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I'm Not Afraid To Die
Alone in the white, sterile hospital, I breathe in the faint smell of the anti-bacterial hand wash that is everywhere and the various cleaning products. I haven’t smelled fresh air for weeks. My mouth is dry, and the taste of last night’s medication still lingers. Pain overwhelms my aching body, as I wearily press the button on the side of my bed to alert the nurses. I count how many seconds it takes for one of the optimistic, red-faced nurses to sweep into my room with such exhilaration and exuberance that I almost feel hopeful. Maybe she can make the pain go away. But I know that as I count down seconds until she arrives, a habit I have fallen into these last couple of days, I am counting down precious moments of my cancer riddled life.
I gaze longingly through the thick glass of the window next to my bed. The nurse, Lillian, bustles in through the door with far too much energy for a place like this. Then I see the reason behind her happiness; my father stands nervously behind her, clutching one hand in the other. My weak heart beats slightly faster and my thin, purple lips stretch into a smile. I haven’t smiled in so long. My father glances cautiously at Lillian, who nods, before rushing to me in a familiar flurry of aftershave, smart shirt and business-like briefcase that clashes to the linoleum floor. I’m embraced in his strong arms, before he remembers how frail I’ve become, and he sinks down onto the bed beside me.
“I love you,” he whispers fiercely, and I try to say something back, but no words will come out. I stop trying, and say them in my head instead. I wish I could hug you back, I let him know. Like when I was little and we played in the garden in the sun. The garden was my world and you were the ruler, and you’d pick me up and tickle me until I shrieked, but I loved it really, and I never thought I would have to say goodbye like this, that it would be me leaving you, and you never thought it either. But here we are, and I would give anything to never have to say bye and leave you. I wish he could hear me, especially through his sobs. Slowly, I reach out with one pale, clammy hand and cover his with my skeletal fingers. He looks up through his tears, and it strikes me that I haven’t seen my father cry this much since I was diagnosed, last spring. They told him to stay positive, and he did, to protect me. To protect me from the truth. But the truth had caught us out, and was sneering maliciously in our faces. Or maybe the truth was sorry, the wrong person was dying, it was all a horrible mistake. Lillian had left us alone, I noticed.
Lying alone the night before, I thought about my actual death. Would it be painful? I couldn’t imagine more pain than I had endured these last few months. The way my head burned in agony, the way I rasped for air as my lungs ached dully, the thought that I would never see my family again, and the ever-present question mark that hung over the question of what would happen when I died. I wasn’t afraid anymore; I had had so long to adjust to the idea.
I open my eyes and pull myself back into the present moment. The room slowly fades in and out of my vision, and suddenly Dr. Roberts is in the room. My father is still next to me; I can feel his warmth and hear his healthy breathing. Dr. Roberts has his back to me, and is doing something with the machines and monitors crammed in here. I can’t open my eyes; I’m falling into more blackness and can’t pull myself out. They told me this would happen. It’s really, really true. Dr. Roberts mumbles something, and I wish he would speak louder because I can’t hear him properly. All I can hear is my father whispering, “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, don’t be scared,” repeating it over and over like a prayer. I’m not sure who he’s saying it to. Maybe if he says it enough times he’ll realize that he has to let me go. It’s really, really happening. I drift in and out of consciousness, and memories drift with me.
I’m five. It’s Halloween at last, and the sky is perfectly dark and eerie. I’ve been ready for ages, hovering near the front door in my witch costume, empty bag (that will hopefully be bursting with sweets by the end of the night) clutched tightly in one small hand. My dad finally decides it’s time to go, and together, we traipse through the streets. I’ve never been out in my neighbourhood this late before, and I’m definitely excited as I dash from one house to the next. Neighbours are kind and generously offer me sweets that I greedily slip into my bag, as my dad waits around the corner for me. Excitement and laughter fills the air of this small estate, lived in by young families with kids my age. Their children tear though the streets with grins across their faces, and I know even before I get home and spill my sweets out on the cream carpet in the living room that tonight has been a success.
Dr. Roberts is still muttering, but he seems further away, almost as if he is down the corridor. Lovingly, my father strokes my forehead; mottled skin stretched over the bones in my face. I wonder if he knows that I can barely feel him. I’m hearing words float into my mind, but I can’t figure out who’s saying them.
“You’re going to beat it; you’re going to be fine.” Dr. Roberts? I don’t think so. I’m on my death bed. Why would he be telling me this? Besides, I’m sure I can still hear his voice somewhere in the distance. I can’t see him, I can’t open my eyes. Blind to the world, in my own deteriorating world of darkness and confusion. I decide it would be terrible living your life in the dark.
“You know I love you very much, don’t you?” I’ll remember you, always.” My heart flutters…I recognise this voice; it’s my mother.
My dad tentatively pushes the heavy door open, and I sneak through and stand at his side. I hate hospitals; we seem to come here every night to visit her. I want her to open her eyes because we’ve come to see her. They say she knows we’re here though. I think she’s sleeping, but she doesn’t look very peaceful, with her mouth stretched wide open for the tubes. As I wander towards her, my dad places a comforting hand on my shoulder and shuffles behind me. I think he’s scared, in case we lose her. I know she’s going to be okay though; the constant beep and blinking numbers of the monitors tell me that. I don’t notice her yellowing skin and purple bruises, the tubes wrapped all around her like snakes, or the plastic drips by her bed. I see her soft, white, smiling face as she stands by the school gates in her jeans and comfortable jumper, her golden hair shining and her skin glowing. She reaches down for my hand, and I take hers with my small fingers. We swing arms as we chat about my first day of school on the way home. But then I am cruelly dragged out of my thoughts and back to her bedside. Blinking, I stare as the machines beep furiously. Panic rises, the door crashes open, someone in a white uniform runs in, and my dad grabs my hand and we stand like statues at the side of the room, our hearts turning cold.
I think there are only me and my father in the room now. I am nearly gone. I wonder if I am actually fading, because it feels like it. I think of the world outside; the clouds continue to swim lazily through the sky, the wind blows the leaves off the trees in our front garden, and the birds watch as they creep up the path and gather in a heap by the doorstep. My old school friends make the most of the little time they have before college calls and they have to pack their bags and leave this town. It’s like my whole life has led up to this. I have always been supposed to die like this.
Dr. Roberts knows to leave my father alone for a while. He sits in the chair by my bed for a long time, before filling in all the necessary forms handed to him sympathetically. Then he slowly staggers through corridor after corridor, his heart breaking. The car door slams as he gets in, automatically putting on his seat-belt and checking the rear-view mirror. It is only when he hits the motorway that his eyes blur, his insides crush, and he cries out, his grip tightening and his fingers whitening on the steering wheel.