I let my mind drift, let the sound of beeping monitors and bustling nurses fade into the background. I’ve always been good at escaping. Mentally, anyway.
There was a time I tried escaping physically, too, when mental escape wasn’t enough. It was a night not so long ago, the night before I could officially call myself a teen, and I told myself that thirteen was young.
Thirteen was strong.
And maybe, I thought, if I could make it home, Jess wouldn’t have to spend our birthday at the hospital.
By the time I ripped the tubes from my nose and the I.V. from the back of my hand, the nurses had me surrounded, reminding me that age meant nothing. Not to my fatigued muscles and not to my fragile bones, strong and vibrant only eight months before.
Jess stayed by my side the entire day following, celebrating my newfound teenage-hood with the very nurses who kept me prisoner. I hate her guilt. I hate the way it makes her decisions. For as long as I can remember, Jess and I have celebrated our birthdays together, since I was born on her third. But I begged her not to that time. It was her sixteenth, and I begged her to spend it the way a teenage girl should.
But as usual, Jess never left my side. Instead of boys, music, and dancing were tears, infection, and a catheter.
Instead of trendy clothes were hats, and even a mildly attractive wig.
I stare out the blackened hospital window now, unable to sleep. I take my thoughts elsewhere, somewhere far away and safe. Somewhere where I am healthy and strong. In that place, I’m not poor, brave Haley, but beautiful, powerful Haley.
I draw my finger along the scar that stretches from the middle of my ribcage to just above my belly button, where it splits and continues down both sides of my abdomen—branding my stomach with the most horrific, twelve-inch upside-down Y. The raised skin is still sensitive, even raw in places, but I imagine it smooth, imagine that I wasn’t just opened like a lily six months ago.
I feel my hand over my silky head and imagine hair, too, imagine braids and ponytails and the annoyance I would feel when the wind blows it in my eyes. I would give anything to feel that annoyance again.
I feel a draft against my uneven skull instead.
It used to be red, my hair. Fiery and full of light, as Mom used to say. And once upon a time, my freckles, that seem so out of place now, matched.
My eyes burn and I set my jaw against the quivering.
I’m supposed to be strong. The strong, young cancer patient, smiling to give her mother the same hope she faked herself.
But Mom is gone and the nurses cackle outside my cracked door as though life isn’t slipping away in the rooms around them. For the first time in months, I’m alone—really and truly alone. And my solitude frees me.
I leave my bravery on the rolling tray table, along with the pudding I never touch, and let the tears spill. Tonight, I just want to be pretty again.
I want to dance like I used to, like gravity isn’t my worst enemy.
I want my first kiss, and though I know it’ll never happen, I imagine the way it would feel to have a boy’s lips against mine. Maybe Mark’s, the boy whose name decorates last year’s hot pink binder.
My solitude is interrupted when Mom enters the room, catching me in the middle of a breathless, teary gulp. She sees the tears drenching my cheeks and drops her purse at the door, rushing to me. For the briefest instant, I regret everything, because Mom could always cry at the drop of a hat, and usually I can soothe her.
But I’m still weak from leaving my strength on the tray table, and all I can do is cry the way Mom usually does.
Something strange happens when her arms encircle me. I feel something I don’t understand, coming from deep within and swelling in my chest. Almost like…strength. Then a warmth, the very warmth I’ve been fighting against. It too enters my soul, and my weeps drain me.
I don’t want to be alone, I realize, never again. But I’m not, because for the first time since the diagnosis, I absorb comfort from the same arms that rocked me as a young child, the arms I used to run to and the arms I’ve only recently rejected. These arms, warm and soft and smelling like childhood, give me something I can no longer give everyone else. They give me what I lacked all along and what I realize I’ve always wanted.
Thoughts of dancing again, maybe with her; thoughts of running and thoughts of hair, so long it tangles; thoughts of laughter and a body that knows no bounds.
The arms of my mother give me hope.