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She’s sitting in a flimsy chair in the waiting room, when you first see her. You can tell she’s anxious; her lips are set in a thin line as she bounces her knees up and down, up and down, up and down. Her dark hair is pulled into a messy bun resting on the top of her head, and her eyes stare down at the ground below her, concentrated, as if she’s looking for a way of escape through the patterned tiles. An older woman sits beside her; you assume it’s her mother. She thumbs through the pages of a thick magazine, resting a hand on one of her daughter’s trembling knees. Your eyes float up to the woman’s face- dark circles are present underneath her eyes, and worry lines crease on her forehead. She’s tired, like the universe has taken everything she has to offer, and with little detection, you clearly see why- she’s bald, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf, and a little sticker on her shirt reads the word patient. An oxygen tube runs from her nose to a tank that stands idly next to her seat. You wince as you hear the dull noise of every shallow breath she takes. Your heart, it feels heavy for her- it deflates inside your chest, until it grows so small you’re sure it’s crumpled.
After a few minutes, a nurse pops her head in and calls out a name- Kristen? You watch as the lady in front of you groans, attempting to stand up., until her daughter gently wraps her arm around her waist to support her weight. She whispers something you can’t make out into her ear, but it makes her mom smile, before placing a chaste kiss on the apple of her cheek. Your crumpled heart warms at the sight, but then grows cold when she braces herself against her cane- face hard as stone- before following the nurse through the door that leads to everything horrible in the world- chemotherapy; a disgusting but necessary thing that makes every bone inside a person’s body feel tired.
You stare at your lap, after the door closes, trying not to pay attention to the way the girl in front of you taps her feet repeatedly against the side of her chair. You look up when she says something, and it takes you a second to realize it’s directed towards you.
“What are you here for?” Her words aren’t accusatory, but they hold a curious tone, and you watch her eyes land on the all-too-familiar sticker on your shoulder.
“Same thing as your mom.” You shrug, and furrow your eyebrows when she laughs, high-pitched and short. She throws her head back as she does it, her hair falling loose over her shoulders.
“She’s not my mom," she says. "She's my wife.”
“Oh,” you say, startled. You didn’t mean to be rude, but you wonder how many years this disease has added to her wife’s skin, her bones, to make her look so faded and worn with age. “I’m sorry.”
She waves off your apology, and her eyes become less clouded- friendlier. You don’t say much else, but the air around you feels comfortable, as if you’re both aware that the other person’s also in a horrible situation; it feels nice to share that burden sometimes. You often catch her stare at you, her eyes flitting back to the posters next to your head when they meet your gaze. You try to hide the grin that pulls at the corners of your lips, then, but you’re pretty sure you fail.
Her wife comes back out shortly, and you smile at her when she glances at you. She doesn’t return it, but her face relaxes at the gesture. You avert your eyes when they kiss. It isn’t for long, but you feel like you’re witnessing something sacred, the way they hold on to each other afterwards, like they don’t want to go too far away. The woman you talked to earlier nods her head at you, and you sort of wave goodbye. After a minute of gathering their things, the duo leave together, arm in arm, out the front door of the building. And, when the nurse pops her head back in to call your name, you don’t feel the usual dread of being poked and prodded, although you wince at the thought of the needle, the ache. But, you feel an odd sense of calm tug at you, burrowing its way into your brain.
It stays there for the rest of the day.
You see the two more often than not, almost every day of the week. You slowly learn that their names are Meg and Kristen- Meg being the one you talked to the first time. You also learn that they live around ten minutes from the hosptial, they’ve been married for six and a half years, and that Kristen has a rare form of leukemia that you’re only supposed to get when you’re a kid. Meg looks angry when she tells you this, during the third time you see her. You guess it’s because of all the things to get when you’re forty-four, her wife gets stuck with that, like the world is playing a cruel joke on them. Mocking them. You tell her you understand, because your name is Gail, you’re twenty-two, and you have stage three breast cancer.
“The luck,” she muttered, after a beat. You shook your head, agreeing, because the luck. The two of you stared at each other, in the eye of the storm, before breaking into a loose fit of giggles. The way you grinned contradicted the bar-bell that weighed down on the pit of your stomach, pressing into every fear you’ve ever had, every nerve. But, you grinned, anyway, because that’s the only thing you could do.
You think you’re friends, now. You don’t know their phone numbers, or their last names, but you do know about their dog, Winston, and how he bit the mailman once and how they almost got sued because of it. They know about your sporadic mom, and how she brings soup to your apartment every night even though you swear to her that you’re sick, not disabled. You and Meg laugh about everything and nothing during Kristen’s session, but you talk about big things, too- worries. Like how Meg can’t get legal rights to her wife’s property, because apparently the state of Alabama won’t allow it, even though they’ve lived together for more than ten years. Or how you’re terrified that the cancer inside our body is spreading to other places, and you can’t tell your mom because she’s too fragile. The two of you, you keep each other sane when Meg bites her lower lip, flipping through the thick pages of legal documents that rest in her lap. When you’re thinking and thinking and thinking- always thinking- about the inevitable, about your doctor’s grim call the night before; it’s time to change the game plan, son, because our method of action isn’t taking effect the way I’d hoped. The two of you, you’re each other’s anchors. You just hope to God the water you’re treading through doesn't drown you completely.
Kristen grows paler and paler every time you see her, and it’s obvious Meg notices it, too. But every time either of you bring it to her wife’s attention, she just gives a crooked smile and a wink.
“What?” she’ll ask, “are you saying I don’t look like I’m in my twenties anymore?”
You just shake your head and change the subject, trying not to notice the way she stumbles over her feet when she walks, or the way Meg’s eyes grow dark, dark, dark when Kristen coughs for five minutes straight, shakily wiping her mouth when she’s done.
“You know,” she says, after her wife leaves the waiting room. “I met her when I was just nineteen. She was twenty-eight.” Her voice sounds foreign, lost in translation. “My dad told me it was wrong, but I didn’t listen. God, she was just so funny, and kind, and I couldn’t even believe she was a real human being.”
You smile gently at her, placing a hand on her shoulder- she takes it and squeezes your fingers.
“We dated for ten years,” she continues, “because I loved her and I was just like, screw you, Dad, you know? I had everything I wanted, and I didn’t care if everyone else chose to think what we had was ugly. Cause what I felt, what I feel isn’t ugly- it’s the most special thing.
We decided to get married in New York, after she proposed to me in the cheese aisle of a grocery store because she accidentally dropped the ring box and I saw it.” You burst into laughter at that, and she pokes her tongue in between her teeth. “Yeah,” she chuckles, “I didn’t let her get away with that one. But, anyways, we flew to New York because gay marriage is legal there, and we were able to have a small but perfect ceremony on the beach, and after that, we came back here and got a civil partnership license, which I thought was a load of crap, but was important to Kristen, so I went along with it.”
“That’s stupid,” you say, because it is and you don’t understand why the world is so mean, sometimes.
“Yeah, it is. And what’s even more stupid is the fact that the state of Alabama doesn’t take pity on a woman when her wife is dying, they just make it harder for her to try and live after she’s gone.”
Your eyes go wide as she finishes, your crumpled heart absolutely crushed to dust. She takes in a withering breath, and, when she turns towards you, you swear you’ve never seen a human being look so broken. Her eyes, they look empty. But you know they're full of everything she’s too afraid to feel.
“I just,” she whispers, shaking her head, shutting her eyes. “I don’t understand any of this, Gail. What am I supposed to do now?”
You don’t know, you really don’t but you wish you do. You don’t know how to fix this, but you wrap your arms around her body, anyway, because she needs warmth and support from someonewilling to give it to her.
And, that knowledge is what drives your Honda forty minutes away to the city council building, that thought is what sits you down in front of this big, burly man who claims to be very powerful, that thought is what makes you tell him about Meg and Kristen, about everything you’ve witnessed, everything they've told you. You silently hope it’s enough, but the way the man’s eyes soften, the way his lower lip juts out in sympathy, makes you think that maybe, maybe, maybe, something can be done. Maybe, Meg won’t be homeless after the inevitable hits.
That night, you pray for the very first time.
“The doctor said she’s got a month.”
You wait a beat, letting this new information sink in, before asking, “well, what do you say?”
She thinks this over before shrugging her shoulders. “I say, she’s strong. She’s tough. She works miracles. If the doctor gives her a month, she’ll make three more.”
You nod and toy with the little box inside your pocket, the box that holds two tickets to Disney on Ice, because Meg told you once that Kristen is a Disney fanatic, and you thought it would be a fun gift for them. But, after what Meg just told you, and seeing her wife’s body being wheeled into the room by a nurse, you feel sort of stupid.
You hand it to Kristen anyway, and you watch her face light up with something that looks a hell of a lot like excitement, her eyes turning a different shade of blue, her face breaking out in a smile. She tries to speak to you, but you can tell it’s hard to talk. You hold out a hand to stop her, and instead lean down to press a fleeting kiss to her forehead. It feels hot under your lips.
“Thank you, kid,” Meg whispers in your ear on her way out the door, pushing the handles of Kristen’s wheelchair. You just smile and mutter a small, Merry Christmas. You don’t tell her about the other gift, the work in progress, the gift the mayor of Alabama might grant her, if it gets approved by the board. The gift that will mean the most to her, even if she gets it way after Christmas.
You keep praying.
Kristen’s cancer won’t stop spreading. It’s travelled from her bones, to her blood, to her lungs, and now it’s on a trek to her heart.
Meg tells you they’re debating whether or not to place her in hospice. She gives you her cell-phone number, because this is their last treatment. There’s no point, anymore, because her sickness became too powerful for medicine.
“It’s just damage control, now,” she says softly, eyes glazed over with unshed tears, tears she’ll shed later, later, when you’re not watching, when she’s away from everyone else.
“Can I say something?” you ask, breaking the silence hanging in the air. She nods, patting your knee.
“You’re tethered to her,” you say. Your mouth feels dry, but you keep talking because you need to say this. “You’ll always be tethered to her, and it’s going to be hard as hell to break that bond for a little while, because you’ll be in two seperate places.”
She just looks at you.
“But,” you rush to continue, staring at the floor beneath your feet, “you can be tethered to more than one person. And, I think we’re tethered, too, because you listened to me when no one else would. And, I think I listened to you, even when the rest of the world was too noisy to actually make out what you were saying half the time.”
You can feel her gaze on the side of your head, but you don’t look at her quite yet. “I just want you to know,” you mumble, “that I’ll always be tethered to you, and I won’t break it, no matter what.”
You hear a sob break free from your friend before you see it, and you let her rest her head on your shoulder, and cry. She cries, and cries, and you wave off the concerned secretary, because she needs this. She needs to cry, she needs to release everything she’s been feeling for the last month into your shirt in the form of tears and snot, snot that she apologizes for once she calms down. You don’t mind, though, and the way her fingers intertwined with yours feels final. Like, this is a moment you’ll remember for as long as you live, a moment where Meg is Meg and you’re you and you’re both grieving before anything even happens because you know it will. It’s the eye of the storm, and there’s no one else you’d rather be beside during it.
It happens on a Thursday. Meg calls you at two in the morning, and you know. It’s a weird feeling, and it seeps into your skin. You feel dread, first. And then, nothing. You brace yourself, you let yourself breathe for a moment, before you pick up the call. You can’t really understand Meg’s words, because she’s sobbing on the other end. But you do make out the words, hospital and please come.
Kristen’s already gone when you get there. You’re not allowed in the hospital room, but you can see through the foggy window. You can see Meg’s slumped form over the bed, the way her whole body shakes, up and down, up and down. The way two older people rush to comfort her, faces set in a mask of pain and grief. The doctor looks down at his watch and says something to the nurses, and they nod, rushing to detach the equipment from Kristen’s body.
It takes hours before you see Meg. Her face is a map of everything in the world that’s bad, and you don’t even have to say anything to her before she sits next to you, hands shaking in her lap. She rests her head on your shoulder.
You’re so sad, so numb that you don’t even think about the fact that your cancer spread to your kidneys. (Your doctor called you two weeks ago to inform you you're utterly helpless. You wanted to ask if there's a chance you'd survive, but you bit your lip and refrained. Getting your hopes up is just another way of setting them down harder, further, when reality hits.)
But you don't think about that right now. You’re just here for Meg, and for her heart that’s breaking instead of beating.
You sit there until a security guard tells you it's six in the morning. You had to go, even though you didn't want to.
Kristen’s funeral is a quiet affair.
Chairs litter the space of the tiny room Meg reserved, people gathering around the casket to stare at their coworker's, friend's, family's body for the last time.
It's open casket.
You hold Meg’s hand the whole way through it. Even as she stands over Kristen and sobs, body bent at an awkward angle as she hugs her, kisses her, for the last time.
You wonder if she’s going to try and climb into the casket with her.
She doesn’t even ask about the wheelchair, even when you accidentally roll over her foot with it.
You think you see a hint of a smile, but it's gone as quickly as it appears.
You’re real sick. Meg knows, and she’s taken to helping your mom around the apartment, adding things to her soup that your mom doesn’t even think about. Your mom tells you she likes Meg, and you try your best to chuckle, because she better- the woman’s been sleeping on your couch for a month. You think Meg is so involved in your life because she’s still hurting. But, that’s alright. You’ll gladly taste her soup and lose to her in Uno if it makes her feel better.
"You know," she tells you, five games in- she beat you every time. "I haven't spoken to her parents since the day of the funeral."
You look up at her when she says that, you can see the fear and pain and guilt hidden beneath the layers of eyeliner and mascara she just started to wear again, because I wanna feel good about myself, kid.
You’re proud of her, you hope she knows that.
“Do you wanna talk to them?”
She winces and shakes her head, beginning to count out the cards.
"Not really,” she says.
Your answer is short, clipped, because you don’t want to make her upset. You know she wants to see them, to talk to them, because the only family, the only home she has left is with you.
Can a person be home?
You think so, as you watch Meg slyly bite her lip before throwing down an add four card. You know so, as you begin to cough and she quickly leans over to rub your back. As your mom rushes in from her bedroom in nothing but a frilly pink bathrobe and slippers.
Meg waves her off, staving off a grin only you can see coming.
But when she leaves, you both laugh until you’re doubled over, until you’re wheezing and gasping for breath that’s not going to come as long as she’s laughing like that.
You begin to cough again.
It’s your birthday. And you’re in the hospital.
Also, it snowed last night. You’ve never heard of snow in April- it sounds like something that would happen in one of those “the world’s ending we need to burn all the books in the library to keep warm” type of movies.
It’s not, obviously, and even if it was you’d already be dead because the machines you’re attached to are the only things keeping you alive.
You tell Meg you want to see the snow, but you shake your head immediately as the words leave your very, very chapped lips.
Of course you can’t see the snow. You’re too sick.
But Meg smiles- a secret smile- and doesn’t answer you.
And, an hour later, she walks into your room with balloons, gift bags, and a handful of snow.
She chucks it at you.
You try to be mad but you can’t wipe the smile off your face, even as your nurse walks in and yells at her for it.
You had a relapse, today. Meg stood beside your mom when it happened, holding her left hand, and using her other hand to stroke your cheek. She didn’t say much, but her eyes told you she wasn’t ready for you to leave.
You’ll be okay, your eyes said right back.
It looked like she didn’t believe you, but she kissed the top of your head, anyway. What she whispered to you, then, was something that made your heart soar inside your chest. It isn’t crumpled anymore- it hasn’t been for a long time.
“It’s okay to leave, we love you so much, kid. Kristen loves you, too. She’ll tell you that when she sees you.”
You wanted to thank her, but the way she smiled at you, all teeth and tears, told you she already knew.
You stuck it out the entire night and watched Friends on the crappy tv hooked up to the wall.
You only threw up once.
You’re very tired.
You’re sure you’ve never been this tired. It even beats the time when you ran a five mile marathon in the seventh grade and claimed you were going to faint after you finished.
Your mom had to rush you to the hospital after you cried for two hours, and then you claimed you were completely fine once you got there.
She was mad at you.
She got over it, though.
You hope she’ll get over this. Well, not completely. But you want her to eventually stop sleeping next to your old pillow every night, and crying into it when she thinks everyone’s asleep, like she does with dad’s.
You want to sleep.
Your eyes itch to open but you physically can’t, not when the biggest force in the universe seems to be holding them closed.
You’re tired and you can’t relax, because you don’t know where you are. You’re just laying here and you’re tired and-
You feel a light brush of fingers over your forehead, and then lips. They feel too hot and you want to shout that they’re burning you.
But the burning sensation subsides almost immediately and is replaced with everything you’ve ever wanted and everything you’ll ever need.
You can't tell whose they are but it doesn't matter, anway.
You’re tired, and the comfort the kiss brings you begins to lull you into an unimaginable sleep. A sleep that’s comfortable. A sleep that everyone experiences at one point in their lives.
The knowledge makes you feel less alone.
But you let yourself sleep, sleep, sleep.
You hope you see Kristen.
Attached is the legal documents that will let you reclaim your house. It was a hassle, but it as so worth it. But don't forget to clean it. And invite my mom over to play Uno, would you?
I just wanted to let you know I love you in case you forgot somehow.
But, yet again, I’m tethered to you. So how could you forget?
(Kristen says hi, by the way.)