By Lynn Aliya
All the characters are played by a single actress with the exception of Doctor Mulvihill, the radiologist and the television announcer who are played by a single actor offstage in voice over.
A bare stage with two short stools. USR hangs a window without glass framing a pair of red boxing gloves..
The present, past and future.
A boxing bell rings between rounds to indicate a transition.
The stage is black. Lights flash three times. The third flash is accompanied by a bang. Phiney, a woman in her late 30s, enters.
All my life I have had this recurring dream. It’s late at night and I’m running across a field during a lightening storm. My mom and dad and my brothers are with me. And lightening is exploding all around us. Everyone knows to lay down on the grass. Everyone, but me. Everyone drops. Everyone, but me. I just stand there. I stand there and mush my face against a pane of glass that I am holding. I stand and I watch.
(Lights change. Phiney talks directly to the audience.)
18 months ago I had a lump removed from my left breast. A routine check. Just another day in my life. I drop my daughter, Lily, off at school. I go to an early morning appointment before work. An annual check-up. It’s a beautiful sunny April morning in Salt Lake. It’s warm. The sun is shining. At the doctor’s office I read a People magazine.(pause) Smile at the new patient(smile). Glance at a Good House Keeping Magazine; thinner thighs in 30 days. Thumb through another People magazine. Oh good, Brad and Angelina adopted another baby. The receptionist calls me. Mrs. Campbell, you can go in now. The doctor will be right with you. I wait in the office. Alone. (pause) Peruse the pamphlets on chlamydia, warts and AIDS. And I thank god I am just there for a routine check-up. Dr. Mulvilhill, my doctor comes in. I raise my right arm. Raise left arm. She says the word CONCERN. She says ULTRASOUND. She says BIOPSY.
I overhear the nurse say MALIGNANCY.
I am being told I have Cancer. Multiplying, splitting, attacking. Out of control. Against my will. Killing me. The same doctor who told me I was carrying life, my daughter Lily, is now telling me I have a tumor growing inside me. My head’s spinning. Words move through my body like bullets. Lump, biopsy, malignancy, radiologist, oncologist, pathologist, Lily, death. I’m frozen. Shattered. My life is being observed under a microscope. It all happens so fast.
Flashback. It’s 1984 and I am standing in my mother’s room, holding her hand while preparing a morphine solution which is meant to ease her pain. One final attempt to make life bearable before she dies.
My mother died of breast cancer when she was 53. I was 24.
Back to Dr. Mulvihill’s office: OH MY GOD!!!!! IT’S MY TURN! IT’S HAPPENING TO ME!!! Its finally caught me. For 35 years I’ve been running and finally – I’ve become my mother!!
Dr. Mulvihill’s is sitting behind her desk. She’s saying
(Dr. Mulvihill voice over
*WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH’s should sound like the school teacher from Charlie Brown.)
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH, DON’T WORRY
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH, CANCER
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH, SURGERY
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH, MALIGNANCY
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH, LUMPECTOMY
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH, YOU’LL BE FINE, TRUST ME
That was just Round 1
Last night I had a dream. I ‘m bathing naked in a stream nestled in a narrow red sandstone canyon. It’s beautiful. Desert cactus are in full bloom. Tamarisk are waving their tassels keeping me at the perfect temperature. The sun’s shining, beating down on the nape of my neck. Schools of trout are swimming upstream right past me. One fish stops, it’s my grandmother, but she is a fish. She pops her head up looks at me inviting me to swim with them. I dive right in.
And as soon as I put my head under water my lungs turn into gills and we swim and swim. The water is ice cold, but it feels so warm, so peaceful. At one point I get stuck in a rapid and my little friend the fish, who has now turned into my mother, helps me off the rock. Then my hands turn into fins. We keep swimming hundreds and hundreds of miles back to the place where we were born. Then it dawns on me, we’re returning to die. But it’s too late. All of a sudden I’m back in the doctor’s office naked, freezing. Doctor Mulvilhill is shaking me, she is saying “Phiney, the cancer is back. You have 6 months to heal yourself.”
So, this morning while I was in the shower I decide to do something I’d never done before. Check myself. Since my last treatment of chemotherapy one year ago, I’ve been prodded, touched, scanned, poked, X-rayed, but I have never checked myself. I’ve been afraid to touch my own breasts. I thought that I might somehow bring back the cancer if I touched myself. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was brought up to believe it was naughty to touch myself, so I have always been self-conscious about touching myself. Even now. The truth is, it was the first time I had the courage to check. I told myself I couldn’t bare to look at the self-exam guide that was hanging on the doorknob one more day, but I also could not shake my dream.
I soaped up my hand and raised my right arm and started feeling around in the circular pattern like I was told. Pressing firmly, but not too hard with my index and middle finger. Nothing. Whoa, what a relief. Then my left breast. My worst nightmare. There it was. Solid as a rock. A lump. A hard solid lump.
It wasn’t until the hot water ran out that I realized I had fallen to my knees.
Now I sit and wait for Dr. Mulvilhill to come examine me.
(Dr. Mulvilhill Voice Over)
Doctor says put your hands on your waist
Doctor says put your hands over your head
Make a fist . . .AH. . . . Doctor didn’t say.
Phiney makes a fist.
I found out I have a recurrence.
(Dr. Mulvilhill Voice Over)
Doctor says make a fist
Doctor says lean forward
Doctor says lie back and raise your left arm over your head.
(Phiney raises her left arm)
The cancer is back.
(Dr. Mulvilhill Voice Over)
Doctor says the cancer never went away.
(Dr. Mulvihill Voice Over)
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH it ‘s not your fault. WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH the cells might have been lying dormant for years waiting for the perfect time to reattach themselves or they might have gotten out before your original diagnosis.
Then it’s your fault.
(Dr. Mulvihill Voice Over-a little angry)
WHAAH, WHAAH, it’s nobody’s fault, Phiney. WHAAH, WHAAH, bone scan, chest X ray, liver blood tests WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH we need to determine whether it’s a local or distant recurrence.
(overlapping) (Phiney) (Dr. Mulvihill v.o.)
“Distant recurrence means the
cancer has . . . Metastasized.
Metastatic cancer is . . . Serious.
Chance of cure . . . (no answer)
Chance of cure . . . Well. . .
Metatastic cancer is when the cancer spreads from one organ to another, usually through the blood stream. The average rate of survival for women with metatastic breast cancer is between two and five years. My mother died 4-1/2 years after her cancer had metastasized. There is no cure for metatastic breast cancer. Statistically, you can only be cured from cancer when you die of something else.
(Dr. Mulvihill Voice Over)
WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH let’s do some tests. WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH lay back down. WHAAH, WHAAH, WHAAH Phiney, have faith.
HAVE FAITH. HAVE FAITH. Un uh! I had faith. I had faith for eighteen months. That’s all I’ve ever done. Believed, trusted, had faith and where has that gotten me?
I am lying in a narrow tube unable to move my arms or my legs, they’ve injected a purple die inside me to make my body translucent. I am in a vortex, I’m spiraling down, my mind is in a fog trying to comprehend the truth of my own mortality. Unable to stand it any longer, I close my eyes.
(She sits up.)
I am free. Finally. I see my great grandmother. She’s on her knees. Praying. Crying. I can’t see her face, only her back, I feel her pain, her anguish. She’s with me. She turns her head. There are no tears on her face. She looks me in the eyes and takes my hand. “Phiney, You have the will. You have the strength. I am always here with you. Courage, Phiney. Courage. You can heal yourself. Have faith.”
Faith is a tradition in my family. Passed down through the generations. Starting with my great grandmother Josephine. This is my legacy. The legacy of the women of Fredonia. Josephine walked the trail of hope – The Mormon Pioneer Trail when she was 15. By the time she was 17, she had married my great grandfather, Spencer, and had her first baby, Lucy. A daughter was fine, but Spencer needed a son. The morning after Lucy was born, Spencer went down to the new temple in Salt Lake and got married again. To Josephine’s cousin, Irma. When Josephine heard the news, she went down into the cellar, locked the door and prayed to god to help her understand how this could be. She prayed and she cried and she was about to give up when she heard a voice saying “have faith, have faith.” A great calm settled on her soul. She knew, in that calm, polygamy was the principle of the church, but her duty was to faith. It was her source of strength to serve to serve God. It was her faith.
Josephine vowed to herself, from that day forth, never to be so weak.
I open my eyes and she’s gone. I am being ejected from the machine. I slide out. I think of Lily. I think of Michael. Courage, Phiney. Courage. I say. Have Faith! Have faith!”
Slowly and distorted. He repeats one more test through Phiney’s line “It sounds like garble.” One more test.
One more test.
My heart skips a beat. A fuzzy haze clouds my head. I cannot hear what the radiologist is saying to me. Everything is distorted. It sounds like garble. I manage to call Michael at work ask him to pick Lily up and come to the hospital. I am able to form the words bone scan, but that’s it.
Michael arrives and explains a bone scan is a nuclear medical test where they inject radioactive particles into my bloodstream and then take pictures of. . . .
I know what a bone scan is Michael. My mother had a bone scan.
Michael, they want to inject nuclear waste into my body.
Radioactive particles. Same thing. I can’t do it Michael. I can’t do it.
Michael, I’m scared, hold me. I’m scared. I don’t want to die.
Hold me tighter.
What do I want to do? I want to go home and forget this is happening. I want to be well. I want this all to stop.
The radiologist does not understand my reaction. He thinks I am having a post-traumatic response to my mother’s death.
I decide to go ahead with the bone scan. The injection is painless. My body has become accustomed to the intrusion of the needle. Radioactive particles fill my body and I am sent off to the waiting room. To wait.
(She waits. Pause)
This I will never get used to. This is the worst part. Waiting.
I try to read; however I am distracted. I close my eyes to meditate; however, images of death pervade my thoughts. I open my eyes and watch the Regis and Kathy on the television set mounted to the wall.
(The voice of the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) should be light,a la the news reels from the 1950s. The music from An American in Paris should underscore the following. Voice Over)
Those lucky people who live in southern Utah and northern Arizona, near the Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation’s atomic test program.
That’s us. That’s my family. We’re on t.v.
They have been chosen to be close observers of tests that have contributed greatly to building the defenses of our country and the free world. Atomic testing has helped us make great progress in a few short years, and have been a vital factor in maintaining the peace of the world. Our friends who live in that region, we thank you and congratulate you on being part of history being made.
And everybody lived happily ever after.
(Apologetically, almost embarrassed)
Sorry, Phiney. That’s not quite how the story ends. Is that what they told you?
Well no, but that’s what I was hoping. You think I’d be waiting here if everybody lived happily ever after? Hey, there’s one thing I don’t get. If you don’t mind me asking. . .
We don’t answer questions. We’re the AEC.
In charge of the nation’s security.
I mean, how could you endanger the lives of so many people and not even tell them?
As the great President Eisenhower said we can afford to sacrifice a few thousand people out there in defense of national security. Southern Utah and Northern Arizona had the lowest use segment of the populations according to all the government surveys.
My grandmother was one of those few thousand people.
Oh, you must be very proud.
The government referred to those “low use-segments” of the population as just a few scarcely populated towns with quaint biblical names such as Zion, Kanab, Fredonia. . .
Fredonia, means free woman. According to local lore.
Fredonia was founded on the northern border of the Arizona Strip in the 1880s by a group of women escaping prosecution in Utah because polygamy had become outlawed. And it was the women and children, not the men, who were now the outlaws.
My great grandmother Josephine, my namesake, was one of the founding mothers.
In the summer of 1885 my great grandmother, Josephine, journeyed over 300 miles through the desert of Utah. She gave birth along the way to my grandmother, Ann, who she named after the seventeenth wife of Brigham Young. Ann Eliza Young. Ann Eliza Young had successfully divorced Brigham Young. Everyone showed up on the courthouse steps that afternoon to shame Miss Ann Eliza, but secretly Josephine went to get a glimpse of this woman of strength and courage. She watched as Ann Eliza Young descended the steps of the courthouse in her plain black dress – a free woman. So in the spirit of strength and courage, my grandmother was named.
Fredonia became home to the next two generations of my family history. An ideal place. A world of free women.. As the years passed, men came to live there, Arizona became a state and the town developed. Women learned to play their roles as good patriotic wives dedicated to their families and God. They went to church, they abstained from tobacco, caffeine, alcohol. Life in Fredonia was pure and simple. And then it was 1951. The Cold War. National Security was the craze. It was around then my grandmother started getting ill, headaches and pains in her bones, but the doctor tells her:
Ann, you’re being hysterical. Now stop that crying. It’s nothing Ann. The headaches are in you’re mind. You’re fine dear. Now go home and forget about this.
But the pain didn’t stop. Soon my grandmother got very ill. She was unable to leave the house, or open the shades, because the light hurt too much. Mom managed to get her up to a hospital in Salt Lake City, where the doctors diagnosed her mother as stage four-breast cancer. The cancer had spread to her bones and her liver. She died four months later.
I go back to the examination room where I am told to lie down on a bed under an enormous Geiger counter from Lost in Space. I think about my mother and wonder what she must have gone through. I finally understand her fear and her shame.
Lily is pretending to be asleep when we get home. I sit on the edge of her bed and kiss her goodnight.
Flashback eighth grade. Mom, I’m home. Mom? Are you home? Mom?
Phiney runs around looking for her mother.
The bathroom door is open a crack. And there she is. Tying the scarf around her head.
Mom. You look beautiful.
I am bald, Phiney. I have no hair. I have no breasts.
And that’s how I found out my mother had cancer. (beat) The first time.
Flashback. Phone rings. First year grad school. Hi, mom. . .I could tell by the ring. . .What’s the matter? Your voice. . .What’s the matter? What does that mean? . . .Is it bad?. . .Should I come home? Do you want me to come home?. . .What did the doctor say? Did you get a second opinion? Why didn’t you tell me? So, it’s bad then. . .Well, it must be if you think I should know.
And that’s how I found out my mother had cancer. (beat) The second time.
I give Lily another kiss. I hear her crying as I walk down the hall.
Albertson’s Grocery store. Frozen orange juice aisle, just past the waffles.
Phiney? Josephine Campbell. . .Hiii! You look. . .great. How are you? How are you doing? You can tell me. I heard. I was thinking of you recently . . .Remember Darlyne Stevens? Blonde. She was in our ward? Hardly ever spoke. She moved up to Orem a few years ago. Remember? Well, she had breast cancer too. Just like you. She used to tell me how horrible it. . .WAS . . .And Roger’s sister, Gay, she had breast had cancer. Same as you. . .What kind? Breast cancer. Oh, I didn’t know there were different kinds. . .oh. . .uhh. . .Oh, well the doctor’s told her the same thing. . .No. . . she’s dead. . .But I guess it runs in her family. Her mother had some rare skin cancer. In and out of the hospital every month with something new. You could never quite keep up. How’s Lily? And Michael? You’re mother died of breast cancer, didn’t she? Isn’t it weird that all the women in your family have had cancer? Do you think it’s something you ate? Poor thing, you hang in there. .All right! . . .You’ll be fine. Keep your chin up. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
Check out stand, headlines read:
LINDA McCARTNEY DEAD AT 56: CANCER KILLS LIFE-LONG VEGETARIAN.
CARLY SIMON: BREAST CANCER DIAGNOSIS GOOD
(beat) Now that’s an oxymoron.
(putting groceries in car and driving )
No, I don’t think it’s something I ATE!!!! Something I ATE!!!! Why didn’t I say anything? Why did I just stand there?! Oh! I just stood there and listened to that nonsense. How am I doing? How am I doing? Really? You want to know how I am doing – really! I’M SICK! I’M REALLY SICK! I’VE HAD A RECURRENCE AND I’M SCARED AND I’M TERRIFIED AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. I DON’T KNOW IF I SHOULD HAVE MY BREAST REMOVED! THE DOCTORS ARE AFRAID THE CANCER MIGHT SPREAD TO MY LUNGS! I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN GO THROUGH CHEMOTHERAPY AGAIN. THEY CAN’T RADIATE BECAUSE THEY DID IT ONCE ALREADY. IT’S A ONE SHOT DEAL. I DRINK A GALLON OF PRUNE JUICE EVERY OTHER DAY BECAUSE I AM SO CONSTIPATED. MICHAEL IS SCARED TO DEATH. LILY CRIES EVERY TIME SHE GETS ON THE SCHOOL BUS BECAUSE SHE’S AFRAID SHE’LL NEVER SEE ME AGAIN.
NO, I’M NOT FINE! I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR MOTHER -IN-LAW, OR YOUR SISTER – IN-LAW OR YOUR FRIENDS. I DON’T CARE. LEAVE ME ALONE. JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!! DON’T TELL ME YOUR DAMN STORIES!!
KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED! KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!
ISN’T IT WEIRD THAT ALL OF THE WOMEN IN YOUR FAMILY HAVE HAD CANCER? NO, IT’S NOT WEIRD! IT’S TRAGIC, IT’S AWFUL! IT SUCKS!
HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? HOW DID THREE GENERATIONS OF WOMEN IN MY FAMILY DIE OF CANCER? WAS IT SOMETHING WE ATE?
(Phiney takes a punch at Deborah)
Josephine, my great grandmother, died on January 23, 1951. She was 82 years old. On the morning of her funeral my grandmother couldn’t sleep. She sat out on the porch of her house in her bathrobe in the early dawn hours when there was a brilliant burst in the sky. A mushroom cloud shooting from the earth and ascending into the heaven filling the sky with every color of the rainbow. She watched as she said God taking my mother into heaven to be with him.
But God had played a trick on her. It wasn’t god; it was the angel of death.
Granny started getting really sick right after that. Violent headaches, a hard time breathing. One afternoon, my mom went out to the range to get her father. Granny had just had a severe migraine. And parked in the middle of the field was her father’s pickup and Gramps hauling sheep into the back of it. She started toward him and then saw a pile. A pile of dead sheep piled as high as the truck, eight or nine of them and her father dragging them into the back of his truck. He looked up at her and saw her watching. He was crying. He turned back around and carried on with what he was doing.
That was the first time mom made the connection. There was something going on. She didn’t know what. No one knew what.
So this is what became of Fredonia. The land of the free woman.
When my hair first fell out… The first clump in the shower, my long luxurious curls, I felt a part of me died. My hair defined me. My dark curls. That was me. That was who I was. Now I am about to lose my breast. Just as my mother and my grandmother did. This is my connection to them.
I always wanted to be just like them.
I tormented myself with the fact that I come from a legacy of pioneers, and grew up in a city. Whenn I was a kid, mom and I would go down to the desert to visit our relatives. My mother taught me what her mother had taught her: that when we die we become part of the landscape. She and I would take long walks through the canyons and along the river banks. If I would get really quiet, I could hear and see the voices of my ancestors. Mom showed me how to do this. The sound of the wind, the quaking aspens, echoes in the canyon. I’d practice by sitting at the bank of the creek for hours. Watching, listening, feeling.
In the months before my mother’s death, I’d moved back to Utah to be with her. We would go through phases where we would spend time just sitting for hours without speaking. Except on those walks in the desert, I had never known my mother to go more than five minutes without talking, but we would sit for hours at a time together without saying a word. Language became a interruption. And then we would spend days just saying everything we needed and wanted to say to each other. I finally asked mom, what do you want me to know? What do you want to tell me about life so when you die, I will know? There was a long silence. I couldn’t tell if she was thinking or she didn’t feel like playing this game. “I’m thinking,” she said. “There’s only love and family. All the rest is bullshit.” Those were her exact words. I was startled because that was the first time I had ever heard my mother curse.
During her funeral a feather landed on my shoulder just as they were lowering her grave. I knew she was with me, she’d always be with me.
When my mother died my mind was so prepared. My mind understood the silent space that death betides us. When she died, when she actually died, I was so afraid. My mind had lost that connection with my soul. Death was life now, not peace. There was no peace in being alive, yet my mother was finally at peace.
I have one wish before I die. I wish to find peace while I still have my life. And not to be so afraid. This is the hardest part of the journey. The journey, which ultimately ended in my mother’s death. I always envisioned it to be a journey of love. So, why is mine consumed with anger and fear? I think it’s not the cancer that’s going to kill me, it’s the fear. Why am I so afraid?
Until I got sick, I could hear my mother’s voice in the wind. But now I stand at the bank and there is so much noise going on. But I am afraid if the noise ceases to exist, so will I. I can’t hear my mother’s voice in the wind. I can’t hear what my mother is saying.
Maybe it’s not about fighting this disease or beating it, maybe it’s about surrendering to it. Perhaps it’s in the surrendering that we reach the voice deep within. Maybe that’s what they call the voice of God.
(The bell sounds very slowly)
Lights flash three times.
All my life I have had a recurring dream. It’s late at night and I’m running across a field during a lightening storm with my mom and dad and my brothers. Lightening is exploding all around us. Everyone knows to lay down on the grass. Everyone, but me. Everyone drops. Everyone, but me. I stand. I stand up and mush my face against a pane of glass that I am holding. I stand and I watch.
I found out that wasn’t a dream. Right before my mother died I told her about this dream. She looked at me, like this and she said Phiney, that wasn’t a dream. That really happened. Only it wasn’t lightening, it was a bomb.
It seems incomprehensible that I could have witnessed a bomb explode. In 1958, almost two years before I was born, President Eisenhower agreed to a voluntary moratorium on atmospheric testing. So how could I have seen a bomb? In the summer of 1962, after the Soviet Union broke the ban, the United States resumed testing. Sedan, a 100-kiloton nuclear device that was buried 635 feet underground blew a hole through the desert floor 1,200 feet wide, 320 feet deep as my family was driving home from a family vacation in Las Vegas. To test the impact of this underground experiment, thirty beagles were placed in wire cages with their mouths taped shut so they wouldn’t inhale any fallout. Four died immediately, three died within twenty-four hours, and another three died within seventy-two hours. It has taken my family a few more years.
The cloud passed over our home at 2 p.m. that July day depositing radioactive fallout onto the orchards, onto the fields, into the gardens, into the milk supply by way of the cow feed. Maybe it was something that I ate!
I am not saying it was Sedan that is the cause of my cancer, nor am I saying it is not. But I am saying I will no longer be a beagle with my mouth taped shut waiting to die. I can no longer be afraid of what might happen because the worst is already here.
My cancer has metastasized. I have options. I have choices. But for now I am dedicated to healing myself. I hear myself saying “Faith, Phiney, have Faith.” I’m learning to listen to my voice deep within. To hear my own voice. Faith allows me to have hope. Faith allows me to heal. To be afraid and not be ruled by my fear. To have . . . faith.
To be a free woman.