A High School Student Squares Up Against Sickness, Sorrow, Pain & Possible Death
I’ve never liked Blue’s house but today I loathe it. The boxes scattered around the front door and the crumpled papers that take up most available seats aren’t occasional. They’ve greeted me at the front door for years. Tonight though, torn open packets of alcohol pads, a new set of crutches, and a few sterile needles, still in their plastic add to the chaos of the Jacksons’ entryway. Lily jumps on me when I get inside. She’s too big a dog for my liking, invariably covered in something sticky and smelling of a stale, familiar odor I can never quite place. I wonder briefly whether she knows Blue is sick. People always say dogs are empaths but Lily’s excitement at our arrival makes me doubt such claims.
Blue isn’t in her room but I can hear her rabbits scurrying across the stained pink carpet. My mind wanders to a day a couple of years ago spent at PetCo picking out Speckles and Joey, two nondescript additions to the Jackson family. During the drive home, Blue begged for a leash and harnesses to take her bunnies on walks and her mom and I laughed so hard we cried. Her mom refused but she ended up ordering the inane accessories anyways. Not once did I ever see the miniature harnesses in use although I frequently encountered them amongst the entryway clutter. It was so easy then to spend each day on yet another frivolous goal that Blue had set her mind to: hair dye, pet fish, golf tournaments, matcha lattes, Pinterest accounts, ideas all nonsensical, childish, and wonderful for those very reasons. Now Blue’s focus is on the year of chemotherapy and surgery ahead. Every part of me wishes she still wanted to make face masks out of cucumbers.
I don’t want to be here waiting for my dad, an anesthesiologist, to inject medication into my friend’s abdomen. Stomach fat is a nauseating place for a needle to go and when I imagine it for too long I tear up and sob, threatening a scene that will temporarily take attention away from the girl with cancer presently lying in her mom’s bed in the next room. It does not bear thinking about – a cheerful, recently graduated eighth-grader, waiting to be injected with hormones and then put under the knife in hopes of preserving the possibility of her becoming a mother herself someday…if she lives..
When we were younger, I once asked Blue about her future, about what she wanted to do with her life. She told me determinedly that she planned to become a school teacher until she had kids, after which she would devote her life to her family. Neither of us could have imagined that her fertility would stand in the way of her dreams, that a drug meant to save her life might negate the lives of her potential children. Guilt washes over me for my dread of witnessing Blue’s shots when I compare it to the dread she must feel about receiving them. She has a profound phobia of needles, a gut-wrenching circumstance that makes this horrendous situation even worse.
Years ago, she told me that she’d rather live her life avoiding peanuts than receive an allergy-test shot that would free her of her concern. Back then, I laughed. Tonight, she has no alternative. The chipping plaster in the far corner of the ceiling catches my eye. I’m sure I’ve passed the chip hundreds of times but I notice it now for the first time tonight and suddenly the room has a new focus. I wonder how someone could damage such a hard-to-reach spot. I also know the Jacksons will never repair it. Although I try to fix my attention entirely on the damaged plaster, my stomach lurches in anticipation of what must happen. “She’ll have to get used to the pain, and we’ll both have to get used to the nausea,” I think, before instantly becoming ashamed at my comparing our two situations.
As our parents set up for Blue’s shots, she and I talk. We talk about my new boyfriend, the merits of different kinds of chocolate chip cookies…and chemotherapy. Such conversations will become our new normal, mixing in a little bit of cancer talk amongst our usual gossip and mundanity as she facetimes from her hospital room. She tells me that her injections make her stomach itch and points at a tube of cream, which, she has found, eases her discomfort. She casually says, “Mia, it feels like someone is lighting a match on my skin,” and even though I’m usually quick to lighten the mood with a joke, the simile stuns me, stealing the last remnants of distractive wit I’ve managed to retain.
I had trouble, at first, even processing the news of Blue’s cancer. A few weeks ago, someone told me Blue was undergoing a biopsy on her knee, which she’d complained about for years. I thought little of it at the time. You hear about your neighbor’s mom or your friend’s cat getting cancer, but until it tags someone you love, the disease doesn’t exist on your radar of everyday fears, especially if you’re fourteen year old. But on that sunny afternoon, lying on the floor in sweatpants after just having removed my white graduation dress, I got a call from a mutual friend of ours in hysterics. Through tears, I heard, “My mom just told me Blue might have cancer. Do you think she’ll be okay?” I didn’t get an answer. I’d never imagined my bright-eyed best friend could be cancer-stricken, that she could lose her hair and stop eating and wither away, like in sentimental movies about doomed teenagers falling in love.
I hung up the phone and thought, “Mia, you should be crying; you should be shaking with fear and sorrow; you should be in your mom’s arms, unable to see through hot tears.” But I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t even move. I stayed on the floor, bewildered until my mom got home and found me lying there. By then, it was night but I hadn’t noticed. I asked my mom calmly if Blue had cancer, “like real cancer that needs hospital beds, beeping machines, tubes of god knows what pumping through you.” She only nodded, a slow nod full of sorrow, one that broke the state of shock and disbelief in which I had spent the last couple of hours.
After a few long minutes, my dad calls Blue and me to come and sit on the couch. I shake myself out of my reverie and force myself to stand. A stack of alcohol pads waits menacingly on the far cushion. I know my dad is holding the needles behind his back so we don’t see them and I appreciate his simple yet meaningful measure. When Blue lies down, her head on my lap, her tie-dye crop top reveals her still slightly pudgy stomach. I grab her hand and squeeze it. It isn’t much but it’s the best I can do for her. My dad wipes down a patch of skin with alcohol. Blue’s hand shakes in mine. Then it happens, my dad plunges the first needle into my friend’s stomach, while her mom loudly begins counting down the seconds until he can pull it out. “Five, four,” her grip tightens, “three, two, one.”
Her skin immediately puffs up a bit but her mom swoops in quickly with the anti-itch cream. I notice that she’s trembling all over. I’ve never seen her like this, and I loathe the pity that’s forming a lump in my throat. I want to be anywhere else yet I’m thankful to be right there by her side. When she says she’s ready, my dad injects her again. The rest of the night is a blur but the experience forces me to understand and to accept that our relationship will never be the same. Blue knows something now that I cannot, unless, one day, some of my cells also go rogue against my own body so that I too am forced to face my own mortality, not second hand like I have through her, but first.
Mia Singla is a junior in high school in Pasadena, California, but wrote this piece, set in her freshman year, when she was a sophomore. She has two brothers, one of whom is her twin, and has had no prior publications. When she’s not writing or occupied with school work, she is developing a project with her twin which aims to educate teens about opioid addiction, which she asks readers to view on https://www.teenageopioidsafety.com/ She hopes to incorporate her passion for writing into this project in order to reach fellow students all across America.