Adrienne Wilson is a depressed, suicidal teenager—until the day she receives a diagnosis of stage IV liver cancer. Facing the fight of her life, Adrienne discovers how much she wants to live. In Better Off Bald: A Life in 147 Days, Andrea Wilson Woods chronicles her sister’s remarkable life from the time she was born to the day she dies at age fifteen. Written like a journal, Andrea takes the reader inside her and Adrienne’s journey explaining how she gained custody of Adrienne from their mother and how the sisters’ relationship evolved over time. Adrienne’s courageous spirit shines through as she squeezes more life into 147 days than most people do in a lifetime. From meeting Jay Leno to spending the day with Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, Adrienne makes every moment count. As she lay dying, Adrienne teaches Andrea how to live.
Targeted Age Group:: 25 and older
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have always wanted to write about my sister but I didn't think this would be the story I would be writing. However, when she was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer, she wanted people to understand her cancer and its causes. I am carrying on her wishes by writing this memoir.
Prologue + Chapter 1
Before Adrienne, August 1985
I remember the day Mother and I moved to Birmingham.
As she drove into downtown, Mother said, “There she is Andra. Big B. Our new home.”
You named me An-dre-a, not An-dra, I thought to myself. Somewhere along the way, my parents shortened my name. We Southerners like to do that. We either shorten words: gettin,’ goin;’ combine words: gotta, gonna; or stretch words out with our infamous drawl: Hooowww yallll doinn?
“Andra, you payin' attention?” asked mother.
No but I said, “Yeah.”
I looked around. In a few months, my history teacher would tell me Birmingham was nicknamed the ‘Pittsburgh of the South’ because iron and steel production was the city’s major industry during the first half of the twentieth century. It showed. It’s not a picturesque place, but that day we watched as two rainbows painted the sky, splashing their colors across the dull gray of the metal buildings.
Mother said, “It’s a sign. God’s promise.”
Promise of what, I wanted to ask but didn’t.
Instead, I peered at the skyline, wondering about my new school, my new life. Moving to Birmingham was a chance to start over. My brother and father were becoming a distant memory. I was thirteen years old and for the first time in ten years, I thought I had my mother’s full attention. I was wrong. I didn’t know it yet, but she was pregnant with my baby sister.
Day 1: Wednesday, May 16, 2001
When I walk in the door and discover my fifteen-year-old sister Adrienne curled up in a fetal position on her favorite chair, two thoughts go through my mind. Something is wrong. Adrienne is crying and she never cries. And damn, I’m going to miss my four o’clock workout on the treadmill and another Law & Order rerun. Adrienne’s whimpering pulls my focus back to her.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
I see her hand on her lower right rib. She speaks between choked sobs.
“It hurts. I spent half … the day in the nurse’s office. I thought about calling you, but I knew … had to work. I decided to wait. I need to … the doctor, Sissy.”
She takes a breath.
“It really hurts.”
I know Adrienne is in incredible pain because she has never volunteered to go to the doctor. She hates doctors, especially dentists. She was overjoyed when Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program) turned us down for her braces. Her teeth are not crooked enough to qualify even though she needs them. According to her dentist, she will develop a nasty cross bite, just like me.
I want to be sympathetic, but I am irritated. I blame Coachella, the outdoor concert my boyfriend John took her to a few weeks ago. Adrienne and John share a love of music so he takes her to concerts. For Coachella, Adrienne saved her money and we matched it so she could see her favorite band, Jane’s Addiction. I opted not to go. Twelve hours in the desert with 55,000 people is not my idea of fun.
Coachella, “the best American rock festival” according to Rolling Stone magazine, takes place every year at the Empire Polo Field in the town of Indio, which is 140 miles east of Los Angeles. Adrienne and I have driven through Indio many times on our way to visit my dad and stepmother who live in Arizona, but we don’t even stop to get gas in that town. Besides Coachella, I wonder what possesses 500,000 tourists to go to Indio each year. It can’t be the scenery.
Adrienne described Coachella as a modern-day Woodstock. Being in the front, she was pressed against steel metal bars all day. She wanted to see Dave Navarro sweat. I remember how she devised a way to sneak in a disposable camera. After the concert, John complained his ribs felt bruised. Exactly two weeks ago, Adrienne pulled her shoulder and went to her pediatrician, Dr. Nazzer; he gave her ibuprofen and sent her home. When Dr. Nazzer asked how it happened, Adrienne replied dance class, or maybe it was at Coachella.
I am not a big fan of Coachella.
I tell Adrienne to give me ten minutes. She is suffering but she waits patiently. Never complains. Not even once. Except for the recent shoulder incident, Adrienne has never been seriously hurt before. A few colds here and there. The occasional swollen tonsils, which I assume will need to be taken out one day. Many cavities. Getting her to brush her teeth is a constant battle in our house. She has never broken a bone. She passes her annual physical every year. Why do I make her wait? Am I upset my plans are ruined? Or is it that I don’t have sympathy for her if she cracked her rib at a rock concert? And what the hell do I do for ten minutes?
I am harsh about illness and injury. I expect people to be tough. I developed this character trait at a young age. Our mother never took us to the doctor when we were sick. She diagnosed us, gave us medicine, and cured us. She thought seeing the doctor was a waste of time since she was a nurse and knew a cold when she saw it. A sniffly nose was no excuse for missing school. I endured seventeen years of ballet with toenails falling off, shin splints, torn ligaments, and a bruised tailbone. One time my legs were so sore I crawled up six flights of stairs because the elevator had broken. Between Mother and ballet, I learned: pain is a part of life.
We arrive at the Empire Medical Clinic around 3:50 p.m. It is a slow day, and Dr. Nazzer sees Adrienne right away. He assumes her shoulder is still bothering her. Adrienne explains her shoulder is fine now and describes the new pain, which started around noon today. Why does he appear worried? He lifts her shirt to examine her abdomen. He touches it carefully, as if the pressure of his fingers will create holes in her skin.
“How long has this area been swollen?” he asks.
“A few weeks,” Adrienne replies.
He gives me an odd look. I tell him Adrienne only showed me her swollen stomach two days ago, but then, it didn’t hurt. He must realize Adrienne, like many teenage girls, is modest about her body, especially around her parents.
I am more concerned she has not gotten her period in a few months, a telltale sign she is either pregnant or something is wrong with her body. I grilled her not too long ago.
“Are you sure that it is not even possible? You and Eli seem serious.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m serious, Adrienne. You can tell me. I need to know if you didn’t take precautions.”
My voice trailed off, my mind turning over multiple scenarios and possible solutions.
“Sissy, for the last time, we are not having sex! Sex is gross, sweaty, and dirty. I have no interest in it. Do you believe me now? Can we drop it?”
I felt relief and anxiety at the same time. Adrienne couldn’t be pregnant, but why hadn’t she gotten her period? And although I am glad she isn’t doing it, doesn’t she seem to have an unhealthy attitude about sex? Where did that come from?
Dr. Nazzer leaves the room to make a phone call. Adrienne seems to be tolerating the pain well. She stopped crying a while ago. I am convinced she has cracked a rib. I tell myself that’s the only thing that makes sense. When he returns, Dr. Nazzer informs us he has called Dr. Brenner, a surgeon at Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center, the only hospital in Burbank. He thinks we should go there, but he wants to arrange it ahead of time. I feel better because I know Dr. Brenner and trust him.
Last summer, after I had a stomachache for a few days, my best friend Anya drove Adrienne and me to the Burbank clinic where Adrienne gets her immunizations. I have medical insurance for Adrienne but not for myself so the clinic was my only option. John was at work. When the staff refused to see me because they didn’t handle urgent care, Adrienne took charge. She tried calling Anya at work. She asked the nurse if she could call a cab for us. Meanwhile, I was shaking all over, lying down on the plastic bench, the security guard’s jacket covering me but providing little warmth. Adrienne later told me my skin turned gray, and my lips were purple. I spoke but my voice was a whisper.
Adrienne finally got in touch with Anya, who picked us up and drove us straight to St. Jo’s. Dr. Brenner happened to be on-call that afternoon. He performed my emergency laparoscopic appendectomy, aptly nicknamed a ‘lappy appy.’ He inserted a laparoscope, a tiny camera, through a small cut he made below my bikini line. My appendix had already burst—probably while we were waiting at the clinic. The camera helped Dr. Brenner find the various pieces of my appendix, which he removed through my belly button. Sounds disgusting, but it worked.
During my five-day hospital stay, Adrienne amused me by drawing on the whiteboard in my room. She showed my appendix in various stages of life until its surprise death, ending with a tombstone etched with ‘RIP, Sissy’s Appendix.’ Being doped up on Percodan and Demerol didn’t stop me from cracking up. Adrienne can always make me laugh.
Dr. Nazzer mentions Adrienne needs some tests done. He does not elaborate. Unfortunately, Dr. Brenner is unavailable but another doctor is waiting for us to arrive. You should leave immediately, says Dr. Nazzer. He never gives us any indication what he thinks is wrong, only that it’s out of his league. I see the fear in his eyes. Does Adrienne see it too?
5:00 p.m.—the ER is busy. Having a doctor call ahead on your behalf doesn’t make a difference. Being seen in this ER is like trying to get a seat at the Burbank Olive Garden on any given night of the week. They don’t accept reservations, but you can call ahead and get on the list. What they fail to tell you is it won’t matter. You still have to wait your turn.
I call John from a pay phone. He is concerned but can’t leave work early. I want to yell at him. This is your fault. Didn’t you pay attention? Didn’t thousands of people pushing you and Adrienne against a metal railing seem like a bad idea? I hope he knows I will blame him when the doctor says she’s cracked a rib. Can’t do anything about it. We’ll tape it up. No dance classes until you feel better, young lady.
I keep checking in with registration, trying to make them understand how urgent our situation is. Even if she can’t be seen yet, Adrienne needs something, anything, for the pain. No, sorry. There are only a few people ahead of you, or, it won’t be long now. I swear they said the same words to me when I was curled up in a fetal position on this floor, pieces of my appendix already floating around in my body, convinced I would die from the pain. Different staff, same language: rehearsed sympathetic phrases to make the patient, parent, or friend go away.
An hour later, we meet Dr. Lin, who wastes no time in giving Adrienne pain medication. Morphine, I think. She feels better within minutes. After examining her and listening to our story, Dr. Lin fears Adrienne might have bruised her liver and could be bleeding internally. Bruised liver? Bleeding internally? Goddamn concert. Fucking metal bars. What was John thinking? I know he couldn’t have stopped Adrienne; she is far too stubborn, but I need someone to blame.
Dr. Lin orders a CT scan. Dr. Nazzer said some tests. This is one kind of test. Will there be others? I sign papers as a nurse preps Adrienne for the scan. Something about the use of iodine, which is needed to see the picture. I don’t read the fine print.
“Is,” the nurse looks down at the chart, “Emma allergic to iodine?”
“It’s Adrienne and I don’t know. She’s never been sick before.”
The nurse shrugs.
The test is more important than any potential allergy. I walk beside Adrienne’s gurney as she is wheeled down to Radiology. I’m not allowed to be in the room with her. Radiation exposure is bad for your body unless you need x-rays, tests, or treatments. Then, it’s okay.
Before Adrienne goes into the room, she leans toward me.
“Hey Sissy, watch it be cancer.”
“Bite your tongue,” I retort.
I hear her giggling as I watch the door close. I smile.
Adrienne and I continue to wait in a makeshift room in the ER. I call Diana to cancel Adrienne’s usual appointment. Adrienne sees her psycho doctor, her words not mine, every Wednesday evening at seven o’clock. Diana is a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) who specializes in treating teenagers. Adrienne has been seeing her for almost three years. Although Adrienne has never taken medication for it, she suffers from bouts of depression. Seeing Diana has helped her over the years, and it comforts me she has someone to talk to because I know she doesn’t tell me everything.
Next, I contact Anya and her husband Alex. Adrienne considers them her aunt and uncle, and they have always been my biggest support system. Adrienne asks me to call her boyfriend Eli, who has been waiting online for her. He sounds surprised, even scared. I reassure him.
“She was in pain but she’s better now. She had a scan and we’re waiting for the results. Yes, I’ll call you later. Don’t come to the ER.”
I want to tell him everything will be fine, but I can’t make the words come out of my mouth.
Time passes like a snail inching along the sidewalk. The pea-sized ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach works its way into a golf ball. A nurse checks every half-hour to make sure Adrienne’s pain is under control. It is. What do we talk about? Definitely school. Adrienne is worried she won’t have time to do her homework. I say nothing. If she is bleeding internally, there will be no school tomorrow.
After several hours, Dr. Lin walks in. I have never seen the color drain out of someone’s face before. I thought people used that expression to be dramatic, but I am looking at a man whose complexion, normally beige with an underlying yellowish tinge, is now white. No, not white. Without color. His face is almost translucent. What he is about to say has nothing to do with internal bleeding. It is far worse. He doesn’t have to tell me to sit down because I already am. I reach over to Adrienne and grab her hand. Dr. Lin takes a deep breath as he moves closer to us. Working in an ER is supposed to consist of broken bones, chest pains, deep cuts, maybe an occasional gunshot wound. I believe he has never given this kind of news before.
Dr. Lin glances at Adrienne, but then turns to me.
“She has tumors in her liver and lungs.”
On an invisible cue, Adrienne and I look at each other and burst into tears.
My mind races. Tumors? What is he talking about? There must be a mistake; it’s a cracked rib. She had no pain before today. Tumors? Plural, more than one? How many? I’m afraid to ask. I squeeze Adrienne’s hand tighter. Malignant, benign. I associate these words with tumors.
Dr. Lin’s voice echoes in the distance.
“We’re not equipped to handle this situation.”
What does he mean? I hear myself ask.
“What does that mean?”
He has arranged for an ambulance to transport us to Children’s Hospital. Ambulance? Another hospital? I don’t understand. Everything is moving too quickly. The world is spinning like the teacup ride at Disneyland. I hate that ride; Adrienne loves it. Faster, faster she always screams while I promise myself I will never go on the ride again. Finally, the teacups slow down; the world comes back into focus. Dr. Lin says he is sorry and walks out.
“I was just joking,” says Adrienne, who has stopped crying.
“What?” I ask.
I have no idea what she is talking about. The words ambulance, situation, and tumors are doing cartwheels in my head.
“I was just joking when I said, ‘Watch it be cancer.’”
I look at her. I open my mouth to respond, and then, I begin laughing. The laugh originates from deep inside my solar plexus, dissolving the golf ball of stress, pieces of it flying out of my mouth. Adrienne joins in and together our laughter fills the room. The person on the other side of the curtain must think we are bipolar. Only minutes before, we were crying over the news of multiple tumors in two different organs and now we are laughing so hard I think I might cry again. I’m glad no one else is here yet. This moment belongs to us.
John’s arrival prompts me to look at the clock. It’s past nine. Less than six hours ago, life was normal, or so I thought. A visit to the doctor, a trip to the emergency room, and a CT scan have conspired to turn our lives into pinball-machine balls, as we are pushed and slapped around by forces beyond our control. Last month, I remember telling John that things seem to have settled down in our house. We are getting along better. We have two beautiful, smart, healthy, happy kids: my sister Adrienne and his son Adam. Life is good.
Anya’s husband Alex walks in next. He and John discuss what to do with my car while I ride in the ambulance with Adrienne. Nice, safe, practical talk. That’s good. Let’s all pretend we’re not afraid.
The ambulance shows up at ten. The ride itself is uneventful. I expected red lights and a siren, but I guess that’s only for emergencies. The EMTs do their best to make Adrienne comfortable. After some discussion, one of them comments she is fifteen going on thirty-five. Adrienne eats up the compliment and flashes a big smile. With teeth. I know she feels good because she rarely shows teeth. A photographer told her to smile big for a school picture one year, maybe it was third grade. When her smile revealed her two missing front teeth, the jerk said, oh, never mind. Some people shouldn’t work with children.
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