Scene Two: Survival

Sándor Déki Lakatos–Gypsy Song

I first met my editor, Nan, after she had read my novel. As we were getting to know each other over a cup of tea, she asked me the obvious question about the novel: what is fact and what is fiction? I answered by referring to my prepared notes for our meeting. She smiled sweetly as she listened to every word, even those I did not say, and asked again, “Yes, the fascist and communist history I recognize as factual, but the storyline, the fictional side, is it real?”

“There are scenes in the story that happened to me,” I answered.

“The blue diamond, the snake man, Romania, the miners, the Amber Room… quite a lot.”

She persisted. “I wonder,” and she put down her cup of tea, “what’s in the novel that’s very personal?”

I took a deep breath. A demanding request for my natural reserve. “Of course…”

I hesitated; was I ready to open myself?

I wanted so much to please her, so I began, “My fascination with diamonds begins with my very own heart-shaped diamond… or so I thought it was a diamond…”

After several stories and her encouraging interest, I lost all inhibition and narrated more.

“Fascinating,” she said, smiling. “You should write this, just as you told me. It would be great on your website as the back history for the making of the novel.

I marveled at the thought. Yes, back history mixing with the front history. The combination of fact and fiction on another level. Stories within stories. Parallel movements, circular forms, crossing over of themes, life influences art, art reflects life. I felt like a weaver as I saw the patterns taking shape: the making of a novel – to get inside an author’s mind and heart. Delve deep into the soul.

“But tell me,” Nan persisted, “as I listen to you talk, I hear Mica’s voice. How much of Mica is you?”

Flaubert could have answered for me. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But I wondered, was Mica really me? I had never thought about it. I just wrote from my heart. Instincts had pushed my pen. No plan. No outline. A story narrated. A simple heart.

I recalled when I had started writing Mica’s story so many years ago. I had tested the situations that I placed her in by comparing Mica to my younger son Cliff, who was Mica’s age at the time. Could Cliff do what I was asking Mica to do? Could he get out of the difficult situations I was putting Mica into? Survive and not be destroyed? Use his willpower to create his life? As I was paralleling my teen-aged son to my literary daughter, I felt confident that her journey was realistic. Vraisemblable, my French teachers kept insisting when I was a student.

And so I answered Nan, “Mica is not me. She is herself.”

Nan was more concrete. “What makes her so believable is that you must have unconsciously drawn her from yourself. Her story is a survival story,” Nan stated, challenging me further. “You must know a lot about surviving?”

I looked down at my right arm, so rigid and scarred by life’s obstacles.

“Yes. I had to survive, too.”

A quizzical look covered Nan’s face. And for the first time, I tried to analyze my own words. “Mica had to survive,” I asserted. “She was obsessed to live.”

“What do you mean?” Nan had sensed my change of demeanor.

“I started writing Mica’s story after I finished months of intensive chemotherapy in 1993 and 1994.” There I said it. Got the words out. To her. To me. To you, the reader.

I took a deep breath. My story within a story. Talking about it and not hiding behind paper and pen. Was I strong enough? Could I let Truth liberate itself from Fiction? The pain in my right arm brought me back to the twenty-four hours when my world had fallen apart. Not unlike Mica’s horrific twenty-four hours. A tragedy. One must fight to live.

It was a Tuesday morning in October 1993 when my husband’s accountant asked us to find some missing receipts. I couldn’t find them anywhere in our apartment. I looked in all the closets and drawers, but without any luck. Then I remembered we had placed some boxes with papers in our storage bin. I went down to the basement, undid the lock to the ten-foot compartment, and assessed the mess.

I moved the first carton. Suddenly I felt an excruciating pain electrify my body and pulsate uncontrollably at my right shoulder. I almost fell down and lost my breath. The pain was too severe to contain.

I left the cartons where they were, closed the lock with my left hand and returned to my apartment. Immediately, I put myself to bed, hoping that if I lay down without moving, the pain would subside. I tried to analyze what had happened. Was it the tennis shoulder that didn’t allow me to serve for the past few months? What could it be? All I knew was that the pain kept increasing.

It must have been hours until my doctor-husband returned home.

“What happened?” he asked as he opened the front door. “Did you find the papers?”

When I went to greet him supporting my right arm with my left hand, his question came again but in a different tone. “What happened to you?”

He helped me back to our bed and examined me carefully, quietly, not commenting. Then he left the bedroom and I heard him telephone a friend, an orthopedist.

“Tomorrow at 8 in the morning,” I heard him say. “I will be with her.”

Within twenty-four hours my world was torn apart: an x-ray at one office, an MRI at another office, a Cat-scan and angiogram at the hospital, an appointment tomorrow for a bone biopsy.

What was going on? No one would tell me. My husband cancelled his office hours. He needed to read his books. A pathological fracture. A fracture where there’s a tumor. I wondered, does that mean benign or malignant?

Each day of that week my husband took me to another specialist. No one had ever seen such a case before. We went from one Manhattan hospital to another, from one radiologist to another, from one chief of orthopedics to another, from one surgeon to another, from one oncologist to another.

“Amputate the arm” they all concurred. “That’s the only chance to save the life. You must choose – the arm or life?”

How is this happening to me? I don’t feel sick. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m young. Why? Why? What should I do? I have two teen-aged sons, a loving husband, a successful career. Don’t take away my arm!

More doctors. More tests. They were all so kind. Too kind. This must be very serious. Everyone is too nice. One of those bad cancers. Check the computer. Only five cases in America that’s documented. Prognosis – not more than five years of life.

My poor husband.

I remember the first time I met him. A beautiful September Sunday in Central Park, September 4th, the day after his birthday. We were both riding bicycles when in one second our paths converged and our bikes met head on.

“What a beautiful day,” he said. His blue eyes sparkled deeper than the blue sky. He asked if he can bike with me? We chatted, we laughed, we biked around and around Central Park, not wanting to stop.

“Are you French or Swiss?” I asked, hearing his accent. I had just spent a year abroad studying in France. “Quel est votre nom?”

Michel’s words in French brought me back to all those wonderful times in Europe when I began to discover the world.

As I think now, was it by chance that we met? One second that changed my life. Michel said it was destiny. It was meant to be. We would love each other and share a life. Fate. I remember it all so clearly now. The hill in Central Park where we parked our bikes, the large boulder where we sat to talk. I wonder, did God destine Michel to be the doctor to save my life? To help me when so many doctors could not?

“You asked about survival. What happened to me during those early months of cancer? I chose to keep my arm. No amputation. Dr. Samuel Kenan, neoplastic orthopedic surgeon, was a visionary. We both chose risk. Diagnosis: angio-sarcoma of the right humerus. Treatment: experimental surgery. Removal of the rotator cuff, shoulder, adjoining muscles, cartilage, tissues, nerves, capillaries. Replacement of the right humerus and shoulder with a cadaverous bone and prosthesis. Intensive chemotherapy for six months.

“My oncologist was Dr. James Holland, eminent chief of oncology at Mt. Sinai Hospital. A genius. I became his guinea pig. In his fifty years of practice, he had never seen this diagnosis. He said it was my good luck: He was being challenged. After each session of chemotherapy in the hospital for one week, twenty-four hours each day, he tried to reassure me that my suffering would not be in vain. “Guinea pigs live,” he claimed. “They’re too valuable.” But what he did not say was how much they would cry.

“I am going to give you more chemotherapy than I have ever given anyone else.” He made it sound like something special, a privilege.

I felt as if Dante’s descent into Hell was nothing compared to mine. An inferno which began with the first round of chemotherapy that put me into a coma. An experiment. It had been too much. Then there were months when the lining of all my skin layers were burned by the poisons they pumped into my portacath. The lining of my esophagus, wind pipe, larynx, mouth, and gums were all burnt to a black crisp. Food could not pass through my charred throat. Excessive weight loss, continuous vomiting, excruciating pain, sleepless nights. I had a zero count of red and white blood cells. Dozens of blood transfusions. I stopped counting the number. Loss of all my hair. A barbaric treatment. I had no choice. I wanted so much to live.

“Yes, this is a book about survival,” I told Nan.

Yet, I could not give Mica my complete diagnosis. I love her too much. I had to control the only thing I could – my literary creation. If she did not live and did not continue on to have a happy life, I feared I would not. So I wrote and wrote so I would have the illusion of control over someone’s destiny, even if that someone was a fictitious character. And by writing Mica’s journey, I wrote my own. The act of writing became my joy that is sister to pain.

The strength of the images I created for Mica’s world came from the strength I had to conjure up in order to live. Art became my salvation, my catharsis. I wanted so much to survive.

The writing of Mica’s story was written with passion that can only come when art and life need each other to exist.