Unbreathed Memories

Marcia Talley

Unbreathed Memories

The second book in the Hannah Ives series, 2000

In Memoriam

Lois Elizabeth Tuckerman Dutton

1917-1980

Mother

Hard-handed men, that work in Athens here,

Which never labour’d in their minds till now;

And now have toil’d their unbreathed memories

With this same play, against your nuptial.

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act 5, Scene 1

chapter 1

Believe it or not, there are advantages to having had cancer. When the bloodmobile folks come to town, for one, they’re not the least bit interested in siphoning blood from you, even if you’ve got some rare blood type known only to God and six people on a remote island off the coast of South Carolina. Two, I get my mammograms at half price. Third, I’ve discovered one can get away with being a bit eccentric. If you decide to take up skydiving or transcendental meditation, for example, or suddenly become a vegetarian addicted to broccoli sprouts, people may think you’re a little nuts, but they don’t give you a hard time about it. They just nod their heads, peek at each other sideways, and whisper knowingly, cancer.

That’s probably why my sister Ruth thought I’d be interested in those New Age gizmos she sells in her shop on Main Street in downtown Annapolis when they’ve never particularly interested me before. She had just telephoned to say she’d be coming over with “a little something” to show me. I shuddered. The last time she’d brought me “a little something”-bamboo curtains meant to slow down fast-moving chi between the family room and the kitchen-it had ended up costing me seventy-four dollars just to get them hung.

While I waited for Ruth, I sat at my kitchen table going through the mail. The kitchen was particularly pleasant that day, unusually warm and bright, with sunshine flooding the room, reflecting off the thin layer of snow covering the ground outside. Spread out before me were all the Christmas cards I had missed while I was out in Colorado attending the birth of my first grandchild-a little girl named Chloe, after one of my son-in-law Dante’s clients. A particularly wealthy and grateful woman, she had brought him a lot of new bodies to massage. To me, “Chloe” was the title of a raucous old Spike Jones tune with gongs and bells, but my daughter Emily liked the name because it sounded like a warm, spring breeze. I looked it up-“Chloe” is a Greek word meaning “young, green shoot.” Not very zephyr-like, but I wasn’t going to mention it.

I shuffled through the greeting cards, looking first for ones from absent friends. With enthusiasm I slit the envelopes open with a kitchen knife so I could catch up with lives via hastily scribbled notes or elaborate, mass-produced Christmas letters in which happy family groups smiled out at me smudgily from poor-quality photocopies.

Beneath an oversized seasonal communication from State Farm Insurance, I uncovered a manila envelope from a plastic surgeon in Severna Park I had consulted about reconstructive surgery just before leaving for Colorado Springs. Reconstruction. I liked that word. It evoked visions of something new and wonderful rising from the ruins. I daydreamed about it while putting the teakettle on to boil, wondering what my chest would look like after surgery when they removed the bandages for the first time. The plastic surgeon had shown me samples of her work; photographs of other women, naked from the waist up, with black rectangles covering their eyes. I imagined my own picture-a dark oblong wearing light brown curls, a crooked smile, and just below my shoulder and to the right, a pert little hill jutting out of a ravaged plain.

I measured some jasmine tea into a silver tea ball and dropped it into the pot to steep. While I waited, I opened the envelope from the doctor. It contained a letter encouraging me to call her office “at my convenience” to confirm the surgery, and a two-page, legal-looking consent form. Reading this stuff required a strong stomach and an equally robust cup of tea, so I poured myself a mug, covered the pot with a cat-shaped tea cozy, and had just settled down to plow my way through the small print when the telephone rang.

“Hi, Hannah, whatcha doing?”

“Looking over some stuff from Dr. Bergstrom. I’m trying to decide about reconstructive surgery.”

“I’d sure have it if I were you.”

Easy for her to say. My sister Georgina was a C-plus-plus to my insignificant A-minus.

“Listen to this.” I dragged a chair over to the telephone and settled into it. “ ‘These are my wishes if I am ever in a persistent vegetative state…’ Yuck! I’m nervous enough about going through more surgery without being reminded of all that!” I tossed the document toward the kitchen table, where it ricocheted off a potted geranium, floated to the tiles, and slid under the refrigerator. It had been a little over a year since my mastectomy, and the memory of the surgery and my long recovery was still fresh in my mind. “I’m thinking about not going through with it, now that they mention the risk.”

Georgina sounded bubbly. It must have been one of her up days. I could hear high-pitched squabbling in the background, the twins from the sound of it, Sean and Dylan, who were seven. “It will be fine, Hannah. You’ll be fine. Better than fine.”

I rested my head against the wall with the receiver to my ear and didn’t say anything. My sisters didn’t talk to me very much about It these days. I suspect they had convinced themselves that if you didn’t talk about It, It wouldn’t exist.

Keeping the receiver clamped to my ear and uncoiling the cord as far as it would go, I walked to the refrigerator, stooped, and retrieved the document, shaking off a couple of greasy dust bunnies that clung to the edges. “I think I’ll add a line to this form, Georgina. If I should end up in a persistent vegetative state, I’m saying I want them to start hydration and artificial nutrition and then I want you to remind Paul to call his lawyer and sue the pants off them.”

Georgina chuckled. “I’ll try to remember that.”

“You better, or I’ll come back to haunt you.” I laid the document on the table near the Christmas cards and took another swig of tea. “How’s it with you?”

“Busy. Trying to keep the kids out of Scott’s hair while he’s working.”

“Why doesn’t Scott get an office outside the house? I don’t know how you stand it! As much as Paul and I enjoy each other’s company, we’d soon be at each other’s throats if I had him hanging around the house all day.”

“Scott’s working on it. He’s got his eye on a place off York Road in Towson, and if he can land this big Mahoney account, he’ll have it made.” Scott was a CPA, and I couldn’t imagine how he managed to work, let alone land any big accounts, with three children underfoot. Sean had evidently popped Dylan, or vice versa, because there was a piercing wail and Georgina’s voice became muffled. “Sean! Cut it out! Now! Trucks are for playing, not for hitting. And turn down that TV!” Poor Georgina. I sometimes baby-sat for my nephews, identical down to the sandy hairs on their mischievous little heads, and it was exhausting. No wonder Georgina stayed so thin. And now there was baby Julie to trip over, born when Georgina was in her late thirties, just turned four and prancing about everywhere.

Over the background of the TV, playing cartoons at a decibel level high enough to rupture all eardrums within a half-mile radius, Georgina persisted, “Help me remember something.”

“How do you stand the noise?” I asked, but she didn’t give any indication that she heard me.

“Where did we live when I was two?”

I didn’t have to rack my brain to come up with an answer to that. I could still remember the sunny days, the faultless blue of the Mediterranean sky, and the smoky outline of Mount Vesuvius in the distance across the sea. “Dad was stationed in Sicily then.”

“Who took care of us?”

“What do you mean, who took care of us? Mother did. And Marita, the maid. Why do you ask?”

“It’s something I need to know for my therapy.”

Georgina had been seeing a therapist who was helping her deal with a protracted postpartum depression. In my opinion, all she needed to cure what ailed her was to get her husband out of the house and hire a baby-sitter once or twice a week, and I told her so.

“It’s not just the pressure at home, Hannah. Lionel was absolutely beastly at church this Sunday.”

The Senior Warden at All Hallows Church in Baltimore where Georgina played the organ was a piece of work. After listening to Georgina’s complaints, I decided that he was the psychotic who needed therapy, not Georgina. I thought about the organ concert where I had last seen the odious Lionel-Mr. Streeting to his friends-pacing self-importantly in his slimy, silver-gray polyester suit, peering over the tops of oversized tortoise-shell eyeglasses and making two-finger come-hither gestures as he seated the aud ...

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