Article Index


Chapter One

Let me say right up front I am NOT crazy.
   I may be a little unusual, but given the circumstances, I am entitled to be a little off center. Bear with me and I’ll tell you what happened. You make up your own mind.
   I don’t eat the crayons or hide marmalade in my armpits. I don’t see dead people. I am a licensed driver and a registered voter.
   You want crazy? Anatidaephobia. Now that’s crazy. That’s the fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you. Who would admit that, even to their doctor?
   My name is Thomasina Joseffa Bishop, which is enough to shove anyone a few degrees off center. I was half way through second grade before I could spell it. By third grade I went by Tee, or Teejay, to the relief of my teachers.
   I am also a survivor. That means I get to wear a purple shirt at every Relay for Life event, having earned the right by surviving cancer.
   If you want to kill a conversation quicker than spilled wine on the heirloom table cloth, say one word – cancer. Admit you had it, and folks will back up a good four feet and start looking for the exit, in case you might be exhaling cancer cells right at them. Even close friends may suddenly decide to visit Cancun, or at least give the impression they may have moved.
   About the only phone calls coming your way are reminders of doctor appointments or a telemarketer wanting to sell you something and they will hang up on you if you mention cancer, in case it might sneak down the telephone wire and infect them through their ear.
   Cancer is the ‘do or die’ disease – do what the doctor says or die. It is the red wolf, tearing you apart, wearing you down, rendering you weaker and weaker until you are too tired to fight and succumb to its lethal bite.
   No one is exempt.
   It is the equal opportunity offender. Democrat or Republican, black, white or purple, male or female, makes no difference. Each one must run the gauntlet alone, a private and personal battle, fought in silence.
   Chemotherapy is poison, literally. A series of chemicals that poisons the cancer cells and kills them. Sadly, it also kills a lot of healthy cells, at times it will make you question yourself and your doctors, to wonder if it’s worth it. 


   Radiation therapy is painless but as relentless as the wolf itself, and brings its own set of side effects. You will begin with a full plastic mask of your head, face first, a mask extending back like Nefertiti’s crown. The mask is used to clamp your head to a table, for your own safety, so there is no possibility you can move. You are lucky if you can manage to blink.
   The technicians warn you that some patients may experience a flash of blue light or smell ozone and there is nothing to worry about with either effect.
   With your head clamped down, the table is raised up, everyone leaves the room and a machine that looks like something from Star Wars begins to hum and then it starts to move, slowly curving over you, left to right and back again.
   In my case, there was a flash of blue, inside my head, a mental flash seen behind closed eyelids. A brilliant blue, like the clear summer sky straight over head, not the lighter color near the horizon. There was a very strong smell of ozone that filled my head..
   Treatments only last fifteen minutes or so. Once the machine turns off, the staff comes back in, lowers the table, releases your mask, and you sit up. Done.
   No smell, no blue, all over.
   A cubby is marked with your name on a piece of tape and it is here you replace your mask, grab your clothes and get dressed. After the first few treatments, which are daily, five days in a row, weekends off, you know what to expect and the bright blue flash and the smell won’t bother you any more.
   To this day I can smell lightning from a mile away, even if I can’t see it. One of those little side effects I got to keep after treatment.
   Side effects are another leg of the race. They vary from patient to patient and cannot be predicted or explained. 
   Hair loss is the most common. In my case, I was bald as a bowling ball for two years but still had to shave my legs. No one ever said cancer was fair.
   Other changes you may encounter include being cold all the time, your body temperature dropping five or six degrees. Doesn’t sound like much until you think about a temperature of 102, about four degrees above average and that’s a whopping fever. 
   Heavy sweaters, sweatshirts and thick socks are your new best friends and quilts are worth their weight in gold.
   Your tastes will likely change. Former favorites may taste like gasoline, which can be okay since they will come back up still warm. A good rug in front of the porcelain throne may help keep your fanny warm while making your donations.
   There are other side effects, like I said, they vary from one to another. Survive and most will fade into faint memories. Some may remain, permanent additions to the new you. These, too, vary from patient to patient.


   As you may have noticed, mental illness is NOT a side effect, a point in my favor.
   There is so much technical and medical knowledge involved in treating cancer, the average person will never understand it. Even radiation oncologists don’t know all the side effects to brain radiation, which is often a follow up procedure to chemo.
   Chemotherapy tried to kill me before the cancer could, landing me in intensive care at the hospital the first week of treatment. Doctors, nurses, ambulance rides, hospitals, even blood transfusions were added to my treatment.
   Months of being poked, prodded, stuck with needles, more needles embedded in my arm, the backs of my hands, for hours on end, day after day.
   Set apart, too sick to eat, sometimes too sick to care.
   About this time I added my own peculiar side effect.
   Tim showed up.
   I have no clue exactly when he showed up, he just did.
   Yes, I said he.
   I hear his voice inside my head. It’s not my voice, not even close. His is deeper, with a Southern drawl, and a warm feel, like caramel on chocolate.
   Let’s say your friend calls you on the phone. Perfectly normal, happens a million times a day, right? You hear them clearly, in your ear, inside your head. No one questions it, or considers it unusual. It’s a simple phone call.
   I hear Tim’s voice the same way. In my head. I just do it without benefit of a phone. Blue flash, ozone, and Tim is there. Due to those special effects, I tend to think he was born of radiation treatments but I have nothing to back up that belief.
   It is strictly one way, Tim to me. I can’t call him. I’ve tried. I can’t predict when he will show up. He just does. Blue flash, ozone smell and he has announced his presence.
   I asked my doctors about it and that earned me referrals to the staff psychiatrist, whose main job was explaining your final days. She had no experience with voices as a side effect and suggested I move on to another branch of medicine.
   I declined and stopped asking.
   I like Tim.
   I enjoy his company, enjoy not being alone all the time. He became a part of my life so the heck with the psych crew, I kept him.
   We talk of many things, no cabbages but sometimes kings. We like the same movies, and mostly the same books, which we can discuss for hours. He doesn’t cost anything to keep – I don’t have to feed him or clean up after him. What more could you ask?


   He calls me Muse because he says I inspire him. Not sure what I inspire him to do but I’ve been called worse in my forty years on the planet so I’m good with it.
   Did I name him Tim? I don’t think so. I think he told me his name somewhere in the beginning but I can’t give you a specific instance.
   There you have it.
   Me and Tim.
   My personal side effect, the one that might possibly come down on the side of mentally unstable, or in laymen’s terms, crazy.
   The thing is, you won’t know if I’m talking to him or not, so how can you judge? I could be talking to him right this minute for all you know. The doctors faced the same problem and dropped it from my medical records. I think the psychiatrist suggested it.


   The lung cancer diagnosis was the hardest part. Most of us who receive that bit of news react the same way – tears, cussing and realizing if you are at a bank robbery you can step up and take the bullet.
   Then treatment begins and so does the race. Against time, and the red wolf who will stay right on your heels in case you falter.
   My dedicated medical teams did not fail.
   My life was saved.
   The expense was enormous.
   I lost everything.


   My job, my home, my savings and sixty pounds. My boss couldn’t hold my job, the bank couldn’t hold my home without payments and the pharmacy sucked up my savings with a giggle. My insurance company paid a lot, not nearly enough, and was so happy I survived they dropped me.
   I was assured the weight would return, with my hair, and encouraged to eat lots of protein. I was also warned that the cancer could return at any time. The time between my doctor’s appointments would gradually decrease. The threat of a return was my little gift.
   Underweight and destitute but, by golly, alive.
   An aunt stepped in and gave me a place to live. She owned a property here in town, with three rental houses on one lot. She installed me in one and charged me with keeping the others rented, the property clean and in good repair.
   Included in my duties was the care and feeding of two cats, Cletus and Dave, left behind by a previous tenant. My aunt was a dog person. Didn’t like cats.
   She didn’t like animal abuse more.
   When the abused and abandoned animals were discovered, she had them vet checked, neutered, shot, chipped, bathed and fed.
   Once deemed healthy they moved into the house with me and under my care.
   I’m okay with them. It took days for them to come out from under the bed, even longer for them to stay in a room with me but since I was also the giver of cat food, they gradually accepted me.
   Now they sleep on the bed with me, Cletus curled behind my knees, Dave snuggled against my feet.
   They are not allowed outside so they depend on me for food, water and a clean cat box.
   In turn, I’ve become attached to both of them. It’s comforting to curl up with them, to drift to sleep to the sound of their purring.
   And there you have it.
   Neighborhood cat lady? Yes.
   Survivor? Yes.
   Crazy? No.
   A little off the mark, but you can’t prove it.


   Having done her familial duty my aunt was off to Europe, leaving me to my new position as property manager and cat care supervisor. A team of attorneys handle her affairs in her absence, and I report to them.
   My duties include keeping the other two houses rented, the grounds clean and neat, and taking care of any necessary repairs. The attorneys set up a charge account at the local hardware store, gave me petty cash for minor expenditures and manage the bank account where I deposit collected rents.
   Anything else comes up, I have to contact them.
   My assets are twelve boxes of books and a wardrobe of sweats, sweaters, thick wool socks that I knitted as part of my recovery routine, and jeans.
   I have my computer and a printer. There is also my Kindle, my chief form of entertainment.
   After a year of being poked, stuck, prodded, rolled around, radiated, and told what to do, I have become accustomed to being alone. I’m used to it. I kind of like it.
   Now no one wakes me at two a.m. to take my temperature, check my vitals, or give me a pill. If I wake at night the sounds I hear are the wind, the nearby surf or the cats playing in the dark.
   Dave has a thing for floor hockey, played by taking anything he can lift into the kitchen and batting it around until it slides under the fridge and can no longer be retrieved.
   Cleaning under there is a lot like Christmas, you never know what you’re going to get.
   When I was at home during those months I didn’t wear a scarf, although I owned two dozen in varying colors. That’s a necessity when you’re a bald woman. Men get away with it just fine, women get stared at.
   My hair is slowly growing back, in a different color. Before cancer I had auburn hair and now I’m a blond. I’ve been told this is a common occurrence. One survivor I know was bald at forty, had cancer at forty five, and by fifty had a full head of black curly hair. His wife loves it.
   I still wear a scarf once in a while, although my hair has grown back to an inch or so in length. There’s a halo, a pure white circle of hair, right on the crown of my head. I resist suggestions to dye it, considering it a badge of merit. I earned it.


   It’s hair. You go bald for a couple of years and you’ll understand.
   I am a reader. In desperate times, I’ve been known to read the back of the cereal box. That’s a joke. I have no problem re-reading books I have enjoyed and I own enough of them that I have never been that desperate.
   I found it difficult to hold a book during chemo. They were either too heavy or too awkward with a needle in the back of my hand. I had looked at the e-readers, digital books, before I got sick and declined.
   With my difficulty holding books, I reconsidered and bought a Kindle.
   Now I wonder how I lived without it.
   Like many others I hate to see so many bookstores closed across the country due to the digital tomes. At the same time, I loved the ease of downloading a new book, at any hour, not being subject to set days and times.
   I can browse books at three a.m. if I choose.
   Although I read a lot of different genres my favorites are mysteries, the gentle kind, not the gory, explicit ones. I like to think it keeps my mind active figuring out who done it or why. I love the puzzles. Plus, some of my best friends are fictional, like Spenser and Hawk, or Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
   They can get gritty but you know you’re safe when those guys are around.
   I admit to being nosy, whether it’s my preferred reading material or just genetics. I am that woman. You know, the one who watches the whole neighborhood.
   Okay, maybe not the whole neighborhood, just my two charges, the two houses that face mine. My aunt’s rules are simple: small pets are allowed with prior approval, visitors are asked to park on the street and not block the drive, and rents are due on the first. There is a ten day grace period, after which a late fee is added as a penalty.
   There are no exceptions.
   I consider it part of my job to keep an eye on the tenants, making sure they obey the rules and to watch over the grounds.
   My aunt has entrusted this property to me. I keep a close eye on both of my rental units and the neighborhood around us. I think it’s just a naturally inquisitive nature. Or like I said at first, I may just be nosy.
   I’m entitled. I’m a survivor.


Purchase Out of the Blue