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Asante Sana This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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The lumpy mattress hurts my back and I roll onto my stomach, still half asleep. Insects sing loudly beneath an overcast sky. The sheets are swaddled around my head in the damp, cool air, and I keep my eyes closed. I'm in Los Angeles, I think, curled up in my bed in my house on Gladwin Street with my mom and sister in the living room.
A cat hisses loudly, shattering my fantasy. I'm not in Los Angeles. I haven't been to Gladwin – my home of nine years – since we moved. Some other family lives there now. I imagine my room being carelessly remodeled into a home gym, the worn, gray spot on the rug where my dog used to sleep covered up with a treadmill. It's been a year; I shouldn't still be waking up thinking I'm home.
Cautiously, I let my eyes open and absorb my surroundings. It's July 2012. A cow gives a guttural moo, and the cat hisses again from outside this room made of bricks and clay. I'm in a hostel in Arusha, Tanzania. The woman who runs the place is a busty, smiling local we refer to as Mama. I can hear her singing as she prepares breakfast.
My best friend, Samantha, is asleep next to me. Gratitude settles on top of me heavier than a wool blanket. Memories suddenly come flooding back, and I jolt into full consciousness. She's actually here, a voice in my head verifies.
Where were we one year ago today? I was in Dharmsala, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, on a homestay with Tibetan refugees. Samantha was supposed to be there too; it was tradition that we traveled together on summer trips. After eighth grade it was Costa Rica, the following summer, Cambodia and Laos, and we had planned on India after sophomore year, but some unexpected wrinkles upset the plan. Thus began a year of intense change for both of us, and taking this trip to Africa together would become nothing short of a miracle.




It all began in April 2011 with a cold. Samantha didn't think much of it, but then it got worse. Much worse. She started seeing doctors to get tested for diseases with long, complicated names, but no concrete diagnosis came. Later that month she sat me down and said, “I might have to go stay at the hospital. They don't know what it is. Best case scenario it's nothing.”
“And worst case?” I asked. She was quiet for a moment, then tried to answer casually, as if she were telling me she liked chocolate.
“Leukemia.”




Sammi's iPhone alarm goes off, and she reaches for it with an “it's way too early” moan. Mama's still singing, and I'm brushing my teeth. Today we're headed to the tiny village of Mongola Juu, where we'll spend two weeks building a house for a teacher. None of the kids traveling with us knows Sammi is sick; she looks healthy. It's only through her casual mentions of hospitals and medications that they are slowly getting the picture. On the bus, she shows me her insurance information. “Look at this,” she says, pointing to the bottom line. It reads: “Total: $1,000,000.” Samantha is lucky her parents are successful lawyers. Being sick is ­expensive.
“It's in case I get an infection. I have antibiotics with me, but if that fails the insurance covers a helicopter ride to Nairobi. My medical team has already briefed doctors there.” Samantha has a team of six doctors in Los Angeles who are constantly coming up with unique ways to treat her.
“If that happens I'm coming with you,” I say.
“I know. But I wouldn't worry,” she replies. That night I dream of helicopter searchlights hovering above us like UFOs.




By May 2011, Samantha had a private room at the children's ­hospital, and her condition was declining. Still no diagnosis, although thankfully leukemia had been crossed off the list – not that the other options were much ­better. The first time I went to visit her, there wasn't much to do, so she hopped in a wheelchair and I pushed her around. Down the hallways I ran and jumped on the back of her chair. We arrived at the cafeteria laughing and crashing into walls.
There she enticed me with hospital stories: “Code black means there's a bomb in the building, and code pink means someone stole a baby.”
“People steal babies often enough for them to need a code?”
“I guess. There's a baby in the room next to me. I get to play with her whenever I want.”
“Why's she here?”
“She was abused and taken away from her parents,” she replied.
I should have guessed the children's hospital didn't hold many happy stories. We had a moment of ­silence.
“When are you getting out of here?”
“Right now I'm in a lot of pain,” she explained. “I'm on six times the normal dose of morphine, and I'm taking Vicodin and Percocet. They won't discharge me until I'm off the pain meds. And they still don't know what I have. Did you know I have a pain doctor?”
“What does a pain doctor do?”
“He studies pain because if somebody's in constant pain it slowly drives them crazy. They've figured out my immune system is eating away at my muscles, but they're not sure why. Pretty much all my muscles are on fire. I feel it in places you wouldn't expect, like my face and ribs. When my ribs hurt too much, I can't breathe.”
“And there isn't a cure?”
“We don't know yet.”
It seemed that “We don't know” was becoming a mantra. The ambiguity felt safer than an answer.




The first week in Mongola Juu is a breeze, and the other students are great. There are thirteen of us crammed into one room. Our plastic mattresses lie edge to edge like matchsticks. There's no running water or electricity, and the toilet is a hole in the ground. Not that we mind; this is what we signed up for.
By now Samantha has briefed everyone on her story: she has five autoimmune diseases that lay dormant in her system until sophomore year, when a cold triggered them all at once. After five weeks in the hospital and one week in rehab to end her pain medication addiction, she was able to live at home again.
“I'm glad I'm in Tanzania,” she tells me. “When you left me in the hospital to go to India, I remember being angry at you, even though I knew it would be irrational for you to skip the trip. I just couldn't believe you left me.”
The more time I spend with her in Africa the more I find out about her diseases. Samantha has an easier time mentioning the gravest parts of her illnesses to acquaintances than to me – who slept beside her in the hospital – because she knows they won't care as much. There's so much she never told me. As we stand in our group, Samantha drops a bomb.
“For my common app essay, my counselor wants me to write about being in the hospital and facing death, because when we didn't think there was a treatment for the pain, my doctor and I decided that when I turned eighteen she would assist me in suicide rather than let me live out my life in a hospital bed.”
I stand quietly, nodding. She never told me that. A shiver travels through me. It's easy to convince myself that if she is walking and talking, she's not sick. I know there is no cure, but I never considered what Sammi would do if her doctors couldn't find a treatment. I thought it would all be okay because bad things happen to other people. Someone's mom dying, someone's brother getting cancer – they happen to friends of friends, not me.
But the truth is I will probably have outlived Sammi by the time I'm thirty. I can't believe this; I know she is sick while simultaneously refusing to accept it as real. Since her illnesses are not something I can see, I have to have faith that they're there, which for me is impossible. In my mind, if Sammi looks healthy she is healthy. End of story.




When I left Los Angeles for the boarding school I entered as a junior in August 2011, worries about home burdened me so much I felt physically heavy in my gut. Sammi's health was the biggest of these worries, but she seemed stable. Somewhat uninformed on the true nature of her illness and in my permanent state of denial, I hoped that stability would last forever.
That November, a boy from my freshman Spanish class died from leukemia. I had barely known him, but it was a shock to hear that just two years after he was diagnosed, the sickness got the upper hand. The voice of reason spoke from the back of my mind: kids can't die.
I promptly told the voice of reason to shut up because I was realizing that that statement was wildly untrue. All that night I wrestled with the thought that youth was not synonymous with invulnerability. The next day Samantha called. After a catch-up conversation, we got to the heart of the matter.
“So they're running out of options,” she said. “They're running out of ways to stop my immune system from attacking my body.”
“So what are they going to do?” I tried to hide the tension in my voice.
“Well,” she began, her response taking on a rehearsed air. “They're going to start chemo treatments. The chemo will poison me enough to crush my immune system so it can't hurt me. But that means if I get any sort of infection, it could kill me.”
“Oh.” I didn't know what part of her statement to address first. The part about the chemo disturbed me. Samantha was smart but also concerned with her looks. Losing her hair would mean losing her beauty, something she tended to believe was all she had to show for herself.
“Sam, if you lose your hair, I'll cut mine too.” My voice shook, but covering up my fear seemed futile.
“Thanks, D,” she replied.
“Bye, Sam. I love you.”
“Bye, D. Love you too.”
That was when it really hit me, even more than when Sammi was in the hospital: this was not a game. It was real life. Weren't adults supposed to handle problems like this, not seventeen-year-olds? Wasn't talking about chemo a grown-up thing? And I was certainly not a grown-up. Was I?




The second week in Tanzania takes a turn for the worse. On Monday Samantha casually drops a bombshell: I'm in her will. “Well, D, when I thought I was going to die, I left you my trust fund to pay for college.”
I had never even considered she had a will. “It would pay for college?” I ask in shock as I add a brick to the wall we're building. I can currently only afford two years before I'll need financial aid.
“It would help. And there's some other stuff I left you.”
I try to imagine what – maybe some of the jewelry she always has lying around. It's strange to think about this as I stand covered in ­cement in a house with only three walls. The sweater I'm wearing in this Tanzanian winter suddenly feels too hot. My best friend's death would send me through college loan-free. What a mind-boggling trade. I have never been so thankful to be unable to pay tuition.
The next day Samantha seems worse. Sitting at breakfast next to me, she whispers, “I'm peeing blood.”
As usual, I don't know what to do. She tells the group leaders. This is a sign that she has an infection, which must be stopped or Nairobi will get a call for a helicopter. She digs into her stash of antibiotics and takes it easy that day.
Sammi tries to hide that she is feeling sick, but it puts her in an awful mood. The next day, she is lying on her mattress, unwilling to move or eat. All she wants is a constant stream of Stoney Ginger Ale, a Tanzanian soda from the miniscule convenience store. When I'm not working, I spend my time sitting on the concrete floor next to her reading aloud or talking about the day.
I never realized how fast Samantha could get sick. I still refuse to believe in the gravity of her illness, but it's hard to ignore as she lies in the fetal position with bleary eyes.
The next day, the antibiotics start to work and Samantha is okay. I can breathe again. I feel as though I have been holding my breath for three days.
Although Sammi is doing okay, she doesn't quite recover. We move to another town and join a new group of kids who aren't as nice. Samantha is in a permanent bad mood because of the pain. I try to stay positive.
At lunch one day a girl takes Sammi's seat. Chair stealing happens all the time and is easily remedied by getting another one. Instead, Sammi yells at the girl and storms out. Following her, I ask, “You okay?” She has tears in her eyes as she gestures to the plastic lawn chairs. “I'm too weak to carry another in.” Samantha's muscles are falling apart.
I grab the chair. “It's fine. I've got it.” As we return to the group I feel their judgmental stares, wondering why I'm carrying the chair. They probably think I'm the sidekick she pushes around with her out-of-control temper. But what they say doesn't bother me, since they are pretty unpleasant and bitterly complain about Tanzania all of the time, leaving me wondering why they are here. At least Samantha has a reason to complain.
The next day is Samantha's eighteenth birthday, and we all feast on a cake that was slow-cooked in a brick oven. When Sammi and I are alone we joke about her reluctance to share her cake. “I just wanted to eat the whole thing by ourselves,” she says.
In my book, eating an entire cake by yourself is never wrong, especially since this is a big birthday. One year ago she planned to commit assisted suicide when she turned eighteen. Today though, we aren't in a hospital waiting for the worst; we're sitting in Tanzania, eating cake and laughing. Despite the mosquitoes, I feel as though nothing can touch us.
The day before we leave, Samantha can barely work since it's all manual labor. She is in constant pain, hates every kid there, and her lexicon becomes a symphony of whining. I'm doing my best to be a good friend, but I can't stand her either.
We attend a church ceremony to see how the townspeople pray. They give us all special blessings in loud Swahili. Afterward, Sammi says, “God, don't you think that was weird?” with an eye roll.
“You didn't have to come,” I snap.
Looking back, I regret getting annoyed with her. Samantha never would have snapped at me, especially under the circumstances. But the problem is more than just her complaints. It's everything. I'm not angry with Samantha – I'm livid. How could she not tell me about her will? Her assisted suicide plan?
Samantha and her family have taken me in as their own, and imagining my life without her gives me a headache. She planned to be a doctor, but we all know that getting to that age is just a hope, not a promise. She even told me that if she decides to get married and pregnant at nineteen, her parents will support her. There's no guarantee she'll have time for that later.
Sammi's sickness has taught me how short life can be. There are more important things than a test grade or the newest fashion. What's ironic is that Sammi's illness has taught her the exact opposite. Her brush with death has given her the drive to enjoy living an average teenage life, pushing her to get good grades while balancing her illness, a demanding social life, and time with her family. Of course, I'm impressed, but I've stopped sweating the small stuff.
Since leaving Tanzania, I have ­forgiven Samantha for keeping me in the dark. I know death is hard to talk about, and she didn't want me to worry. In a way my anger was selfish.
Samantha tells me that sometimes she calls in sick to school just because she can. Then she goes and parks on Gladwin Street, outside my old house, and reads a book in her car. The neighborhood is shady, but my house still radiates the warmth of a loving family.




The lumpy chair hurt my back, and I rolled over onto my stomach. Wind angrily rattled the dark windows as nurses whispered nearby. The sheets were swaddled around my head as always, and I pretended I was asleep until they left. I'm not here, I thought. I'm home on Gladwin Street. But I was in the hospital, woken by the nurses taking Samantha's vitals at 3 a.m. Then they left the two of us alone; Samantha's parents had gone home to sleep, so I was staying with her. I looked at Samantha, puffed up on steroids and totally knocked out from medication. Then I craned my neck to gaze out the window. The black ocean was barely visible and suddenly seemed further away than ever. I wondered if I would ever travel with Sammi again.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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