In Kaya McLaren's What's Worth Keeping, during one unforgettable summer, three generations of one family receive the best gift of all time: a second chance...
The day her doctor says the one word that no one wants to hear, Amy Bergstrom discovers a secret that her husband of 25 years has been keeping from her. Now that the months of treatment and surgeries are behind her, she escapes her claustrophobic life seeking healing, peace and clarity in an ancient forest in Washington State, a forest that holds memories of her childhood summers.
After dropping off his daughter at Amy’s Aunt Rae’s horse ranch in the mountains of New Mexico, Officer Paul Bergstrom visits the fixer-upper he had bought years ago as a place to retire with his family. Although it appears fine on the outside, the inside is a disaster—just like his marriage. When he finds himself with more off-duty time than he expected, he lovingly repairs his dream home, building the future he so desperately wants.
Witnessing her mother’s health crisis had been terrifying enough, but learning the cause was genetic leaves Carly with the sense that all of her dreams are pointless. With the help of her eccentric great aunt and a Clydesdale named T. Rex, Carly just may find her faith in her future again.
Amy, Paul, and Carly discover that love and family are worth keeping in this powerful, emotional, and hopeful novel.
Release date: January 19, 2021
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 352
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What's Worth Keeping
It was as if an earthquake had hit, and now all of the contents of Amy Bergstrom’s life had fallen out of her closets, cupboards, shelves, and drawers and onto the floor. Sometimes this was quite literal, like the pile of summer clothes that had lain folded and dormant in a storage bin in the back of her closet all winter but now sat next to her full-length mirror, where she courageously tried on every much-loved shirt and dress to see whether it would still fit her now. Her guesses about many pieces had been wrong, and relief filled her each time she discovered that she could still wear a piece that had been a favorite. Her long tan coat embroidered with flowers. Her maroon-and-black beaded cocktail dress. Three white summer shirts with eyelets and embroidery. Sporty knit sundresses with built-in padding where her breasts used to be. A long yellow halter maxi-dress that had made her feel a bit like a character in Greek mythology. Two peasant shirts. Of the things that were still worth keeping, she put a few in the large plastic tote she intended to take with her when she left and hung the rest in her closet, decoys to hide the true extent of her plan. The things that no longer fit would go in the large black plastic bag to take to a thrift store. Heartbroken, she held each piece in her hands, pausing to remember times she had worn it—a dinner out, a birthday party, a family vacation, a special day with her dad back when he could still remember who she was. Then she hugged each piece to her chest before saying good-bye and placing it lovingly in the bag. She had dreaded this task for months. Every part of it was difficult—letting go, even simply looking in the mirror. She missed her long hair as much as she missed her breasts.
Most of the things she needed to sift through, however, weren’t nearly as tangible. Relationships. Work. Identity. Things even less tangible than that. Something along the lines of whether she had enough courage to live the rest of her life with the new set of fears she had, knowing how fragile and temporary life was.
Standing in the shower, she lifted her chin and stared at the ceiling in order to block her chest from her peripheral vision. It wasn’t that she was in denial. It was simply that she couldn’t handle it first thing in the morning. She ran her soapy hands over it, washing off the previous night’s hot flash sweat. Her hands still remembered where they used to go, where the old contours were, what the weight of her breasts had been when she used to wash under them. Now, her hands felt like people trying to find their way home after their city had been bombed. Lost. Scared. Unable to imagine how anything would ever be all right again. Turning to rinse, she let the water strike her chest and paused to assess what she could feel and not feel. Nerves had been cut, leaving behind tingly sensations punctuated with occasional sharp phantom pain. Ten weeks. It had been only ten weeks.
A half inch of blond and white hair now covered her skull, muting the sensation of water hitting her scalp. She had hated everything about being bald except feeling so much more than she had ever felt before. Wind—even indoors when she was walking purposefully down the hall or an aisle at the supermarket. Cold rain. The bliss of a soft fleece hat. Warm water from the shower. She still used soap instead of shampoo most days, but on this morning, not knowing when her next shower would be, she indulged in the ritual she used to love, starting with pouring a tiny fraction of the shampoo she used to use into her palm, spreading it all over her head, and then lathering it all the way down to her scalp. Today, that was only a half inch. She massaged conditioner in next, then set about shaving her legs, the hair on which was significantly sparser and finer than it had been before chemo. After that, she turned off the water and began to dry her hair before she realized she had forgotten to rinse the conditioner; she marveled that a decades-old routine could have been broken in just a few months. With the water back on, she rinsed what remained of the conditioner and then, still looking at the ceiling, stepped out of the shower.
Paul had not said anything when she had covered the lower half of the bathroom mirror with wrapping paper and positive affirmations. She had banked on that. It had been a pretty safe guess. Twenty-six years ago, he might have. He probably would have. But people change. Things happen and people change. Now he didn’t engage. And Amy knew there was something far more important he hadn’t talked to her about.
* * *
Seven months ago, she had lain on the table in the clinic while a technician scanned her right breast with the ultrasound wand to assist Dr. Strauss, the radiologist, as she took needle biopsies of the tumor and a couple of lymph nodes. Amy asked Dr. Strauss the questions she’d formulated since reading her mammogram report online and then researching the meaning of new terms. “So, out of a hundred spiculated tumors you’ve seen, how many turned out to be benign?” she asked, truly expecting Dr. Strauss to say eight out of ten or even nine out of ten, leaving some possibility for hope.
“Not many, sister,” Dr. Strauss replied frankly. “I will always be honest with you. I do not believe I am determining if it’s cancer. I believe I’m determining what kind and what stage.” When Amy started to cry, Dr. Strauss said, “You will get through this. I got through it. You will, too.”
Amy wasn’t so sure. Dr. Strauss seemed so much stronger than her.
When Dr. Strauss and the tech left, Amy dressed and found her sister, Alicia, in the waiting room. Alicia looked at Amy with deep concern as she approached, and Amy said, “This doesn’t look good.”
Alicia hugged her and then, stunned, they walked out to Alicia’s car and drove to Amy’s house. Once there, Amy didn’t really want Alicia to stay. Alicia had a business to run—a natural foods store—and Amy didn’t want her to lose any much-needed customers, but it occurred to her that this was a difficult day for her sister as well. After all, this very diagnosis was what had taken their mother. Alicia quite possibly needed to be with Amy right now, so Amy made her a cup of tea.
“I know someone whose sister cured herself naturally. You should watch The Truth About Cancer. There are all kinds of cures that Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about.”
“Well, everyone I know who is still alive after cancer went through conventional treatment, so, if you love me, maybe don’t steer me away from my best odds. This is not a time for experimentation. This is a time to save my life.”
“Some people die of cancer treatment, not cancer. You remember what Mom went through. Just watch it—please. Perfect Health Supplements sent me to one of their seminars so I could learn about how their supplements have cured people.”
“Right. That doesn’t sound like science, Alicia. That sounds like a life-threatening pyramid scheme. Tell you what—when it’s you with cancer, you can try those methods and risk your life. I want my treatment to be scientifically proven, not based on anecdotal evidence carefully selected to support the claims of snake-oil salesmen.”
Alicia wasn’t talking, but she wasn’t budging either. She looked into Amy’s eyes, imploring her to see the light as she saw it. Amy could see Alicia had the very best of intentions, but misinformed good intentions could kill her, and she was not remotely up for it. Doctors had a premed degree and medical school under their belts. They had seen a dozen patients a day for years. The vast majority of doctors could absolutely be trusted. How arrogant of a Perfect Health Supplements representative or a natural foods store owner like her sister to think they knew more. How dangerously arrogant.
“I need to be alone now. I really appreciate you going with me today and driving me home. Thank you for that. But I’ve got a lot of things to figure out and I don’t need this.”
“I am just trying to help. I’m just trying to help you. Why are you getting so mad at me for that?”
“Because your good intentions could kill me, Alicia. Good intentions are not the same thing as good decisions. Have you read the criticisms of The Truth About Cancer? A true expert would read the criticisms.”
“Big Pharma gets researchers to write criticisms so they can keep making money. Do you know how much money Big Pharma makes on cancer patients?”
Amy took a big breath, having never been pushed so close to her limits. “Alicia, this is a moment that could forever ruin our good relationship. You need to go before that happens. I need all my energy to fight this and can’t waste it fighting someone who is supposed to be on my side.”
“I am on your side,” Alicia said, following Amy to the door. “I love you, sis.”
“I love you, too,” Amy said, but she was too angry to hug her.
After Alicia left, Amy started worrying that the medical expenses would ruin them, that they would lose their house, and that after years of saving, they’d be unable to help their daughter, Carly, now in her senior year of high school, pay for college. Rifling through the drawer in the bottom of the desk, the one that held files, Amy searched for her insurance policy to see what exactly it covered. She found a file with homeowner’s insurance and files with tax returns from the last seven years, and then she found a file containing do-it-yourself divorce papers and a list of all the assets she and Paul shared. Gasping, she looked closer, holding her stomach as if she had been kicked there. The pickup truck that Paul had bought only two months ago was listed. He had filled in the date June 10, 2012, the day after their daughter, Carly, would graduate from high school.
She was tempted to take the file and hide it or destroy it so that Paul would have to start the paperwork over, to buy herself more time, but it occurred to her that if he knew she knew, it might expedite the process. This was no time to make waves. She was going to need him in the months to come, and after years of cooking him dinner every night, doing his laundry, cleaning the house, raising their daughter, and loving him with an unwavering commitment, she felt he owed her that. He owed her more than that, really. She deserved a happy, lifelong marriage. She had earned that.
But then it occurred to her that “lifelong” might be before June 10. She didn’t know and wondered whether Paul had a life insurance policy for her. Maybe he would lose his unwanted wife and hit the lotto. Wouldn’t that be so great for him? She shook her head and fumed.
The moment felt like a gas leak in a house. So very dangerous. Such a high potential for an explosion.
So, she most likely had cancer. She had a well-intended but ignorant know-it-all sister whose help was going to come at the cost of listening to crap she didn’t want to listen to and a husband who was waiting for their daughter to be out of the house so he could divorce her. There was only an extent to which she could count on him. Her father had Alzheimer’s and had recently moved into a care facility for patients like him, and her mother had died when she was a teenager. She could absolutely count on Aunt Rae but knew her aunt couldn’t leave her horses all alone on her little ranch in Chama, New Mexico, and if Amy went there, the medical care she would need would be hours away. Here in Oklahoma City, she had access to great care. It made sense to stay. She racked her brain, thinking of friends she could call on to help, but she felt so undeserving of all of them. Ever since her writing career had taken off, she had neglected her friendships. It seemed unfair to call on them now. Feeling so all alone, she pushed the file back into its place and shut the drawer. Paul would see her through this in all the practical ways. She was sure he would. He had a sense of duty. If it was strong enough to keep him married and in the house until their daughter was out of school, it was strong enough to keep him married and in the house while she had cancer. Duty wasn’t the same as love, but if it was the best he could do, she would take it.
* * *
Now, it was June 10 and she was cancer-free. Paul had not abandoned her in her hour of need, and she appreciated that. She wondered whether he was still going to drop the bomb on her today but guessed that he would wait a little longer. He wouldn’t want the world to think that he left his wife after twenty-six years because she no longer had breasts.
She, on the other hand, was not sure how much longer she could pretend that she had never seen the file, that something wasn’t terribly wrong, or that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with a man who not only apparently did not love her anymore but these days often appeared to have no feelings at all.
She didn’t trust herself at the moment. The combination of trauma and surgical menopause had left her feeling really unbalanced, to say the least. There was no doubt that it was a bad moment to make permanent decisions. She would have more time to sort it all out once she left. All she had to do was tell Paul about her trip without saying too much.
Picking through her toiletries, she collected a few minimal items to put in the tote as well. It was almost time. She would be free soon. Or freer, anyway.
Copyright © 2021 by Kaya McLaren
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