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The scary thing about lying in bed at night is the finality of it all. I could wake up here tomorrow, or perhaps somewhere better or worse. But then a lingering thought emerges, deadly like the thick venom of a stinging bee; what if there is nowhere. What if the fate to which I am condemned is that with which I live, suspended in some sort of limbo between life and death? I should like to think that there are a million cosmos waiting somewhere in the sky for my final cue, but I cannot be certain. I can think of millions of other minutiae simultaneously. There is too much to ponder: the implications of trusting my own body to keep going, the swimming in my head, vibrating and fuzzy with the drip of the IV, and the thickness of the air I breath. It is humid; I can feel every water-laden breath reverberate through my body, quivering like the hum of a newly plucked harp. My swollen stomach moves as I breathe, hitching upward as I choke in the last gasping bit of a raspy lung-full. I turn on my side, carefully sliding the cord for my nubbins away from the back of my cranium to avoid tugging. The stark white of the ceiling bleeds down onto the walls around me, making the room for care appear more like a mental institution. I allot a chortling snort to escape my lips, reveling in the only sound that is not the monotonous beep of the oxygenation machines and the maddening drip-drop of the IV.
Then, I clear thick mucous from my throat, hearing the gruff sounds of my throat and sighing. How long have I been here? What feels like forever has most likely been about two months. But that is just two months of this bout. Of course, there is a lot to be grateful for in my life. I’ve had a lot of luck in my treatments. Osteosarcoma could have taken a limb. Or worse, it could have taken my life. Although I still breathe, the Osteosarcoma has forced me to abandon faith in myself and my body, leaving my trust with machines that echo like a fork, fallen into a trash disposal. It makes my lungs labor with wheeze and my bones ache. I have never really known anything other than this. My life has been full of seeing others leave the ward, some whole and others gone. This existence is dreary, but one I must lead to survive.
My nurse, Rochelle enters, a needle the length of a ruler in her palm. She smiles sweetly at me, swathed in the hospital bed, her lipstick a sickly red-orange against bleached white teeth. “Hi there, Kailee. How are you doing today? I heard you’re getting those CT scan results back today. Maybe you’ll be able to head home,” she enthuses. Rochelle lifts my hairbrush from its perch atop the hospital nightstand. She begins running the bristles through the thinning tufts of auburn curls. “You get more and more beautiful and healthy each day,” Rochelle sighs. I can feel every stroke of her arthritic hands throughout my hair and relax as the teeth pull against my scalp. Suddenly, a gnarled, red-brown hairball falls into my lap.
“Oh dear!” Rochelle’s hands fly to her mouth and cover her lips. Just as I commence pawing at the ball, my mother arrives. She is floating in a cloud of sorrow, exhaustion and Gardenia perfume. Every day I feel like I can see one more worry-line marring her once-youthful countenance. My mother is haphazard and clatters into the chair next to my bed, scowling at the surrendered portions of my mane, as though they paint a different picture than chemotherapy for her. Before she can greet me, I violently cough into my right hand. I can practically feel the rattling in my lungs and shiver with a sudden chill. Precipitately, I feel a wetness running down my knuckles. Once investigating, I find thick, scarlet blood leaving a trail across my hand and falling onto my blankets.
Around me, Rochelle and my mother panic. They fly off the handle and begin jamming, poking and prodding in any attempt to get me to be better. I almost let out a hysterical chortle; not exactly knowing what “better” is anymore. The paradigm of the definition is constantly evolving. I used to think that better just meant a step above, yet after years of being told that vomiting, losing hair and chemotherapy cheek swelling is one interpretation of better, I question the accuracy of my assumption. Still, Rochelle and mom begin twisting knobs and yanking cords, adjusting my nubbins to try and get me to some sort of subjective place of “better”.
As they finish pulling the blankets tighter around me, the doctor steps through the doorway. Dr. Johnson is the type of man you would expect to see in the movies as a doctor or scientist. He is small, mousy with thinning blonde hair and a potbelly, Hyperborean in height, with small, wire-framed glasses perched on his nose. In his grasp, he totes a large manila folder, brimming with neatly organized forms, various colors and textures. From the top of the pile, he skims a paper and begins scanning the text written there. A crease between his furrowed eyebrows deepens as he prepares to speak.
“Kailee, I’m not entirely certain how to present this news to you. As you know, we’ve been monitoring you for the past month to ensure the limb-salvage surgery was successful. The last time we spoke, the cancer was contiguously spreading. We thought that the Carboplatin and Etoposide regimen would surely do the trick in eradicating this flare-up. Unfortunately, we were wrong. As we feared, the cancer has metastasized in your lungs. I’m very sorry Ms. Brownstein.”
My mother’s mouth hangs agape. “Doctor, do we have any options?” She breathes, her head shaking. “Chemo? Surgery? What are we going to do about this? What are our treatment options?”
“Mom,” I croak. “Let Dr. Johnson get a word out.”
Johnson begins fumbling with the thin frames of his glasses, a nervous tic. Such an ominous sign does not escape my mother, or Rochelle, who has fled the room. He sighs. “I come to you today, Brownstein family, to aid in making arrangements. I’m afraid that Kailee is beyond the point of aid. Your condition is inoperable, incurable. There’s nothing more that we can do for you here. I’m very sorry.” With that final statement, Johnson leaves the room.
My mother falls to pieces almost immediately. The salty tracks of tears stain her cheeks and the beads of moisture cling to her chin as she snivels in her maudlin display. I allow her to loop her arms around my neck, precariously close to the tubing that feeds me oxygen. She sobs into my gown while I feel nothing.
News like impending death should come as a shock, petrifying me to the point of paralysis but I cannot bring myself to remorse. I try to let out a tear, smile; make any sort of display that proves I have not merged with the machines that supply me life. The ineffable detachment with the world consumes me as I pat the hair of my sobbing mother.
Sadness cannot claim me, for this moment was inevitable. Death comes for all and I am no different. When my mother releases me from her grip, I lay back down against four pillows supporting my weight. From my hospital window I can see outside. The sun sets, painting the entire sky with tangelos, corals, and lilacs. The western sun shines brightly, and I lift my hand to cover my eyes. My mother’s swollen cheeks are stained red, and her eyelids begin to flutter as she gets some long overdue rest. My back settles against the pillows and my eyes close too. One solitary tear falls down my cheek, as I know that soon the fight will be over and I will not have to fear my body anymore. Although I may lose the war, I am a survivor, and I can die knowing that I went down kicking.