When a dear friend of mine died in 2009, her voice, her attitude, and her laugh were still very much alive in my heart. A few weeks after she died, I wrote this short story. I liked the name 'Casey' so much, I decided to use it for the lead character in CLENT RELATIONS. That novel's antagonist, Meg, was named after the real 'Somerset,' who thought it was a hoot to be the namesake for such an awful person. (The two Megs are nothing alike!)
Published in the Monadnock Writers Group Journal, Shadow and Light - A Literary Anthology on Memory (November 2011)
I’m not reading another story about death, not when I’m trying to write my own obituary. I don’t want to get even more bummed out. I could let somebody else write it. Some guy in a cubicle who writes cold, dead obits for a living and doesn’t know me from Adam. I could ask Jennie to do it. She knows me better than anyone in the world, but her eyes would well up and she’d tell me to think positive when we all know I’m going to die soon. Stage IV-B endometrial cancer, I don’t stand a hope in hell.
Nah, I have to write the thing myself. The best case scenario is the same as the worst case -- if I screw up, I can’t come back and haunt the person who wrote it. At least I can make sure it says more than ‘Cassandra Somerset, born March 12, 1960, died whenever in Talbot, Maryland, send contributions to American Cancer Society.’ Like the American Cancer Society’s done anything for me. They’d never even pick me to be a poster girl for "Prognosis: Poor." I have too much of an attitude. Besides, my nose is too prominent.
I wish I could count on an obit writer to include more information, even something like ‘She was the daughter of Jackson and Jocelyn Somerset’, but I can’t. Thank God the J's (my parents, I was never a ‘Mumsie and Pop’ kind of kid) didn’t live long enough to hear my diagnosis, but there are still quite a few people who know my family. I have no surviving husband, no kids, but the Somerset family’s been around a mighty long time. My brothers and cousins have been fruitful and multiplied. I guess they could instruct the obit writer to mention my parents.
Come to think of it, what difference would it make if the obit’s limited to basic information? The people who know me will have their own things to say about me after I’m dead; they won’t need to refer to an obit to remember what they want to remember. And the people who didn’t know me won’t give a damn either way. Maybe I should leave the dirty job to the obit pros, and squeeze every last drop out of the rest of my life instead of dwelling on the inevitable. I mean, when a guy gets nailed by a Mack truck, he doesn’t know it’s going to happen beforehand. People don’t waste time writing their own obits in advance, just in case. It’s not like writing a will so your stuff doesn’t end up in the garbage. To hell with the whole stupid idea.
I hope some people do remember me, for a little while, anyway. Apart from my family. I know a lot of people, even if only a couple of people really know me. Guess most people are like that -- lots of acquaintances, few real friends. My closest friends are mostly in Pembroke County, New York, where my family’s lived like gentry ever since the Brits arrived in the 1600’s -- yeah, it’s nuts, but we can trace the Pembroke Somersets to the 1400’s. I remember when I had to draw my family tree in sixth grade and my classmates thought I was joking. I was so embarrassed. I wished I had a cool background like the kids whose families came through Ellis Island or made a daring escape from third-world despots.
Anyway. Outside New York, the rest of my friends are from prep school, like Jennie - I’ll talk more about her later - and some folks here in Talbot, Maryland. There are Tracy and Bill, the people who sold me the house. And the gay guys up the street, Jon and Daryl. I met them when I found their dog in the woods and didn’t know whose it was. I took care of him until I saw their leaflet. Then there’s Prati, the owner of the ice cream shop who makes awesome flavors like whipped bittersweet chocolate caramel crème. And Chase, I slept with him for about six months until we both decided it wasn’t a good idea. People like them, who amble over to tourists to discuss their favorite books for half an hour and then recommend a good seafood restaurant down the road, they’re the reason I’m living here, three hundred miles from home. Them, and the grassy cattails of the land and the blue lap of the bay that make me throw back my head, close my eyes and listen to the herons tiptoeing in the marsh.
I came to the Eastern Shore to follow a man. He walked out on me a year after I arrived -- it’s the story of my life. Casey’s always going where her lovers go, my friends complain; she doesn’t make her own decisions. True enough, I’m one of those Great Disappointments. Everyone said I was brilliant, I was going to be a literary luminary and win the Pulitzer Prize. Instead, my Yale diploma is God knows where, maybe shredded by mice in the attic of the J’s house where my oldest brother now lives. He’s probably forgotten the house even has an attic.
The only useful degree I ever got was my stenographer certification. Have boyfriend, will transcribe, that was my motto. Maybe that should be on my headstone, except I asked to be cremated and my ashes scattered. I don’t care where I’m scattered, as long as it’s not New Jersey, Queens or Staten Island. Or at a toxic waste facility, don’t let me forget that one. I have to draw the line somewhere.
Back to Jennie. Her full name is Genevieve Standish -- yep, as in Myles Standish from the Mayflower. The two of us are such awkward true-blue WASP’s. Jennie pops down here from New York every few months to make sure I’m still eating and to try to con me into moving back. Even though she knows if the cancer didn’t kill me, New York would -- too many bad memories. We smoke a few joints for old times’ sake and she pesters me to see a specialist at Johns Hopkins. Too late for that, Jennie, stop being such a pain in the ass.
And speaking of pains in the ass, Jennie’s coming this weekend with my favorite pain in the ass of all time, Cora Franks. Franks and I haven’t seen each other in years. She’s got her own headaches to deal with. But we stay aware of each other. I’m convinced there’s a vibe that circles the planet and keeps certain friends and special lovers connected for life. Like Jennie, she knows I’m on my way out, but she won’t let me bite the dust without seeing me again.
The last name business? Franks is a prep school friend like Jennie. Last names and nicknames were de rigueur in prep school back in the day. Maybe today, too, for all I know. Franks was Franks, I was Casey because of my initials, Cassandra Abbott Somerset. Jennie was just Jennie. Back then, Franks was the baby. Jennie and I were the worldly know-it-alls, who blessed her with our vast experience when the mood struck us. I used to have long wavy hair, sort of Janis Joplin-y, but darker and not as frizzy. Franks is going to freak out when she sees my hair now -- it’s gray and cropped short like a boy’s, thanks to age and chemo.
I still think the same way. I sound the same, I swear the same. I’m still me inside this groaning package of a body that was never cute but used to be somewhat presentable. Is this depressing? Hope not, I’m just stating the facts, thinking about what I’m dealing with, and -- Christ, I just reminded myself about the obit again. Maybe I really don’t want to write it because I’m in a state of denial or having some other psycho-babble coping mechanism kind of crisis. Or maybe I’m just lazy and don’t feel like writing it because then I’d have to start thinking about the things in my life worth remembering. I should write, ‘Casey was still herself when she died,’ and leave it at that.
Jennie’s asleep upstairs, Franks is staying at a hotel. When the three of us were talking earlier, it felt like we were back in my dorm room at Anna Cromwell School thirty-five years ago and nothing had changed. Except when I saw Franks struggling to maneuver her wheelchair around my house. That ripped me up inside, even though I pretended it was no big deal. She doesn’t deserve MS any more than I deserve cancer. I was trying to decide which was worse when the pain hit me. I took my pills and they knocked me out for a while. Now that I’m awake again, I think being dead’s going to be a hell of a lot worse than being alive and stuck in a wheelchair. Franks is lucky. She’s got no physical pain, she’s got a husband and kids, and she’s in pretty good spirits, even if she’s all alone this evening in her handicapped-accessible hotel room. She’s still got hope. I lost that a year ago.
There was this one overpowering moment tonight when I realized how much I love Franks and Jennie, and how much I don’t want to die. An ache surged through my whole body and I had to cover my mouth with my hand. I’ll never forget that moment. Not that I have a whole hell of a lot of time left to forget anything, but at least it’ll never become a dim memory. Rank sentimentality doesn’t agree with me at all. Thank God Franks suddenly switched topics to the Yankees. Anything that concerns the Yankees is guaranteed to yank me back to normal since I’m a die-hard Yankees fan. The Orioles fans down here love to hate me when the Yankees poise to win yet another championship and I transform into a red-faced, blow-hard lunatic. When it comes to baseball and the Yankees, Maryland’s almost worse than Boston -- if that’s possible. I’m not kidding.
I don’t look in the mirror anymore. That would force me to face reality and I’m not in the mood. When Jennie and Franks climbed into the car, they promised they’d come back in a few weeks while the weather was still nice, but I knew when they drove off I’d never see either of them again. I’ve talked to both of them on the phone, Franks quite a bit more now than in the past. She knows we won’t be seeing each other again. Jennie’s planning my meals and her trips down here for the next five years. But she knows, too; she just refuses to admit it, at least not to me.
So here I am at my computer again, working on the obit. I took it on as an act of defiance. Sort of an, ‘Oh no you don’t, if anyone’s going to have the last word about me, it’s going to be me!’ Now it’s such a chore. I try to think of the most important things about myself, starting with the basic information all over again: name, date of birth, where I’m from, where I live, cause of death. Nothing that reveals who I am. I add my education and jobs, and it starts to look like a resume. I insert the names of the finest men I ever went to bed with, and the things I’ve kept in my closet since I was a kid.Too inappropriate. Hitting the backspace button, I type, ‘Casey loved animals. She was an ASPCA Guardian.’ Okay, what else?
I think back to when Jennie and Franks were here, to that moment when I felt so much love radiating around me, glowing all over this room. No one’s here now, there’s no mirror to avoid. I don’t need to be tough or brave for anyone, not even myself. The lump rises in my throat and tears stream down my face. I recall the plans I had, the promises I made, the words I said. Or should have.
I lie down and tug a quilt over myself. I need to rest.
Copyright Terri L. Weiss. All rights reserved.