Florence meets Manchac with Jane

“I’m sorry and I just wish that I could take this from you.” Jane sobbed while Florence felt words escape her mind. It wasn’t that Florence couldn’t think of what to say because she did not feel empathetic, she just couldn’t think of words because of the brain fog. It was so cloudy  in her mind and she needed it to clear so she could have this day with her mother. The delay she felt when finding words made her feel ignorant, as if she had never spoken correctly in her lifetime.

“You have nothing to be sorry for. But I am here now and I want to enjoy the time we have today. And… I really want to cook fish tonight.” Florence had brought her mom fishing, as this is something she always wanted to share with Jane, instead of the normalcy of shopping. Florence was sitting in the foldable chair, back hunched as she balanced the pole in between her knees, while opening the bottle of water she pulled from the mini ice chest. Louisiana offered such beautiful views and now, Florence and Jane sat on a dock in Manchac, fishing like the people did on the sides of the road. The backdrop was simple but breathtaking. Dark blue sky met choppy blue-green peaks in front of them. The brackish water had a unique smell that only could be described by Florence as her “happy”. The dock, all of the thirty-two boards underneath the two women’s feet, were a discolored gray and had splinters visibly reaching out of the wood.

“Flor, I don’t think anything’s biting.” Minutes had gone by and the only sound was the occasional boat that neared and faded, leaving a wake pushing the fishing lines back to the pier. They had only been on the dock for an hour now. Florence laughed to herself because she knew it wouldn’t last. Jane noticeable could not handle three things: outside, heat, and bugs. “Maybe we could buy some fish on the way home.” Jane smiled hoping to make her daughter smile too.

“Nope, this is making memories! Love it, or hate it. You’re spending quality time!” Florence sang her statements to her mother, smiling and laughing. Jane smiled as well, giving into the demands of her daughter.

Florence and Jane hadn’t always been close. There were missed moments, missed memories for both of them. When Jane seemed ready for Florence to be close, Florence was nowhere to be found. Florence, nor Jane, knew if that was on purpose or just sheer coincidence. No matter, the relationship that came about still, well, it appeared out of nothing. Florence thought about this fact, as she often did, and as she looked at her mother, brunette with wired gray hairs emerging out of the ponytail held down with hairspray, she realized this was the way everything was meant to happen. Jane’s green-grey eyes met Florence’s stare.

“What’s wrong? Are you ok?” Frantic with frown lines, Jane jumped up and started to walk over to Florence. Her mother was beautiful and looked like a younger version of her grandmother.

“I’m fine! Just thinking.” Florence was intensely scared for her mother. No matter how much the nagging and fighting the two had between them, or non-issues, if Florence left the world in two months, she worried if her mother would be able to move on. Jane did not know if she could either, and Florence also knew this. In her mind, Florence committed herself to finding a way to let Jane know this was the way their lives were meant to be. At this thought, Florence felt tears in her right eye.

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Florence meets Wendy

Florence heard her own heart beat in her ears. This had started years ago, and it was constant for a matter of minutes, but would always disappear. It didn’t matter at this point. She hadn’t felt this good in a very long time and this was a “good day”. As she strolled through the shop meant for outdoor excursions and backpacking, Thump, thump…thump, thump started and she held her ear until it stopped. She noticed ear plugs right in front of her and made the decision to put these in the basket hanging from her forearm. To anyone walking by her, Florence looked healthy. She wore Yoga pants, a tank top, a thin t-shirt over the tank top, and a pair of turquoise Nike’s. Florence had always been smaller, thin and frail. She liked to look as if she just stepped out of the gym and this shopping trip was just an after-thought. Of course, this visit to the Outdoors and Backpacking Store was the goal for the day.

And then her mind wandered as she stood looking over the wall of small accessories. She thought about all of the things she had planned for the thirty days. Second guesses of the choices made were happening more frequently in the past twenty-four hours.. “It’s like a constant war, and you want to settle that score…” Music and lyrics flooded Florence’s mind as she shut down the doubts. Florence walked to the front counter to pay for her items. A young guy, who looked as if he were in his early twenties, looked in Florence’s basket. He looked back at her and made the most sincere eye contact.
“Usually I can tell what our customers are going to do, but it looks like you are hitting a few activities.” The guy sounded like he was from California and at anytime, he might say “gnarly, dude”. Florence smirked. He was tall, with medium-blonde hair, and freckles. Florence envied his nature of calm.

“Thirty days of having fun.” She then found herself almost frowning as this reminded her of why there were thirty days to begin with.

“Ooooo…kay?” He seemed confused. “That’s a lot to cram into thirty days.” In her basket, sat ear plugs, fishing line, jigs for fishing, a helmet camera, a set of gloves for fishing, another set of gloves for rock-climbing, a voucher for one to an excursion of sky-diving, a voucher for an excursion for two to rock climb, another excursion for two for chartering a boat, and a final voucher for an excursion of base jumping- for one.

Florence was trying her very hardest to not reveal why this must happen now. “I only have thirty days off of work for the year, so I’m living it up!” She said this as enthusiastically as she could.

“Man, I totally understand and think it’s awesome!” The cashier smiled and showed his pristine white teeth.

“Ok, that will be $635.53.” Florence pulled out her credit card and handed it to the cashier. She didn’t feel bad for putting the money on the credit card now. Life insurance would pay for it as she planned to cash out by the first day of chemotherapy.

As Florence walked out of the store and turned to travel to the next set of stores in the shopping mall, she relished that the heat and the sun felt so nice and warm. Suddenly, Florence’s cell phone jumped and buzzed in her purse. The number was unknown. Florence slid the botton on her IPhone to answer the call. “Hello?”

“Florence Bailey?” A woman’s voice, clearly bored, came across the ear piece.

“Yes, this is her.” Florence was worried this would be more bad news.

“Florence, this is Dr. Junod’s office. Um, my name is Wendy, and I am her nurse.” The nurse spoke faster but now sounding bothered with making the call. “Yeah, so we were referred to you by Dr. Shillman’s office. He asked us to take a second look at your diagnosis. This is really common in our practice to ensure we are always seeking a second opinion. It looks like we are coming up with two different diagnosis and two different treatment…” Florence hung up.

She searched frantically for her keys, tears in her eyes, and walked quickly to her little car. She threw the bag of newly purchased excursions and accessories in the back seat behind her. She drove through the streets of people walking, waiting impatiently for people to cross. New Orleans was buzzing with tourists and all she wanted to do was get to Camp Street to reach her doctor’s office. After arriving, she quickly parked, threw two quarters in the meter, and walked into the office across the street. Tears rolling down her face, she screamed, “Who the hell is Wendy?” Never minding the random patients waiting in the lobby.

A middle aged lady with short brown hair and dark lavender scrubs came out of a door that led to the back of the doctor’s offices from the waiting room. “Are you Florence?” Her voice still sounded bored, but now exhausted and almost aggravated.

“You’re damn right I’m Florence. What gives you the right? I specifically asked my doctor, DOCTOR SHILLMAN,” She screamed the doctor’s name, “To give me thirty days. Thirty days to be with my family, my husband, no chemotherapy, no chemicals you think will fix me!”

“Mam, I’m going to need you to calm down.” Had anyone else been in the room that knew Florence, they would have very quickly held Florence back from the possible abuse that was about to take place. However, no one Florence knew was present.

“Calm down?” Florence’s right eye twitched involuntarily, which it had always done in stressful situations, and her hands shook. Florence straightened her arched back, as painful as it was, and released a flood of emotions in one solid lecture with a renewed calm. “Calm down? Have you ever been diagnosed with something that might mean the end of your life? Have you ever been forced to deal with a situation that might mean the END OF YOUR LIFE? Have you ever been asked to take chemicals that literally make you want to die? No?” Florence didn’t give the “nurse” a chance to speak. She then moved on to rethorically answer the questions for her and raised her voice with each point. “I don’t know you, and I don’t pretend to.” Higher. “I suggest you do the same with me.” Higher. “And I have asked for thirty days of uninterrupted time with my family and you can either respect that, or I can sue you for harassment.” Higher. “Are you getting this?”

Before the nurse could answer or blink, Florence turned around and walked out of the doctor’s office. She briskly walked to her car. Once in her car, she heard her phone again. “Are you kidding me?”

She started her car and reached for her phone. It said Dr. Shillman. “Crap.” Florence answered the phone and simply said, “Yes?” and was silent.

“Florence? I am so sorry. A colleague of mine didn’t know about your request for thirty days. It wasn’t their fault.” Florence just sobbed at Dr. Shillman’s apology.

“ What (sob) did they (sob) find?” Her chest hurt as she asked this, because did she really want to know the answer?

“They found that the cancer could be something else. Non-life threatening.”

Florence couldn’t believe her ears. “What?” She cried harder.

“I don’t understand it either but we can talk about it in thirty days. If this… Dr. Junod… is wrong, I don’t want to take this opportunity from you. I know how important this is to you.” Dr. Shillman sounded shaky on the phone and Florence realized he truly cared about her plan, and about her.

“Thank you Dr. Shillman. Can you do me a favor?” Florence thought of her mother and Ellis.

“Anything.”

“Can you tell Ellis, but not my mother, what you have found? I don’t need to know, but it will help him through the next thirty days.” If Jane knew, Florence would be harassed for the next month. If Ellis knew, he would have hope.

“I can do that. I should see Ellis at the hospital in about an hour if he is working today.” Dr. Shillman sounded happier. Ellis and Shillman had worked together for years now. Shillman had even written letters of recommendation for Ellis for school and continuing education.

“Thank you and please tell Wendy I’m sorry. I would but I’m so embarrassed.”

“Now that, I can’t do. She really just has a poor attitude. You think you’re the first one to go off on her?” They laughed and ended the call. Florence thought about Jane again and felt sad that she couldn’t explain this to her.

Florence texted Ellis:

“Hey babe! Dr. Shillman will talk to you today at work. They found something. Thirty days are still on and excursions purchased. It’s a good day. Love you and see you at home.”

Florence makes a plan

Thirty days was not a long time. Sixty days to possibly live? Florence opened an excel file and made a calendar from a generic template. This won’t work. Florence printed the calendar and handwrote at the top Florence and Ellis’ Thirty Days. She was back home and day one was today. Ellis was at work to request off for the next twenty-nine days. As she walked to the gray sofa in their living room, the mirror in the hall caught Florence’s eye. She stopped and stared at her shrunken physique. Her peach colored skin was now translucent. I feel better than I look. The thought made Florence smile. She was right in all reality. She hadn’t hurt as much in her back, and her eyes weren’t as bloodshot as they had been in the past few weeks.

Florence realized that, as she fell into her couch with her notepad and calendar in hand, thirty days had to be carefully planned. When diagnosed, Florence thought about what would happen if she didn’t make it through this. She had internally made a list of all the things she would want to do that day the doctor told her about the cancer growing inside of her. However, that list escaped her now. Florence found herself trimming any traveling out of her calendar first unless it was with Ellis. Ellis would try to convince her otherwise, as her mother would be upset, but Florence wasn’t looking forward to being in a car, plane, or a boat with random people. Florence wanted to see all of the experiences she loved one more time, but with him.

By the time the calendar was completed, Florence realized Ellis would have new memories with Florence, which meant that Florence Bailey had to be perfect again for these memories to fit the idea she had molded. She called to plan, as only Florence could. The kayak, the motorcycle, the chartered fishing trip, the tickets to the zoo, and a trip to the beach with Roux; all were scheduled and ready. Every day was scheduled with a place for dinner, and some were scheduled with days to cook at home like they had always done. Written neatly at the bottom of the calendar was simply: “My goodbye party”. This would take careful planning. Florence scanned the calendar and found one day. “Planning day” was written in.

Finally, Florence walked to the wall by the television and pulled a thumb tack from the drawer in the entertainment center.  She placed he calendar on the wall, without concern for the hole it would leave once it was taken down.

Florence (20) meets real life

When Florence was twenty years old, she received a simple phone call from Jane. Florence’s aunt, who was in remission from two years of breast cancer, was on life support suddenly. Florence’s part in this was the phone call she received that morning. It was a Sunday, as she woke up late after a night of partying and drinking entirely too much, in someone’s house. She answered the phone to hear Jane crying.

“Where are you at?” Jane asked with a sudden edge to her voice. She seemed frustrated with even having to call Florence.

“I’m in Houston.” Florence curled the end of her statement to almost sound like a question.

“You need to get home. Aunt Libby is in the hospital and she’s on life support.” Jane sounded exhausted to even have said this.

“What?” Florence was confused. Libby had been in remission for at least a year and was perfectly healthy.

Jane began yelling, “Florence, the cancer came back. She is dying. Are you coming to say goodbye?”

There are times in life that a punch does not have to be the only thing to take the wind out of someone. When Florence received the news, only in a fashion that Jane could deliver, she was quickly told to show no emotion.

“Florence, stop crying and listen!” Still yelling, Jane finished telling Florence how her aunt’s husband, Florence’s uncle, would be waiting to “pull the plug” until everyone said goodbye.

Florence could not stop weeping, no matter how much she tried to stop. “Florence. Don’t come up to the hospital like that.” Jane still acted as the situation should be something that should not affect emotion, or stimulate tears. Finally, Florence hung up on Jane. Florence could not say anything respectful to her mother at this point. She only resented her inability to be human in this moment that would forever change Florence’s reaction to losing someone so close, and her reaction to her own future.

Florence meets thirty days

It had been three weeks since Florence met with Dr. Shillman and his nurses. Ellis and her mother wanted to be in the room when the doctor spoke, however, Florence asked them to leave. She didn’t want them to console her, she just needed to make peace with this now. After all, she was the one who needed to be stronger. Florence was told that chemotherapy and radiation would be her best chance to even have the next six months. Without these treatments, she had two months.

Florence, in her mind, made the decision to start the treatments in thirty days. Thirty days for everyone else, thirty days for her. This sounded logical and was the best way for Florence to leave if she had to go. She started mapping in her mind the places she would visit, the money that would be spent, and the way she could help Ellis go through the transition. Florence had been through two people dying, watching them breathe their last breath and their veins collapse after the last heart beat happened. Florence cringed at the thought of her mother and her husband watching her do this.

“Have you told them?” Florence asked the doctor on that day as she looked through the hospital window to the hall where her family stood.

“ Yes, they know,” the doctor said with hesitation.

“Oh.” Florence looked around and then to the hall again. “Well, I want 30 days before I start treatment.”

“Mrs. Florence, I don’t think that…” He was cut off by Florence’s words.

“I need thirty days with my family. This is killing me and I need to live.” Tears streamed out of Florence’s right eye. The left eye always took longer to catch up when crying. She didn’t really want to cry at all. However, she couldn’t help it. She was arguing for her right to live. “Live” did not mean just breathing, it meant experiencing life.

“I understand.” The doctor then looked deep in thought. “Do you want to tell them or would you like me to?”

Florence smiled. “Thank you. I need to.” The doctor nodded. He and the three nurses that had been in the room without Florence even realizing their existence started to leave. They all walked out of the room in a line, each holding the door open as they passed Jane and Ellis.

Ellis smiled as he walked in. Florence tried to smile and was successful, but barely. She had been watching Ellis slowly rip at the seams in front of her. She knew his face, his mind, and his spirit. As she watched him walk in, and tears started marking his face, she knew she had made the right decision to give him her first thirty days.

Florence meets the truth

“Florence?” Jane kept trying to wake Florence as she sat next to her. Sobbing, Jane brought her forehead to Florence’s hand. Behind the sounds of IV drips, oxygen machines, and automated blood pressure cuffs, Florence emerged through the darkness in her mind. She started hearing the sounds of the hospital while tasting the sterilized air coming in through her mouth. Slowly, Florence opened her eyes. “Florence?” Jane was now watching Florence move. They were caked with sleep and when Florence tried to move her arm to clean them, the IV jabbed at her crease in her elbow. Great, that’s another bruise. Florence, now aggravated, looked around.

Florence tried to talk to answer her mother. “Hold on Flor, I’m grabbing the doctor. Don’t move!” Florence moved. “Don’t move!” Florence sighed at her mother’s OCD and how not even in a hospital as a patient, could Florence not be directed.

“Flor?” Ellis stood next to her. His eyes were red and swollen. Florence tried to clear her throat. There was something hard that hit her throat and she started to gag. “Calm down Flor. They will remove it now that you’re awake. “

“Mrs. Florence!” A tall man walked in with a doctor’s jacket, white and clean. “Ellis, has she tried to talk?” Ellis nodded. “Looks like it’s time to get that tube out. You’ve been out for quite a while.” The doctor’s voice was loud and deep. Florence’s doctor, Dr. Shillman, was a tall African-American who reminded Florence of Morgan Freeman. He was very smart and very nice to Florence, even though Florence had given him hell when she was diagnosed.

“We need to talk with you and then with your family.” To Florence, it didn’t look like good news. Ellis was tearing up as Florence stared at him. Her mother was holding back tears. The doctor was the jolly type but he was even forcing these words out. Florence raised her eyebrows to question this. “Let’s get the tube out and we can talk some.”

Florence wanted to cry. What happened to land me in the hospital? Why is Ellis crying? Florence’s mind ran to the worst scenarios. She grabbed Ellis’ hand and he pulled away. Ellis? Florence knew immediately what was happening. Florence rushed to make sure she still was in one piece, trying her best to avoid damaging her throat with the tube as she moved to view her toes, her fingers, and her mother. Ellis walked out. Her mother was leaving too. Everyone was trying not to cry in front of Florence. Are you kidding me? God, please! Florence silently shouted at the ceiling of her hospital room.

Florence and Roux

Florence stirred in her bed. She had thrown up several times in Ellis’ truck and although Ellis was dismayed by the act of having to sanitize his floorboards, he calmly helped Florence out of the vehicle and into their loft. The sound of sniffing forced Florence to open her eyes. “What, my sweetheart?” She ran her fingers over the fur around Roux’s head. Roux was a seven year old boxer who was the epicenter to Ellis and Florence’s lives. Laying next to her as a concerned brother would lay next to his sister, Roux nestled his body and nose closer and closer to Florence until he could not any more. Florence smiled and moved herself to be a cocoon around the animal. His fawn coat was so perfectly placed on his body, with white spots and white socks. His eyes were encased in perfect black circles of fur. He was a beautiful being and more like a person, than “just a dog”.

After falling back asleep, suddenly Florence was moved by Roux jumping up to the sound of Ellis coming back in. Florence groaned as her muscles burned. Her joints felt inflamed and hard to move. Her head felt heavy and the pillow had offered little support. She had not drank in a very long time. This must be what a hangover feels like.

Florence dragged herself out of bed to walk to the living room. She tried to be graceful, but this was short lived, as she used her hands to follow the walls down the hallway. As soon as Florence saw the couch, a burst of energy filled Florence’s back and chest to propel her to the couch’s cushions. Ellis laughed behind her from the bar in the kitchen.

“Oh, I didn’t see you there!” She smiled. To laugh would have taken all her energy completely.

Florence tried to turn around and as she twisted her body, Florence saw black air and heard nothing else. Florence fell into the couch.