April 25, 2009

Peggy Duffy

Challenge With a Capital C

My co-worker sits across from my desk in a plain office chair, a woman who over three years has become a good friend. How was your week? I begin, wanting to catch up after my vacation. I have breast cancer, she says, amid tears. She is an emotional person. I am not, but suddenly I am in her arms and crying too. She curbs my rare display of emotion with reassuring words. The doctor says it is cancer with a little ‘c’, she says. The treatment will be a challenge, but I’ll be fine. That little ‘c’ stays with me all day, the weight of an anvil, a Challenge with a Capital C.

A year ago, maybe two, I wrote a short story about a girl in Nazi Germany, saved by the lie of age her mature body allowed her to tell, now a woman fingering a small lump beneath her armpit. The history is real, the girl invented, as are her overly large breasts. The woman is no particular person, rather a creative amalgam facing the dread of discovery all women I know share. I fall into her world and in the dreamlike state of the writer, words appear like fine grains of sand, illuminated by the light of imagination, as I recount this new tale.

Fall back in time many more years, an earlier version of that same writer sits with a notebook and pen scribbling, so as not to forget, the experiences of another good friend with breast cancer. I am relating her story, writing it down to preserve it because she is no longer around to do the telling. I don’t want her to be forgotten. That is what I tell myself as I write this tale, one wrought with unrealized hopes and fruitless dreams. My thoughts wander into uncharted territory, strolling off the narrative path, searching for my place in the story while I walk this dark trail. That story is written and rewritten between long lapses of time, striving for the right tone and voice, seeking purpose and meaning.

Almost a decade later, that story finally emerges, fully shaped and formed, accepted for publication in an anthology of similarly themed stories. The other story, the fictional one, has already appeared in print. They are but small pieces of me, these stories, specks of dust in their initial creation, fashioned by the blow of the writer’s metaphoric hammer, molded from observation and the heat of experience, curved by the design of imagination. The woman I created with the big breasts reaches out for the touch of her adult daughter. I gave her hope, what the woman I once was, a younger version of myself, tried to discover.

Yesterday my co-worker, a friend, a fellow woman, comes into my office, takes a seat in a plain office chair. Fear strides in with her, sits in my lap. I rise to hasten it away, but it cannot escape the windowless room. Shared now, we stand and embrace it, my good friend and I. Together we attempt to keep it at bay, one letter at a time, this cancer with a small ‘c’, this story I tell, a journey wrought with bends and twists, forged for meaning, the weight of the hammer heavy upon the anvil.


Peggy Duffy's short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, Notre Dame Magazine, and Brevity. She has an MFA from George Mason University and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website is here.

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