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The Girl Who Guessed a Hundred
“How many do you think there are?” she asked me, staring up through softly dipping lashes, thicker than the day’s wet summer heat.
“How many of what?” I replied, brushing my hand over her tightly pinned Shirley Temple curls.
“Feathers,” she said, “on that bird. I think there’s a hundred.” And a grin flashed across her tan, freckled face.
The daughter of an acquaintance of my mother’s, she was six years old with a mouth full of missing teeth and lips red as the popsicles we never stopped munching over those long three months. I had taken the job of babysitting her during the summer, mostly to make some cash for a decent paint and decal job for my car.
But as the days passed and the nights grew warmer, I found a comradeship in that little girl like I had with no one else before or after her. She showed me that bees can land on your hand without stinging you if you keep your fingers relaxed and your thoughts nice.
She taught me that the best way to make a friend was to be one- she smiled when I was sad, sang when I was silent, and danced when I was distant. She made me want to be a part of the world simply with the way she spoke.
“I don’t think there’s that many.” I said, shaking my head at her as she began to count.
She stretched over the hood of my old car, touching a finger to each single blue feather, her lips mouthing the numbers. I was impressed. She got all the way up to fifty before losing her train of thought and reverting back to her previous statement.
“There’s a hundred. I just know there is.”
“And how do you know that?”
“It’s just a guess,” she said, shrugging her shoulders in exasperation. “Will you count them for me?”
“Not now.” I told her, pressing the ‘answer’ button on my little phone.
“Is it my mom?” she asked me, blue eyes widening with excitement.
I smiled, “I don’t know. Why don’t you say hello and find out?”
She grabbed the phone quickly from my outstretched hand, not even settling it up to her ear before she began jabbering.
“Mommy! Mommy is that you?”
The bright excitement burning in her irises visibly dulled as a baritone voice answered her hopefulness with crushing disappointment.
“Oh, hey Daddy. Is Mommy there?”
I could hear her father’s voice faintly from where I was standing, but couldn’t make out the words he spoke to her during the brief five-minute conversation.
I’m sure he diverted the subject to the simple routine questions: ‘Did you eat lunch?’, ‘Have you taken your medicine?’, ‘Are you feeling tired today?’, because the way she answered was automatic and timid with whispers of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ into his ear.
“I love you too, Daddy,” she said, and lifted the phone up to me. “He wants to talk to you.”
I expected the usual ‘Are you sure she took her medicine?’ and ‘How’s her temperature?’ but, the expected isn’t what happened…
Instead of answering the phone to the composed, upfront man I was used to, I met a completely different side of that little girl’s father as he blubbered silently to me for over thirty minutes.
He choked on his words as he recounted to me the visit with the pediatrician. How the doctor had told him the cancer was worse than they anticipated: stage four. How his daughter’s right kidney was in full renal failure and the left one wasn’t far from it.
He sobbed as only a father can sob for a daughter, his only daughter: heart wrenchingly.
I imagine he was in a cold, empty consult room, door closed, on his knees at the thought of losing his only child.
Leukemia was a foreign word to me. That is, until I stood against my car, looking down at a dying child who, because of stupid white blood cells that didn’t know the difference between cancerous cells and simply sick cells, had less than a few months to live.
I didn’t want to believe that the life of something so beautiful and innocent could be cut so short for no good reason.
I didn’t want to take in what this man whom I barely knew was telling me and process it because it just couldn’t be true.
It couldn’t be real that a six year old girl who could barely count to fifty would never get to ride a bike, or go on a date, or even live to see her teeth grow back.
“-and I don’t know how to tell her about Karen. I mean, how do you tell an elementary school child that her mother doesn’t love her- doesn’t want to be there to hold her while she’s sick? I can’t do this, I can’t just say goodbye to my child like this. It’s not supposed to happen this way…” were the words most prominent- the only words I really caught.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sniffling hard while making an attempt to steady his wavering voice, “I shouldn’t put all this on your shoulders. I just…I have no one else to turn to.”
“It’s fine.” Was all I could say. “It’s going to be fine.”
But I knew it wouldn’t be.
July turned to August, and school began back in the middle of the month.
The girl’s father offered to pay me more to stay on with them for the next few months, just until…
But I couldn’t take the money, I told him. It wouldn’t feel right.
So each day after dinner, I drove over to their house and helped wash her and comb her hair until she fell asleep.
Some nights there was enough strength in her to endure a bed-time story. Some nights it was a struggle to keep her awake just to finish a bath. I didn’t mind, though- it took so much pressure off her father.
Every night as she said her prayers, she’d ask God to please make sure her mommy was safe- wherever she may be, and at the very end:
“God, I want to be a bird like the one on Pam’s car hood. But I want to be a real one so I can really fly. Flying would be nice, dear God. Amen.”
And as I tucked her into bed, she’d ask me with drooping eyelids if I had counted the feathers on the bird.
I reasoned that I would wait until the right time to give her the news, and that was that.
Our routine stretched on for several months. Quite a few more than the doctor had anticipated, actually, and it made her father grow restless and weary.
Every cough was a hear palpitation, every sneeze was a nose bleed, every fall was a bruise that would never heal.
A child of six an a half, her body was beaten beyond repair, but her spirit was more than bright.
One night, I got home late from her house- maybe ten o’clock, and I found that my own father was waiting up for me.
“Sit down,” he told me as I entered the kitchen, “and I’ll fix you something to drink.”
He handed me the fizzing cup of ginger ale and took a seat beside me at the tiny bar.
“How is little Sarah doing?” he asked me.
“Not very good tonight,” I said, “she could barely keep her eyes open the whole time I was there. Not even enough energy for prayers.”
I took a sip of the cold drink, hoping it would dissolve the lump that sat thick and heavy in the back of my aching throat.
“How’s Jim taking it?”
“About as well as any father could. How would you take it?” I said tensely, glancing up at him.
“Fair enough.” he said, getting up from his stool and making his way over to the fridge. “And how are you?” he asked, pausing to hear my reply.
I didn’t have enough time to answer him, though, for my phone started dancing on the counter, letting out a shrill ring that sent my head spinning. I nearly tipped my glass over in order to pick it up.
“I’ve got it,” my father said, putting his hand out. “Hello?” he said, turning his back from me and walking toward the kitchen window.
He looked out for what seemed like forever, listening in silence as whoever he was speaking to talked.
After a while of standing still as marble, staring out into the foggy darkness, he cleared his throat and wiped his eyes with his pajama shirt sleeve.
“Thank you for notifying us,” he said. “Tell him we’ll be there shortly.”
She died on a warm night in April, asleep in her bed, stuffed animals clenched tightly in both of her frail little hands.
The call was from a nurse at the hospital, letting us know that she had been admitted, but there wasn’t much hope for resuscitation. Her heart just gave out, the woman told me with sad eyes as we made our way to the reception desk.
It was strange to enter a hospital room with no monitors or flashing lights or beeping noises, but her room was just so- quiet and dim. I almost couldn’t stand it.
Tears fell heavily onto her thick blonde hair, smoother than a halo around her ivory face.
I couldn’t speak to say goodbye or move to hold her hand.
There is nothing that will ever compare to the emptiness I felt that night when a cold linen sheet was draped slowly over her cheeks and her beautiful, thick eyelashes.
I wanted so much to tell her what she’d done for me- how she’d taught me what it is to love someone and why life is always beautiful, even in death.
I wanted to let her know that she was an angel in this world just as she would be in Heaven, and that I couldn’t wait to see her again.
I wanted so badly to let her know that she didn’t have to worry anymore- she was a bird now, just like the one on the hood of my car.
But most of all, if I could have told her anything that night before she closed her eyes for the very last time, it would’ve just been that I had counted the feathers for her.
She guessed a hundred- and I wish, oh, how I wish I could’ve told her that she was right…