I have been asked to clarify whether or not this is fiction; it is not.
Yesterday, for the first time since starting radiation treatments, I sat alone in the waiting room. Usually, she was there with me. Her name was Heather, and she was four years old. Cancer is never easy to deal with, but it must be worse for children such as her. I remember how scared she was of the wire mesh mask they put on us to prevent our heads from moving while they zap away. (We came to call the treatment area "Zap City," something she really got a kick out of.) I told her to pretend it was an astronaut's space helmet. After her second treatment, she told me that pretending she was in space made it fun.
I don't think she ever really understood what was happening to her. Maybe it's better that way. That's what I have to tell myself now.
Heather hadn't been there on Friday, nor was she there Monday. When I asked one of the nurses if anything was wrong, she said: "Heather's out sick today." As if that simple statement contained everything I needed to know. No one undergoing cancer treatments is ever simply "out sick."
When Heather was still absent yesterday, I asked again where she
was. A different nurse this time, but there's never any need to use last names in this place.
"Didn't you hear? Heather passed away over the weekend," she said. "Pneumonia." A simple enough word, but still enough to cut me in half.
And so I sat alone in that damned room, staring at the empty space that hummed with her absence. She was, and is gone. I knew her only a few weeks, and I liked her so very much. As ill as she was, her face was always bright as her eyes and voice. We had been reading some stories from various issues of Highlights For Children. The last time I saw her, we'd been halfway through a tale about a clumsy knight named Fredrick who, regardless of how hard he tried, could never quite pull off the heroics he attempted in order to win favor with the princess. I gave him a goofy voice and it made Heather laugh. She often held my hand (with her mother's permission) while we waited, and I would walk to the door of the treatment roomn with her, her tiny hand so brittle and fragile in my clumsy grip.
"Talk like Fredrick again," she said to me on that last day.
"Oh, my fair lady," I replied in a voice just to the left of Kermit the Frog. "Allow me to open yonder door for thee!" At which point I opened the door and hit myself in the nose. She thought I did it on purpose.
That walk was so goddamned longyesterday, and I suspect it will be even longer today, if I decide to take it. (It occurs to me that all of us will buy the farm when we least expect it, and if you're going to croak, you're going to croak and there's not a damn thing you can do about it, except walk down long, silent hallways where you'll find a way to postpone the inevitable on the other side of the door, courtesy of the patented Zap City Astronaut's wire-mesh mask while your hand grips the memory of another's.) I keep asking myself if I am worthy of this life I try to lead as well as possible, and on nights like last night, and days like today, the answer is silence.
There are silences which grind your spirit under its heel until it's just ether for all the strength you can draw from it. God, how I hate the world today, knowing that she is no longer a part of it. How cold it all seems, how confusing and filled with indifference. The snow on the ground seems just a whitewash to hide the grief and damage and empty spaces underneath.
I didn't begin to cry until on the way home from the hospital. The Oldies station played The Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child", and for the first time the wistfulness, the sadness hidden in that song registered. For some children, things don't get better, but they hope; how children do hope. For them, everything is new and exciting; sure, something bad might have happened a moment ago, but now--now's for comic books or ice cream or making up stories or watching cartoons or something else!
Except for my sweet little Heather, this is no "something else"; at least, not in the sense we mean it here in the lonely corporeal world of bills, mortages, and "Do these pants make me look fat?"
It all seems so sad and silly to me right now.
I am new to this place. Lately I don't have many people to talk to (the treatments are halfway finished today,and I grow weary), so I choose to tell all of you about Heather. I hope you'll understand, and if not, at least forgive me this intrusion.
Last night I couldn't sleep, so I sat at my window staring out at the stars, thinking. I dug out an old copy of Christina Rossetti's poetry last night and found a passage that made me think of Heather's laugh: "When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me...",
No sad songs; I wish it were that easy; but I'll try; for her, I'll try.
So do me a favor, will you? If your heart is big enough to understand, if it's big enough to spare a moment, give a nod and a smile to all the good ones no longer here who spent their lives making yours richer and fuller because of their having been in it. Will you do that for me? And in this minute, this second, this breath, spare a moment and kind thought for a little girl named Heather because I miss her so much, and so would you had you met her. Spare this thought for her, for all the moments denied her and all the moments she had, all the friends and people who loved her, and those whose lives she briefly brightened as she passed through. Spare this thought and hope it will find its way over to the other side of the stars where I hope she's waiting and has found a genuine knight-hero to champion her.
Good-night, my princess; I miss you so much already, and always will, and hope you'll watch over this tired, awkward, clumsy man until he can finish Fredrick's story for you.
I will try to sing no sad songs; I make no promises, but I will try. That means something, doesn't it? Somebody tell me.
Please, somebody tell me....