STOP in the Name of Love

When something goes wrong in the wilderness which usually means someone gets hurt, or you realize you are lost, or you see a bad storm coming. Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.

She said, “It’s back,” and you said she could beat it again. Sweaty cell phone pressed against your ear, your cat paws for your attention, you’re half listening. You will always remember what you didn’t know and, in not knowing, you didn’t give her your full attention. Later, you find out what “metastatic” means. You vow to be in every moment now and forever. Vigilant.

Provide any First Aid that is necessary—and not just on the obvious stuff, like blisters and cuts and broken bones.

You watch her close her eyes, recline with headphones, and you knit while you wait. First aid snakes near her heart; venom through a portal. Time folds and you’re both here, waiting for the poison to finish filling her veins, and there, standing in front of your childhood fridge-size freezer, 12- and 13-years-old choosing our treats. A Ding Dong is a dry-cake ice cream muffin straight out of the freezer. She chooses a fruit pie. Soon you perch on the two-inch lip surrounding the wood-burning fireplace, leaning practiced hands on its summer-cool surface, playing your assigned singing roles of Air Supply. How could you not know?

Mental health is important, too. Try to keep everyone up with a positive mental attitude. Most people who have survived in truly hazardous wilderness situations did so mainly because they believed that they would survive and that they could survive.

You’re ready to fight with her, face death with her, adrenaline spiked. Three years pass. Gratitude becomes complicated. Your sister is dying. Your sister has been dying. Your sister will die. Endurance replaces adrenaline. One day you find yourself sprawled in her soft recliner, watching hoarders on a small screen and fetching her gummy bears. Your words walk away until what they don’t say forms the syllables of “survival.” Hope is a dying star. They say you are made of stars. She is made of stars. Stardust feeds her tumors until her spine begins turning into a black hole.

The two biggest killers in the great outdoors are poor planning and panic. Most people don’t die in the wilderness because of the wilderness itself (the wild elements, injuries, rogue grizzly bears, etc.).Most people die because of the mistakes they made when confronted with just such a survival situation.

But chemo is not forever. There will come a time in your sister’s stage four treatment when the rampant cancer, in her bones, her liver, her blood, will begin to outsmart the chemicals both killing her and keeping her alive. Today, living a future fold in time, a memory to shake out later, you watch her close her eyes. How could the other you, furled in the past and singing Air Supply, not know this? Would your voice have cracked? Would you have sung those lyrics so much harder: “I’m all out of love. I’m so lost without you”?

Seven Survival Priorities. Scout Troop 116 (based on U.S. Air Force survival priorities). https://scouttroop116.com/7-wilderness-survival-priorities.html

17 Comments

  1. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh my, this touches me. So relatable and poignant. The text you’ve chosen to interweave with the experience of a sibling dying of cancer is perfect. Cancer is a wilderness to be navigated and negotiated. Love the furls and folds of time, how gratitude gets complicated, the sisters choosing treats, the references to stars and the black hole, the lyrics you’ve chosen for your wondering at the end (the we-can-never-know-the-answers-to-these-questions ending). I’m sure this will find a good home.

    • Traci Mullins

      There are too many great lines here to count, Maxie, and I love the survival text you chose to weave through the story. I had the sense that the healthy, sister, wishing she’d known the stakes, longed to get the first aid “right” now, strived to turn the tide by fighting the good fight before it’s too late. If only our fierce love could save those we cherish, but so often it cannot. Love your ending.

      • MaxieJane Frazier

        Thanks, Traci. I’ve been sending out a version of this for so long, and getting great rejections. I’m so glad to report that my sister still takes the venom in her veins and can read what I write.

  2. Sarah Freligh

    Maxie, this is just light’s out gorgeous. I agree with Mikki about how perfectly the found text and your words are working together. There’s such energy here, especially in the juxtapositions between the texts, a force field of energy picking up on what precedes it and rolling the narrative forward. Writing about death, especially the illness and deaths of those close to us, can be so fraught that the second-person narrator feels exactly right here for the distance it provides the narrator from the events, the requisite understatement that highlights the drama of the events themselves rather than the emotion. I especially love the metaphor you establish with the anthimeric verb “snakes” and how that’s amplified in “poison.” That “time folds” feels exactly right, too, and such a natural transition to the flashback.

    Think the third “you-text” graf could jump right in at “Three years pass” or even “Gratitude becomes complicated,” which is such a lovely and ironic counter to the sunny instructions that precede it. Try it on and see how it fits!

    I love how you land this one, Max! Great work!

  3. Kathryn Silver-Hajo

    So beautiful and heartbreaking, Maxie. I fully agree with Mikki’s and Sarah’s comments. The interweaving of the “Seven Survival Priorities” works perfectly and choosing to write this story in the second person amplifies both the narrator’s grief and our own, as it echoes the griefs we all feel at some points in our lives.

    There was one sentence where the POV shifts but can easily be fixed:
    “Time folds and you’re both here, waiting for the poison to finish filling her veins, and there, standing in front of your childhood fridge-size freezer, 12- and 13-years-old choosing our treats.” I think this should be “choosing your treats”

    Lovely work!

  4. Chelsea Stickle

    Oh damn this is good. Particularly loved this: “Hope is a dying star. They say you are made of stars. She is made of stars. Stardust feeds her tumors until her spine begins turning into a black hole.” So moving.
    I love how this follows the STOP system. It adds a layer and makes me think more about survival, what it means to survive, if that’s what’s really wanted, etc. I also liked that the sister is still alive at the end. We know chemo isn’t forever, but there’s something about lingering in that moment that’s beautiful.

    • MaxieJane Frazier

      Thank you, Chelsea. This piece has been rumbling around for almost two years…maybe this is the push it will need? Or we could all put down our phones and head to the sea with your Ariel?

  5. Suzanne van de Velde

    Maxie – this is terrific — what a gut punch. The second person is just right here: it deepens the narrator’s self-reproach, and seems a timeless constant against the pulse of the sister’s life. So many wonderful lines: Gratitude becomes complicated…Endurance replaces adrenaline. And the “folds in time” feel so vivid. Agree with Chelsea, that you don’t end with death.

    • MaxieJane Frazier

      Thank you, Suzanne. I love not ending with death because it also means that, literally, my own sister’s life has not yet ended. But this piece can remain without death, right? Thank you again.

  6. Suzanne van de Velde

    Maxie –
    *sorry. Meant to say that I agree w/Chelsea, I like that you don’t end the piece with death

  7. Catherine Parnell

    OMG, this is an incredible piece. The voice is sure and confident in the face of deadly uncertainty, the known unknown of cancer. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Kathryn Kulpa

    So sad, so brilliant! I love how the chirpy positivity of the scouting survival tips contrasts with the grim reality of the sister’s fate, one that can’t be staved off by planning or believing. At first I thought it was the mom who was dying, so it helped to have the flashback scene with the two sisters choosing treats from the freezer, and I liked the oddball specificity of that–how they weren’t getting Popsicles or ice cream, but snack cakes.

    I did find it a little unlikely that an adult protagonist wouldn’t know what ‘metastatic’ means, especially if her sister has already had cancer. Maybe she missed the word, zoned out during the conversation? That would fit with her self-reproach, her vow to pay attention to everything. I love the line about how endurance replaces adrenaline and the play on verb conjugations (“Your sister is dying. Your sister has been dying. Your sister will die.”–I almost wondered if that could connect to something they’re doing to pass the time, like learning Spanish on a phone app?) I also love the other verbs that people have pointed out, like “First aid snakes” and “time folds” and “stardust feeds her tumors.” The ending, with past and present and future all folding in on each other, is so haunting, so good.

    • MaxieJane Frazier

      Hi Kathryn, well, this adult protagonist in a nonfiction piece didn’t know what metastatic was. I guess that may seem unlikely to some people, but there was zero history of advanced cancer in my extended family. My uncle’s prostate cancer and my sister’s breast cancer (which are likely related yet we don’t have the BRCA gene) were the only instances. And no one explained (to me any way) that recurrence in cancer is usually metastases. I feel as if I could give lectures on it now, but it wasn’t part of my lexicon or interest.

      I guess if the piece was clearly nonfiction, this detail would simply be judgment on my ignorance, but not a narrative question, yes?

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