Originally published in Small Doses
“Did you hear about Mandy?”
I waited, knowing that an answer was not required; her mouth was quivering in the attempt to hold back some tidbit of newly acquired information.
“She has cancer.”
The words were delivered with the same undercurrent of excitement and thinly veiled odium as news of a teen pregnancy in high school. Mandy was not a popular co-worker by any stretch of the imagination, but I still felt a wave of sympathy for her.
“That's awful,” I said, already wondering what on earth I would say to her. Sorry to hear the news? Anything I can do for you? How can I help? Problem was, I didn't want to be there for her, nor did I want to offer her a shoulder to cry on. I'd done that before, and Mandy had nearly driven me insane.
“I know,” replied Caroline, the bearer of office tidings. “The poor thing, first a broken engagement, now this...” and she trailed off in search of other uninformed personnel to enlighten.
Mandy, a thirty-something transplant from the Midwest, had arrived in our building last year in a cloud of Aqua Net, wool, and melodrama. Within days there were hair-raising accounts of abusive boyfriends, siblings run amok, and a reclusive yet fabulously wealthy uncle. No detail of her life was too small or too private, and was delivered in the sort of loud grinding voice that leaves a dull roar in your ears and sends you running for the cool porcelain quiet of the lavatory. Her newest boyfriend, Cas, had been described as “the perfect man”; handsome, intelligent, well-mannered, and head-over-heels in love with her. Until he left one day, without so much as a note, sending her into paroxysms of grief and anger. I'd spent hours on the phone with her, listening to diatribes mixed with gusts of weeping, wishing that the telephone had never been invented and that I'd never given in to my soft heart. Lately, I'd been eating lunch in my car so as to avoid any extended conversations and had my phone number changed.
“Oh, it was shut off for non-payment of bills,” I'd lied airily, feeling guilty – and angry - that it was necessary to lie at all.
Once the news was out, the office rallied around her. There were cards and flowers; home cooked meals and invitations to dinner; even a collection to help with transportation and medical expenses, which Mandy firmly but politely refused.
“I want to do this on my own,” she said doggedly, and her stoicism brought forth even more admiration and offers of help.
The sympathy and attention made her eyes sparkle, even as the excess weight melted from her frame. Although she needed to rest quite a bit, there was a new spring in her step, and while she still whined on occasion, overall the woman seemed far more pleasant and uncomplaining than she'd ever been. Even her newly shorn scalp elicited giggles; “Better to just shave it now than try to get away with a comb-over like Gary downstairs,” she's announced with what passed for a wink. It was fortunate that her rich uncle was willing to help her out as well; he flew her by private jet to have treatment at some of the finest medical facilities in the world. Still, it seemed as though our work lives began to revolve around the ups and downs of Mandy's private trials.
Several months passed, and in spite of our best intentions, we all became a little weary of the cancer roller coaster ride. We were relieved – indeed, joyful – when our boss announced that after years of trying, he and his wife would soon be the proud parents of a baby boy. The promise of new life drew all of our efforts, and we found ourselves buying silly outfits and learning how to make balloon animals during our breaks. Twice during that time, Mandy left work sick, was gone for several days, then bravely returned, having endured either radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or all three. Remarkably, she recovered from each episode, bravely arriving at work with a new trove of stories to tell about good-looking doctors and inept nurses, unpalatable food and harrowing flights. She even put on a happy face for Mr. Ballwin, although I got the feeling that she didn't particularly share in our excitement over infant paraphernalia. In fact, I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach which I hadn't revealed to anyone. Things just didn't add up when it came to Mandy; and yet, how could I voice my suspicions? I'd end up as the village pariah, attacking a woman who was in the throes of a ravaging disease. So I did the safest thing. Nothing.
The birth was just weeks away when Mandy's cancer struck with a vengeance; she lost at least 20 pounds, her skin had a grayish tinge, and her conversation took on a hysterical note. On the night of the baby shower, we all received the same text:
In hospital, might not make it, goodbye and thank you.
None of our calls were returned.
The following Monday, I was greeted by our ubiquitous busybody, Caroline.
“Did you hear about Mandy?”
A quick glance at her desk revealed that all traces of her existence were gone.
“Is she...” I couldn't think how to phrase it properly.
“Dead?” asked Caroline savagely, albeit gleefully. “Nope. Booted out. Done. If Ballwin could sling her ass in jail, he would. You know, he made some phone calls, did some checking. Wanted to send flowers to the hospital, go hold her hand. You know what? It was lies, all lies. There's nothing wrong with her! In the head, maybe. She faked it, the whole thing, and made us look like a bunch of idiots. Rich uncle and all that crap. Too bad she didn't take any money from us or she could be nailed with fraud. God, I'm so mad I could just spit nails.” She huffed off in righteous anger.
I suppose that I was angry too, although as I delved into my bag of emotions I discovered sympathy and sadness as well. To need the attention of others so badly is, after all, a crippling disease of its own.
Author's Note: While this story, and its characters, is fictitious, it is loosely based on real life cases and the condition known as Munchausen Syndrome