So Margaret--who we all called Maggie even though she hated it--was this little girl I knew. About three feet tall, stringy blonde hair and always with dirty cheeks, Maggie had the voice of an old woman who smoked three packs a day. What's more is my mother always said she had an old soul, which I guess is true. Only an old soul would prefer "Margaret" to "Maggie" at age 7. Only an old soul accepts death before she can drive.
Maggie had been recently diagnosed with leukemia, except she wasn't one of those kids you feel sorry for because it was hard to remember she had it. She was dying, only she looked more alive than any other kid you've ever seen because she was living. I mean really living.
You don't get to be an angst-ridden teenager when your best friend's kid sister is dying of a terrible disease. Sure there's lots to feel down about, but you feel like it's not your place to be down unless she wants you there. She doesn't want you to be down, so you keep each other up and up, balloons whose strings have slipped from unclutched hands.
Laura doesn't want to talk about it except once. We're sitting on the swings at the park, watching Maggie chase her own bubbles. She's filthy, barefoot, running around on the basketball court without a care in the world. Her cheeks are stained with strawberry ice cream and she's whooping loudly every time she catches a big one.
"Mom says everything's gonna work out fine, but I told her that was bullshit." The comment catches me off-guard and I freeze up, say nothing.
"It's all bullshit. They're starting chemo or whatever next week but, like, I want to know where God is in all this. Gramma keeps hauling us off to church--like it'll do any good. Or will it? Is God gonna save her if I say my rosary, or is it just a way to keep us hoping?"
I still can't talk. I've been thinking of what to say to her for weeks, something really deep and meaningful, but none of it applies. Maggie, though, sees us whispering and pads across the court to the swing set. She falls easily into my lap and we are swinging softly, accidentally at first. Her dirty skin is a deep brown in spots; mine, a soft white, seems so much more fragile in comparison.
"Don't be sad, Laura," she says in her raspy voice. It's more of a command than a plea.
"No? You don't think I should be sad about this?" It was an incredulous question, bitter and full of sorrow, but Maggie ignored the undertone. I'm telling you: she's seven here, but she's old.
"If I die tomorrow and God calls me to heaven, I don't want my last memory of my sister to be depressing."
Laura nods, cheeks bright red, her face twisting painfully against the tears. But then she pumps her legs, out straight and tucked under and out straight, and suddenly she is swinging faster than we are. Climbing, climbing. Violently at first, then joyfully, as if her anger has become kinetic energy, powering her higher into the sky.
"Swing us higher," Maggie squeals. And I do.