Chapter 3: Mary
New York, New York, Spring 2025
When Dr. Bains had told Mary that her cancer had returned, they were alone in his exam room, no scribe to intrude on their privacy.
Mary was in her 70s. Dr. Bains was two decades younger. Keeping him as her doctor meant paying extra for a health insurance plan that was in-network and sometimes waiting for hours. Every time she went to the cancer clinic, they wanted her to see other “providers” instead — who knew little about her except what they gleaned from the computer. When she refused, the staff became impatient.
But her persistence bought her this reward of hope. Dr. Bains had referred her to a website for an experimental treatment. “The Chinese are at the frontiers of this war. I think this is one of their initiatives.
“Mary, time runs out for all of us. I can’t officially recommend their approach, but your condition is end-stage so I’ve been looking around.”
“To live for a few more years,” she had said, “I’ll trust your suggestion, leave behind riches, pride and questions.”
Scrolling through a blur of screens on the wall monitor, the oncologist mused, “Time’s like land, they don’t make more of it, more valuable than money. OK, here it is, sending you the link…”
Dr. Bains had not entered his “unofficial” recommendation into the work computer. Always there in front of him as he or his scribe tapped everything into her electronic health record, the computer was a robot master that watched everything.
He had glanced at the closed door, “Mary, I don’t always put outside medical referrals into your file. There are penalties. It’s bad for business when we send patients outside the system.”
Following the instructions in the link, Mary had enrolled in Soria International Clinics’ cancer trial. At her follow-up appointment with Dr. Bains, he listened as she updated him on her visit to a clinic in New York City for the pre-treatment. Again, a scribe was absent. One usually shadowed him, tapping away at the touch-board, ringing up all the incomprehensible charges that would appear on her next medical bill.
When Mary had said goodbye, Dr. Bains gently touched her hand with his blue-gloved one. “Good luck.”
Recently, she wrote to the scientist they said was designing her vaccine and was surprised that the email reply was signed by a Dr. Garcia, a name unlikely to be Chinese.
Brilliant sunlight flooded her Manhattan flat today, reflected off the snow draping Central Park. The winter season was melting into spring. Slush dropped from the branches of trees and far below her, merry pedestrians pulled up hoods to shield themselves.
She wanted to be outside, sharing not just this season but many more with her grandchildren. Instead, like their March snowball piles, packed near the purple crocuses now blooming at her farm, her life too was melting.
The masked home health nurse gently propped up Mary’s pillows. “You don’t want to be around all those people carrying germs like fleas.”
Looking away from her bedroom’s picture windows, Mary clicked the clinic’s link on her laptop. Her account’s name was “MARY,” actually her middle name. She typed in her login and password, and the image of a Sun then filled the screen, yellow halo with tie-dye kaleidoscopic edges radiating from a center that read:
OUR SERVER IS DOWN
PLEASE CHECK BACK LATER
LEAVE YOUR MESSAGE HERE
It was always like that. She left her note. Then they would call her.
Except for the Biblical one, Mary was a name for so many women ahead and behind her, in one infinite procession in time. “BEELZEBUB” would have been a less boring account ID.
Pouring herself a glass of icy Chardonnay, she reached for the phone. They told her not to mix chemotherapy with alcohol, one poison with another.
Really? Unless the experimental treatment worked, her future was going to be just a quick fatal drink anyway.
The wine bottle’s label was a watercolor, a picture of a castle beside a frozen ocean, shards of ice and ripples of sand edging its crumbling stones.
She had gifted Dr. Bains a case. “My wife likes that picture of a fortress and sea and the poem on the back,” he had thanked her.
She read the poem: Always, those who love me will feel you, hear the song of our bond, until the roar of war and water breaks us down to ghosts and stones.”
She inhaled the wine’s sweet seawater tang, recalling herself as a young girl who loved pink hydrangea and red carnations, then a grown woman who had kissed the father of her children, before resting her cheek against his muscled shoulder.
Bare branches had pierced the skies above their house the winter her husband had died. She remembered Mark’s voice which made her feel safe. Forever young in her memories, she saw him again in her daughter and grandchildren, heard his voice and even his quiet sense of humor.
How do people die and not disappear?
Mary’s eyes returned to her bedroom’s picture windows. She had paid a steep price to repurchase this flat of her childhood. Into the dimming skies above, she murmured a remembrance: “In the whisper of the wind, listen. In a flash of color in the woods, I see you. In our songs, I am with you. You love me all over again when I dream of you…until l I fade away too.”
Pouring herself another glass, Mary pictured her grandchildren on that beach in the wine bottle’s label. At sleepovers of cookies and chocolate milk, she too could be a kid again.
As night fell, they watched the skyscrapers light up at night in her windows high above Central Park. She told them stories of their family’s long history among those towers, no longer ending with her daughter or them but sailing confidently — onward on those tides of time — to when they had their own families.
In Gramma tales for them — passing on her life’s wisdom — alcoholic uncles became red-nosed goblins, second wives became evil stepmothers and fat old women became magic godmothers. Elevators in skyscrapers led to half-floors where doors opened to fairy forests: diamonds hung like icicles and glassy pools had castles underneath. In their great halls, under majestic chandeliers, silk ballroom skirts flared as tightly entwined couples twirled.
Would her grandchildren remember her in all those dawns after her death?
“Time, stop so I can catch my breath.”
She tapped the photo of her daughter on her phone. It went to voicemail. Why did she never answer? Hanging up, she pictured Leslie, wearing the latest styles behind her desk at work, or driving in fashionable jeans with her boisterous kids in the back of the family van.
Leslie prided herself on being a hands-on parent. Perhaps she was neatly stacking laundry or working through another item in her endless list of daily chores, unwilling to interrupt a tightly packed schedule to take another phone call from a needy mother.
She had invited her grandchildren to visit this weekend. Was Leslie scared to bring her children to visit a dying person? The last time she had cancelled their visit because another child in their “pod” at school was ill.
“Mom, we can’t make you sick.”
“But I’m fine, I have lasted so long and don’t plan on going anywhere else soon.”
An old picture on her wall caught her eye — a young couple with Mary as a newborn — blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Her parents had named her Alfreda, an old-fashioned name from her mother’s side.
Mary’s parents had either fought or been silent. Then, when she was seven, Sarah became a fixture in the New York City flat, a young and overly-friendly woman in her mid-twenties with plump painted cheeks like Santa.
Mary’s nanny, also in her 20s, joked that Sarah came from a half-floor. “It’s between two regular floors. There’s a secret door in the stairwell. But you’ll have to be older before I can show you.”
Mary had spent a long time looking for the hidden door. Now she realized it was another ruse to entertain her as well as to tease a poor rich kid. Still, she used to run up and down those stairs and chat with everybody, still staying in touch with two childhood friends in the building.
Sarah was there to stay. “She’s here to babysit.” Or “she’s a friend,” her parents had told her. While Sarah sat on the upholstered couch patterned with French garden flowers like a fat insect in the leaves, Mary’s mother retreated to her bedroom. Dad eventually married the painted bug.
Mary’s mother used to be absent for days, weeks, months and even years, spending most of her time at home in the bedroom with the door closed. Formal when she emerged, she would converse with Mary while someone came to do her hair and nails.
Didn’t she always unfairly judge Mom with her father’s critical eyes and blame her mother for their divorce? It had been a different time. Back then, all she knew was to blame the woman starting with Eve, or to blame the help: the butler did it.
Growing up, Mary had spent holidays and summers at her grandmother’s farm — when she was little, she could not pronounce the “r” in Gramma who called her Alfie, not Alfreda, saying Alfie was another word for Alpha. So Alfreda and Gramma became Alpha and Gamma like a sorority.
Dad had grown up poor in that farmhouse where the boys slept in the attic with a ceiling so low they could not even stand. The girls had the second bedroom with white lace curtains.
Mary had never met her grandfather about whom Dad said, “my father dropped dead one day of a heart attack.” It appeared her grandmother found his body, announced her husband’s death, and after a brief funeral, never spoke about him or expressed any feelings about his passing.
Dad had a framed photo of his father, a handsome man with a weathered face. “He liked to drink. Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t miss him.”
At her grandmother’s house, many cousins also visited. For the children, the property had the air of enchantment of a different world, like Narnia, except there was no escape hatch in a wardrobe, just field and pond edging endless woods. By then, her grandmother had (many times) turned down her children’s requests to sell the farm and move to the city, or at the very least to build an updated home.
There were dense trees around one neck of the farm. Finding her grandmother’s fabric and twig artwork in the branches, she had wondered, “Are you a witch, Gamma?”
Silence. A chuckle. “No.”
Before her grandmother had died, Mary asked her, “Didn’t you worry when I was little and would be gone for hours in the woods even after dark? What if something had happened?”
“True, bad things don’t just happen to city kids. But — my Alpha — take risks to live life to its fullest. No girl I have raised is going to be scared of spiders, snakes and shadows in the dark. Besides, everyone around here knows I get nasty when they mess with me!”
“Is that what those things in the trees are, for scaring away evil spirits and bad neighbors?”
“Don’t joke about evil, honey. It’s always just a blink away.”
Her grandmother’s education had ended in high school. But an hour away from the farm, there was a college campus. Mary and her grandmother had replicated it with Legos: buildings of red brick with white square frame windows, precisely spaced in rows and columns and around them, iron grate fences, brick pillars and great gates. Their walls kept falling down.
Mary did go on to college, on an old campus like that. There, she fell in love with a Pakistani graduate student. Finding out that he had a wife back home, they split up. Another wall fell, when she married a black man. Gramma said she “prayed about it” and accepted Mark.
After her grandmother died, her home and farm were sold. “It paid the estate taxes and by exactly the right amount,” her dad explained.
Mary repurchased the farm after she had her own family. But the old house was gone with its ghosts and memories.
“You never dip your toe in the same river twice,” her husband had warned. Sure enough, after their daughter became a teenager, they rarely visited their rebuilt country home. Leslie would sell it again once she was gone.
Mark had died young. In Leslie, Mark’s coffee skin grew lighter and then even paler in the grandchildren, creamed twice over under ringlets of hair that changed shades with the seasons and hazel eyes, blended olive, gold and brown.
The screen on her laptop turned off from inactivity. Dusk crept in, the windows glowing smoke and gold. She was dreaming again, traveling on the Silk Road to an Orient town of colored tents, flowering on desert sand under crystal silver and blue sky.
Since her treatments had first appeared to be from China, her dreams often carried her East. Dropping below the horizon’s sunrise — her body entered a lab on a half-floor in the kingdom of medicine, that of a modern alchemist who was her healer.