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The Final Gift
It’s the littlest things you remember after someone is gone. The way they wrote their lowercase I’s, with a little bubble at the top, instead of the common hurried dot. How they liked exactly one-and-a-half teaspoons of honey in their tea—too much made it too sweet, too little too bitter. The way they always stood, with their chin lifted attentively and their shoulders back, confident and proud.
Today, I am reminded of her when I get up to brush my teeth in the morning, and find that someone has left the faucet running. Essa hated that. She always said that the environment came first, and that if we didn’t take care of the earth, it wouldn’t take care of us. It’s funny; without her, I’m more conscientious of my environmental impact than I was when she was here. I turn off lights when I leave the room. I take shorter showers. I never litter. It’s as if her presence still lingers. As if she’s watching to make sure I take care of the world, now that she’s not here to do it.
I dress myself, and head down to the kitchen. My parents are seated at the table, both sipping their coffee and reading different sections of the newspaper.
My mom looks up when I enter. “Good morning, Leila.”
I make myself toast, as usual. It’s dry on my tongue, reminding me that it’s the only thing I’ve had for breakfast in eight months. I miss the lively days of pancakes and waffles, when Essa and I would race to be the first ones downstairs in the morning, and the whole family would eat and converse together.
I guess maybe the problem is our family isn’t whole anymore.
The bell rings, signaling the start of third period.
“Please find your seats,” Ms. Adella addresses the class, clapping her hands together to get our attention. “We’ll be diverting from our normal schedule today to welcome a special guest speaker.” She gestures to a woman sitting in the corner of the room, who I hadn’t noticed until now.
“This is Jenna Wilson, from Paint for Patients. I’ll let her tell you why she’s here.”
Jenna Wilson stands up and walks to the front of the room, a canvas bag slung over her shoulder, with the words “Addison Myers Hospital” stitched onto the side. Her brown hair is pulled into a high ponytail, and she looks young and perky, no older than thirty.
She waves to the students. “Hi there, everyone. I’m Jenna. I work at Paint for Patients, which is a program that sends volunteers to the hospital to do arts and crafts with children who are diagnosed with leukemia.”
My chest tightens. That word brings back memories, ones that I’d rather forget. Essa’s pale face, her clammy hands, the white hallways I spent far too much time in…. I give myself a little shake, reminding myself that I can’t hide from the recollections of the illness forever.
“I came here today,” Jenna continues, “to tell you a little bit about this program, and hopefully recruit a few of you to come help out. We’re always looking for anyone willing to lend a hand, and the kids really appreciate it.”
Jenna reaches into her bag and pulls out a canvas, painted with a demure field of colorful flowers. A mobile composed of origami cranes. A pair of sock puppets, their large google-eyes spinning in every direction.
Lastly, she withdraws a stack of brochures, which she waves in the air. “These have all the information you’ll need, if you’re interested in signing up. It’s a great program. The kids love it; it really brightens their day. Email me if you’d like to volunteer. The first session on April 9th.”
She keeps talking, but suddenly I can’t listen. April 9th. Essa’s birthday.
She would have turned twelve. She would have awoken on the morning of her birthday, to the whole family gathered around her bed, singing her awake. She would have had cinnamon roles for breakfast. She would have danced around the kitchen in her pajamas, and pulled me in to dance with her, and we would have spun until we were dizzy and forced to collapse into our chairs.
I’m barely aware of Jenna handing brochures around the room. I pick mine up and stare at the photo on the front. A young boy sits at a table across from a girl about my age, grinning as he puts the finishing touches on a popsicle stick mansion. He doesn’t look anything like Essa, and yet all I can see is her.
The brochure weighs heavy in my pocket as I walk home. I know what Essa would want me to do. I know what she would do if she were here. But I can’t. I just can’t.
The idea of going back to that hospital terrifies me. The chemical smell of the bleached, white hallways. The gaunt faces of hopeless family members. The beep of countless, unnamed machines—oh, god, why do they need so many machines?
It would all be too much.
I stumble through the back door and shed my backpack in a chair, then run up to my room, my hand clenched around the brochure. I drop onto the edge of my bed and pull it out, smoothing the crinkles. The boy in the picture goes in and out of focus, his smile blurring as I blink black tears.
She would have been twelve. It would have been her birthday, and she still would have marched into that hospital without a second thought.
I take a deep breath. I slowly open the brochure and run my thumb under Jenna Wilson’s email.
What better gift could I give?