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FIRST ENCOUNTER



Balancing the miniature rose bush, graced with soft, pink buds in one hand, I stretch out my other to push the elevator button for the fifth floor of the KIDD wing; an airy, floral waft disrupts the clinical staleness as I wait for the elevator to arrive. This delicate plant is a symbol of life. She can focus on tending to these exquisite roses, nurturing them to grow into a vigorous plant. In order for them to thrive, she must do the same, they will not live unless she remains alive. I’m hoping she sees it as a goal to work towards, a purpose, another reason to not give up.


“Drea, honey, you won’t recognize her,” my mom says, her glossy pink lips pursed with seriousness. She has been keeping vigil by Donna’s bedside for the past month, bringing dinners, reading to her, sitting silently, fetching water; demonstrating her support and allowing Donna’s husband a reprieve from the horror they face. Watching her lifelong friend waste away before her eyes is a heavy load, but she carries it with grace, never faltering. Putting others first, anticipating their needs, being reliable in times of distress, my mom’s innate qualities won’t have it any other way.


As I enter Donna’s room, the whites of her deep set eyes are visibly piercing and frightening; she doesn’t blink as she gazes directly into my eyes as if searching for my soul. Despite mom's warnings, I am taken aback; this is my first experience seeing someone with late stage cancer. Judging by her grey, shriveled lips, you would think she was eighty, but the way the stiff, blue hospital gown that is ten sizes too large hangs off her skeletal frame, she appears childlike. What was once thick, coarse, dark wavy hair now hangs around her sunken, emaciated face in sparse tufts. Glancing up towards my mom, she tries opening her mouth to have an ice chip slipped in to combat the dehydration ravaging her body. Where did the active, strong, fit Donna go? Who is this imposter reaching out her hands for me? Reluctantly, I stall, her grief stricken face instills fright deep within my core. God I hope she can’t see this on my face. Hot with embarrassment at my thoughts, in trepidation, I silently get closer to her, placing the rose bush on the bedside table so I don’t drop it. Within arm's distance now, she suddenly lurches forward, latching onto me, clinging desperately, as her thin arms pull me down closer to her and hold on for dear life.


A recent stroke has rendered her incapable of speaking but the fear and desperation that fill her eyes, say it all, this silent communication much more powerful than any words could possibly be. For a frail woman, her grip is impressively tight and disconcerting. Helpless, my desire to burst into tears is overwhelming, but the last thing she needs to see is my pity so I choke them back, a tightness taking hold of my throat. Is she ever going to let me go? Gradually, I unlock her embrace, knowing I won’t see her again. Desperate for an escape, I lock eyes with my mom, wordlessly pleading for her to rescue me from this uncomfortable silence, to step in and distract us all from the reality we find ourselves in. I have no words.


Fleeing the room, tears pour in a torrent down my ghostly face in the safety of the vacant hallway. Bearing witness to the devastation of cancer and its sickly repugnance is profound and is deeply imprinted on my psyche.


~


It’s ok to go now, the words echo through my mind. What is that supposed to mean? Sitting on the waxy, shiny surface of the worn oak church pew, we say goodbye to Donna who has been taken too soon by the demon who goes by the name “cancer.” How is it possible it was just two weeks ago that I saw her. My heart breaks for Evan, her 11 year old son who has had his beloved mother stolen from his life. As an only child, he was her entire world. This is so unfair. Life is unfair. Holding back my tears requires a conscious effort, with a tension in my throat that hurts. There isn’t a dry eye here, yet I don’t want to cry in front of all these people. I’m not sure why. But as I blink, the floodgates open and they begin streaming down my face, leaving a puddle on my sleeveless black dress.


The ominous voice has followed me to the reception area. Picking up a lemon square, I hear the words again, It’s ok to go now. Chilled, I shudder, my freshly shaved legs instantly grow hair from each goose bump that has appeared. There is no elbow room in this crowded hallway, yet I am shivering. Who is speaking to me? What is this message that is being sent to me? I don’t understand, but the emotion is strong and the words are tangible as if someone is poking me in the chest with their finger as they say them. There is no mistaking that this message is meant for me.


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