A Good Death

Kate Tighe-Pigott
Featured Image: Marshmallow © Jean Beaufort 2019

I have a lymph node. That’s why I’m here. A nurse practitioner told me it was a lymph node when I discovered it seven years ago, behind my left side-boob.

I’d been at the gym, doing those spine stretches where your knees go one way and your opposite arm and face go the other way. I felt a twinge in my exposed armpit and “palpated.” It wasn’t the normal fibrousness of my pre-maternal body. It was distinct, the size of an edamame. It floated, as if in Jell-o. It was exactly like the gelatinous models of tumor-filled breasts they let you feel at the doctor’s office.

Why am I getting a mammogram, then, if I already know it’s a lymph node? I’ve noticed that every September it starts to ache, and it aches all winter—sharp pains—until about March or April. When I lived in New York, I tried to explain this to my doctor, but when I mentioned that a nurse practitioner had already told me it was a lymph node, the doctor sighed and explained that our bodies are full of lymph nodes; that lymph nodes are not necessarily bad. I fumed through whatever else she said. Then, when she asked how else I was doing, I cried about being a new mother in a changing climate, so she printed me up some referrals to psychologists. When it came time for her to feel the lymph node, she said she couldn’t feel anything; said it wasn’t worth looking more closely until I was through with breastfeeding anyway—which was going to be never, it felt like.

I’m here because in the years since I stopped breastfeeding some of the doctor’s words have started coming back to me. For example, after she explained that lymph nodes are a normal part of my body, I think she said they can act up for all kinds of reasons, the most benign being that they are doing their job of clearing out your immune system, the most malignant being—she must have said—that they are bulging pustules of late-stage cancer.

 

Remember in Legends of the Fall when Brad Pitt gets in a knife fight with a bear? And his Cree friend says, “It was a good death.” You think that’s true? Getting eaten by a bear?

We were at Pete and Sarah’s cabin and they were curious about my intermittent vegetarianism. This was not a vegetarian day, because I was grilling burgers during this conversation. Sarah was making fixings. “Global warming,” my husband offered. “That’s the reason why she does everything.” I flipped him off—not unkindly.

In fact, since Sarah is an aquaponics researcher, she’s an expert on the energy input/output ratios of meat. She’s also always harvesting tilapia and shrimp and inviting us for fish fries. I eat her fish because she grew it herself, killed it herself, filleted it herself, and is a slamming cook. Plus she’s always aiming at a 1:1 energy input/output ratio. That’s the best you can do, right? Ideal meat-eating scenario. I’ll also eat meat if it would go to waste otherwise; like if I’m at a wedding and they set a chicken dish in front of me by accident or because I forgot to tell them I am sometimes vegetarian. And burgers today because the week before was Fourth of July and I had wanted a burger then, but hadn’t had one, and now the sky was blue and we’d spent all day in the river, so I wanted one now more than ever.

“My coworker feels bad for the animals,” Sarah said. She’d asked her coworker: if the cow had had the best life in the world, was fed grass and could roam free, could love its babies, and was massaged every morning and night and then was just shot in the head one day, would you eat it? The coworker agreed she would, but that that’s not how animals are treated in America today. “That’s how I would want to go,” Sarah said. “Bullet to the brain. Nothing hurts. You don’t even get a chance to feel scared.” She said it like we’d all be in agreement.

I plated the burgers. Our daughters came up from under the cabin where they’d been coloring with sidewalk chalk, and we took our seats around the table and toasted our good friends, beautiful kids, wonderful day.

 

The receptionist in mammography gives me a robe the color of Pepto-Bismol and a key to a locker. I enter a stall, close the pink curtain to change, and pull a book out of my bag before I lock my things up. The waiting room is tiny and feels private—protected from any incidental glance from a hallway. People magazines fan across the side table. A TV mounted high and to the right plays The Today Show.

The woman across from me is my age, here with her mother. Her swollen eyes try to anchor into me. I try to repel her glances by focusing on my book. The woman to my right is blonde and slim: she nods at the crying woman, makes soft sympathetic sounds in the back of her throat. A lady with a mop of gray curls—the veteran among us—sits next to the crying woman’s mom and offers bland comforts: “Stay positive” and “One day at a time.”

We are all, save the crying woman’s mother, in pink bathrobes.

The crying woman went to her general practitioner on Friday afternoon and they made her come here first thing today, Monday. “The size of a golf ball,” the doctor had said. Her voice cracks as she tells us this. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do. She’s already taken off from work Friday and today. She doesn’t know what her boss will do. What will happen in the future. The future for her is a void, a place her mind can’t go. I felt the same when I was pregnant. Not the exact same, clearly. Her boyfriend couldn’t get the time off to come today so she brought her mom. She is from Kentucky. A more rural part, I’m guessing. The way she talks reminds me of my childhood in rural Maine. I miss my accent. She’s made eye contact with me and now I’m in it too. I make murmuring noises from the back of my throat and say things like, “It’s good you’re here now” with the others. She’s talking so much because she’s scared she’s going to die.

The top magazine in the array boasts Elizabeth Smart on the cover with her new baby. The Today Show teases an upcoming segment: Things you should be cleaning but aren’t.

 

As we ate the burgers at Pete and Sarah’s, our daughters initiated a round of Roses and Thorns, where everyone tells their best and worst moments of the day. My daughter Claire started. Her rose was having dinner and getting to sleep over at the cabin. Her thorn, per usual, was having to take a nap. Everyone shared. We felt peaceful, like good parents. Everyone’s rose was some iteration of being here at the cabin with good friends, so when I went last, I said, “My rose is that this morning I saw two eastern bluebirds over there on that wire.”

“Bluejays,” said Claire, who has never seen a bluebird.

“Bluebirds,” I said. “They’re smaller, and they don’t have the spiky heads. They have red breasts like robins. I used to see them all the time in my grandmother’s garden when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen one in probably fifteen years. Maybe longer.”

“Why do you think that is?” Sarah asked. “Population decline?”

“Starlings,” I said.

She nodded. She’d heard the story. Starlings are aggressive: they find other birds’ nests and peck holes in the other birds’ eggs, killing the young.

After dinner Pete went down to try to light a pile of brush for a bonfire we promised the girls, and Sarah and I sipped beers on the porch while Sam cleaned up.

“I don’t want to get shot in the head,” I said. She looked at me like I was crazy. I reminded her of what she’d said, how it’s the best way to go. “I don’t want that to happen to me.”

“You want a slow painful death.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Really?”

“If I’m getting shot in the head, it’s like a terrorist event. A school shooting. An armed robbery. A wrong place, wrong time thing. A carjacking. I spend about twenty percent of my brain energy at all times trying not to get shot in the head.”

“Even if you didn’t know it was going to happen? Even if you had no moment of fear leading up to the trigger-pull?”

“I guess I wouldn’t be around to be pissed,” I said. “But if I could choose.”

“What would you do if you could choose?”

“I’d be old, old, and I’d invite everyone I know and I just would stop eating and drinking. Claire could sing me Paul Simon songs, and I’d tell her how perfect she is, and then—sayonara.”

 

Once when I was twelve, I was first into Limington Rapids after a big rain, and the river was too high. It swept me toward the rocks, and I couldn’t get a foothold on the riverbed. My head was blubbing and my mother was running along the bank of the river shouting my name, getting smaller as I was pushed to the middle. Eventually I hit a pool and slowed and was able to make my way, sputtering, to the cattails and muck.

This other time, I was a freshman in college, making dulce de leche with a girl named Alma for our Spanish class. It was a cultural celebration day and her grandmother used to make dulce de leche this way, by setting a can of condensed milk into a pot of boiling water. The can exploded in the pot and something sliced across my neck. I grabbed the spot with my two hands and thought, This is it! In the basement of Pomeroy! I imagined blood spewing from my jugular. I imagined the jokes my sisters would tell after my death: Revenge of the Can: Before she could open it—It. Opened. Her. I pulled my hands away. There was nothing there but sticky milk and burned flesh.

I’ve driven recklessly and—in a few snowstorms during my teens—spun off the road.

I’ve had some white knuckle flights.

I’ve had some headaches that made me imagine my blood was made out of poison, that my brain was being eaten by a tumor or by brain-eating bacteria like people in Louisiana got from those Neti Pots. I’ve had a few bouts of amoebic dysentery that made me a lot more compassionate toward Elvis, since we were both going to have died on a toilet.

There was this one time at Ninoy Aquino International Airport—we lived in Manila after we were just married—when we were picking up one of my husband’s clients. The client had arrived and we were sorting out a taxi when we heard a mob scream from about fifty feet away. A white van emerged from the mob, careening toward us. Filled with explosives, was the narrative. I’m embarrassed to tell you, but I grabbed the client. I figured—what? That my husband would sort himself out? More likely, that I wouldn’t be able to move him—he’s stubborn—and to be honest, I wasn’t about to die pulling on his arm, pleading with him to be more afraid. I grabbed the client and we ran behind a cement wall, into this crevice in the building. I imagined a burst of flames, tried to protect our skins, and hoped not to melt or fry or get crushed by falling debris.

 

The things I should be cleaning but aren’t are: cell phone screens, refrigerator coils, lint traps, computer keyboards, door knobs, light switches, and reusable grocery bags. I don’t even know what a refrigerator coil is. And don’t tell The Today Show, but I’m not even cleaning the normal things. On kitchen table right now are wilting purple roses in a pitcher, petals everywhere; Chinese food takeout containers from Thursday; a pair of used chop sticks; a hairbrush; a kids’ book about the number six we’ve been trying to get rid of for months; fortunes from fortune cookies; my husband’s water bottle; my teacup from yesterday; candlewax from from a few nights ago; a box of tissues; and one tissue that my daughter kind of used but didn’t use to its fullest so I’m not throwing it away yet.

I don’t even want to tell you about the floor. At the very least there are pencil shavings from a half-cocked art project I’m working on, all of my daughter’s smelly markers, and a hardening piece of farfalle pasta.

 

Pete couldn’t get the brush lit—it was too wet—so the girls roasted marshmallows on the gas grill and smeared them onto squares of graham crackers. Sarah told us about a podcast she heard on euthanasia that made her feel like that might be the most humane way, if you got a terminal diagnosis. We think of Gunny, the seventeen-year-old Australian shepherd that Sarah and Pete put down a few weeks ago. The night Gunny died, the girls had been in our living room: She won’t wake up for my whole life. Not even after a week. Not even when I’m a grown up!

“Yeah, but who’s going to do it for you?” Pete said. “You wouldn’t ask our daughter to do that, would you? Imagine killing your own mother? Living with that?”

“You could do it,” Sarah said.

“Why am I still around?”

We laughed. I don’t know why. We always just assumed the men would go first.

 

The technician comes for the crying woman, who says goodbye to her mom. “I’ll be right here,” her mother says. A few minutes later, the mother says, “Tell her I’ll be right back,” and she gathers up her purse and leaves. Sometime during this period the blonde woman goes in with the technician, and so does the gray haired woman. A new person arrives, but I finally have a chance to read, so I don’t pay attention.

On The Today Show, which I am not watching, Matt Lauer cites a Florida State study that tells women to “marry the frog and not the prince,” because less attractive men in partnerships overcompensate with kindness. Less attractive women in partnerships, the news anchor says, obsess about their weight.

The next time the receptionist pops her head in, she says my name.

The mammography room is steel gray and clinical. Cold. I take off the robe and approach the machine in my underpants. The mammographer asks me questions. “Is this your first time?”

“Yes.”

“History of breast cancer in your family?”

“Paternal grandmother.”

“How old was she?”

“Fifty-six, maybe fifty-seven.”

“Can you point to the mass?”

“Hold on.” I raise my arm up over my head. “Pretty sure it’s a lymph node,” I say. “Here.” She draws an X on it in black marker. I can’t imagine fitting my armpit in the clamp. The armpit is a pit. An absence.

 

That time at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the van crashed into the wall at the far end of the airport pick-up area and my husband was just standing there, about ten feet from the van, watching. The doors opened and two shaky Filipina women fell out. The security guards ran to help them.

“Brakes went out,” my husband said, laughing.

“You didn’t run!” I swatted him. Did he not care about living? Wasn’t that part of our agreement? That we’d both keep trying to live? And that perhaps, even if we wouldn’t go so far as to save each other in an emergency, at least we’d both try to save our individual selves?

“Figured it was my time,” he said. “I wanted to see what was going to happen.”

 

In the BBC series Planet Earth, in the Oceans episode, there’s a scene where a great white shark jumps out of the water, mouth open, rows and rows of teeth bared to the sun, and envelops an adult seal. This happens in slow motion. Water droplets pirouette through the air. Teeth tear and grab, then the shark and its prey disappear beneath the water.

When my husband saw this, he decided this is how he wants to die. Shark.

He told Pete and Sarah about this, but they were skeptical. To be honest, I didn’t really believe it either. It’s like he was trying to be brave, like this was the most macho way to die he could think of. Even though he insisted that there was something spiritual about it. “A communion with nature, to become part of the food chain, a glorious sacrifice to a killing machine—”

“A gun is a killing machine,” Pete said.

“This is biology,” Sam countered. “Evolution. A human—the most complex and interesting, in many ways the most powerful species on the planet—bested only by a killer favored by a hundred million years of natural selection. That’s how I want to go. I want to surrender to that.”

 

Getting a mammogram, I feel like Vitruvian Man in my posture and in the way the scanner wings over my head in an arc of light. You have to plan your breaths so that you don’t breathe when the scanner is moving. The technician is nervous and scans all the way around both sides. She does the lymph node last. It is as difficult as I imagine to fit an armpit into a clamp. It involves hyperextending your shoulder, twisting your core away from itself, and not breathing. When she finally releases the clamp, I fall away from the machine, lightheaded. The technician apologizes and asks me if it hurt. What does one say to that? “It’s fine,” I insist. “I’m fine.” I put on my pink robe and she escorts me back to the waiting room.

“Are you sure I didn’t hurt you?” she says, holding my elbow on the walk back to the waiting. “God I’d feel awful. I hate hurting people.”

“It’s totally fine,” I say again. It will be another hour before they’ll get back to me with results.

 

“You think drowning is painful?” Pete asked, looking out at the dark water. “Might be nice to just drift away in the cool dark. You’d become part of the ecosystem.”

“The fish could eat you,” I said. Drowning is painful: I’ve read about it. It feels, they say, like lava in your lungs, and it’s terrifying, too, as you panic without oxygen, but I didn’t want to burst Pete’s drowning bubble. I also didn’t want to confess to Pete and Sarah, who are fairly new friends, that I have researched all the different ways to die.

“Maybe freezing to death,” Pete said.

When you freeze, you feel hot, like you’re burning up, and actually start taking your clothes off. You hallucinate safety right around the corner. I suppose hope is not the worst thing to feel right before you conk out.

 

In Manila, in our first apartment, the electricity was faulty. In the living room, we unscrewed the switchplate and taped the wires into just the right position. Then every night we’d just unscrew the bulbs when we left the room. That was dumb. Upper-story apartment fire is not a way I would like to go. Manila is on a fault-line overdue for a massive earthquake. We lived on the thirty-sixth floor. You could feel the building sway in typhoons.

Also, I saw this episode of Luther, the British crime show with Idris Elba, where a serial killer pushes himself into this woman’s house with a knife. The woman’s baby is playing on the floor, and the serial killer convinces the woman—in exchange for his not harming her child—to go with him to a second location, where he drains out her blood while she sits in a freezer and cries.

I always imagine I could strangle someone with my headphone cord, if it were handy. Or maybe I wouldn’t make it out alive, but I’d get my daughter out the back door if it killed me.

 

In the waiting room, The Today Show is over, and the TV plays the local news, which features video of a fatal crash on US 27. The flashing lights of the cop car, the early morning drizzle. At least one person is dead, the newswoman says.

“I saw that accident on my way in this morning,” says the blonde lady, who I didn’t realize was also back from her scan. “It looked bad.”

“You saw it happen?” I say.

She nods. She bites her lip, eyes on the television.

 

At the cabin, our daughters, their cheeks flecked with marshmallow, curled up on us, their mothers, and fell asleep. The moon was full and cast shadows on the porch.

“Maybe just going to bed one night and then just not waking up,” Pete offered.

“Do you think that’s horrible for the people that love you?” Sarah said.

“They’d take solace in the fact that you didn’t suffer,” I said.

“But imagine what our girls would take away from that,” said Sarah. “One minute you’re here and then the next—.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Sam said. “It’s true, isn’t it?”

I shushed him and checked that our daughter was still asleep. She’d played outside all day—in the river, and then tarzan-swinging off the platform swing down in the yard, then stealing blackberries from the neighbor’s bushes, then getting swung in the hammock, then finding bugs.

“The worst,” Pete said, “is if you know they’ve suffered.”

“Yeah,” added my husband, “like if someone has your kid locked up in their basement.”

“Shut up,” I said.

“Like those girls in Cleveland. Can you imagine?” Sam continued. I reached my leg out to kick him, hopefully without waking our daughter. “Abused, terrified, chained to radiators,” he continued.

“Shut the fuck up,” I said. I rose to standing with our daughter still asleep in my arms.

“What?” my husband said, laughing, as I glared. I moved toward the house, our daughter’s head sliding down my bicep, her dirty feet flopping toward each other. Pete got up to open the sliding door for me.

I laid our daughter on the sofa and covered her with an afghan. “Fuck is a bad word,” she whispered.

“It is,” I said. “Sorry, Love.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I hope you dream about unicorns.” My daughter thinks unicorns are real. She thinks they poop out chocolate.

I think the universe is ironic and out to get me. That if you say something out loud, you release it into the world. My mother and sisters are the same. We don’t speak horrors. Instead, we button our lips tight, or shout out things that we love: Swimming! Hot chocolate! Our husband’s butts! Our children’s downy hair, their chubby soft hands.

Sam doesn’t believe the universe works this way and refuses to censor himself for my benefit. He doesn’t believe there’s any mechanism behind how the universe works. He doesn’t believe in anything outside of his own will.

 

The fortunes from Thursday’s Chinese food: His said, Everyone agrees you are the best. Mine said, Determination will get you through this.

 

The woman who had been crying is crying more when she comes back into the room. “Where’s my mom?” she asks.

“She had to step out for a minute,” I say, though I’m thinking, that was thirty minutes ago.

“Mama,” the woman calls out, her mouth sticky with mucus. She folds herself into a ball and mewls on the sofa across from me. She needs someone to hug her and rock her and tell her it’s going to be all right. Even if it isn’t. Or even if all right means your number’s actually up, and you have to check out early. I should go to her, but I don’t. Just because we’re both in pink bathrobes doesn’t make us friends.

The gray-haired lady goes to the sofa and puts her arms around the crying woman. “Think of it this way: today is a good day, because we’re all here today.”

Does that make it good? Think of all the girls locked in basements today.

I used to believe in God, but the last time I prayed was when Elizabeth Smart went missing. I was reversing my Corolla out of my driveway of my parents’ house, listening to NPR. This was after Chandra Levy, after Laci Peterson. And I prayed: God, please let them find her. Alive. I specified alive, because I didn’t want it to be one of those things where they found her dead and then—ha ha—joke’s on me. And nine months later they found her, alive. But having been tied up like a dog in a crazy man’s backyard. And worse. Much worse. What kind of God does that?

Come to find out, according to People Magazine, Elizabeth Smart is a devout Mormon. Actually, Elizabeth Smart—who is now happily married and recently gave birth to her first daughter—would probably say being alive makes it a good day.

 

That nurse was sweet. She was so concerned that the breast clamp hurt. Breast clamps don’t hurt. When something hurts, everything gets dark and abstract and you start negotiating. Before my daughter came out of me, I begged the universe to keep time moving in the way that we’ve grown accustomed to—a second equals a second, a minute equals a minute—so that there could be a time after pushing. I begged and I also reasoned: It will be fine, I told the universe, if I don’t make it to the After Time, as long as she does.

I had my IUD placed six weeks later. People say that hurts, but the clamp, the IUD, these can’t hurt as much as it hurts to know my daughter will be made to feel inadequate by mean girls or by boys sexualized on a diet of internet porn. It hurts to know in advance the ways she will fail to love herself.

It would hurt, for example, to plan her fifth birthday party in a way that would make her okay with my absence. What would that way be? Rent the circus? (“Dance while you can, Babe!”) Or go small; just extended family, a pot of spaghetti, and a sheet cake? (“Cheers, Love, you haven’t been shot in the head yet.”) What is a good last gift from a dying mother to her five-year-old? Something that will last longer than a packet of Shopkins. A journal? She doesn’t write. I could make her a series of videos for her to see after I’m gone, but what if I say “You might be interested in boys this year,” and she screams “I’m gay!” but I can’t hear her because I’m dead. Plus video formats shift so quickly these days. No videos. I could get her the Barbie she’s been asking for, but what will that teach? That society has unreal expectations for her body, but also, that fun things are fun if you just loosen up and let them be fun. And if I were going to live long enough to unteach her the first, I might buy her a Barbie to teach her the second. Life is too short not to have fun. Life is too short also to spend twenty percent of your brain energy being afraid. Her father will have to explain this in more detail. Maybe I could give her a hug that could last from my diagnosis until my final breath—but then, she might never want to hug anyone again, scarred, as she’d be, for life.

 

Tonight, Sam and I will lie in bed, holding each other, our three minutes together before we fall asleep. He’ll say, “How was your day?”

I’ll say, “Great. Got this thing checked out. Just a lymph node.”

“That’s wonderful,” he’ll say. “Bet you’re relieved.”

“Also, I learned that you’re more attractive than me.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I saw it on the news,” I’ll say. This will make us both laugh. I’ll explain the loose contours of the study, leaving out that it was on The Today Show. I’ll remind him how, in our twenties, I was always buying those ridiculous clothes: dresses with no sides, shirts with no back, triangulating other men’s attention. “I don’t feel that way now though,” I’ll say. “Maybe you’ve gotten less attractive.”

“Hey.”

“I feel safe is all.”

“You are safe,” he’ll say.

The birthday party could be all ephemera. Catch these bubbles, kids! Hold these prisms up to the sun. See the rainbows on your scraped-up knees? The yard is filled with whitened dandelion heads; the sandbox filled with sieves. Go nuts!

On the bright side, despite her ordeal, Elizabeth Smart decided to have a baby. But, unlike me, Elizabeth Smart believes in God. So when she’s faced with the horrors that suffocate in the night, she can just say: God’s will be done, and also, After death, Baby Girl, we’ll meet again in Heaven.

And what can I say? If I could, I would stitch myself into your bones.

But I can’t.


Kate Tighe-Pigott’s other short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Grist, Passages North, and Willow Springs. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky’s MFA program. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.