MOLLY ROSE QUINN is the Communications Director of Freerange Nonfiction and an MFA candidate in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. She has published academic essays, poetry, and creative nonfiction. The following is an excerpt from the author’s memoir-in-progress about Southern women, cancer, storytelling, and the Mississippi River. She will read as part of the April 6 installment of Freerange, and you can learn more about her and the Freerange staff HERE.
Memory flicks and flutters like water. What stays and what doesn’t: the events we began with blossom and then burst as new scenes come and go. Retelling undoes what’s been packaged, formed, and built as history. We are told that women are the same. Lunar, cyclical. Our blood moves in tides. The South became a way of thinking, for me, and a way of remembering. I’m not alone there.
Downtown Memphis, Tennessee hugs the wide mileage of water where the Mississippi meets the Wolf River, a cusp off the turn of a sandbar. There, in the town where I grew up, cotton warehouses still boast signage of 1920s lettering. On Beale Street and South Main blues joints play the same tunes of 60 years ago. We Southerners like to leave things unchanged. We put pride and sacredness in markers, and in memories.
Butsy Lanigan’s house on Kings Park Drive hasn’t changed much in 50 years. The pool out back has seen three generations of toddler swimmers. Hooked on the porch overhang, a wrought-iron panel with peeling paint reads her husband’s name, “Ed Lanigan,” who died when their five kids were young. Almost forty years later, I hear all this from their youngest, Nanette, my French teacher. She is the first and best storyteller for me, and this is just the beginning.
Eight days ago Hurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas, a warm August storm out to sea. We heard of its velocity in the morning papers, not sure what to think. By Monday, it had scraped past the southern part of Florida, and was bobbing its away across the gulf coast. All over Memphis, houses welcomed friends and family from those down-river cities where the churning waters had begun to come in. The fast flooding of tropical ocean water, and the whipping hurricane wind, would eventually yank out the levees and fill the streets of New Orleans.
Butsy Lanigan was born and raised on her family’s swampy estate in the southern part of the city. After college, she moved to Memphis, married Ed Lanigan of Holy Rosary Catholic Church and raised five gangly school children. When they were young, she would pack and ship them off down the train from Memphis to New Orleans for the summer. In a few weeks time, looters will ransack Butsy’s childhood home for jewelry and expensive goods before setting fire to it. It will burn slowly, its wood base still soggy, the humidity slowing down the fire’s dry waves of light.
The events of August 29th, 2005 will become just the beginning of the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. That was Monday. On Tuesday morning near 8 AM, my teacher and dearest friend Nanette went under into a ghost-like anaesthetic sleep at Baptist Memorial Hospital in East Memphis. Her mouth made an “O” like a chorister, the intubation cord protruding. On the wall of the operating room, her X-RAY’s show the mysterious fog in her abdomen that they are searching for. Exploratory surgery, I will later learn, is never a good sign. By noon she was blinking awake. That was Tuesday. And today is Wednesday.
I sneak out of morning chapel during the hymns. I take off my sandals, hoping my bare feet padding across the cold marble won’t echo in the narthex. On the steps outside the church, white painted columns standing tall and bold, I am greeted by a breeze, but not a cool one. Great wafts of 100 degree heat disturb the bushes there, inkberry and boxwood. The chapel at my school, St. Mary’s School for Girls, the best and oldest school in town, is perched over a main intersection. All 400 of the middle and upper schoolers are quiet in prayer inside, while outside I crane my neck down the road, looking for my mother’s car. Though our principal has made it clear that no one is allowed to visit Nanette while she is in the hospital, we devised this plan last night over dinner. As my mom pulls up, and I climb into the passenger seat, reports of the water level rising on the Gulf Coast blare over the radio.
“New Orleans is like, not gonna be there anymore!” my mother says, eyes wide, cranking up the volume on NPR.
Baptist Memorial hospital is built like a complex (like a strip mall, I always think, but never say because it seems crass). We’re headed to the cancer wing, which feels like a cliché, even then. I’m carrying a blanket that we picked out, its cranberry red folds hung over my arm.
The cancer wing of the ICU is pretty quiet, and it’s dark. I always imagined hospitals in bright lights, overexposed and artificial, but the hallway of this wing is dim, blinds are halfway drawn and light bulbs a low-wattage. The décor has been subtly altered to give the illusion of comfort. There are no corny cheer-up posters or decorations. The paint is a warm beige, and not white. There are soft fabrics on the chairs in the waiting areas, and the nurses’ station has a silky blue carpet. It’s not like hospice, I decide, these people aren’t being shuttled out of this life. The patients aren’t lost in their heads, their bodies aren’t wrinkled and creaking. Most of the people here are recently out of surgery, most have not yet started chemotherapy. The patients and their families are younger, they are less tired, less worn down. Instead, they are wired, wound up, alert – still in shock at the sudden change in the landscape.
There is no cheesy nurse or receptionist waiting for us, just a trim and lanky doctor leaning at the desk checking a chart, scratching his beard. He could be any of the dads that I know. We tell him who we are looking for and he points to the door. His eyes crease a little in the corner when we tell him, “Nanette.” He’s met her, my mom and I both know. She has this affect on people.
The door opens to a wall of voices. I learn at this moment that these ICU walls are solidly sound proof, the silent calm of the hallway is manufactured, as I figured. The blinds have been yanked up and sun beams in. Nanette’s hospital bed is bent upwards in its “chair” position, and her body is craned to the right so she can greet, broad shouldered, the next incomers. Ever the hostess.
Ms. Lytle, another teacher from our school is there, and Nanette’s brother Dicky. And on the couch sits her mother, Butsy Lanigan, close to 80 years old though honestly she looks a bit older. Like Nanette, her real name is Antoinette, a name I think elegant and sophisticated but both women despise.
I am escorted by Dicky to the couch as Nanette quiets the room and announces, Mother, this is Molly Quinn. I sit next to her on the couch. She wears a floor length, hot, hot pink starched cotton skirt. It flares out a little, has pleats around the hips. She wears a white cardigan that’s buttoned up and loafers in gleaming white leather. Her feet in nude stockings swell over the tops of her shoes. She is so touched that my mother and I have come to visit that the beginnings of tears spring in her eyes.
Despite her emotion, the feeling of the room is casual. Comedic, loud, bustling, friendly. It could be any party at the Lanigan’s, and I’ll go to many, many of those over the next few years.
Nanette’s face is thinned. Her skin is sallow and I can see all the blues and purples underneath it. Butsy has her sharp fingers on my shoulder and is wrenching information out of me. Where do I want to go to college? What classes am I missing this morning? Do I love French? Am I a well-behaved student? Do I get good grades in French?
“What are you doing here?” Nanette asks, interrupting. Her biggest concern at this moment is that in fifteen minutes chapel will be over and I will officially be marked absent for third period. I’m skipping, and on her watch.
“We had to see ya,” my mother takes over.
“Mr. Miller’s gonna be mad!”
“Oh, god,” I roll my eyes at her.
On the wall-mounted television, images scan by. First, an overturned kitchen table floats along, several young figures are clinging to its side and climbing aboard. Another flash. Here, a sea of decapitated rooftops, people scrambling for grip, their necks craned upwards, eyes in squints. The passing helicopters stir the water into rocky heaves.
“Biblical,” she says, in a breath. We nod.
I know now that we are both remembering the last time we were there. We had run the Mardi Gras marathon together three years ago. It has always been my favorite drive: the yellow farmlands of North Mississippi slowly fade into the swamps of New Orleans. She rung her arm through mine as we walked through the city and she told me stories. I was only 14 and she, too, a picture of youth.
From my spot on the couch, I ask, “So what did the doctors say this morning? Are there any changes?”
Nanette yanks up a tube that hangs down her left leg, a dark yellowish liquid bubbles through it, and she says, “Look, Moll, I’m peeing!”
“Madame,” I whine.
She feigns seriousness, responding, “Moll, you don’t want to hear all this cancer talk.”
“No, I really do,” I retort.
“Well,” she starts, “Dr. Turley came in here this morning and sure enough I just told him: cut me open, drug me, do whatever you need to do! But I don’t want to know. I trust you and I’d really just rather not hear all the specifics that I wouldn’t understand anyway!”
“You don’t mean that,” I say. I looked to the room for support, but they kept quiet. Just us two again.
Over the next few months, families all over Memphis will yank out sofabeds and air-mattresses and sleeping bags and welcome strangers from Louisiana into their homes. And those are the lucky families.
The thing about Katrina is that its effects weren’t overnight at all. In January, a family will visit our school for a tour. An unknown body selects me for the task, and I learn they’ve been living in their car for five months. And dogs came too. Trucks drive through the 9th ward and pick up healthy, beloved family pets whose tags lead to a family that is lost or worse. Five years later, there are several Katrina dogs on my parents’ block in Memphis.
And next fall, when I have left for college, the Memphis City School Board will call an emergency meeting. City leaders will plan counteraction to the gang violence that has erupted between transplanted young men from New Orleans and the native Memphis gangs.
So though we cannot understand its gravity, that morning in the ICU does feel like the beginning of a longer something.
From my spot I say, “I’m sure they told you what they plan to do next,” but she waves me off. I will never learn if it was true that the doctors didn’t give her specifics, or if rather she withheld them from me.
Nanette calls me over to sit by her, and she holds my hand. I’m afraid of her, a little, but I try hard as I might to act normal. It doesn’t seem right to see her undressed and unkept, she’s my teacher. Her hair is just like mine, though shorter. I’m a little scared now because I can see how the scratchy hospital pillows have ratted the hair at the crown of her head, and, I’ve never seen it messy like that. This is one of a string of hospital rooms that she will inhabit, but this is the only one I will ever see. At the beginning, her sense of humor about the cancer was grand and hospitable and plucky. The room is as welcoming as her living room, her classroom, places I’ve spent more time in over the past four years then my own bedroom. But later on, her personality will shrink in her little despairing spot on these stiff beds. She will shun me from ever visiting again.
But the gesture of me at her bedside is transformative in its own way. Even in the South and at our school where student-teacher dynamics are more akin to sorority sisters, I have until now held her high above my own existence. But when the body gets involved our structures come apart a bit. In the spring, when she’s back to teaching full time with chemo every other week, it will be me that she asks to help her clean up her vomit in the faculty bathroom. And later on, I will get to know her frame, once heavy with muscle, as bone and saggy skin.
“Now, Molly,” she says, and she holds my hand between hers, and the room goes quiet.
“Don’t you ever…” And I lean in to receive whatever precious wisdom she’s passing to me now, “skip school again.” Her family members keel over with laughter, and Butsy is rolling her eyes and saying, “Nanette,” in the way that she does.
“Oh, ok,” I feign obedience.
It’s time for us to go, and we’ll head back to school soon. I kiss her on the cheek, and say, “I love you.” She smells like the hospital.
Opening the door to the hallway again, the white noise and the low, calming lights emerge. I glance back to her hospital bed, and exit.
After the wake, at a dinner affair that happens at Nanette’s brother’s house on Fleur-de-Lis Drive in East Memphis, Busty will recall this day. Her voice will croak, Louisiana drawl thick and permanent. How I skipped school, how we brought a blanket. The same blanket that Nanette kept over her shrinking knees for three more years, there in her mother’s wood-paneled living room, on the leather-bound recliner that would become a tomb. I kneel on the living room carpet and hold Butsy’s hand in mine as she retells the story. She wears a long navy skirt, and a bright blue blazer of thick material. I don’t remember her shoes. Then, and as in the hot pink getup that first August, she is a queen.
Did we think it would be a “cancer scare” like other people have? Did we expect a few weeks pain after surgery, and then years and years of that tentative contentment they call remission.
I don’t know if my obsession with stories came before or after Nanette, before or after the South. And I think now about the Mississippi River all the time – the history it marks, the events it has taken part of. Those days were darker, sure, but also vibrant and dynamic. And my memory is a curse, too, I do believe that.