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The walls were white and bore traces of children’s dirty handprints. White was the custom color, but I could detect no purity or innocence in this terrible building that smelled of death. White was for angels, too, but I didn’t believe in them – Anna did, though. I wondered what was happening to her now. I preferred to remain in a state of uncertainty so that I still had a faint sense of hope, so that Anna had one last chance, although in my heart of hearts I knew that hope would only make a fool of me.
From my soft, black chair against the wall I observed my companions, children whose eyes were glued to cartoon characters on the television, and whose place I wanted to take, for only a moment, just to remember what it was like to be so young and untroubled and not understand life and yet not worry about it. Some of the children turned their attention toward me as I shifted my position, for I had sat there, slumped over, unmoving, as if half-dead, for the entire length of the cartoon. I cracked my knuckles loudly and picked at a hole on the seat that revealed the yellow cushion underneath. It was hard to stay awake. I kept pulling my cell phone out of my pocket to check for missed calls. All I wanted to hear was the familiar ring tone and then my mother’s voice – just the sound of her words, not their meaning, because I wouldn’t understand – I would refuse to understand.
The only sounds I heard now were the high-pitched voices of the cartoon characters and occasional giggles from the children. Just as I was about to assume another sleeping position, a child left her seat and walked over to me. She had short brown hair like mine, and she looked around six or seven – so young. She didn’t belong in this place.
“Can you take me to the bathroom?” she asked.
“Oh, of course.” I took her hand, and we left the waiting room. The restroom was just down the hall, to the right. While I waited for her, I studied my face in the mirror. I looked different – older. I hadn’t had much sleep for the past two days, and I could see the weariness in my face. When I finished combing though my tangled hair with my fingers, the little girl still had not come out of the stall. I asked if she needed help, but she assured me she didn’t. That was when my phone rang. I immediately grabbed it out of my pocket and saw that my mother was calling. Then, suddenly, I felt sick – my stomach twisted into knots, my head became dizzy, and my hands started to sweat. A few minutes ago, all I had wanted to hear was the ringing of my phone, and now I couldn’t bring myself to take the call. I already knew what my mother was about to say.
“Your phone is ringing!” the little girl called out from within the stall.
“I know...” I took a deep breath. Ever since Anna’s relapse, I had imagined the time when I would get the news. I had never thought that it would happen in a bathroom, with a young child for company. I had just assumed that I would be in a waiting room, since being in Anna’s room was out of the question – I would only make everyone, including Anna, more nervous, like I had the last time.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life, but after the fourth ring I picked up the phone. I had to accept the truth that the rest of my family already knew upstairs in Anna’s room. There are moments that you know you will remember for the rest of your life, and the moment that I was on the phone with my mother, before I said hello, was one of them. At that point, it was too late to hang up and return to my former bliss of uncertainty, and yet I still had not heard the terrible words come out of my mother’s mouth. Time stopped, I was floating in darkness, and there was no going back.
And then, in an instant, it happened. My mother spoke. It was over. All I could say to her was a shaky “okay.” Then I ended the call, and I let the phone fall from my sweaty grip and land with a clatter on the cold tiled floor. I sank down to the floor, leaned my head back against the wall, and began weeping. With Anna, a part of me had just died. I was no longer the same person. I couldn’t think anymore.
I heard the sound of a flushing toilet, and the little girl finally walked out of the stall. After washing her hands, standing on tiptoe to reach the sink, she sat down next to me and took my hand. Surprised, I looked at her and tried to wipe away my tears with my free hand.
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “My grandma died last year. I know how you feel…” Her voice trailed off, and we were silent for a while, except for my sobbing.
When I was able to stop crying, I said, “It’s my sister. She’s dead. She’s dead! Can you believe it?” I broke into tears again. “Who are you here for?”
My heart broke a little bit more, and I hugged this little girl to me. She could not be older than seven, and yet she carried her burden without tears. But I was not ashamed. “We have to go now,” I said quietly. I picked up my phone from the floor, and I walked the girl back to the waiting room, where she joined the other children in front of the television. When she turned her head to look back at me, I gave her a little wave goodbye and walked on.
* * *
On the way to Anna’s room, I rode in an elevator. Every time I go into one, I think of the elevator scene in The Silence of the Lambs, so I have never enjoyed elevator rides. I remembered my first time watching the film was at home with Anna. She didn’t like scary movies, but I loved them. I made her watch it with me because I was too scared to watch it alone, although I never admitted it.
My reveries ended when the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and I was plunged back into the cold world of truth. I stepped out into a bright and busy hallway and found my way to my sister’s room. I found myself opening the door without hesitation, but in the doorway I froze. There was my sister lying on the bed, her face pale and expressionless and strange without a smile or a twinkle in the eyes. For a moment it seemed as though I couldn’t breathe, and then I saw my parents beside Anna’s bed, and the sight of familiar faces made me feel a little better. My mother, who was crying, got up from her seat and folded me into a warm embrace. We didn’t say much, but we didn’t need to.
That night, I sat outside, alone, on a bench in the hospital courtyard. It was a night that should have been beautiful, a night that should have reminded me why I loved summer – the warmth of darkness, the solitude, the stillness. But I thought of the long days ahead and just wished this to be over.
Ithaca, New York
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