17, Number 98, August/September 2014 WINNER OF THE YOUNG WRITERS’ CATEGORY (AGES 10-19): THE SUSANNA VOTH WIEBE PRIZE
(JUDGED BY NORMA LINDER) A Glimpse From Above by Olivia Paul
The lights in the hospital room are dimmed and I can barely make out the objects around me. I feel the presence of my parents and the surgeons, whispering anxiously amongst themselves whilst busying themselves for the procedure. I lay my head back on the pillow and squeeze my eyes shut. This time, they’re going to remove my spleen. Such a funny word, spleen. I have no idea what it’s used for, and whether or not I need it, but it doesn’t seem to matter as they’re taking it out of me. I will be minus one spleen when I wake up and I hope I’ll still feel like me. Even though a piece of me will be gone. Another piece.
I’m not even scared anymore. I’ve had so many needles and tests, so much medicine and hospital food, it’s like they’ve run out of things to do that can scare me. That doesn’t mean I don’t get anxious. I’ve learned that there is a distinct difference between being scared and being anxious.
I hear footsteps approaching my bed. I open my eyelids slightly to see my mother crouched beside me. She’s wearing her good luck charm bracelet and an expression of concern. With one fleeting touch of my fingertips, she is gone. I can still hear the surgeons talking in another state of mind. But I’m somewhere else.
My name is Eliza Baker and I was diagnosed with Stage 3 leukemia when I was eleven years old. Today, at age thirteen, it’s still gripping its sharp nails into me even after years of vigorous treatments and constant switching of optimism. Cancer has taken a toll on my life and everyone around me. It has corrupted my emotions and made me question my purpose in life.
Why do I exist if I was born simply to die?
Am I only to serve as a comparison for healthier, more fortunate people? Just so they can tell their loved ones not to feel badly about something because people like me have it so much worse?
When people ask me what cancer feels like I cannot distill into words the exact emotions. Fear. Anxiety. Depression. Guilt for inflicting years of pain on my family members. And even more, the years of grief and sorrow I will cause for years to come. Cancer defines me.
But for now, I am slipping away. When I open my eyes I am no longer in the hospital room. I am looking down from way up high. So high I can’t see what is below me. Strangely, I feel light, as if a weight has been lifted. All emotions of fear and anxiety have been eradicated and replaced with the feeling of floating. There is light all around me. It is both warm and inviting.
Suddenly, a girl in a white flowing dress approaches me. “Hi Eliza.” I stare at her warily. How does she know my name. “It’s okay, it’s safe. You can follow me.”
And I want to. She is so beautiful and so... shiny is the only word I can think of. Her eyes are as blue as the sky. Her long blonde hair floats breezily around her shoulders. She looks a bit older than me, maybe fifteen or sixteen, but she seems so much older than that. “My name is Emily,” she smiles. Her smile is so incredible it passes through me like warm water.
Any feeling of hesitation is gone and I happily follow her. She takes my hand and without effort, we start floating above the clouds. It’s an amazing sensation I can’t describe. I feel free. Free from disease. Free from pain. Free from thinking. I look over at Emily and right away, I can see that she knows. She knows that I am free. And she knows because she has been me. She has seen what I’ve seen and is urging me to know that it will all be okay.
And then, before I even have time to react, she is gone and I am falling. Down far too quickly, and then all at once, I wake up and gasp. It takes me a while to realize, and to accept, that I’m still in my bed at the hospital, hooked up to an I-V machine. I try to shake my head, to clear my thoughts and make sense of what just happened, but the pain grips me. The surgeons and nurses are gone, and Dr. Zeit and my family are all standing over me. I try to look around, but Emily is not there.
I blink twice, struggling to take everything in. The feelings I felt when I was with Emily were so ...real. I know they were. I know it was real. But I’m still here, tethered to this bed. Tubes and anxious glances still attached to me. No matter how hard I try there is no explaining how it happened. When I was younger, I used to believe in God and spirits and the afterlife, but once I had cancer I stopped believing in everything. Those conspiracy theories just seemed like a ploy to get kids like me to feel less afraid of what was to come.
“Eliza!” my mother exclaims and embraces me. “I’m so glad you’re awake. Dr. Zeit says the surgery was very successful and you may be able to leave the hospital soon! Isn’t that exciting?” She turns and smiles at Dr. Zeit, who might seem to share the happiness. You never can tell, though. I guess Dr. Zeit is the epitome of a children’s doctor, neither here nor there. He’s got agethinned hair, wears thick, owlrimmed glasses and carries around a clipboard everywhere recording God knows what. When I was younger, I used to call him “the robot” because he never once looked like he was alive, never flickered more than a forced smile. I bet he thought human emotions were an atrocious waste of time. He probably feeds off the tears of cancer-stricken children. Okay, I’m getting a bit carried away here. What I’m getting at is basically Dr. Zeit’s presence always just infuriates me for some reason.
“We have to wait and see, I don’t want to make any promises yet,” Dr. Zeit says in a flat, monotone voice. “I’ll try to let you know by this afternoon.” And with that, he turns on his heel, but not before turning to my parents and tosses out instructions about how I need my rest. I wonder if he’s married or if he has kids. I feel sorry for them if he does. I imagine a dad who is hollow inside, except for some wires and maybe a tiny person manning the controls. It makes me smile.
“How do you feel?” Dad asks, interrupting my thoughts as he touches my arm. His fingertips are rough, like his beard when he forgets to shave.
“Okay,” I mumble, not catching his eye. I want to be alone with how I feel for now. Mostly because I don’t know how I feel. I’m still trying to figure out who Emily is and what happened. I only know that I am different. I feel like I’ve become someone else. Someone new.
My little brother, Dylan bounds upto my bed holding a plush sock monkey. “You forgot Dexter at home. Mom said to bring it with us, because you’d want it later.” He deposits my lifelong friend onto my bed.
“Thanks.” I smile at him. Dylan nods a little before pulling his iPod out of his back pocket and resumes playing his game. Classic. Dylan’s always seemingly too afraid to engage in a conversation with me these days - as I’m some sort of scary cancer monster that ate up his sister.
A day later, I am finally released. When I get home, I check my computer to see that I have been bombarded with messages from family members and people I hardly even know; each of them sending their condolences, filled with generic one-liners like ‘Stay brave for us’ and ‘You’re in our prayers’. I’m too tired and weak to respond to any of them, not that it’s something I would usually occupy my time doing. I go downstairs to inform my parents that I am going to bed.
“Do you need anything else?” my Dad asks. I know he’s worried about me. He never looks me right in the eye when he is worried. Now, he doesn’t look up from the chessboard he is setting up to play with my mother. My parents are both board game enthusiasts. Last year, they participated in some chess competition and won. They even scored an article inside of the Kingston Whig. Whether or not that is something to be proud of, I am not sure.
“I’m fine,” I say politely. “I’m just ti-.”
“Do you want me to tuck you in?” my mom interjects. “Get you some water? Anything?”
“That’s okay,” I assure her. “I’m really fine.”
“Okay.” My mom seems unconvinced. Why can’t she just accept that cancer hasn’t rendered me completely useless and I can do things myself? “Remember to take your medicine.”
I smile tightly, “Always.”
Afew hours later, I am woken by the sounds of my parents’ muffled voices in the other room.
“Ben, how are we going to keep paying for Eliza’s treatments? We need to make some serious budget cuts within the next year in order to catch up.” I hear my mother say. The digital clock beside my bed reads 10:13 in neon green numbers. I’m not sure if that’s am or pm. I lie on my side closer to the door.
“Shh, she’ll hear you!” my father whispers violently. “We don’t need to give her yet another thing to worry about. You know how she gets.” That one was a kick in the chest where I didn’t need it. I didn’t realize I was so intolerable when I got anxious.
My mother sighs. “I know. But still. What on earth are we going to do? Taxes are due next month. We have to pay for Dylan’s braces, and for the gardener to keep coming. We’re in way over our heads.”
“It will all be alright.” My father’s voice is comforting. “I promise. After my presentation, I’ll get a raise. Stewart says he’s sure of it. The transaction was confirmed.”
“This whole thing, this cancer, it’s so hard on us as parents,” my mother sputters. “It never lets go. And watching her, well, sometimes I think I’m going to break. And it brings back so many bad memories. I can’t deal with this again, Ben. I can’t.”
There is silence, which scares me. What memories? Was I sick as a little kid and I don’t remember?
“We have so much to consider and we get so little time. I try to be strong for Eliza’s sake, but sometimes I just don’t know if I can. It’s just like -.”
It occurs to me that my mother is crying. I haven’t seen her cry since we watched The Notebook together two years ago. She was entranced while I was bored out of my mind.
“I know, I know. This is different, Eliza is strong.” My dad mumbles. “Whatever it takes, we’ll get through this, I promise.”
Why is this different? What is she talking about? Before I can figure it out, I think I hear them kissing. Ew. This literally makes me gag and I pull the pillow over my head. And before I know it, I fall asleep again.
The next morning, I feel almost recharged from a good night’s sleep. Other than witnessing my mom’s meltdown, everything feels good. But a part of me still wants to know what she was talking about. Who she was talking about.
“Mom?” I ask, peering around the wall. My mother is sitting in an armchair, her legs swung over the arm. She has her glasses on and she is reading the newspaper and sipping from a steaming mug of coffee.
“Oh, Eliza,” my mother lowers her paper. “I thought you were still asleep. Are you okay? Are you in pain?”
“A little. But nothing I can’t handle.” But ever since I heard her last night, I can’t forget what she said. That she can’t go through it again. I have to know what she’s talking about. If it’s me that’s making her so sad, I don’t think I can do this any more. I muster up enough courage to say, “Mom, can we talk for a minute?” I slip gently into the chair beside her. My stomach is sore and I don’t want to rip the stitches. There must be something about the way I ask her because my mom looks scared.
“Of - of course. What is it, honey?” She fixes a smile onto her face a little too tightly.
“Well, it’s just that, well I heard you and dad talking last night.”
“Oh, Eliza. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I think I was just so relieved that you were okay and that the surgery went well. We’ll be just fine. I don’t want you to worry about anything. We’ll make everything work. I really am not that concerned. We have more than enough money to pay for everything. And Dad’s getting a raise at work, he thinks. We’ll be fine.”
I stare at her for a minute until I realize that she’s talking about the money. Adults are so concerned with taxes and finances, in some sort of twisted way, it makes me glad I will never have to live through all of that.
“I’m not talking about the money, Mom. I’m talking about what you said. You said .... that you’ve done this before. Was I sick as a little kid and I don’t remember?” My palms are sweaty as I wait for her to answer.
Something on her face tells me that she doesn’t want to talk about this. But then she closes her eyes and starts talking. “No, Eliza. You weren’t sick when you were a child. I was talking about... l was talking about my sister.”
“Your sister? You don’t have a sister, you’re an only child.” Maybe the stress of everything has caused her to lose her mind, to see siblings that never existed.
My mother slowly shakes her head, her eyes still closed. “I never wanted you to know about her. It was just too painful. And then, when you....”
“When I what? What happened to her?”
“Oh, Eliza, she was so beautiful. You couldn’t imagine how lovely she was. She was an amazing girl. She loved to read and draw. Just like you. She had such charisma and could make anyone smile. She was four years younger than me, and I used to think she was a doll for me to play with. I loved her and I loved being with her. And one day, Grandma was sick and couldn’t take her to school. So Grandma asked me if I could take her. I remember being very angry with Grandma because I was supposed to meet my friends and I didn’t want to be seen taking my baby sister to school.” My mother shuts her eyes again. “But I did it. I remember being angry with my sister as well and shoving her out the door so I could just get it over with. I’ll never forget, she was so excited about the school play - she was playing Sandy in Grease. She was so perfect for the part. Sandy was a reflection of her personality. Anyway, I wasn’t paying attention and, well, another car came out of nowhere and....” Tears spring to her eyes and she makes no motion to wipe them as they roll down her cheeks.
“She died right there. I don’t remember what happened next, but I remember holding her and begging her to wake up.” My mother looks out the window.
“And you think it was your fault?” I ask, my voice shaky.
“It was my fault. I never forgave myself.”
“But why didn’t you tell me about her?”
“Because I feel so guilty and well, when you got sick, I didn’t even want to think about losing another family member who I loved so much.”
I could sort of understand where she was coming from. It must’ve been awful to go through all that, and then, eventually to have to go through that again, in another situation you have no control over. “What did she look like?” I ask.
“Just like you. You have her eyes and her smile. And you also have her courage and, I’d say you’ve also inherited her ability to get away with anything,” my mom smiles for the first time.
“What was her name?” I ask, but I think I already know the answer.
“Emily. Her name was Emily.”
Three months have passed. Nothing really significant has happened. The cancer is still going strong. I was rehospitalized briefly last month, but I was released again after I got a prescription for a new medicine plan. I feel stronger now. I started taking up Track again, even though I can’t last for more than a mile.
But today, I’m tired so I go to bed early. Just as I’m falling asleep, I hear a noise. My mother checking me. Only it isn’t my mother. Or my father. It’s the kid I have come to know as Emily. She used to come all the time, but lately, I haven’t seen her. I can see that she is okay. She has shown me the other side. Death was always an inevitable part of my life I couldn’t come to terms with. My future is uncertain, other than the fact that one day I will die. Most probably before I turn sixteen. But I’ve learned to accept my fate, as cliché as that sounds. Emily has taught me that it’s okay on the other side. I’m confident that it will be.
And today, Emily is smiling at me. And I smile back.