Authors: Ellen Schwartz
I look over my shoulder. The door opens. A bald head peeks around.
“Mind if I come in?” it says. I don't know if it's a he or she.
“Well, actuallyâ,” I begin. Because I do mind. I'm a seventeen-year-old guy bawling his eyes out, and I don't feel like seeing anybody.
“Harj told me there was someone else my age on the ward.”
“Harj?” I ask in spite of myself.
“Harjit. Nurse Sangha.”
“You're on a first-name basis?”
Heâsheâbeams me a smile. “You spend as much time in here as I do, and you will be too.”
The person comes all the way into the room. It takes me a minute to realize it's the girl I saw come in earlier. She had a hat on then. Now her head is bald. No, it's not, I see as she comes closer. There's a fine layer of blond fuzz all over it. Her eyes, blue-gray, are huge in her thin face. She's wearing a long-sleeved maroon T and navy yoga pants. Her collarbone and hip bones jut out.
She's flat-chested. I can't tell if she's twelve or twenty-five.
She comes over to the bed. Holds out her hand. “I'm Lark.”
“Brendan,” I say, shaking her hand.
“Yeah, I knowâ”
“Don't tell me. Harj told you.”
She laughs. It's like a bell, high and tinkling.
She starts walking around the room, looking at my stuff. The picture of my basketball team, the clipping about the regionals. My iPod. A plate of peanut-butter cookies, my all-time favorite, which my mom baked, trying to tempt me to eat, and which I haven't touched. The detective novel I'm reading when my headache isn't too bad. She picks that up and looks at the spine.
At first I stiffen. Who the hell does she think she is, touching my stuff? But then I realize that I don't actually mind. It's kind of soothing, watching her glide around the room like a butterfly, landing first on this flower, then on the next.
“So,” she says, “all ?” She sits on the edge of the bed. It hardly sags.
“Don't know. Bone-marrow biopsy tomorrow.”
Does it hurt?
I want to know but am too embarrassed to ask. “You?”
She nods. “I've had two chemo cycles. Didn't work.”
“Holy shit.” It slips out before I can stop myself.
But she smiles. “Holy shit is right. I'm in for a bone-marrow transplant. Last chance. Do or die.” She pauses. “Probably die.”
I can't believe this. They only do bone-marrow transplants if the outlook is really bad. Yet she's talking about it so calmly, as if we were having a casual conversation. Seen any good movies lately? No, you?
For a moment I wonder if she's not quite all there. Maybe the chemo did something to her brain.
She glides over to the window, pushes aside the curtain. It's dark out. I can see her pale reflection in the glass. There are drops of water on the outside.
She sighs. “I love the rain. Especially when it's windy and the rain is driving into your face, and you're all shivery, and you have to lean into the wind or it'll knock you over, and you get soaked and chilled and have goose bumps all over, and then you come inside and put on dry clothes and thick socks and have cocoa, and the rain is drumming on the roof and it's cozy and warm.” She turns. “Don't you?”
“What the hell!” I explode.
She gapes at me. “What?”
“Are you for real? Are you crazy?”
She comes back toward the bed.
“I don't think so.” She smiles. “Well, maybe a little.”
That pushes me further over the edge. “You have cancer. I have cancer. We might die. How can you talk about the rain?”
She sits down and takes my hand. “Why not? Was there something else you wanted to talk about?”
“No!” I fling her hand away. “How can you be so calm? It's unreal.”
She pauses. “What else can I do?
Besides, I do love the rain. And the sun and the wind and the snow.”
I jump up, pace across the room, then turn and glare at her. “Well, I don't believe it. And I don't feel like talking about it. All thisâ¦loveâ¦and cocoaâ¦ it's bull!” My head is pounding.
Lark gets up. “I didn't mean to upset you, Brendan.”
“Well, you did!”
A stricken look crosses her face. “I'm sorry.”
A pause. “All right. Good night, Brendan.” She floats across the room and is gone.
I pace. Of all the crazy, frustratingâ How on earth does anybody expect me to believeâ?
She's dying and she's smiling and going on about how wonderful the rain is? No way. Either she's full of it, just trying to distract herself, keep the fear down, or she's nuts, soft in the head, or she's putting on an act, trying to impress meâ I stop. She didn't seem crazy. Or fake. She seemed real.
But it's impossible, I tell myself. It must be bullshit.
I fling myself into bed, seeing that strange pale smile in the glass.
It's a long time before I fall asleep.
I have the bone-marrow biopsy. A needle inserted in my hip bone. It hurts like hell at first. Then it's just a dull ache.
It takes a couple of days to get the results. Meanwhile, I find out I'm anemic. That's why I've been dragging my ass for weeks. So I have to get blood transfusions. That's a load of fun.
The biopsy confirms that I have all . The most commonâand fastest-growingâ type. So I'm going to start chemo. Two drugs at once, one 24/7 for a week and the other on three days for an hour. A huge blast of chemicals to knock out all the bad cells. Only problem is, they knock out the good cells, plus my bone marrow, at the same time.
I start chemo. It doesn't hurtâthat's a reliefâbut it's brutal lying back in a reclining chair watching liquid poison slowly drip through a bag into your catheter, into your veins. Hours of boredom. And fear.
And the whole time I have my parents yammering at me. I tried to tell them they didn't have to stay, but they wouldn't hear of leaving me to face it alone. So here they are, each holding one of my hands, talking across me in dueling conversations.
“Daunorubicin is very effective at finding and destroying lymphoblastsâ,” my mom begins.
“Marcia, I don't think Brendan wants to hear about the drugs right now,” my dad interrupts.
“But he needs to be involved in his treatment. It's a critical factor in fighting the disease. Studies showâ”
“I don't thinkâ”
“Shut up!” I shout. They both look at me. We don't say that in our house. Don't raise our voices. But I can't stand this. “Just stop talking. I don't want to hear anything.”
There's a stunned silence. The only sound is the murmur of voices in the hall, the almost imperceptible
of the machine as it monitors the flow of chemicals. We sit like that, my parents holding my hands, their lips compressed, while one bag empties and another is put in its place.
After I'm finished getting the “three” drugâthe one I'm getting three doses ofâNurse Sangha says I can continue with the “seven” drug in my room. So, pushing my iv stand, I pad down the hall and get into bed. I try to get my parents to leave, but they insist on staying, even though Nurse Sangha tells them I'll probably just sleep most of the day.
They sit in the chairs beside the bed.
“Well, Bren, that's the first step toward remission,” my dad says in his fake-hearty voice.
“Yes.” My mom brightens. “In eighty-five percent of cases, there's a steep decline in blast cells after only one week of treatments.”
“So you just have to stay positiveâ”
I want to scream. But I don't, because suddenly I have to puke. I push my call button.
“What's the matter, Bren?” my dad says.
I just shake my head. I don't want to open my mouth.
Nurse Sangha rushes in, takes one look at me, reaches into a cupboard and hands me a plastic bucket. I grab it and heave. Even though I haven't eaten all day, slimy yellow gunk comes up.
I spew, breathe hard, sweat, spew again.
“Oh, Brendan. Here, let me.” My mom tries to wipe my forehead. I whip my head to push her hand away.
When I'm finished, Nurse Sangha takes the bucket away. She returns with a wet washcloth and wipes my face. Gingerly I go into the bathroom and brush my teeth, then get back into bed.
Nurse Sangha hands me a couple of pills and a glass of water. “Well, now we know,” she says dryly, giving me a sympathetic look. She hands me a clean bucket. “Meet your new best friend.”
I manage to smile back. They hadn't given me anti-nausea medication before the chemo in case I didn't need itânot everyone gets sick, and you're better off taking fewer meds rather than more. But I guess I'm one of the unlucky ones.
I take the pills, then curl up on my side, my back to my parents. My dad reaches over and starts smoothing my hair back from my forehead. My mom comes around in front of me with the bucket. “Do you need this, Bren? Want me to put it here? Or on the night table?”
I want her to shut up. I want my dad to tuck me in and kiss me good night, like he used to do when I was little. My mom always slept like a log, so my dad was the one Maureen and I went to when we had a bad dream or had a fever or had to throw up. He sponged us down, cleaned us up, changed our pajamas, carried us to bed. My arms tight around his neck, my legs wrapped around his waist. His warm hands stroking my back. His whisper, “You'll be fine now.” And I always was.
That's what I want. And I feel like such a wuss. And I hate feeling like that.
I shove the bucket away, wiggle away from my dad's hand.
“Just leave me alone.”
A whisper I can't hear. The rustle of their coats.
“We'll see you tomorrow, Brendan.”
“If there's anything you needâ¦” My dad's voice trails off.
I don't answer. They leave. I curl up tighter on the bed, hugging the bucket.
An hour later I'm half lying, half sitting up in bed, holding the bucket. The nausea meds haven't kicked in yet. If I lie all the way down, the nausea gets worse. If I sit up, my head hurts.
My stomach heaves. I lean on an elbow and retch. Again. Wipe my mouth. Rinse with water, spit. The water swirls over the brownish puke. Yesterday's lentil soup, the odd orange fleck of carrot.
Nurse Sangha cleans out the bucket, brings me my toothbrush. I spit in a basin. Close my eyes. My head swims. I open them. Stare at the blank tv screen. There's nothing on but kids' cartoons and talk shows. I know. I've checked.
This sucks. I can't read, can't talk, can't do anything. Nausea has taken over my world like an unwelcome guest who won't leave.
There's a tap on the door. It opens. Lark.
“Can I come in?”
I don't feel like company, least of all her and her fake happiness. But maybe she'll distract me. I beckon with my pinkie finger.
She stands by the bed. “Bucket blues, huh?”
I start to nod, then stop. Even that motion makes it worse.
“Poor boy. I remember it well.”
I look at her. Think about how she's gone through this twice. Two multiplied by seven days by twenty-four hours. I don't even want to think about how many hours of nausea that was, how many buckets she must have filled. How did she get through it?
She touches my forehead. Her fingers are cool. “I can help,” she says. “Wait here.”
I snort. As if I'm going anywhere.
She disappears, then comes back a minute later with a turquoise bedspreadâ where did that come from? I wonder. It sure isn't the standard hospital brownâ which she flaps open and spreads on the floor. She puts the bucket on one side of the bedspread, then says, “Up.”
I don't want to move. “Can't.”
“Yes, you can. Slowly.”
I honestly don't think I can move, but she takes me by the shoulders, and damned if she doesn't have me sitting up in a moment. Taking me by one hand, pushing my i v stand with the other, she leads me over to the bedspread.
Trust this hippy-dippy flower child who's so full of it she believes her own delusions? Not likely. But I don't have much choice. I shuffle over to the edge of the bedspread. She lies facedown on one side and motions for me to lie on the other.
“Are you crazy?”
“Come on. It'll help. Really.”
Feeling like a fool, I lie on my stomach beside her, my iv line snaking beside me. “Now what?”
She doesn't answer. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out an iPod. Slips one earbud into her ear and the other into mine.
What's coming? I wonder. Some kind of brainwashing? Some new-age “you are beautiful and all is well” crap?
Soft music starts playing. A tinkling piano, a quiet sultry sax, a brush sliding over a drum. A woman's voice starts singing:
“Ooh, ooh, ooh, what a little moonlight
Ooh, ooh, ooh, what a little moonlight
can do to youâ¦”
I've heard the voice before. Husky.
A little gravelly. Like soft, worn velvet.
I look at Lark.
That's it. My dad listens to her sometimes.
“Wait a while, till a little moonbeam
comes peepin' throughâ¦”
The song is great. I like the easy, swinging beat. But I feel like an idiot, lying on the floor, sharing an iPod with a girl I don't even know. Is this supposed to cure my nausea? That's nuts. And there must be all kinds of germs on the floor, and chemo patients are supposed to avoid germs.
I reach up to pull out the earbud, but Lark puts her hand on mine. “Wait. Give it a chance.”
“This is stupidâ”
“Don't you like the music?”