Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. As a nurse bustles around me, preparing treatments and checking blood pressure, I hear the beeping of hospital monitors and the hushed voices of doctors. I try not to focus on these things, but sometimes it’s hard. I take deep breaths of air, attempting to calm myself as a nurse slides a needle into my outstretched arm. When the nurse finishes up, I relax and readjust my position.
I have the kind of disease that doctors say could go either way, like so many of the patients here with illnesses that go by so many different names. And yet, the journey seems so similar. Oftentimes, in moments like these when I don’t feel like doing anything, I stare out the windows at the clouds drifting past, free to go wherever they choose. Someone had once painted a scene of blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and a not-so-bright sun on one of the walls, in an effort to make the room seem less “hospital-like”, but the colors are now faded, and the air smells stale. How I miss the real sky, filled with real clouds and the feeling of the real sun’s warmth on my skin.
My eyes turn to an oddly shaped groove in the ceiling tiles resembling a bicycle helmet. That image reminds me of my last birthday, long before I had started showing signs that something was wrong. Back then, I was a carefree kid whose biggest “health issue” had been a sunburn I got riding my new bike all over the neighborhood — without sunscreen. How I loved to bike! I miss that feeling so much: the wind in my face; the exhilaration of faster and faster speeds; and most of all, the freedom to go wherever I want, or nowhere at all.
Now, I’m fortunate if I get to go out of my room. Of course, I am lucky to be alive, but it doesn’t feel that way…
Today, I aced my test, and Mom said we could make cupcakes to celebrate! Marie loves dark chocolate: the darker, the better. So, we first went to the market to get the very best, darkest chocolate we could find, then, we made cupcakes, frosted them, added sprinkles and — oh no! I had promised Marie that I would go visit her today.
She’s my best friend, we used to be inseparable. She is the one with whom I was always making plans, such as coordinating our vacations to overlap; the one who studied with me for tests, like that last science test on moon phases; the one I would defend from bullies at school, especially that popular, bratty girl Virginia. Now, Marie is probably mad at me because I didn’t show up. She’s alone so much these days. Everyone has to go to school or work, and she’s stuck in the same old hospital bed for such long periods of time.
Part of me is wondering how I could’ve forgotten, and the other part tells me that I’m choosing to ignore things. Sometimes, I think I’m in denial about her condition, that if I don’t think about it, it won’t be true. I fantasize that she’ll walk into class any day now and sit down next to me. Guilt swirls in my stomach every time I think like this. When I do think of Marie, a lot of the time it’s in anger. I am angry about all the things we don’t get to do together anymore. I am also angry at my helplessness – that I can’t really do anything to fix things and make her better. I am not angry at Marie; I know it’s not her fault. Obviously, I am the lucky one. But I still am lonely. Tomorrow will be better. I promise I’ll go visit her. She’s gonna love the cupcakes!
I am being monitored much more than usual today, which probably means that I’m getting worse, not better like I’m supposed to be. You know what I hate most about my hospital stay? The silence. In those long, lonely stretches between check-ins, I generally sit silently, alternating between dozing off, mindlessly gazing at things around me, pondering things I used to do, or dreaming about things I want to do. Anything to distract myself from dwelling on my “situation”.
Who would have thought thinking could be so painful? When I actively think, my mind naturally, inadvertently, uncontrollably turns to partial conversations I have overheard between the doctors and my parents, and ultimately to my worst fears: that I might be dying. Obviously, I have no clue whether I’ll make it — no one does. Of course, everyone tries hard to be optimistic around me. Sometimes, their positive attitudes help, and sometimes, none of it makes a difference.
Before all of this, death felt like something that happened to other people, something that I heard about on the news. I don’t even know anyone that’s died. This isn’t supposed to be happening to me, I still have so many plans; Anna and I were going to sign up for that French exchange program. I was even thinking of auditioning for the lead in this year’s school musical. Now, I’m scared. I don’t know how much time I have left and I hate that I can’t do anything about it. But, at least I won’t have to be by myself today. Anna said she was coming over. In fact, she should’ve been here by now…
Sitting in the back of my mom’s car, I clutch a small plastic-wrapped plate of cupcakes on my way to the hospital. I hope she’s not mad at me because of yesterday, though my nervousness still shows in the way I’m twisting little pieces off of the corner of the cupcake wrappers. When we finally arrive, I open the front door and the hospital smell hits me. I used to hate the too clean, too artificial smell of hospitals, but I’ve grown used to it by now.
As we walk past reception, I scan the lobby and the other people waiting here, so many also visiting. Before my semi-regular trips to visit Marie, I’d never really thought about all the sick people in the world, and all the peoples’ lives who are affected by them. I swallow and follow my mom as the elevator chimes its arrival to the 5th floor and we step out and walk in silence, by the nurses station and down the all too familiar path to room 514.
She looks so weak and pale. Her small hand clutches at a remote control that helps her to sit up, call for a nurse, and even watch TV. Today, she feels too weak to walk. She seems to be made of glass: fragile and breakable. When I visit her on days like this, I’m afraid I could hurt her, so different from the rough kid who would bounce around as if life was her personal playground. I sit on the side of her bed and try to smile, but it doesn’t come naturally, as if we are frozen. We stare at each other for a moment, and then awkwardly turn away.
At first, we don’t know what to say, which is surprising, because usually, it’s hard to keep us quiet. The memory of Madame Laurent scolding us for chit-chatting incessantly during last year French’s festival is all too vivid. We always had something we wanted to tell each other. But right now, we find ourselves at a loss for words. “I’m sorry,” I blurt out, the first one to break the uncomfortable silence. She tilts her head gingerly and runs her tongue over her dry lips.
“What for?” she asks, genuinely not mad at me.
“For not coming yesterday, I feel so bad-”
“No,” she cut me off, “it’s ok Anna.”
“No, it’s not ok.” I press “I should’ve been here for you.”
“Well, you’re here now.”She looks up at me kindly, forgivingly…this helpless girl, stuck in a hospital bed for weeks on end, chipping away at the tension between us.
I smile down at her. “We have a lot of catching up to do…”
After Anna and her mother leave, I realize I feel exhausted, much more tired than usual. I dismiss my fatigue and tell myself that whatever it is, I should sleep. Sleep is probably the best thing I can do to pass the time. So many hours, days, and weeks on end — even though it’s basically impossible to get extended sleep in here with nurses constantly checking in. Recently though, sleep has been troubling for me, filled with never ending nightmares, such as the one last night where an endless line of nurses kept giving me shots. Still, after downing my nighttime meds, I collapse quickly into deep slumber.
The next morning, I feel much stronger and more energized. I have an appetite and I order a big breakfast, which I quickly scarf down. I feel like I may even be able to get up and walk around today. It’s pretty normal for my health to rise and fall a little, but this time it feels different. It feels like a big improvement. When the doctors came this morning to check-in with me, they seemed encouraged, telling me the treatments seem to finally be overtaking the disease again, and that I’m on my way back to recovery. It seems no one expected this change. I can even go out into the central area now, where other patients my age are playing and talking together. I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in months. I allow myself to start to believe that I can recover. I’m actually going to make it!
Marie’s mother just called. Apparently, Marie has made a big rebound. She’s even up and walking around! Upon hearing the news, I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. A breath I must have been holding for months, since first hearing Marie had gotten sick. I have been so worried about her, and now, I finally feel like I might be able to relax a little.
Despite the fact that it’s not me who’s sick, I still feel sick to my stomach every time I hear or think about Marie. Sometimes, I even feel guilty that I’m the one who’s fine and she’s the one who’s so sick. Marie’s mother told me that Marie is up and about and wondering where I am. I ask my Mom and she said that although it’s a bit late today, we can go visit her tomorrow after school. Gotta make more cupcakes. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of that fancy dark chocolate that Marie likes so much. Oh well, Marie has never met a cupcake that she didn’t like. I’ll have another chance to make her special dark chocolate cupcakes next time. I’m so excited! Things are finally looking up. This is the way things should be.
I wander into the patient courtyard — where patients both older and younger are milling around — and allow myself to feel happy. To be out here means that I am well enough to not be in there, not be stuck in 514 with its fake sky, fake clouds, and fake sun. Well enough to walk without constant supervision again.
I forget how good it feels to be able to wander, to go anywhere you want with no goal or destination. Such a simple thing that we all take for granted feels like the very essence of freedom.
I discover that a lot of the patients out here are in similar situations. I sit down on one of the benches, fatigued from the sudden rush of noise, sound, and color after having spent so much time pent up in my small room. I start to feel overwhelmed, but in a good way, like when you wake up from a bad dream and all the brightness of the day hits you suddenly, and you feel awake and happy: the dream is finally over.
Not long after I sit down, a little girl sits down on the other side of the bench. The girl appears a few years younger. She looks down at her shoes, her shoulders hunched and her mouth a little pouty.
“Hey,” I say to the girl, “what’s wrong?” She looks up at me and sniffles a little.
“I’m just sad. I don’t wanna stay in the hospital anymore.” She looks out over the roof of the building towards the sky beyond.
“It’s ok,” I reply gently, “It gets better.” I pull out a piece of my favorite dark chocolate out of my pocket and hand it to her. She takes it and stuffs it into her mouth before making a face, proclaiming:
“Bleh, it’s too bitter,” sadness crosses her face again, “I miss chocolate. I wanna go back home.”
I stick a piece of chocolate into my own mouth “Look at me, yesterday I was stuck in my bed and today I’m outside walking around. Don’t worry, you’ll get better and then you’ll be able to go back home.”
She wrinkles her nose at me. “Are you sure? I kinda hurt and the people here keep poking me with needles…” Her eyes flick down to a small bandaid on her arm before rising back up to my face. I thought I saw a little glimmer of hope cross her features.
“I’m sure.” I smile back, “It’ll all get better.”
I have been thinking a lot. About Marie that is. I’m so excited that she’s getting better. I had been feeling negative emotions: anger, loneliness, even some guilt, but I don’t have those thoughts anymore. Now, when I go to visit Marie, I feel happy. Happy to go to a hospital, a place where people are sick, or worse, dying. I watch her with other patients: she seems so strong and many of them seem to be looking up to her: they know her story, how she’s battled. Now, she inspires other patients by the way she interacts with them, exhibiting a combination of confidence and sensitivity.
Naturally, Marie’s mother is both excited and proud. She even pulled us aside as we were leaving, “She’s been so brave throughout this. When she comes home, I want to throw her a party where we can all celebrate.” We eagerly agree and everyone has been busy party-planning over the past few days. At dinner with my mom, we discuss the details of the party, from the guest list to the food to the decorations. Of course, we will have Marie’s famous dark chocolate cupcakes.
A few minutes later, mom’s phone rings. It’s a call from Marie’s mother. “Wait a minute,” she says, picking up her phone and stepping into the other room. I sit up in my seat, suddenly excited, listening as she takes the call, soft murmurs drifting in through the cracked door.
I’ve been so happy about Marie’s recovery, especially given all the mixed emotions I’ve been feeling. I miss Marie so much. I miss calling her and talking about our classes, friends, frenemies, activities, vacation plans, and the like – basically, everything.
Sometimes, I am hit by fits of anger and all I can think of is how unfair it is that Marie is sick. But then comes the guilt. What’s wrong with me? Marie is the sick one here. She is the one stuck in a hospital, the one who needs me to support her. Still, I’ve been scared: scared of what might happen to Marie; of us drifting apart; of everything changing between — of losing my best friend. But strong Marie is pulling through. She’s recovering. Soon enough, I’ll be chatting and playing and planning with Marie. Just like we used to before she got sick. Like she never left.
Suddenly, my mom steps back into the room. I am jolted out of my thoughts, slightly disoriented. For a moment, I don’t notice the look on my mom’s face, but then I do. Her eyes are fixated on me, her pupils widened, sorrowful. The light glints off of them, scattering light. I think I see a sheen of tears. But… what could be wrong? Marie is getting better. We’re planning a big party. I’m making more cupcakes. I have the ingredients out and an egg in my hands. Mom stands in silence, her mouth turned down and the wrinkles on her face deepening. She shifts her weight uncomfortably, leaning against the door frame for support. “What’s… what’s wrong?” I finally manage to get out. My voice sounds distant, weak. She continues to stand there for an eternity, looking despairingly sad.
For a moment my senses turn hyper-aware, as if they are taking in every detail, every stain on the kitchen’s tile floor, every crack in the off-white paint on the walls, every tiny, miniscule speck of dust in the air. Even the smooth, cool feeling of the egg I’m holding in my hand. The egg I’m going to use to make Marie’s cupcakes. They are memorizing, no, engraving this memory into my mind forever. This moment in time.
My mother opens her mouth to speak, something in her face tells me we won’t be making any more cupcakes. When her lips finally manage to form the words, her voice is ragged. “Anna, Marie was rushed into emergency surgery last night. She didn’t make it.”
I drop the egg onto the kitchen floor.
Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or events is purely coincidental. The author is an 8th grade student at Wayland Middle School and has never been to a hospital.