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It is six twenty-eight, and I can't help but watch the ceaseless ticking of the clock on Dr. Anderson's wall, knowing that it is counting down the remaining minutes of my life. I can hardly believe him when he tells me that I have a tumor in my pancreas, when he tells me that I have a very severe form of cancer. The words don't register fully in my mind, they are just sounds floating through the air. But even after the idea gets into my head, I don't know what to say. Cancer kills people. Was it going to kill me, too? I am afraid to ask.
Fortunately, I don't have to. Mother asks for me. "How bad is the tumor?" she asks Dr. Anderson, a worried expression on her face. Her expression makes my heart quicken. Mother is never worried. She is always the calm one, the one who always seems to know what to do when something is wrong.
"The tumor has spread too far already," Dr. Anderson says, frowning. He doesn't look me in the eye. Maybe it's because he thinks I would be afraid. Or maybe he is the one who's afraid. "Thought it's possible that we may be able to treat it with surgery. There's something known as the Whipple procedure, it involves removing the entire pancreatic head in pancreato-duodenectomy. But at this stage of development in the tumor, I'm afraid that it wouldn't be effective. I'm so sorry, Mrs. Ayala."
"There must be some other way," Mother insists.
Dr. Anderson shakes his head. "The tumor has already spread out of the pancreas. The diagnosis was much too late."
What Dr. Anderson is trying to say finally gets to me. I am going to die, and nothing anyone does can change that. The minutes that pass, once something that I cast aside, knowing I had plenty of them, now seem infinitely more precious. Once I realize that they are scarce, their value is greater.
"How much longer does she have until..." Mother tries to ask, her eyes brimming with tears. She is afraid to say it. I am not. Until I die. Mother wants to know how much longer I have until I die. A year? Two years? Mother won't look at me either. I sit there, watching Mother and Dr. Anderson stare at the ground as they talk. As they talk about me.
"At most... four months," Dr. Anderson says, "The end of February would be my best guess."
"Just four?" Mother asks in despair, and she buries her face in her hands. I like it better this way. I can't bear to see Mother cry. It might make me cry, too.
The drive home is a silent one. I don't dare speak, for Mother is still crying. I can see her tears fall like raindrops through the mirror.
I still can hardly believe this is happening as I walk into my room. The shadows cast from my bed loom in the darkness, and I instinctively turn to the calendar on my wall. It is the first of November. Dr. Anderson says I have until the end of February. Four months for me to live.
Of all the people that could have gotten pancreatic cancer- why did it have to be me? Of the billions of people in the world, I had been singled out from all of them.
Information has a strange way of traveling faster than anyone could expect it to. It seems like the one thing you want to keep secret above all else is the one thing that everyone knows. I walk into my school this morning, knowing that I haven't told anyone the truth. But yet it seems like the entire school knows that I have cancer. It seems like everyone knows that I am going to die.
Not that anyone really cares.
The first person to talk to me is Cassandra Calderon. She walks up to me and gives me a quick hug. "I heard about what happened," she says, "I'm so sorry, Nikki. I'm sorry."
It is the first time anyone has mentioned my name since before the doctor's appointment. Even my younger brother, Carlos, who doesn't even realize what death really means, doesn't call me by my name anymore. What is the point of living if nobody will acknowledge that I exist? If nobody will look me in the eye?
"I'm sorry," Cassandra repeats, but she isn't. She only says that because that is what people say when they want to be comforting. She thinks she can help me by being my map, by showing me the paths to take. She wants to make it easy for me. But she doesn't truly understand. Nobody truly understands where I am. Except for me. And maybe that's the reason that I know that I am the only one that can guide myself through the next four months. What use is a map in the hands of someone who doesn't know where I am?
When I don't say anything, Cassandra turns around and walks away. I want to talk to her, but I don't know what I want to talk to her about. So I keep walking.
The next person to walk up to me is Lawrence Hayworth, the class clown, the one who really doesn't seem to have a care in the world for anyone else. "You know," he says, "If you live every day thinking that it will be your last, pretty soon you're going to be right." Then he laughs and walks away.
But the words stay in my head. If I live every day thinking that it would be my last, pretty soon I would be right. And I know that it is true. For once, Lawrence knows what he's talking about. I stop by the bathroom on my way to class, and I stare at myself in the mirror.
"If I were going to die today, would I choose to do the things I'm about to do?" I ask myself.
And the answer is obvious.
"No," I tell myself softly. If today were my last day to live, I wouldn't be standing here at school, about to go through a day of normal classes. I would be ready to do whatever I wanted, to eat the best food I possibly can, even if it's not healthy, and to be mean to the people that I don't like. Because there's nothing anyone could do about it. I was going to die anyways. Why not let myself do what I wanted to do?
"What kind of question is that?" a voice asks, and I spin around to see Cassandra standing in the doorway.
I can't believe she was listening to me. I thought I was alone.
"Just leave me alone!" I demand, and I storm out the door, leaving Cassandra behind me.
Throughout the day, the most anyone will do is look at me sadly and apologize. Most of them won't look at me at all. I decide that I must survive- dying is out of the question.
But how? Dr. Anderson says there is no treatment. There are no working cures for pancreatic cancer. Which is why I have to find one.
My mind is made up. I will find a cure for cancer.
I sit at a table in the lunchroom next to the only people that are willing to help me- Lawrence and Cassandra. Not exactly what I had in mind, but I am desperate.
"What exactly is it that you need us to do?" Lawrence asked.
"I need a cure for pancreatic cancer. And I need one within three months," I tell them.
Lawrence and Cassandra just stare at me blankly. Either they don't understand what I'm trying to tell them, or they think that what I'm asking is so crazily preposterous that there's no way they could ever consider doing it. Maybe both.
Cassandra's ocean-blue eyes stare sadly into mine, and she shakes her head. "It's not possible," she tells me, "I know you really want to live, but three months- it's not enough to find a cure. Nobody's ever found a cure."
"And that's why we have to find one," I say seriously.
"I'd like to help you, but I don't even know where I would start," Lawrence says, getting up from his seat.
"No!" I exclaim. I need all the help I can get. But what if they can't help?
The day ends, and Lawrence offers to walk home with me. He says he wants to talk about what I asked him to do. I agree, and we walk along the sidewalk.
"It's not possible," Lawrence tells me, his expression sad. I can't tell if he's genuinely sorry, or if he's just acting. "We're just thirteen. We can't find a cure for cancer in three months."
"You're only saying that because nobody's done it before," I argue, "Just because something's never been done before doesn't make it impossible."
"Okay, so maybe it's not impossible," Lawrence admits, "But it's so improbable that I don't even want to think about our chances."
"A small chance is better than a zero chance," I point out, and once again Lawrence is forced to admit that I am right.
Lawrence stops by a tall peach tree in the middle, towering over the sidewalk. He reaches up and pulls a peach down off the tree and hands it to me.
"Want one?" he asks.
I shake my head. "I'm allergic to peaches," I explain, "But if there were an apple on the tree, I would take it."
Lawrence smiles and takes a bite out of the peach. "It's a peach tree," he says, raising his eyebrows in amusement, "Everyone knows that apples don't grow on peach trees."
I don't reply, and we keep walking.
After a few moments, I glance back over my shoulder to stare at the peach tree. I can't help but imagine all the peaches on the tree as the failed attempts to cure cancer. And the apple that will never grow on that tree, that's the cure. It seems so impossible. And yet I know that it has to be done. Somewhere inside me, I believe that it can be done. I know that a cure can be found. Maybe apples don't grow on peach trees today, but tomorrow is home to a whole new sunrise.
"Cassandra told me about you talking to yourself in the mirror," Lawrence says after a long silence, "I guess that's kind of my fault. I'm sorry about that. It was a joke. I didn't mean for you to take it literally."
But I don't answer him. Maybe Lawrence thinks it's okay to joke about things like this, but when it's concerning my life, I don't think it's funny. I don't speak to him at all, not even after we reach my home and I go inside.
The next morning, I wake up and turn to the mirror on my wall.
"If I were to die today, would I be doing the things I'm going to do today?" I ask myself, just as I have for every day for more than a month now.
And just as my answer has been for the past month, I whisper, "No."
Then I get ready for school.
Once I am at school, everyone is talking about their plans for the winter break. I think I am the only one who's not going somewhere.
"I'm going to go on all of the fastest roller coasters," Cassandra says wistfully, not realizing that I'm not fully listening to what she is saying.
"You like roller coasters?" I ask, just because it would be rude not to respond.
"Yeah," she replies, "They're a lot of fun. My younger sister hates them, though. She screams whenever there's even the tiniest bump in the track."
"That's not the right way to ride a roller coaster," Cassandra tells me, as if it should be obvious, "You can scream whenever there's the tiniest bump, but if you really want to have fun, just let yourself relax and enjoy it while you can. The ride doesn't last forever."
"I guess you're right," I say, not really listening. I am wishing that I could be on a roller coaster too. But Dr. Anderson doesn't want me to leave the area. Not today, not tomorrow, not until I die. I have to stay here, in case my tumor gets worse.
"Are you still going to help me out with finding a cure?" I ask Cassandra, desperate to change the subject.
Cassandra nods. "I guess so," she says.
I don't think I can expect a better response than that. I suppose I will just have to hope that it all works out in the end.
Dr. Anderson says that I can't go to school anymore. He thinks it is best for me if I stay home and try not to be too active. I need my rest, he says. Occasional walks are okay, but even walking has begun to make my back hurt. Sometimes the pain is so intense that I cannot move out of my bed for days. Other times I almost feel normal again. But not going to school means spending time with my kindergardener brother Carlos. And Carlos can be annoying sometimes.
Today, Mother asked me to take Carlos with me as I went for a walk around the hillside.
"Slow down! Where are we going?" Carlos asks.
I turn and wait for Carlos to catch up for me as we walk through the hills.
"We're just going to go for a walk," I explain, "I don't have any real destination in mind. Let's just... go, and we'll see where the path takes us, okay?"
Carlos nods, and we start to walk.
"I'm tired," Carlos complains after a few minutes as we walk past a small cave. We listen as his voice echoes back at us, "I'm tired, I'm tired, I'm tired..."
"Who said that?" Carlos asks, looking around him in confusion. There's nobody there but me.
"It's an echo," I explain gently, "A lot of times caves like these will echo. Whatever you say into it is repeated back to you. Whatever you give, you get back. Get it?"
Carlos nods. "That's cool!" he exclaims, and he laughs as the echoes come back to him, "That's cool, that's cool, that's cool..."
I smile and set my backpack down against the grass and let myself fall backwards. I lay there, glancing at the white masses as they contorted themselves into figures of the sky, taking in deep breaths as I watched Carlos talk to the cave and listen to the echoes. And when Carlos is done having fun with the echoes, we start to walk home, listening to the echoes of our footsteps as they ring in the air.
The sun is towering over the sky by the time we reach home. Carlos pulls out a plastic bag from his toy box and opens it, releasing hundreds of tiny puzzle pieces and letting them accumulate in a pile on the table, each one hitting the surface like raindrops on a window.
"Can you help me?" Carlos asks, gesturing to the pile of puzzle pieces on the table.
I nod and turn to the fragments of the picture that lay on the table.
"What is the puzzle supposed to look like when it's done?" I ask Carlos, holding up one of the pieces and examining it closely. From just the one piece, I can't tell what it's supposed to be.
Carlos shrugs and glances at the puzzle.
"I don't know," Carlos tells me uncertainly, "I don't have the box anymore. Let's just put the pieces together and see what kind of picture we make. Maybe we'll be surprised."
I stare at Carlos incredulously. "We don't even know if we have all the pieces!" I exclaim, "How can you possibly put together a puzzle if you don't know if you have all the pieces and you don't know what the finished picture is supposed to look like? Go clean up the pieces, we won't be able to solve this."
But Carlos doesn't put away the puzzle.
"I want to try," Carlos insists, looking at me seriously, "Please, can we at least try it?"
I sigh and look down at Carlos. I would much rather be doing so many other things, but Mother asked me to spend time with him, so I will. After all, less than two months from now, he won't have a sister. Unless a cure could be found in the next two months. But I haven't talked to Cassandra or Lawrence since before I left school, and neither of them were having any luck then. Were they even still trying? But something inside of me tells me to build the puzzle with Carlos. So I do.
We spend the next hour fitting together pieces, trying to figure out what will fit and what won't work. Carlos turns out to be better at solving puzzles than I am. He seems to be able to look at the space he needs to fill, and he finds a piece that will fill that space.
By the time we've used all the pieces, I am exhausted. Finding pieces it tiring work, but it's worth it. The picture is finished, all but one small piece missing, right in the middle. The picture is of a wide green expanse of grass and forests, with a bird soaring through the crimson sunset above.
I consider telling Carlos, "You see? I told you we didn't have all the pieces." But I don't. I didn't expect to get this far in the puzzle. I didn't realize that we could do so much without seeing what the finished picture was supposed to look like. I can only stare and feel impressed with what Carlos and I have done.
"We're missing a piece," Carlos says sadly, looking at the picture. There is a hole, right where the bird's wing is supposed to be. I don't know where the piece is. Neither does Carlos.
"It's okay," I tell Carlos, patting him on the back, "Even though we might not have all the pieces, you still know what the picture is supposed to look like. And that's all that really matters. Who cares if a piece or two is missing if the picture is beautiful?"
Carlos shrugs. "I guess you're right," he says.
Cassandra calls me that evening.
"Hello?" she asks.
"Hi," I say.
"Hi Nikki," Cassandra says, "I just want to let you know... Lawrence and I are working on finding a cure for you. I know we don't have much time, but we're doing the best we can. We'll keep you updated."
A grin spreads across my face. "Thanks," I say, "Thanks a lot."
I hang up the phone, but already my smile has begun to fade slightly. I know that the chances of finding a cure are slim. And even if they find one, it might not be in time. I have the rest of January and February left. How much could be done in such little time?
I have been at the hospital since the fourteenth of February. Slowly but surely, it's gotten harder for me to walk, harder for me to even speak. I know that my time has begun to reach the final days of my life. Every day, I hope for a call from Cassandra or Lawrence, telling me that they've found a cure, that they're going to rescue me. But no call comes. And each day, worry and fear grow within me, more than it ever has before.
But near the end of February, I receive confirmation that they haven't forgotten about me. Dr. Anderson comes into my room at the hospital and delivers three gifts.
First, he places a mirror on my bedside table. "This is from a friend of yours named Cassandra," he says, "She says you might find it useful."
I smile. Recently, I had been walking to the nearest restroom every morning just to ask myself the same question every day. Now I wouldn't have to. I thank Cassandra mentally.
Next, he takes out a small, ripe apple, and hands it to me. "This is from Lawrence," Dr. Anderson tells me, "He says that he found this underneath the peach tree."
My smile widens. I take the apple gratefully and set it next to me. I don't want to eat it. I want to keep it there, as a reminder of the gift. I thank Lawrence as well.
"And the third gift, well, the giver would like to give it to you himself," Dr. Anderson says, and I see Carlos appear in the doorway.
Carlos throws his arms around me and I do the same.
"I don't want you to go, Nikki," Carlos says, looking at me sadly.
I nod, barely able to speak. "I know," I say, "I know. I don't want to go either."
"Then stay," Carlos pleads, his eyes starting to fill with tears.
"I wish I could," I tell him, "But I don't know how. But remember this, Carlos. Remember the cave? The one that echoed? The one that repeated everything you said back to it?"
"Even after you finished talking, the cave kept on repeating, right? It kept on talking with your voice for a while before it really stopped. Remember that?"
Carlos nods again.
"Maybe... this is the same thing. Even though I might be gone, my echo, I'll be with you a long time."
"Like how long?" Carlos asks me.
"Maybe forever," I whisper to him, and Carlos smiles. He quickly digs into his pocket and pulls something small out. He drops it in my hand, and I feel its wooden edges. And as I look down to see the wing of a bird, I realize what this is.
"You found the last piece," I say in amazement.
"Yes," Carlos says, smiling.
"Where was it?" I ask him.
"It was in my toy box," Carlos explains, "Right with the other pieces. It was there, the whole time. I just didn't see it."
I nod in understanding. "What does the picture look like when it's done?" I ask him.
"The same as it looked before," Carlos says, not exactly sure how to explain, "Just... with an extra piece to it."
I wake up on the last day of February to see Dr. Anderson in my hospital room. I know why. All of the scans have been pointing to this for days. Chances are, today would be the day I died.
"Yes, Dr. Anderson?" I ask.
Dr. Anderson looks me in the eye for the first time in four months. "I was just wondering... if there was anything you needed. Anything I could help you with."
I think about it for a long time. I know what I want. More than anything, I want a cure for pancreatic cancer. I want to be able to survive. But I know that Dr. Anderson doesn't have one, and Lawrence and Cassandra haven't found one yet. But thinking about Cassandra gives me another idea.
"I want to go to school. One last time," I say.
Dr. Anderson looks at me sadly. "Nikki, you're too weak to go anywhere. I don't think you can go to school. You need your rest, you need to stay in bed. The hospital needs to keep a close eye on you."
"I want to go to school," I repeat.
"I'm sorry, but we can't do that," Dr. Anderson says sympathetically, "I wish we could, but you're not strong enough. If you want, we can bring you some of your friends from school. We can bring them in here, and you can talk to them."
I nod. "Lawrence and Cassandra," I tell Dr. Anderson, "I want to see them one last time."
And so an hour later, I hear a knock on the door. Lawrence and Cassandra immediately rush through, coming to stand around me as I lay there on the bed.
"I'm sorry," Lawrence tells me as soon as he comes inside, "I'm so sorry."
"Sorry about what?" I ask.
"I said I'd help you look for a cure," Lawrence says, "And I did. I tried my hardest. But I couldn't come up with anything."
"I'm sorry too," Cassandra says, brushing the hair away from her face.
"It's okay," I say, and I mean it. The weight of knowing that I will soon leave this world isn't as bad as I thought it would be. Maybe it would have been worse back in November, but now I know that I've made a difference in peoples' lives. In Carlos, Cassandra, and Lawrence, I would still be there. As the echo in the cave. As the missing piece. A turn in the roller coaster. The apple in the peach tree. I would be there.
"Promise me this though," I say, "Even when I'm gone, I don't want you to stop searching for a cure. There are thousands of people with pancreatic cancer out there. I'm just one of them. Maybe you can save the rest of them."
"I promise," Lawrence says.
"I promise," Cassandra agrees.
We spend the rest of the morning together, talking together. I am weak, my back hurts, and it's painful for me to even speak. But even so, I feel happy that I am able to talk to them. And just before they leave, I remember something.
"Lawrence! Cassandra! Wait!" I call out hoarsley, and they turn towards me.
"I just wanted to let you know," I tell them, my voice fading slightly, "This morning, I looked in the mirror on my bedside table and asked myself the same question I've been asking myself every day for four months. And today, for the first time, I said yes."
Lawrence and Cassandra smile, and I wave to them with the last of my energy as they leave the room.
And now I lay here, against my bed, my parents, Carlos, and Dr. Anderson looking down at me. Carlos clutches at my hand desperately, but he doesn't say a word. It is six twenty-seven in the evening on the last day of February.
I glance one last time at the mirror, the apple, and the puzzle piece that lay on the table next to me. I think about Dr. Anderson, who has spent four months doing all he can to help me. I think about my parents, who will be devastated after I depart them. I think about Carlos, who doesn't fully understand death yet, but who will have to live the rest of his life with me existing only as an echo. I think about Lawrence and Cassandra, who tried their hardest to save me, but will now be trying their hardest to save the tens of thousands people with the same disease that I have. All of the people that I have made an impact on in the past four months. The clock strikes six-twenty eight. And I know, as my eyes close, that even though my part of the story is over, the end has not yet been written.