Sarin, Alabama, 1965.
I was a child nearing thirteen and every day I became weaker and weaker. He said my vital signs were weaker than a little girl’s and I shan’t have much longer to live. This was not the news I was looking for. I sat on the edge of the hospital bed, my legs dangling over it like branches swaying in the wind and all the while my mother wept at the doctor with the big head and the glistening face and the ears that stuck out like a rabbit’s. It was Saturday, and I should have been playing outside with all the other kids but I wasn’t. I didn’t know why I couldn’t, at least not at the time.
Most doctor’s offices were closed on Saturdays and we took the bus ride all the way down to the hospital in Sarin, the one with the giant statues and the garden out front and the lake that shone like mirrors. While my mother and the doctor chattered on and on about my past medical history, I looked at the paintings on the wall and imagined I was somewhere else, maybe in the woods with a friend or fishing with my uncle.
My uncle Seamus had a condition, too. He had a broken hip and recently had to get a wheelchair. I told him he didn’t need one but he didn’t listen and spent his time wheeling around the kitchen in it because the living room is too cluttered with junk. He hired a maid-a black woman with wide breasts-to clean it every Sunday but she was slow and sloppy with her work and he liked to point his cane at her and yell out swear words I wasn’t supposed to hear.
When I heard this I always giggled behind my hands. It was very funny to me to hear an old man swear like that. He thought it was funny, too. My father would not think it was so funny. I did not know where he was. I wished he was with me all the time.
Dr. Smith was not an ugly man. He had a bunch of degrees on the wall and his stethoscope was cold and shone like the moon at night. He kissed my forehead and gave me a red sucker and said I should take it easy, that surgery wouldn’t be necessary. My mother asked me how long I had.
Dr. Smith gave her a long look over my head, like they were sharing some kind of secret, and said he didn’t know. She nodded, relenting. Grabbing my hand, she dragged me back down to the bus, carrying the prescription he wrote to me like a shield, and we climbed aboard and smiled at the bus driver with the scary eyes and bunched-up shirt that showed too much. The bus driver did not speak to us. He never did, but that didn’t stop my mother from trying to be friendly.
"Hello, sir," she said. "I hope you are doing fine. As you can see, my girl’s got cancer, please drive real slow. She gets sick easily."
He didn’t answer.
We sat in the middle of the bus. The seats were too high up for me.
My legs dangled over the side and my mother told me we were going to go to the store to get my medicine, she said it was medicine to make me feel better and the reason I was feeling terrible was because I had something called leukemia. She said it meant I was special in a way that was different from the other kids and that I shouldn’t worry and that God took care of special children like me.
She said I didn’t have to go to school anymore and that she would teach me. I made a face. I liked school especially this boy named Benjamin Thomas Reed, who liked to poke me in the back and said things that were supposed to sound mean but wasn’t. Once he said I was "resilient" and I looked up the word in the dictionary and it was a good word, not a bad one. I asked him where he got the word from and he said from some old man at Kern’s. Kern was the pharmacy downtown.
"What about Father, Mama?" I wanted to know.
Maybe Father could convince Mama that it was okay to go to school.
"Father’s in the army," she answered shortly, and stared out the window at the passing cars and the buildings that didn’t move. She didn’t like to talk about Father’s work. I suppose it made her jealous.
I didn’t know what to say to that. My father should be home with me, not in some stupid army that didn’t know anything about him.
Later that evening, after supper, I was tired. My mother took me upstairs and put me to bed and gave me medicine from a spoon. I made a face. "Yuck!" I said, and she scolded me, saying the medicine was given to doctors by God and that it will make me good as new. I said I hoped so. I said I wished I knew how to feel better.
My eyes closed.
I woke to the sound of the television downstairs. I climbed out of bed and ran downstairs to see Uncle Ben watching tv, his belly laughing with the comedian on the set. Our tv was in black and white. I climbed up on his lap and asked him what he was doing here and he said he was helping Mama mow the lawn. I told him the doctor said I had leukemia and he said he was very sorry and he brought Mama a pie. It was sitting on the table in the kitchen.
"I don’t feel like eating right now," I told him.
He patted my back. "There, there, baby," he said soothingly. "May God soothe your soul."
Mama came home from work and Uncle Ben cut the pie and gave me a piece. It was a good pie, with large red cherries full of sugar and preserves and crust that melted like butter in my mouth. I took my medicine again and Bobby Jones came over and we played in the backyard until dusk, when the fireflies turned on their lights to light up the night sky and filled the evening with shadows. They danced away my sorrows.