All the Ways We Exist

Heather Momyer

                                      For Lynn and Katie

Sisters
The last time I saw Katie was April 5, 2013. She came to town with her sister, Lynn, for another appointment at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Zion, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago. Katie lived in Memphis, but Lynn lived in Austin where she worked for Deloitte Consulting. Luckily, Deloitte is headquartered in Chicago and Lynn could work from the downtown office, if needed, when she came along for Katie’s many doctor appointments.

My friend, Lynn
I met Lynn during my sophomore year in college. A friend named Sarah introduced me to her, and the three of us decided to live together the following year. I wasn’t sure if it would work though. I liked Sarah, a skateboarding, union historian, but Lynn was an engineering-physics student. She spoke loudly and liked being right. She prided herself on being logical and ambitious, and she had little patience with anything that did not conform to the scientific method. Once she introduced me to engineering friends: “This is Heather. She’s in liberal arts, but she’s actually really smart… she just doesn’t apply herself.” It was a statement that surprised me, yet, after all of these years, she is the roommate I still talk to. We became friends; we ate a lot of chocolate cake and lived together well.

The First Dream
I was in college the first time I dreamt I was a man. My name was Charles, and I was putting a yellow rose on my wife’s coffin. I was paunchy, the kind of guy who wore three-piece, gray, wool suits and carried a pocket-watch. And though the coffin was closed, I could tell you all about the woman who lay inside. Her name was Rosemary, and she had long gray hair that she wore loosely tied in a bun on the top of her head. As I placed the flower on the polished wood, I knew that I had just lost the love of my life. If there were only a single moment of heartbreak I could claim, from waking life or from sleep, this would be the moment. My insides ached, and yet, at the same time, I was grateful; I knew how lucky I was to have had so many years of my life with her.

Lynn’s Sister, Katie
Although Katie and I were not close friends, I’d known her almost as long as I’d known Lynn, about 17 years at the time. When I lived in Layafette, Louisiana, I’d stop at Katie’s on the drive back and forth between Lafayette and my parents’ house in Pittsburgh. I slept on her couch more than once mid-travel, and once I spent Thanksgiving vacation with her and her family. In 2013, Katie had stage IV breast cancer that metastasized to her liver. It’s a very aggressive and fast-moving cancer. When she first started feeling ill, she thought it was a post-pregnancy issue. She had just given birth to her first and only child, a daughter named Clementine. When she was diagnosed, Clementine was only six months old, and the cancer had already moved to Katie’s organs. That was September 2011. The average life expectancy is two years.

The Logic of Emotions
Lynn became the keeper of details when it came to Katie’s illness. She explained to people like myself the difference between the breast cancer that people recover from and the breast cancer that is a death sentence. She gave definitions like a physician and knew how to describe treatment plans. She kept track of calendars, plane tickets and nutritional supplements. She updated family and friends on a Facebook page called Katie’s Army and on Katie’s Caring Bridge website. When chemo stopped working, she helped develop an online fundraiser for treatment options that aren’t covered by insurance. And mostly, Lynn kept to the facts. But for the girl who had once been a self-professed atheist, the word “prayers” was typed often, if only because there are no other words to say. “Keep us in your thoughts and prayers,” Lynn and Katie asked. Both of their insides ached.

Dinner Conversation
On this particular Chicago trip, the three of us had dinner at an Indian restaurant. Katie was in the last round of chemo and wore a crocheted headband over her ears; she didn’t wear the wig. The two had just returned from the Treatment Center and Katie didn’t have good news. Her tumor markers were high, in spite of the chemotherapy that she was doing for a second time. So, the conversation turned to Lynn’s recent trip to India. We ordered spinach, fruit, and the vegetable biryani rice that Lynn discovered she liked. We talked about things that were Indian: food, fabric and religion. Katie said that she believed in reincarnation, and Lynn rolled her eyes. When I asked Katie why, she said she didn’t really know. “I just do,” she said. “I just have a feeling that this isn’t my first time on the planet.”

The Second Dream
The second time I dreamt I was a man was almost ten years after the first time. I was a graduate student living in Louisiana. In this dream, I was a sharecropper who spent hours every day in a field that wasn’t mine. In this dream, I understood the meaning of the phrase “back-breaking work.” But the dream itself was not about work. It was about my 8-year-old dream son who scrubbed the mud off my back. My muscles were long and lean. I was thin, but strong, and the dirt filled the cracks of my skin. I felt the bristles of the brush move up and down my spine and knew that I was a terrible father, a father who could offer nothing to his son other than the sweat off his back.

The Need for Faith
In my dreams, the love I’ve felt was stronger than any I’ve felt in waking life. A friend once described the love for her son as “watching your heart walk around.” It’s tender and fragile, but you can’t cradle it forever. It’s too immense. I don’t have children though, nor do I have a partner with whom I’ve spent decades of my life, side by side. I don’t know the love that might come with such intimacy, but in the times when I wonder if I’m capable of such an enormous surge of feelings, I remember those dreams. I haven’t known those loves, but I’ve imagined them. I know the world is full of possibility because an imagined world is another kind of real world. The theologians know this just as well as I do.

The Rebirth
I might not have a life-long partner or children, but I have two sisters and know something of the bonds that are tied tightly over long-traveled distances. Lynn drove from Austin to Memphis with her father to join Katie and their mother, little Clementine, and Katie’s husband, Ben. Katie’s last hours were soon. The oncologist said about two more weeks. They knew that once Katie became too weak to get out of bed the end would come quickly. After ten hours of driving, they were close to Memphis. On the phone, Lynn spoke quietly. She was difficult to hear, but she was talking about the laws of physics: energy is neither created nor destroyed, she reminded me. It just changes forms. Molecules break down, but the atoms remain. “When you die, you’re not really gone,” Lynn wanted to tell Katie. She asserted a different way of being, an existence that may be scientifically feasible, but one that is mostly envisioned nonetheless. “The energy that is you is still you, and it’s still there,” she was thinking of saying when she got to Memphis. “You’ll just be a whole lot less structured,” she imagined saying and laughed a little bit. In the world of theory and potential, multiple realities are created, and in this fluid pattern of energy and atoms, Katie will always be there, and Lynn will always send her love.

Author Portrait

Heather Momyer is the editor of the online arts and literary journal Masque & Spectacle and the founder of Arc Pair Press. Her fiction chapbook, How to Swim, was published by Another New Calligraphy (2013). Other writing appears in journals such as Tahoma Literary Review, Wicked Alice, The Collagist, Puerto del Sol, Popular Culture Review, and Exquisite Corpse.

View the website of Heather Momyer