Excerpt: ‘Still I Cannot Save You’ by Kelly S. Thompson


Kelly Thompson and her older sister Meghan were close when they were children, growing up in a military family. As they got older, they forged their own paths, Kelly in the military (and ultimately writing the award-winning memoir “Girls Need Not Apply”) as Meghan spiralled into addiction and their relationship fractured. They rediscovered each other when Meghan had a child. Just as they began rebuilding their relationship, Meghan was diagnosed with cancer. This excerpt from the book “Still I Cannot Save You: A Memoir of Sisterhood, Love, and Letting Go,” gives a sense of their love and humour.

The end-of-April air had a chill even as tulips pushed through mulch and robins scratched at snow-flattened grass. I checked the time and watched the main entrance of Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre from my parking spot, where I sipped a Tim Hortons iced coffee that was laced with sweetness.

My phone blinked.

Meghan: All finished.

I threw my car into gear and zipped towards the hospital entryway, then leaned across the console to push the door open for Meghan. “All good?”

“Yup.” She settled in, pressing on the tiny bandage that sat like a bull’s eye in the crook of her arm. “They’ll wait for my blood test results to come in, then I’ll meet with the oncologist. Anywhere from an hour to longer, the receptionist said — which, by the way, is an awfully loose timeline when you’re literally waiting to find out whether or not you’re going to die. I’ll lose my mind by then.” She put her face in her palms while I drove and tried to summon a response.

Google had informed me that her specific chemo medication was a last-ditch effort for advanced ovarian and pancreatic tumours — cancers that communicated time in months or weeks, not years.

“How about we keep busy at the mall? A little retail therapy.” I eased us into highway traffic.

“Don’t take Cundles, for Christ’s sake,” she screeched. “We’ll be in traffic forever. Watch out for that pedestrian. God, you’re driving so slow.” She pointed this way and that.

“Did you want to drive, Miss Crazy Town? Or can I master my own vehicle?”

“Sorry. I’m being controlling. I’m just …” She looked down into her lap, picking at the cupid’s bow of her lip. So much had changed and so much had not.

“You get a free pass to moodiness today.”

She flipped through messages on her phone until I swerved into Georgian Mall. Our last time here together had been for the failed Santa photo eleven years earlier, the one I’d stuffed to the bottom of a drawer and never wanted to see again. More than a decade. It felt like a lifetime.

“What are you waiting for?” Meghan snapped. She hopped from the car, her legs moving like hummingbird wings so I had to jog to catch up as she stalked towards Victoria’s Secret. Inside the dimly lit store, everything smelled of the saccharine floral scent they piped throughout, fake and pungent. Within minutes, Meghan had wordlessly looped a collection of bras over her forearms, three cup sizes smaller than her previous versions, and was frowning as she checked price tags. We used to share bras, stare at our 34Es and wonder who in the family had gifted us with them when Mom could barely fill an egg carton.

“My treat,” I called to her. The last few months, everything had been my treat, or footed by Mom and Dad.

“Is that just because of my Big C?”

“Why else? You think it’s because I love you or something?”

“Well, I guess I’m ready to try them on.” Meghan clutched the throng of lace and microfibre as we entered the change room area.

“Hi, ladies!” The saleswoman sauntered close, smiling wide while she adjusted the headset resting at her temple. “You let me know if you need anything, okay?” she said as she unlocked a room, the smell of lilacs wafting behind her.

Meghan closed the door and called out to me. “Kell, stay close in case I need advice.”

“I’ll be right out here.” I sat on a tufted pink cushion in the hall and turned away from the overhead lights.

“You two having a nice day out together?” The saleswoman asked as she snapped her gum — a trait I generally found annoying, but there was something about her that was comforting, affable.

“Well, yeah. Kind of.” I didn’t know how to explain our purpose. She’s lost her boobs to cancer. No, no, not breast cancer. We’re wasting time until we can find out if her chemo is working and how long she’ll live. No, that wouldn’t work either. Please, distract us because we can barely breathe.

“Kell?” Meghan called gently from behind the closed door. “What do you think?” She cracked the door open and I slipped in behind her. The ridge of her spine was like a knotted tree root, snaking from absent glutes to the nape of her neck, sharp bone after sharp edge, tendons taut and stark.

She watched me, waiting. I observed all of this in mere seconds and gathered my thoughts with military precision. “Hey, that one looks great!” There were moments when I could lie to her so well, I hardly recognized myself.

“Yeah? You sure? I’m worried I look a little saggy.” She jiggled a finger between her breasts as evidence. The flesh wobbled back and forth like jelly.

“Christ, Meg. Give yourself a break. You’ve lost, what, fifty pounds? That one is super flattering. You look beautiful.” She twisted and turned in front of the mirror and I watched the scars, one running from belly button to back, the other cutting her from ribs to pubic bone. I bit down on the awareness of all the years when I’d refused to tell her she was loved, beautiful, funny, weird.

“Yeah, okay.” She shrugged noncommittally. I suspected the bra could have been adorned in diamonds and she still wouldn’t have been interested. “Can you see if they have more colours? Black just feels sort of … you know.” She passed the tiny bra to me.

Outside the changeroom I found the saleswoman, who was folding another stack of frilly panties into a perilous tower. “How’s it going in there?”

“We need some other colours,” I squeaked. “Ideally not black. She doesn’t want black because, because she …” And then I could not stop the tears, deep and consuming in a way that made me nauseated, combined with an ache in my chest from stifling the sound. “I’m sorry,” I gasp-whispered, gesturing with a thumb at the door where my sister waited for petal pink or sunshine yellow. Anything but black.

“I just said goodbye to my mom to the same damn thing, sweetie. You let it out.” She tugged me close and my body fell into hers, and I let this stranger hug me, her perfumed skin tart in my nose. My arms wrapped around her back and I rested myself there, choking back sobs.

I snorted up my tears, fumbled awkwardly through my purse for tissues. “God, I have to sort my shit out. She needs me.”

The woman gently released her hold and tenderly smoothed my wild pixie cut. “You can’t change the outcome, so what she needs, and what you need too, is to look after you a bit.” I swallowed hard and nodded at her sage advice. “Now,” she said, all matter-of-fact, holding bras by their foamy cups. “I have this style in white, pink, and orange. Take your pick.”

We chose orange. Bright. Hopeful. Impossible to wear under a white shirt, but Meghan and I were women uninterested in practicality.

As I passed my credit card to the cashier, the oncologist’s office called. The caller informed Meghan that her blood work was in, so she could come for her appointment whenever she was ready, and could she hurry? Dr. Lim wanted to leave for his weekend holiday. I strained to hear, trying to discern results based on the tone of the receptionist’s voice. Meghan popped the Ativan I offered and was silent the entire ride back to the hospital.

Excerpted from “Still I Cannot Save You” by Kelly S. Thompson. Copyright © 2023 Kelly S. Thompson. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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