When Life Gives You Lemons

February 7, 2008
By Kelsey Johnson, Shoreline, WA

It all started as desperately needing community service hours for school. It was a shallow motivation, only to make my college applications look good and to give me some sort of work experience when opportunity arose for a real job. So, I signed up for weekend shifts at the hospital. I was aware that I would be sacrificing my social life for three hours every Saturday, but it was worth it. It occurred to me that I would leave the hospital smelling like medicine and other unmentionables once a week, but it was almost even better than being at home.
My surroundings were drilled in my memory right as I entered the hospital on my first day. The colors were bland and neutral, never matching. There were ugly, modern sofas in corners for exhausted visitors to rest on. On the walls were hand sanitizer pumps and caution signs, and wrinkled advertisements for cancer associations and fundraisers. But the bad thing was the smell. It was a strange mixture of antiseptics, body odor, air fresheners, and throw-up, all shifting around in different rooms. The scent was bearable, but foreign enough to make me cringe as I passed through the surgery ward. Yuck.
The volunteer office was a place of comfort compared to most of the rest of the giant building. There was always an old lady sitting at the desk in the front of the hallway, who told you to sign in your name and hours and then offered you a cookie. She was always typing slowly on her out-dated computer as if she had no idea what the big box with cords and letters even was. At first I was frustrated with the fact that the majority of my shifts gave me no duties to be fulfilled, and that I would just sit in the stuff volunteer lounge for a straight three hours. But as things changed I took the lack of business to my advantage.
One rare, hectic afternoon, I was wheeling a cart of envelopes to the mailroom. My squeaky white tennis shoes treaded easily on the tile floor and my blue smock was thick and beginning to make me sweat under the fluorescent lights. As I turned a corner I saw a young girl in a wheelchair struggling to get her footrest un-stuck from her door. She obviously wasn’t very strong, so I went to prop it open.
“Oh, thanks,” the patient said breathlessly.
“Yeah, no problem,” I replied blandly.
I went back to my cart and wheeled it only a few feet before the girl blurted,
“Hey, wait- my name’s Kerri.”
“Oh, um my name’s Cameron.” I replied with an unsure tone. I didn’t have any idea why a patient would want to make small talk with me of all people. After all, I was just a tall, sixteen-year-old girl who had no flattering features, no outstanding credentials, and nothing interesting about her at all. Our introduction stopped there and I returned to my post in the volunteer office.

Next Saturday I signed in and went to my mailbox in the volunteer lounge, not expecting anything other than a newsletter, or maybe a flier for a charity event. But today there was something extra. I stuck my hand into the flimsy wooden cubby and pulled out a small piece of paper. It read,

Request: for Cameron to come see Kerri Jenkins
For: Cameron Reeves

Time: any time
Room: 425-F
Notes: Hi Cameron! I don’t know if you remember who I am but I never really have anything to do here so I was wondering if you could come hang out with me from Kerri.

I must admit that a smile came to my face when I read Kerri’s messy handwriting on the chartreuse note. She even drew a little heart in the bottom right hand corner, and there was a greasy fingerprint near the top that must have come from her lukewarm cafeteria lunch. In that short moment, my heart swelled two sizes larger. I guess you could say I was almost like the Grinch getting a special complement from little Cindy Lou Who.
“Hello?” I said hesitantly as I gave a light tap to the wooden door. The only reason I was the slightest bit nervous was because I had no idea what Kerri expected of me.
“Cameron! Ah, finally. Okay you can go now,” she said to her nurse, “Cameron can probably supervise me on her own.” The nurse hesitated and gave me an uneasy look.
“Alright, get a move on!” demanded Kerri again. I was actually startled, and I felt a pang of sympathy for the nurse. The tone of the young girl’s voice reminded me of my relationship with my step-mom… not exactly a pleasant one.
“Hey Kerri, how are you?” I asked.
“I’m fine, just doing my usual daily routine of nothing. So, I never got the chance to ask you, why are you here anyway? I know if I had the choice I’d get the heck out of here as fast as I could. Are you sick too or do you have family here or what?”
I was kind of overwhelmed by the rapid rush of questions. “Oh, yeah. Well I’m trying to get service hours for school so I volunteer for the afternoon on Saturdays. It’s pretty much just delivering papers and returning wheelchairs and stuff. Pretty lame, I know.”
Kerri actually seemed really interested in what I had to say. “Well it sounds better than staying in one room for like six hours at a time. And what are service hours anyway?”
“Wait- have you like never been to school before?”
“No… well not a real one, like with lockers and mean bullies and jocks and like 20 classes a day like I’ve seen on movies. All I got up to was 4th grade.”
It was a new sensation when I actually felt empathetic for Kerri. “Wow, that’s so strange! I thought everybody went to school. Why haven’t you gone, have you always been here or something?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. I got sick when I was 9 and had to get home schooled, and then it got serious and I had to come here. Except I’ve been to lots of other hospitals too. My parents are kind of obsessed with finding the “best” of all medical care for me.” Stated Kerri simply.
“Oh my gosh… that really sucks. Hey, you don’t mind me asking,” I said hesitantly, “um, …what’s wrong with you?”
She laughed at me. “No I don’t care, I get asked that a lot. Well basically, my heart’s too big. I know, how ironic. My heart doesn’t get blood to my body well so I have to stay here to make sure it doesn’t get clotted or anything weird like that.”
Suddenly I realized why Kerri wanted me here in the first place. Isolated, bored, and all alone here in this stuffy hospital, all she wants is a friend. It’s simple- just a friend. Furthermore, she’d probably never even had a good person to talk to besides a psychologist or something. I finally figured out what my sole purpose in the hospital was going to be. I was going to make this kid’s life a whole heck of a lot better.
Kerri and I started spending a lot of time together at the hospital. After only a few weeks I knew for sure I would find a pass to her room in my mailbox every week. I would have preferred to just go straight there, but volunteers weren’t allowed to wander to random rooms without permission. Soon after Kerri and I became comfortable with each other, the nurses stopped bothering coming to supervise us. Believe it or not, I got quite attached to the kid. Unlike a lot of other people in my life, she really seemed to “get” me, you know? Every time I poured out my heart to her, she would respond with a confident nod and helpful phrases of advice. Despite our three-year age difference, we had a lot in common. Before I knew it I knew everything about her, from her favorite color to her favorite movie to her greatest fear to her biggest pet peeve. I wheeled her around the hospital, getting bites to eat in the cafeteria and getting fresh air in the vast parking lot. We even went on little “missions” playing pranks on receptionists and telling jokes to the bitterest elderly patients. Kerri had learned miniscule details about almost every employee on her floor just by watching them for as long as she had been in that same bed. For example: Ms. James, the intensive care receptionist, had a mole on the back of her neck with a hair on it. She also has a husband named Rick and a teenage daughter, whose issues were probably caused by the lack of parenting she got from her workaholic mother. Dr. Wilkinson, a cardiologist, was having an affair with a nurse practitioner named Susan for two months. Kerri said it ended because Dr. McIntyre found out; both of Susan’s love lives were ended in one day. Now how’s that for detail?
One dull, drizzly day, I came into the office to sign in and check my mailbox. I inserted my gloved hand and shuffled around… but there was nothing. Where was my pass? Was Kerri getting bored of me? Did she just forget? Yeah, that must be it. She just forgot to have her supervisor write a pass. I decided not to think anything of it, sit down in the lounge, and wait for a task.
The next week, the same thing happened, then another week following that. If I was correct in thinking Kerri didn’t want to see me anymore, I was going to do something about it. Maybe there was some sort of misunderstanding. Right after I signed in one week I wrote myself a cafeteria pass so I could go to Kerri’s room on the way. I finally rounded the corner to her hallway… but her lights were dimmed. The pieces of paper with pipe cleaners glued to them had been taken off the window; we had made those together. I peeked through a bent blind and saw only a vacant room. It had new bed sheets and a barren windowsill. Kerri was gone.
I rushed to the nearest nurse I saw. “Um excuse me, do you know where the girl who used to be in that room went? Did she move rooms, or go home for the weekend, or… something?”
“Oh, yes, Kerri. She just passed away a few weeks ago. There was nothing her doctors could do, I’m very sorry. Was there something you needed her for?” said the nurse monotonously.
“Yeah I needed her for something. I needed her for everything.” I thought to myself with a morose tone. “Does she think this is okay? Right when we’re getting close, like real friends, she just quits on me? Why is this happening? Why couldn’t she just have held on for a little bit longer? I didn’t even get a goodbye...”
Thoughts ran through my head like fish through a stream. It was over. I paused to take one last look at Kerri’s darkened room, walked down the hall, went straight through the automatic doors, and out of that place. Once in the confinement of my car, I cried.

My time with Kerri was as fragile as an egg balancing nimbly on a plastic spoon. Inside, I think I always knew that our precious moments could cease to continue at any given time; it was all up to a thing as sensitive as a small factor of Kerri’s health. With a nostalgic memory, I look back on my time with Kerri as a time where my gratefulness for health and love expanded greatly. The humorous, yet innocent words that came from Kerri’s lips were engraved in my mind so well that I look back on them for reminiscence almost every day. She always knew how to make me laugh, no matter what kind of mood I was in or what tough times I was going through at home. Finding myself reflecting on the value of a life well lived, Kerri Jenkins comes up in thought each time. Even though that girl had it harder than most of us will ever realize, she lived every day I spent with her to the fullest. I’ve heard countless people say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It may seem a bit cliché, but it’s actually more relevant than most of us think. You never know when your whole outlook on life can change right before your eyes. What are you doing today that you’ll never be able to do again? What are you missing out on, right now? Stories like mine remind me of these phrases all the time. I find myself wiser than ever, now that I know what it feels like to have happiness snatched right from under your nose.

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