My first visit with Crystal was in early March. She lived in the very opposite direction of Pami. This meant that I would probably not see them both on the same day, which was a good thing. Otherwise it would be like going from prayer with Mother Teresa to drinks with the Kardashians.
Crystal was fifty, didn’t look a day over forty and had the attitude of a twenty year-old. She had long, curly hair, creamy skin and huge green eyes that were carefully shadowed and mascaraed—kind of a Snow White with attitude. Her full lips which were always covered in red gloss. At first I was sure she’d had her lips injected. But then I saw a childhood photo of her with the same pouty little mouth. She had a sex kitten air about her—it wasn’t just the form-fitting tops and leggings. It was also the way she batted her eyes, touched her face, held her cigarette.
She was a competitive body builder for the last ten years and the first thing she showed me (and every hospice team member) was a photo album of her doing muscle poses. Her body was hard, greased and tan. She wore a bright red bikini. Like Pami, she was a small woman, a petite size 4, but because she had breast implants, she—projected a larger physical presence.
So what was she doing in hospice? Twenty years before I met her, Crystal had cancer in her salivary glands. She had surgery and radiation. Her doctors explained to her that she was not cancer free, but that it was a very slow-growing kind of cancer. She somehow tucked that into the back of her mind and went on with her life.
Sixteen years later, while riding on a bike trail, a small child cut in front of her. She slammed on the brakes, went end-over-end and landed on her face and chest. Her chest was sore for a week or so afterward and she thought maybe she cracked her sternum. So her doctor sent her in for x-rays.
“The technician told me I had to wait to make sure they came out, then I could go,” Crystal told me. “So she slaps ’em up on the screen and I look at ’em and say, ‘Well, looks like you’ll have to do them over. Look at all those big white spots.’
The tech didn’t say anything so I asked her if she knew what they were. And she said, ‘No, but even if I did, I couldn’t tell you.'” Crystal laughed. “As if I couldn’t figure it out after that! All those white spots on my lungs were cancer of course.”
After telling a story like this, most people stop, take a deep breath and say something like, “This was my wake-up call.” Or, “My life changed in an instant,” or “This is when I reached out to God.”
Crystal took a puff on her cigarette and said, “This is why I figured, what the hell? Might as well start smoking again.”
A ten-year recovering alcoholic, she lived in the home of Rose and Mike. Rose had been her A.A. sponsor and took in Crystal two years before when her doctor predicted she had less than nine months to live.
Life span prediction is like Seattle weather prediction–a dicey game. If you predict rain and it’s sunny, people are pissed because they cancelled their plans. If you predict sun and it’s rainy, people are pissed because they are not prepared. So go do your life no matter what. And keep in mind that Seattle rain—like death—comes for everyone and is actually a good and necessary thing.
Crystal grew up in her aunt’s home in Oklahoma, but was sent away to an orphanage when she was twelve. She said it was never explained to her why she was sent away, and she always thought it was because she was a bad girl. Her aunt was still alive and lived on the East coast.
“Has she come out to see you?” I asked. (I’m real big on seeing distant family before you die.)
“Oh, no. Oh, God no. My aunt is crazy. No, no, thank you very much. Talking on the phone is enough.”
I looked around her room. On her book shelves were over a dozen true crime books. “I’m not thinking of committing a crime,” she said. “Well, not a big one. I just want to understand what makes criminals the way they are.” (I later found out she was a wizard at reattaching price tags to expensive dresses she had worn and then returned.)
I wondered who she might have become if she had had a better start in life and some education. And right here is where it gets very tricky because we often just can’t help pasting our values and belief on someone else. Then suddenly we can’t fully accept them for who they are right here, right now. You would be a better person if you had a loving family and went to college. Who says? Just think of all the people who got great starts in life, had lots of education but pfft! See what I mean?
She did have her own housecleaning business: Crystal Clean. Even though she was in the hospice program, she was not willing to quit work. So she carried her portable oxygen tank in a back-pack as she vacuumed and cleaned. “I’m very good,” she said proudly.
It might sound crazy to keep working while you’re in hospice but I understood. She needed meaning and purpose in her life for as long as she could manage. I think when any of us no longer have meaning or a purpose we’re as good as dead. Maybe that’s why it’s not uncommon for people to die soon after they retire.
Crystal’s biggest desire was to go to the annual A.A. convention in Hawaii in November—eight months from now. She had just found a short sequined jacket and matching sequined shoes to match a long-backed sequin dress she just bought at Nordstrom. I know: she does not sound like the typical hospice patient. She was not.
“See how much fun I had last year! I can’t wait to go again,” she said digging into her drawer and pulling out a fistful of photos. Every photo was of Crystal (looking stunning) with her arm around a different man. There were probably twelve or fifteen photos.
But the convention was in November and this was March—eight months away. Denial can be a very healthy coping skill for a while, and I didn’t want to take that away from her.
“So what’s the most difficult thing about all this?” I asked her.
She flicked cigarette ashes and blew smoke out the window before answering. “I’ll tell you, it’s not easy living with Rose and Mike. They are such slugs. All they want to do is sit around and read. Rose never gets any exercise. And her hair! My God, she could do something with her hair. But she just doesn’t care. I hear her complain about her weight, but what does she expect? She doesn’t work out, she sits around and reads. Never bothers to put on a little make-up. Swear to God, it would take her five minutes and she would look so much better.”
I was outwardly sympathetic but inwardly confused. Rose and Mike had taken her in and provided her with a beautiful home. But Crystal had such a way of convincing you that what she said was absolute truth that somehow I overlooked how ungrateful she was. I wanted to change the subject. “How do you feel knowing you are going to die from this cancer?” I asked. Her complaints about Rose and Mike to screeched to a halt.
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, honey, I’m not afraid.” Then she took a puff and narrowed her eyes. “Why? What’s it like?”
“What usually happens is that you get weaker and are less able to do things for yourself. If you have any pain, we can control that with medication. You may lose weight, you may emotionally withdraw, you’ll sleep more and more and be awake less and less.” Even as I spoke I realized I sounded like a brochure.
“Will I look bad?”
“Well, you won’t look great. But that’s the other thing that happens, you won’t care how you look.
“Huh.” She didn’t sound convinced. “Well, how long does this take?”
“I don’t know, it’s hard to say. But I don’t know about that convention in November.”
She didn’t say anything, but just raised her eyebrow as if to say, “Just watch me.”