Over the weekend, I was invited to go through another battery of tests; nothing major, just a revisit of my insides, in order to find out why I was going tock instead of tick. As I scooted onto the hard, cold surface of the x-ray table, the attendant brushed back my hair, and I was hit with an indelible sense memory from just one year before.
Sense memory – or “emotional recall” – is one of the greatest tools in the actor’s arsenal, and, I believe, the writer’s as well. It is a sensory experience – for me, usually a smell – that triggers a memory, an emotional response from the past. When I was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I wore White Shoulders and Chanel almost exclusively, for they were scents that were evocative of the 50s of the South. I remember my great aunt Lucy, and her love for Chanel.
This time, tt was not the floral musky scents of Chanel that drove my mind into the past. Instead, it was a decidedly different smell. Something much more assertive and direct. It was the odor of hand sanitizer.
Germaphobia is an unspoken side-effect of cancer treatment, and one that is completely understandable, for the most mundane of things can kill you. When you are going through chemotherapy or radiation, your immune system is under attack; ordinary dusts and dander can trigger a series of responses that result in pneumonia, which, for the cancer patient, can be a death sentence.
A year ago this time, I was in the midst of my radiation treatments. I had my own little routine – get to the Oschin Cancer Center, travel by elevator far, far underground, and sign in. As I signed in, I would use the dispenser of sanitizer, one of many located throughout the center. I would get my cup of french vanilla coffee, change into my hospital couture, and wait for my turn, during which gamma rays were shot through my body in five minute sessions.
The waiting rooms become their own microcosm, for by day three, you begin to know everyone’s names. Treatments are daily, and almost always scheduled at the same time. The patients share their experiences, what day they are on, how many are left, etc. The most poignant patients are, of course, the children, who sit there as stoic as SEALs. They are the ones who teach the rest of us not to be afraid.
Relationships are spawned from the depths of the treatment centers; instead of friendships, they are more like affairs, for the relationships are brief, torrid encounters, and ones that are not without tears, for there are times when one half of the relationship disappears – not because their treatment has ended, but because the patient has not survived.
That’s how I met “Penny.”
Penny was a tall, graceful woman, who reminded me both in beauty and wit of my beloved friend in Oklahoma, Billie. Penny was a frequent flyer at Oschin’s; she had been battling various forms of cancers for the past 6 years. This time, it was Stage 4 lung cancer that had taken hold of her slender form, and she announced, without a trace of remorse, that this was her “last go” at treatment. She said she was humoring her husband, by going through all of this, but she knew that her time had come.
I grew to look forward to Penny’s visits; I’d scan the room for her magnificent bald head, locate her, sit down, and we would start our chat. I began to get to my treatments earlier, so I could spend a little extra time with my secret friend. I panicked one day when, upon arrival, I could not find her. I stood there. heart pounding, terrified that Penny had succumbed early, only to hear her call my name. She had gone out for lunch, and she had, for reasons she later said she could not understand, decided to wear a wig.
Days turned into weeks turned into a month, and after another week, I was nearing the end of my treatment, as was Penny. On her last day, we hugged. There was no reason to exchange emails, for there would be no need of that soon. She was going home, and she was preparing to die. As we said goodbye, she grabbed hold of me. “You’re going to write about this, you know,” she said. “All of it. And not just once, or twice, but forever. Everything’s changed for you. You’ll know when you are ready.” Then, my name was called, and I walked towards the doorway, pausing briefly to turn and wave good-bye.
It took almost a year for me to assimilate what Penny meant. When I was first diagnosed, I was urged to write about it. A friend generously offered to edit my work, and get it to her publisher…. and yet, other than my blog, I could barely write a word. I was in the thick of it; I was still battling death – not just the physical death, but the death of my life before cancer, the death of physical grace, the death of friendships, and the death of my career.
And so, I found myself thinking of Penny one day, as I read through an old short play of mine. In it, a character was terminally ill, and had made the decision to end his life. It was a stage play, so there were a lot of words. He talked about his illness; she talked about her love for him, they talked about talk, and so on.
It all felt so ridiculous, so immature. And so, I drew a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought of Penny and what she had said. I typed “Fade In”, and eventually typed “Fade to Black”, and there I had it. The first draft of what was to become TIDELANDS.
The script has gone through rewrite after rewrite. My husband thought me insane, for taking on such a polarizing subject – that of death with dignity. That polarization was precisely why I felt – and feel – so strongly that this story needed to be told. The subject is highly personal. Death is an uncomfortable subject in modern society; we have emotionally regressed in regard to this most human and universal experience. And so, I wanted to dive deep into my own experiences, as well as those of others. I did what Penny told me to do. I wrote from the truthfulness of one who lives with cancer. Art imitates life, which, in turn, will someday imitate art, as I will have this conversation with the one I love one day. I did what the storyteller is obligated to do. I allowed my experience to influence my work. I embraced my experience – the good and the bad of it – and I will continue to do so, not only now, with TIDELANDS, but in the future.
Without cancer, I would not have this new perspective, one that is deeper, more layered, with a palette far richer than shades of grey. I give cancer thanks.
As I do Penny.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
To learn more about TIDELANDS, and to support the project, please visit the film’s Indiegogo page.
Anne, as always your writing is beautiful and profound. You speak of a sense memory triggered by smell. Mine is the scent of green Palmolive dish soap. For many years we would take a family vacation on Kauai for a few weeks. We stayed in a condo on the beach, an in that little kitchen, where we cooked so many memorable meals, the management supplied Palmolive dish soap. For some reason, my wife started buying that a couple of years ago, and now, whenever I do the dishes, I am transported back to that simpler, more joyful time, some of the most wonderful days when we were truly happy. Now, as you know, those days are over for me. You are right, our society does not like to speak of death. Not the impending death you write about nor the death that has already occurred. I commend you on your accomplishment, and your commitment, and your courage to explore this taboo subject.
I’m glad that you’ve found the little grace that Palmolive grants you. My happiest sense memories are the smells of fall; the spices, and the smell of a fireplace, which always heralded the holidays, which brought together family and friends. It’s a lonely memory, though, as LA does not offer the familial comforts of breaking bread and celebrating.
But, to the subject, you are right in regards to death as a taboo subject, something that people recoil from, and behave as if the very word is not a social nicety. I suppose in an age where people live out their lives in socially acceptable narcissism – look at ME in front of the Pyramids – a reminder that we are, in fact, neither celebrities nor extraordinary, but simple, average humans, is not something that people wish to hear. But it is a conversation worth having, whichever side of the fence you fall on, and, as storytellers, that’s all we can do, right? I’m just now reaching a point in which I can begin to write about cancer, an event which, I believe has forever changed my life – and my work. The Hank you for your thoughtful reply.