Running Out the Clock

by Janet Buttenwieser

Ido not hear the phone ring. I stand in the shower, post-scrubbing, letting the water run over my already tightening muscles. I’ve just completed a triathlon. It’s a satisfying kind of tired; the immediate aftermath of a race. I turn off the water, dry, dress. I fantasize about a large lunch, perhaps a nap. I emerge from the bathroom and beeline for the refrigerator. My husband Matt sits at the dining room table, bathed in sunlight with the phone pressed to his ear. He looks up when I approach, a look I’ve seen too many times before. Beth, he mouths to me. He does not have to say anymore. At a pause in the conversation, he tells her I am out of the shower, then hands me the phone.“It’s baaack,” she says, Poltergeist-style, her voice unnaturally high. The room tilts sideways for a split second, then evens when I lower myself onto our celery-green couch. This is where I sit to receive bad news, which always seems to arrive by telephone. When I received the call about my own tumor recurrence, I was already lying here, the cushions dented from the weight of my body. That call was the bottom. But this is worse. Mine: benign. Beth’s: malignant.

Actually, she clarifies, there are two of them this time; smaller than the first one, but in the same part of her brain near her language center. Her voice returns to its confident tone, her sentences drawn out in explanation. I remember how swelling from the first surgery caused long pauses in her speech as she cast about for the word she wanted. Now I search for the right thing to say to my friend. I don’t find it.

“Oh, Beth,” I say, almost a whisper. Then, louder: “Fuck.”

I lie down on the couch, watching the ceiling fan turn lazily as Beth talks. Definitely chemo, she tells me, possibly surgery. The leaf-laden dogwood branches stretch across the window frame. The unbidden sun that sent shimmers across the lake during my race now seems taunting, cruel.

“Enough about that,” Beth says after a few minutes. “I want a race report.”

I tell her about the high school girl I met during the run who looked forward to showing up at school in two weeks twenty pounds lighter than she’d been the previous spring. She was short, and her uneven strides jostled her camelback backpack as she ran. The hair tie was coming loose on her long black ponytail, and strands of loose hair adhered to the back of her neck. We ran together across a field, complaining to each other about the hot sun and the overgrown grass nipping at our ankles.

She told me couldn’t wait to see the looks on the girls’ faces who’d teased her for being fat.

“Teenage girls are so supportive of each other, aren’t they?” Beth says now, allowing a chuckle like the ones usually reserved for responding to Matt’s jokes, whether or not they’re funny. Not a full laugh, but a sincere one. I cannot tell from the moderate volume how concerned she is about the tumor, or how much I should worry. I force a laugh back.

A benign tumor, two intestinal surgeries. Two years of fertility treatments at Seattle’s top-rated clinic. Needles, scalpels, speculums, pills. Green and blue and white hospital gowns. My body a pincushion, a chemistry lab, a science experiment. Six weeks before, a miscarriage.

I lay on my couch in my living room, waiting for the phone to ring. The previous week I felt a too-familiar pain, down by my tailbone. I went to see my surgeon, a tall, athletic man with a broad grin and a brash swagger. He presented my case proudly at a conference, and no doubt bragged to his peers about the difficult maneuver he’d pulled off in removing my cement-like growth.

Another CAT scan, another agonizing wait for results. In my living room, waiting by the phone, I was physically pain-free. I tricked myself into imagining a false alarm, but I wasn’t surprised to hear the graveness of my surgeon’s voice when he called.

“It’s back,” he said, like it was a supernatural being invading my body; an inorganic material lodged at the bottom of my spine. But my teratoma was one of the most natural parts of my body, this growth that had been there since I was in utero, that came back after they cut it out. Maybe my own fetus had one too. Maybe they were the reason for the pregnancy loss, our matching teratomas. Even though the news couldn’t get worse, it did. They’d have to remove another section of my colon—an important one this time. I would have a permanent colostomy. Instead of swelling in the summer months, my abdomen would be cut open—again.

I looked around my living room. The white Gerbera daisies my sister sent after the miscarriage stood in a green glass vase on the mantle. My hands stroked the arms of the couch, frayed from years acting as the cat’s scratching post. I’d already rearranged the furniture in my mind to make space for a toy shelf and a rocking chair. Outside the window, pink blossoms weighed down the cherry tree branches.

It was late in the day, and my doctor seemed eager to get off the phone as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

“We can discuss this further when you come back to my office,” he said, his tone formal, his consonants clipped. I pictured him sitting in his office, the only one left in the clinic. The daylight faded outside the window at his back. He turned in his leather chair as he talked to me, looking out onto the bay in the distance, the ferry making its slow crossing. Or perhaps he stood by his desk, one arm already in his coat, reaching across a pile of charts to flick off the lamp as he told me to call back in the morning to make an appointment.

Thirty minutes later, Matt walked through the front door and I told him the news. He sank down on the couch beside me, pulling me into a long hug. We drove through our child-filled neighborhood to walk on a trail by the lake. His hand held mine in a tight grip as we watched a turtle scramble onto a piece of driftwood in the approaching darkness.

Between my second tumor and Beth’s, John Green wrote his first novel, Looking for Alaska. The story follows a group of friends through their junior year of high school. The novel is divided into two sections, “before” and “after,” with chapter headings of “one hundred thirty-six days before,” “seventy-five days before,” and so on, counting down to the fatal car accident of one of the characters, Alaska. After the book won a national award, Green explained that the source of his inspiration for the structure came from the discussion in the aftermath of September 11th. News analysts talked about how the event was a defining moment for our generation. We would now view the world in terms of pre- and post-9/11. It became the dividing line between who we were before and who we became after, just as Alaska’s death is for the characters in his book.

I, too, feel the division created by significant events in my personal life: before I got sick, before I became a parent, after Beth died. Sometimes, there was anticipation of these events—a transition between these before and after states. As I absorbed the news, I realigned myself to new realities: I will have a colostomy. Beth had a seizure. Beth is dying.

A thread connected me to Beth through our illnesses. No one knew better how I felt when I was ill, or recovering from surgery, or lying in the scanner bed. I expect it was the same for her. But after her phone call the day of my triathlon, the thread began to disintegrate. Now she was walking down her own road, different from my own.

During this transition, I should have accepted that she was going to die. Soon, I would need to figure out how to live without her, learn who I would become in her absence. Instead, I denied it. They cut out her tumor, then started chemotherapy—sure signs of the possibility of beating things back into remission once again. There would be a time, I thought, when she would be told to get her affairs in order. But if those words were said to her, that message was never passed along to me. She would have hated to be treated differently, as though she were already fading from our lives. So I acted like she’d be around forever. I didn’t savor every moment. I still made bad jokes.

“What does it say about our places in the universe,” I used to say, “that your tumor was in your brain, and mine was in my butt?”

“What does it say that yours was benign and mine was malignant?”

One year, during Beth’s remission, her husband Kevin and I threw a surprise birthday party. A large group of friends and family gathered in Beth and Kevin’s living room and waited for Beth. One hour went by, and then another. We were all amused at the fun party taking place without the guest of honor. I looked around the crowded kitchen. This was the first time I was in the house without Beth there.

“I feel like I’m at Beth’s memorial service,” I said to a friend.

I thought, this is what it will be like after she’s gone.

And then there she was, bursting through the front door, her cheeks flushed.
“What are you all doing in my house?” she said, laughing.

The party continued.

Later, Matt and I helped clean up, then the four of us sat in the living room while Beth opened her gifts. She unwrapped a pair of silver earrings. Her ears weren’t pierced.

“These are pretty,” she said. “Do you want them?”

I put them in my backpack, which lay nestled among the shoes piled near the door.

My husband’s childhood memories are murky—he does not remember his parents’ divorce when he was three. His father remarried three years later, and though Matt was in the wedding, most of the day was a blur. But August 16th of that same year remains vivid in his mind. He spent that day at his father’s house in Des Moines, Iowa. His father owned a guitar, even though no one in the family played. Every visit, Matt would retrieve it from the closet and strum the strings way up by the tuning pegs. He liked the high sounds the guitar made when played that way.

It was too hot to play outside, so Matt sat in front of the television, strumming the guitar. An episode of Speed Racer was interrupted by a news bulletin. Matt looked up at the television, listened to the reporter’s words, and then went to find his father and stepmother.

Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of the seminal event of their generation: Kennedy’s assassination or perhaps the Space Shuttle explosion.

Why are these memories uniformly crisp for us? Why can’t Matt remember witnessing his father making his wedding vows, but, more than thirty years later, he can remember the feel of the carpet under his bare calves while he watched television that August afternoon? Maybe there’s something about the shared experience of receiving bad news about the same event that signals our brains to pay attention. Time slows momentarily, allowing us to take mental notes before we switch roles from recipient to reporter as we share the news ourselves.

Matt found his parents sitting on their patio in the shade, facing their lawn. They probably had glasses of Black Velvet in their hands, maybe a lit cigarette for Matt’s stepmother. They turned when they heard the screen door creak open.

“Who is Elvis?” Matt asked, the guitar still in his hand.

“A singer,” his father said, “Why?”

“He’s dead.”

The teenager I ran with in the triathlon, I imagine, has her own before and after, no doubt with accompanying photos charting her pound-shedding progress. I imagine her standing in the hallway on the first day of school. Maybe one of her aunts at the finish line helped her shop for new clothes. A flattering blouse, short-sleeved to show off her newly defined arms. The other students’ voices bouncing off the lockers in the hallway would still as—one by one—they saw her. And she would say nothing, perhaps just smile and walk past.

We met early in the run. After a few minutes of running together, she slowed down, telling me to go ahead. When I saw her again at the last water stop, she was limping, barely running. I threw my empty cup into the trash, and jogged up alongside her. She told me her ankle hurt.

“Maybe you should walk,” I said.

“No,” she said, picking up her pace. “I trained all summer. I am running this whole fucking race.” And she did. She matched my strides for the last mile, then pulled ahead of me when the cheering crowd came in sight. Confused by the course, she veered right, away from the finish line. I yelled to her and she looped back, running past the finish line, past the race volunteers collecting timing chips, stopping only when she reached her family at the end of the barricade.

I wonder, now, about Beth’s own transition. When did she feel herself dying? When, if ever, did she accept it? She never spoke to me about this. She did not like to talk about her illness or the fact that she might die soon. When her cancer returned, Beth wrote a letter to her friends and family. “Picture me strong and healthy in your minds,” she wrote, “so that I can return to that state.” She must’ve held a similar image in her own mind, because she propelled herself forward in those final months and never slowed down. She continued to work until the end of her life and took a trip to Europe a few weeks before she died. She didn’t get her affairs in order. No long letters to friends and family about the meaning of life.

Two days after her surgery to remove the first tumor, I phoned her at the hospital. I was allowed one question, “How are you?” before she shifted the focus off of herself.

“Tell me news of the world,” she said. I fumbled for something to say. A copy of the Seattle Times was strewn across my dining room table, freshly read. In front of me lay the food section—a source of our ridicule. They’re always writing about ice cream, Beth would say, no matter what the season.

“Parfaits are back in vogue,” I said. I expected a laugh, but there was silence on the other end of the line. Then Kevin’s voice.

“She just got a sedative. She fell asleep.”

In the seconds before Kevin came on the line, I thought she was dead. After I hung up the phone, I decided to come up with better conversation topics the next time I called, lest my last words to her be about dessert.

I imagined our last conversation would be long and meaningful. We would declare our love for one another; apologize for past transgressions. I would say something profound that eases her mind and allows her to transition peacefully into death. I would have time to say everything I wanted to say. But it turned out that her downturn in health was sudden. She only spent a few days in pain and unable to talk. By the time I arrived at her bedside, she was in a morphine-induced sleep.

“Talk to her,” Beth’s aunt told me as I headed down the hallway to the room where Beth lay. I wanted to make her laugh, as I always had, so I told the first funny memory that came to mind; a visit to Beth in Ecuador where I required a trip to the medical clinic. When we went to the lab to get the results of my stool analysis, we found the technician bent over the microscope, eating a popsicle while she examined my sample. No one laughed in the re-telling, but we’d laughed there in the corridor. It turned out my final words to her were about dessert after all.

I was shattered by the abruptness of her death. But I imagine it’s exactly how Beth wanted to go. It was as though she had control over how long she suffered. As though she said to herself, I am running this whole fucking race.


RunningOuttheClock_Buttenwiser_Photo_lgeJanet Buttenwieser’s nonfiction work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Los Angeles Review, Cirque, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest and the 2011 Artsmith Literary Award.

Janet is the Nonfiction Editor for Soundings Review, teaches writing classes at Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and has an MFA from the Whidbey Writers Workshop.

11 thoughts on “Running Out the Clock

  1. Leslie Hill says:

    Hi Janet,

    This is brilliant, this piece. Classic collage essay, all the pieces fitting together, all beautiful, all touching. Ana Maria Spagna passed it on to us in NF Craft. Congratulations.


  2. Sue Anne Linde says:

    So moved by your tribute to your friend, and by your way of expressing it. And lovely to know it is out in the world, helping others understand what it is like to watch a friend die. We need to know before we need to know for ourselves. I am grateful to you.


  3. John Mark Jennings says:

    Powerful and moving, but your eyes were wide open while you described Beth’s going. Thanks for writing this. Glad I discovered it, too.


  4. Amanda Geller says:

    i am speechless Janet. It’s odd to feel at a loss for words after being so entranced by yours….I want you to know everything I am thinking and feeling after reading your writing…and yet, the words aren’t coming. I amazed at your ability to take us to each moment you wrote about. Thank you for the courage to write about your journey and losing your friend Beth.


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