Chapter 2: Survival

(Bregovic, “War”, Underground Soundtrack”)

As I was talking to my friend, Jan, about The Gift of Diamonds, she asked me the obvious question about the novel: what is fact and what is fiction? I answered by referring to my prepared notes. 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, it seems so real.”

“There are scenes in the story that happened to me,” I answered. “The blue diamond, the snake man, the miners, André, the sons … quite a lot.”

She persisted. “I wonder,” and she put down her cup of tea, “what’s in the novel that’s related to your own life?”

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

I hesitated; yet, 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 Gift of Diamonds.”

I marveled at the thought. Yes, the making of a novel. Back History mixes with the Front History. The combination of fact and fiction on another level. More stories within stories. Parallel movements, circular forms, crossing over of themes. Life influences Art. I felt like an architect or weaver as I saw the patterns taking shape.

“But tell me,” Jan persisted, “as I listen to you talk, I think of Mica. How much of Mica is you?”

Flaubert could have answered for me. He did say, “Emma, 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.

I recalled when I had started writing Mica’s story almost 20 years ago, I tested the situations that I placed her in by comparing Mica to my son, Cliff, who was 17 years old 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? And as I paralleled my teen-aged son to my literary daughter of the same age, I felt confident that her journey was realistic. Vraisemblable, my French teachers kept insisting when I was a student.

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

Jan wasn’t satisfied. “Of course, she’s a literary character that has taken on a life of her own.”

I thought of Pinocchio and Father Gepetto. The creation had discarded the strings.

Jan was more concrete.  “What makes her so believable is that you must have unconsciously drawn her from yourself.”

I was being tested now. Or challenged. It was hard for me to duel with my cast. My freedom of movement was limited. “I did not create her in my image,” I explained.  “But I did draw her from something inside me. So, she must share some of my soul.” I thought of my two sons. They are their own men, but we do share soul. Isn’t that creation? Be it biological or artistic.

“Her story is a survival story,” Jan stated, challenging me further. “You must know a lot about surviving?”

I looked down at my cast, so frightening to my eyes. Certainly, far less important to Jan. I tried to wiggle my fingers, move the wrist from its encasement. I wanted to make sure that the arm still had nerves, muscle, blood, life. I needed to be reassured that several weeks later when the right arm would be free. It would still function.

“Yes. I had to survive, too.”

A quizzical look covered Jan’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?” Jan had sensed my change of demeanor.

“I started writing Mica’s story after I finished months of intensive chemotherapy in 1992 and 1993.” There I said it. Got the words out. To her. To me.

I took a deep breath, crossed my legs, and began the story within the story. The facts stripped of fiction. My personal world that had fallen apart in one day.

It was a Tuesday morning in October 1992 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 of papers in our storage bin. I went down to the basement, undid the lock to the 10-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, 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 elbow that didn’t allow me to serve for the past months? An arthritis of the shoulder? 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?”

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 24 hours my world was torn apart: an x-ray at one office, an MRI at another office, an MRI at the hospital, an appointment immediately for a bone biopsy, an angiogram.

What was going on? No one would tell me. My husband cancelled his office hours.

I learned piece by piece what had happened. A pathological fracture. A break where there’s a tumor. But is it benign or malignant? What is to be done?

Each day for a week my husband took me to another specialist. No one had ever seen such a case before. We went 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’m young. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. Why? Why? What should I do? I have two teen-aged sons, a loving husband, a successful career. Don’t take 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 surrounding me. He followed me. We biked together, we chatted, we laughed.

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

And 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 bolder where we sat in the sun. 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.  I took the risk. Diagnosis: Angio-sarcoma of the right humerus. Treatment: Experimental surgery. Removal of the rotator cuff, and shoulder, and adjoining muscles, cartilage, tissues, nerves, capillaries. Replacement of the right humerus and shoulder with a cadaverous bone and prosthesis. Intensive chemotherapy for 6 months.

“My oncologist was Dr. James Holland, eminent chief of oncology at Mt. Sinai Hospital. A genius. I became his guinea pig. In his 50 years of practice, he had never seen this diagnosis. He said it was my good luck. He was challenged. After each session of chemotherapy in the hospital for one week, 24 hours each day, he tried to reassure us both. As he said, ‘Guinea pigs live. They’re too valuable.’ But what he did not say was how much they would suffer.

“’I am going to give you more chemotherapy than I have ever given anyone else.”

He made it sound like something special.

“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, and mouth were all burnt to a crisp. Food could not pass through my charred throat. Excessive weight loss, continuous vomiting, I had a zero count of red and white blood cells. Dozens of blood transfusions. Loss of all my hair. A barbaric treatment.
Excruciating risk.

“Yes, this is a book about survival.

“Mica had to survive, for if she did not, 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 a catharsis, a 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.

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