasp, and for a moment Grace felt as if her lungs had collapsed. “But you can cure me,” she said when she could breathe again.

“In such cases as yours we do not speak of cure,” Sangi responded with a sigh. “We speak of containment. We speak of time gained.”

“How much time?”

“You wished me to be direct,” Dr. Sangi said. At Grace’s nod, he went on. “At best, a year. Perhaps two. Perhaps not so much. We cannot know for certain until more tests are done.” He turned his hands palm upward in a gesture of surrender. Grace noticed that although the tops of his hands were brown, his palms were pale pink. For a moment she felt as if she had glimpsed some private part of him, and she flushed with embarrassment.

“And what would that year–if I had a year–involve?”

“Radical chemotherapy, certainly. If we could shrink the tumor a bit, then surgery. Additional chemo afterwards. As well as the other options I mentioned.”

“A mastectomy, months of chemo and radiation, in and out of the hospital,” Grace translated. She had seen it before. She knew the symptoms all too well. “Constant nausea. Hair loss. Depleted energy. And no guarantees.”

“I fear you are correct.” Sangi nodded.

“And if I elect to have no treatment?”

The physician’s face went blank. “I beg your pardon?”

“If I walk out of here and don’t treat this–no surgery, no chemo, no radiation. How long would I have then?”

A look of comprehension sparked in his eyes, an expression akin to respect. “It is impossible to determine. A few months, perhaps less.”

“A few months without pain, without being turned into voodoo doll, cut and poked and prodded and filled with drugs.”

The doctor nodded. “You would likely have little pain until the very end. As a physician, certainly, I could not recommend–”

“Of course you couldn’t.” Grace slid down from the examining table and put a hand on Dr. Sangi’s shoulder. “Thank you for your candor, Doctor. I appreciate it more than you know.”

“You are indeed welcome.” He smiled then, showing even white teeth against dark skin.

“I need a little time to think,” she said. “I’ll call you.”

“Soon,” the doctor warned. “We have no time to waste.”

***

Somehow Grace managed to get through the rest of the day on autopilot–sorting through the return bin, shelving, cataloguing new books that had just come in–without thought or intention. No one at the library knew she had skipped lunch to go to the clinic. No one had a clue that anything might be wrong. Grace Benedict, the faithful stereotype, the unobtrusive librarian gliding through the stacks in silence, like an apparition.

But driving home at five-fifteen, Grace couldn’t keep her mind from spiraling around the question Dr. Sangi had asked: “Is there no one I should call?”

Curiously, she felt no sense of imminent loss at the news that she was dying. On that count, she floated above the scene like the soul of a patient hovering between this world and the next, watching it all with a dispassionate eye. For the first time in years, she experienced a clarity of vision and an infusion of strength, a flood of adrenalin to the veins and endorphins to the brain. She knew without question that she would not submit to the “procedures” Dr. Sangi had described.

She did, however, feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

No, there was no one to call. Not a single friend or lover, no husband or parent or child, no one who might help her bear this moment of crisis.

How had her life come to this?

Grace’s heart knew the answer even as her mind formulated the question. In the far reaches of her memory, she could hear the echo of a door slamming and bolts sliding into place–the clang of a vault being locked after the robbers had already come and gone. How absurd, to guard an empty soul with such tenacity. And yet she knew no other way to survive, to keep at bay the onslaughts of life’s inevitable pain.

It hadn’t always been this way. She’d once had friends, had once been in love, had once harbored wistful dreams of the kind of life that other people seemed to live. She had trusted, had laughed, had opened her heart. But that had been a long time ago.

It had been more than twenty years since Grace Benedict had been in love, and then the fires of passion had brought not warmth and comfort, but a raging conflagration that left her scarred and terrified of getting close enough to be burned a second time. On a few occasions in the past she had met someone nice and determined to try once more, only to shy away after the first date or the first kiss.

But she had had a best friend.  Jet. Evelyn Jetterly.

They had met in the library, liked each other, and began meeting for coffee to discuss books. Gradually their intellectual companionship ripened into something more personal, the kind of friendship and belonging Grace hadn’t known since college. For almost ten years they laughed together, cried together, told each other everything–almost. The two of them were closer than sisters, and Grace was happy.

Until  Jet, too, was snatched out of her life.

Grace could still feel the frail bones of Jet’s hand gripping hers, see the skeletal face with its wide eyes and dry, cracked lips. In Jet’s case it was cervical cancer, and it took her so quickly that neither of them had time to adjust. She was just. . .gone.

Grace tried in vain to push Jet’s dying image out of her mind. She didn’t want to remember her friend that way, but the picture stayed with her. Now it was her turn, and there would be no one sitting by her bedside holding her hand when she passed.

How long had it been, she wondered, since she had gazed at another human face across a dinner table? Months? Years? Sometimes, in the shaded picnic area under the trees beside the library, she shared a brown bag lunch with the part-time library assistant–a woman called Marge. But that hardly counted as socializing. Marge talked nonstop about the weather or quitting smoking or her current diet or her teenage kids, and rarely let Grace get a word in edgewise. Not that it mattered. Grace never revealed anything personal about her own life, anyway, and Marge never seemed to notice–or care–that their conversations were one-sided.

As she looked back over the years since Jet’s death, Grace was hard-pressed to account for how she had spent her time. She worked, took drives up into the mountains, watched TV, read four or five books a week. On weekends she went to bargain matinees and sat alone in the darkened movie theater, eating Wal-Mart popcorn she brought in a plastic bag from home. Sometimes she’d walk through the mall and window shop. Have coffee at the food court. Chat with people she knew by sight but not by name.

Now Dr. Sangi had asked the question, and Grace had been forced to face the answer. There was no one to call. She could vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow, and no one would know she was missing until someone called the city to complain that their local branch library hadn’t been open for a week.

***

Grace pulled into the gravel driveway beside her house, got out of the car, and crunched across the rocks to retrieve the mail. The late-afternoon sky was a glorious blue, and in the distance beyond the housetops she could see the peaks of mountains touched by the western sun. Gray and green and purple, projecting up like–

Like breasts, her mind interjected without warning. Like firm, young, healthy, non-cancerous breasts.

Grace turned her eyes from the view and busied herself with emptying the mailbox. Bills. Always bills. A second notice from Carolina Power. A bank statement which, she knew without looking, would not show a sufficient balance to cover all she owed. And a credit card. A brand new Visa, stamped with her name.

When had she applied for that? She couldn’t remember, and couldn’t believe anyone would actually issue a credit card to someone who made less than $25,000 a year–every dime of which went to rent, food, auto repair, and other necessities of life.

For years she had lived from paycheck to paycheck, always feeling the hot breath of poverty on the back of her neck, always worried that the money wouldn’t stretch through the month. Once in a great while, when she had little extra in her purse, she would stop along the roadside and give a dollar or two to one of the homeless folks who spent their days under the bridges and their nights in the local shelters.

She understood, and didn’t fault them for their plight. It would only take a month–two, at most–to put someone like Grace herself on the streets. A layoff. A downsizing. An illness. . . .

She shook her head and pushed the unwelcome reality out of her mind. She always told herself it didn’t pay to dwell on the what-ifs. And now the biggest what-if of all had come to  call–not just to visit, but to take up residence with her in her shabby, cramped little house.

She gazed, disbelieving, at the Visa card, shoved it back into the envelope, and climbed the two broken concrete steps to the front door.

The day had been warm, but inside the house was dark and chilly. Grace turned on a couple of lamps, then went into the kitchen, dumped the mail on the counter, and opened the refrigerator. Half a loaf of wheat bread, a couple of eggs, a third of a quart of milk nearly a week past its prime. A bag of salad greens, brown and slimy around the edges.

She opened the cabinet above her head and took down a can of cream of broccoli soup–the cheap generic kind, a store brand. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she slammed the can down on the counter top. Ridiculous. Less than six hours ago she had been diagnosed with cancer, and here she was crying because she couldn’t afford real soup!

“Damn,” she muttered to the empty house. “Just once, I wish–I wish–”

What did she wish? That she could have things nice. A house with freshly painted walls and wallpaper border. Furniture that wasn’t sagging and scarred. A real dinner in an upscale restaurant, with flowers on the table and candles and white linen.

Grace emptied the soup into a saucepan, added some of the milk, which smelled all right despite its expiration date, and put two slices of bread in the toaster. When the meager meal was ready, she took it to the kitchen table and sat down with the rest of the unsorted mail.

Bills, unopened, went into one pile. She’d deal with them later. The bank statement she set aside to go over after dinner. The usual assortment of catalogs and advertising flyers went straight into the trash can. And there, on the bottom of the stack, lay a padded manila envelope.

Grace pushed the soup bowl aside and picked up the envelope. The return address was from Arlington, Virginia. The handwriting seemed vaguely familiar, but it had been so long. More than a year, she thought. Or was it two?

She wiped the buttery knife on a paper napkin, slit open the envelope, and removed the contents. A small leather-bound book, dark green, with a line drawing in gold on the front–a small park bench flanked by a post lamp and a bubbling fountain.

The journal. As familiar as her own life, and as foreign.

The first time Grace had seen it had been at their college graduation party—she and her three best friends, drinking champagne and eating seafood and alternately celebrating their accomplishments and mourning the way life was taking them in different directions. They had promised each other, with the rash certainty of youth, to keep in touch, to write in the journal and send it on, to stay be as close as they were at that shining moment.

Now the journal, like life itself, had gone ragged and faded, its spine broken and its corners bent. On the front, stamped into the green leather, the tarnished, barely visible image of a park scene–a bench, a fountain, a lamp post.

The circle journal had made its way back to her again.

***

Grace finished her lukewarm soup and sat fingering the journal as darkness gathered outside the kitchen window. She glanced into the glass, and a reflection stared back at her. An ordinary-looking, middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair, badly cut, and lines of weariness fanning out around her eyes and mouth. Who was this woman? Not the person she imagined herself to be. Certainly not the girl she once had been–so sure of everything, so full of hope and dreams.

“Promise we won’t lose touch,” she heard Tess Riley’s voice echo in her memory.

And her own girlish response, full of feeling and purpose: “And promise that whatever happens, we’ll always be honest with each other.”

So much for good intentions.

She shoved the book aside as bitter tears stung her eyes. She didn’t want to read what was in it, didn’t want the reminders it carried of the life that could have been. Didn’t want to resurrect that sense of warmth and belonging, those feelings she would never know again.

Yet the memories persisted. Even without reading the words or letting her eyes linger on the familiar handwriting that filled its pages, the journal called her back. Back to the person she had been thirty years ago. Back to the friends she had promised to be faithful to.

And so, as night fell in the mountains and the lamp above the kitchen table spilled a yellow pool of light onto the pages, Grace Benedict took the circle journal in her hands and let herself remember. . . .

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