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The Survivor Monologues

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ROSE TISNADO, 57, a transcriptionist, has cancer of the bile ducts, and is now packing up her East Village apartment to move into a hospice, where she expects to live out her final months.

I got my diagnosis around Christmas. They found the cancer on the liver first, but they knew it was coming from somewhere else. Sometimes they never find the primary cancer. Sometimes they can only find it in the autopsy.

I’ve always been pessimistic, so I said, “Oh, yeah, I always knew something like this would happen.” I asked the oncologist point-blank, “How many months would chemotherapy add to my life?” My prognosis was something like six to eight months. She said chemo would give me only two more than that. So I decided, What’s the sense? If I’m going to be sick, I’d rather just die tomorrow.

I just couldn’t tell my mother. She’s 84. She lives in California, so I just started lying. I said, “I’ve been having some medical problems, but they don’t know yet.” I lied to her for months. I didn’t tell my sister, because she has so many problems of her own. Her husband died two years ago. I couldn’t tell my brother, either. I had to tell his wife, because she’s a nurse, and she told him.

People said, “You should get one more opinion.” I appreciate that they care, but a lot of friends came up with scenarios that were out of this world—stuff like scorpion-venom injections. I would be hooting! One friend took her mother to this resort in the Bahamas where this guy injects you with whatever makes the cancer go away. I looked it up on the Net, and it says “quack doctors.” And he charges you $10,000. Where am I supposed to get $10,000? “Put it on your credit card,” she says. Well, the logic behind that is you’re gonna die, so you won’t have to pay it back. One friend heard about a doctor in Santa Barbara who can cure cancer over the phone. Another friend was like, “You should change your diet, be macrobiotic.” Another guy is into that whole fasting for seven days thing—colonics and all that. I was like, “I’ve been fasting for seven months, unable to eat. If that works, I should be super-cured!”

All my friends were calling me up—“Come and live with me, I’ll take care of you.” I was just horrified by the idea. I told them, “I have to work. I have to make money. I have to take care of things myself.” Then I started getting weaker. I couldn’t go up the stairs—and I used to run up those stairs with my laundry bag. I started dropping weight like crazy. I was at 218, and now I weigh like 135. I couldn’t take care of myself.

Hospice embraced me. It’s incredible what they do. If I had money, I’d leave it to them. I called to schedule when I could come in, and they said, “No, honey, we come to you.” Before, I could barely get out of bed half the time; they gave me a fentanyl patch—that’s a pain patch—and I couldn’t believe the difference. Then my hospice doctor put me on steroids, and a day later I was eating like a horse—having fantasies about roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at three in the morning. I called my family, chattering away, and my brother said, “Rose, you sound high.” And I said, “I am!” When I’m sick, you know, I can be a cranky bitch—just roll over and want to die. But when I’m well, I feel absolutely, let’s say, cured! And to continue living my life is obviously what I would want to do. I mean, everybody would.

My problem now is, I don’t have money. Luckily insurance covers the hospice, but that runs out. My dream was to stay in my apartment and die there. My thing is, I live alone. I’ve lived in the East Village for 20 years, since I moved from San Francisco. My family, of course, would have loved for me to stay with them, but I feel that my life is here. Then my social worker told me about the hospice residence. It’s in a building that’s about nineteen stories; the sixteenth floor is leased by the hospice. And your care is micromanaged. They have eight studio apartments—I’ll have my own with a little kitchen. There’s a beautiful terrace, and I look forward to going there in the summer—I love to read—and it should catch a breeze. What’s not to like? The funny thing is that it’s the most luxurious place I’ve ever lived. I keep singing, “I’m moving on up!” Of course, I have mixed feelings. I still get anxious about bureaucratic things—Medicaid can take weeks, months. And I’m going to miss my neighborhood. But I’ve been getting ready for the past few months—sorting the things I have, deciding what I want to take, and giving things away to friends.

Before you die, you’ve got to let everybody know how you feel about them. It’s been a beautiful experience, ironically, a joyous experience. I’ve become closer with my family. My mother has everybody praying for me—she has novenas being said in Ireland, and we’re not even Irish. I have friends I’ve fallen out with, and this has been a time when people have come back in my life, and we’ve been able to talk. I think it’s easier to go once you’ve done that.

My goal now is to work on the spiritual side and getting ready to die. I’ve been concentrating on packing all the joy I can into every day. A friend of mine has been studying Buddhism for seven years. He just got back from Colombia, and he kept telling me, “I love this man, Chodo, my teacher. I really want you to meet him.” And he visited me and helps me work on my meditation. Because there will be a time where I’m not feeling good, when I’m on my way out. And he’s going to help prepare me for my death. He went through the meditation where you start at your toes, and work your way all the way up to the head. I have to work on this because I’m hyper with the steroids.

I’ll tell you something else that helped me—this book, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It really impressed me because in the West, we don’t talk about death. When they told me about my cancer, I thought of that book. I’ve read it about three times now, and I’ve given it to a lot of people.

They say it’s very hard to determine a date. As long as I don’t feel any pain, I don’t give a damn. I’m more open to the idea of reincarnation than I once was. But the afterlife wouldn’t be anything like Christianity—I’m totally turned off to formal religion. I don’t want to use the word God, but the life force, the energy doesn’t die. I tell everybody, “I’m coming back.” I threaten my sister, because she’s a procrastinator, “If you don’t do that thing, I’ll come back!”


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