The dress was black with shiny buttons at the wrists and an oversized bow in the back. I said to my friend, “I want you to bury me in this dress,” which I found funny because I thought I was dying. And then I thought it wasn’t funny at all.
Even if the doctors couldn’t pin down what was going on with me, I was so alarmed by my symptoms and the doctors’ gravest guesses that I felt anxious about whether or not I would have a future. I was 27.
What was certain is that I was shrinking. Rapidly, uncontrollably. It had nothing to do with me not eating and everything to do with me seemingly being eaten up. My clothes hung loose at the waist and sloughed off my shoulders as if they belonged to a stranger, so I bought a stranger’s dress. Kate Spade, $ 348 retail.
I found it for $ 50 at an online designer consignment store while on hold with the hospital; a nurse was checking on the results of my bone marrow biopsy. My laptop sat in front of me, casting a bluish light across my bruised legs. Online shopping was the sort of thing one might do if she were on hold with her cable company, not awaiting a possible blood cancer diagnosis.
I wedged the phone between my shoulder and ear, pulled the computer onto my lap, and started browsing. The pages teemed with runway castoffs: vintage handbags, red carpet gowns, scarves and coats by designers whose names I didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce. I filled my cart with a cobalt dress, a blush silk blouse, a slinky skirt.
On paper, the doctors said, it looked like it could be lymphoma. The symptoms were classic: fever, night sweats, weight loss. But the scans kept coming back clean. A biopsy of my enlarged lymph node showed it to be benign. Blood cancers could be sneaky, they told me. They would have to search for it, and the searching would be painful. Two weeks earlier, a doctor had taken a surgical drill to my hip and hollowed out my bones with a syringe fit for a large horse. “Painful” was a deficient descriptor.
“Thanks for waiting,” said the nurse. “The doctor said there were some abnormalities with your bone marrow but no signs of malignancy, so we’ll have to keep looking.”
I sat still while my insides turned over. A cold sweat crept across my face. I closed my eyes, shook my head and returned to my shopping cart. I was not going to dwell.
No — I was going to shop. I was going to shop until I could think of nothing else. I punched in my credit card number and bought the Kate Spade.
Then I rushed to my closet, threw open the double doors and began rifling through Target impulse buys and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, tearing every tacky print and cheap polyester blend from its hanger. I hurled the clothes into boxes and garbage bags. They smelled like the hospital, all burned coffee and antiseptic. I didn’t want them. I didn’t even want to look at them. I wanted silk. I wanted velvet.
Within five minutes I had ransacked my entire closet. The carpet was hardly visible under haphazard heaps. My lungs seized up, retaliating against my quick, sudden movements. I sank against the door frame, hands pressed against my chest, and let fatigue overtake me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do illness anymore. I could only do this.
A few weeks later, the first dress arrived. I spun around in it, watching the hem rise and fall. Something about it made me feel less like a haggard patient and more like the kind of woman who went to cocktail parties dripping with perfume and family money. The fabric, heavy and thick, felt expensive and purposeful, unlike anything I had ever owned.
Over the next few months, I made it my mission to build a new wardrobe from scratch. The process demanded every moment of my free time, every spare thought. I scoured the internet for the best in secondhand glamour, pausing only when my energy gave way to fever and exhaustion. There are dozens of websites dedicated to discount high fashion: The Real Real, Saks Off 5th, Luxury Garage Sale. They sold Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Isabel Marant — designers whose names I had heard only on old episodes of “Project Runway.”
I texted pictures of a black-and-white patterned dress to my best friend, a sensible, no-nonsense beauty from northwest Iowa who has never heard of Oscar de la Renta and doesn’t particularly care.
“Do you like this?” I asked. “It’s 100 percent silk.”
“How do you even wash that?” she replied.
“I think it’s dry clean only,” I said, as if I had ever been to a dry cleaner.
We both knew it was impractical. The clothes were expensive and high maintenance, most of them over-the-top fancy for my modest life in nonprofit communications. But they felt vital. I told myself I was overdue for some frivolity, that I deserved to treat myself.
For my next doctor’s appointment, I picked out a Valentino pencil skirt that fit snugly against my new, withered body.
“I just don’t know what else to do,” my doctor said. She was my age. Young, but confident in her training. Confident in the scans and labs and almost-normal test results. “Can I see you again in six weeks? We can repeat blood work then and come up with a timeline for scans. Does that sound like an OK plan?”
I rubbed the pointed toe of my high heel against the linoleum. “I don’t know.”
“OK,” she said. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“Just that I live here,” I said, gesturing at my body. “I have to live here.”
That night I ran my fingers through my hair, and a clump of blond strands fell loose into my palm. “It’s just stress,” I told my cat. I brushed my hands together, letting my hair fall into the trash, and returned to my shopping list.
Every time a new item arrived, I would unpack it just to feel the weight and texture of the fabric against my skin. Some pieces were musty, others smelled like perfume. I liked to imagine where they had been — fund-raising galas, board meetings, socialite circles. Each one had lived a life before me. Now I held onto them in the dim light of my bedroom like tangible hope.
Time passed. Bruises appeared, disappeared and reappeared on my limbs. I shrunk some more. Most days my clothes covered the shrinkage and distracted from the exhaustion. I saw other doctors: two surgeons, three oncologists, an integrative medicine physician, a reiki expert.
Finally, in a move my former self would have called crazy, I enlisted the help of a sound healer. She was slight and lively, a 70-year-old in a child’s body. In her office on the day we met, she jumped from her chair and asked me to stand and extend my right arm.
“I’m going to press down on you,” she said, “and I want you to resist me with equal pressure, OK?”
She pushed me down, and I pushed back. My arm bounced at her sudden release.
She shook her head and scowled, then grabbed a bottle of hemp oil. “Hold this!” she said, shoving the bottle into my hand and pressing down on my arm again.
This time I was in sync with her, more agile, adjusting to her pressure.
“Yes,” she said. “Your body likes this product. You can buy it on my website.”
It was all make-believe, but I was desperate. Desperate, I told myself, but not insane — desperation and insanity were two distinct, if bordering, states. But this is where desperation takes us — the sick, the chronic, the dying, the grieving. We’re forced to find hope in what we used to mock: God, the afterlife, miracles, hemp oil. Healing, by any means. Healing, against all odds.
Healing, sometimes, in the form of a designer dress.
After every appointment, after every failed attempt to name my illness, I would prop myself in bed, choose new dresses and think of all the places I would wear them. I would wear the Derek Lam on a first date and the Marc Jacobs to a corporate meeting. I would carry a baby on my hip in the Burberry coat as I strolled down the street smelling the crisp fall air and believing in love and God and things to come.
The clothes promised me something the doctors, as they continue to search for a diagnosis, still can’t: an uncomplicated future. And I promised a future to the clothes.
This was their life after life. And they deserved that, didn’t they?
Emilie Poplett is a writer in Durham, N.C., who works in nonprofit communications.
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