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The news was unexpected. I never saw it coming. Consumption was a dangerous disease. Always slow, always fatal. It grabs its victims at will, with no regard for their families or their future. The Doctor said that there would be no change for a time, but there was no cure, and when the disease became bad, it would strike and it would win. He was right. In the early weeks after the news, I was still the same; a rosy-cheeked, happy girl of nine.
As the disease progressed, I could feel the strength seeping out of my body. My skin became pale and my eyes too big for my face. My mother was always cheerful, but in an empty sort of way. It seemed as if the disease had taken over my house and drained away all the joy. It was the same of my father.
Every Sunday evening, Father would take us out for a beignet, our favorite pastry. At least that used to be so. Now he hid behind his newspaper, as if he was trying to bury all of his troubles from his mind. When he surfaced to the world, he barely spoke and hated to be reminded of the struggles that plagued the household. In truth, it seemed as if he had completely forgotten that I was ill. Whenever someone brought up my sickness, my father turned a deaf ear and walked away.
Soon after the first summer of my illness, I heard whispered rumors of a great painter visiting from the grand city of Paris. The event blew color into my drab days, and put spots of pink in my cheeks that had been pale for months. However, when he arrived I was confined to my room so my curiosity was brought to a halt.
I longed to see the artist’s paintings (before my sickness I had taken drawing lessons from my father’s cousin), but my cough had grown so harsh, it wracked my body. Restricted to my bed the days dragged on eternally. Often my mother would stop by with a cup of tea, and a chat. But she was preoccupied and busier than usual.
After a week in bed my mother came with exciting news, I was to be painted by the great artist! The next morning dawned bright and early. All the birds seemed to sing with me as I was lifted out of bed. Donning a white frock my mother vainly endeavored to put color in my cheeks but eventually gave up in despair. I was settled in a wicker chair to await the arrival of the curious Frenchman.
When the door slid open I was surprised to see a short robust man, plainly not the handsome artist struggling in a garret, as my active imagination had conceived him to be. He stood there in the center of the bright room staring fixedly at me, with a huge easel under his arm. A softness entered his eyes as he saw my paleness and frail useless hands. Quickly overcoming his emotions, with a flourish he opened his easel and mixed his paints.
So it went on for days and weeks, the sunny morning, sitting for a portrait, a treat, naps, fussing mothers. The routine was a comfort that I clung too, hoping against hope that the doctor was mistaken and I had a disease that could be cured, or one that would just go away. I thought that it might be so since I had not grown worse for some time. Yet even as I told myself so, I knew that it was just a little bit harder to get up the next morning, every sitting just took a little more strength, every smile was a little harder, every laugh a little more painful.
My father, throughout this time was rarely present. He was always busy, or so my mother told me. Business meetings, private luncheons, social obligations all crowded his life with alluring distraction. I was the daughter that had never been, the one he was leaving before she left him. I wonder if he ever knew that I woke up early every morning, just to watch him walk down the front path toward work, walking away from me.
One morning, as like the mornings before, my mother came back into my room and told me she was going to carry me downstairs to see the finished painting. But I asked her to wait a moment. I was thinking about something that had been nagging at me for a week or two. My mother told me I only had a few minutes before she would come back up. She left my bedroom and trudged down the stairs.
I pulled myself out of the comfort of my warm bed, using every ounce of my strength. I slowly slid onto the floor and pain seared through my body. The hard smooth floor seemed to stretch on forever. But I had to see myself. Far off into what seemed an impossible distance a mirror stood in the corner. Lacking the strength to stand, I had no choice but to crawl, and slowly inch by inch I made my way across the room.
When I saw my reflection, I was heartbroken. I had become but a ghost of my former self. My skin was as white as a sheet, and my brown eyes had dark, unforgiving circles beneath them. My strawberry blond hair had darkened to a dirty brown; where it used to be thick it had grown thin and wispy. Who was this girl in the mirror?
A tear streamed down my cheek, as I looked at myself. Then I remembered the portrait. Was this how I was being painted? Would my father remember me forever as a pale, sick child? Was this my legacy? The tear reached my mouth with its awful saltiness. It reminded me of times at the seashore, where death was as far away as the horizon. The horrible reflection slowly faded and gave way to darkness.
I woke up to yells and horrible cries.
My mother was crying, my sisters were crying too, and everyone was yelling at some point. But it was all sort of blurred together, like when you draw on the sidewalk with colored chalk and the rain washes it away, making the artwork indistinct. My mother was telling me that she thought I was dead, and I was fearful. Could it really happen so soon?
Suddenly I shuddered violently. My mother bawled. It was getting progressively harder for me to breathe, and the strength was steadily trickling out of my bones. No, I couldn’t die. Not now, it wasn’t fair! My father wasn’t even home.
I could no longer hold up my head. I was dying, and there was no denying it. I gathered up all my might and begged the artist if I may see the painting. He quickly nodded and said it was finished anyway. He scuttled downstairs and hastily came back up, clutching the painting. Inside I was praying that I didn’t look like the ghost I had seen in the mirror. He walked up to me, and flipped the canvas around, revealing the painting that had taken so many days to complete.
All of my worries washed away at that moment. The painting was gorgeous. It was a portrait of the way I had looked before my illness. My curly hair was blonde again; no longer wispy strands but thick locks. My skin was lovely, and my eyes were bright and full of life. No dark circles to be seen. I was as plump as a girl my age should be, instead of appearing nearly skeletal.
This painting captured my true self, not the sickly child confined to bed rest. A smile spread across my dying face, and I told my mom, my sisters, and even the painter, that I loved them. I yearned for my father’s presence, but I knew he couldn’t come.
I laid back, closed my eyes, thinking about the beautiful portrait that my father would be able to remember me by. I was thankful that this would be my legacy, that this is how the world would see me forever.
And that was it.