“Please come in Sarah,” said her family doctor from the doorway of his office.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice quavering. She did not like the tightness she saw in his normally relaxed, cheerful face and began wringing her hands.
“Please have a seat,” he said gently, gesturing to a plush armchair facing his desk. He sat down with a sigh and lifted his head to meet her searching, anxiety-strained eyes.
“Tell me. Please. You know that after Tim took off, she’s all I’ve got now.”
“I know, Sarah. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to tell you that the results are not good.”
“Oh, my God,” she gasped, as what little color was left in her face instantly drained away. “I knew it from the second you opened the door. What is it?”
“Jessica has bone cancer. It’s advanced and it’s aggressive.”
“No… No… She’s only 13 years old!”
“Sadly, bone cancer is most common in kids between ten and eighteen,” he said quietly.
“Will… will she die?” she sobbed.
“Well, you see” he said, pausing a moment and trying to find his words. There is nothing harder, for a doctor with bad news, than balancing blunt honesty with kindness. “The oncologists will give you all the details of the treatment they have planned for her. Jessica is so fit that she will probably be able to withstand it better than a lot of other kids. The problem is, the cancer has spread to her lungs. If we had caught it before that happened, the prognosis would be considerably better.”
“We thought the soreness and swelling in her legs was from all the soccer and other sports,” she moaned, holding her head in her hands and pulling her hair. She felt relentless guilt flooding into every cell in her body.
“I know, I know. It’s not your fault. Tragically, it is often the fit, young athletes who get diagnosed late for exactly that reason.”
“So… is she going to die?” she whispered.
“Almost certainly, yes,” he said hoarsely.
“Three months. Maybe six.”
Three months later
They had just finished playing cribbage, Jessica’s favorite card game, on the bedside table. It was getting late and most of the other patients in the ward were sleeping.
“Mom, can I ask you to do something for me?” Jessica asked abruptly. The seriousness in her tone filled Sarah with dread but, as she had done a million times before over the past three months, she forced a bright smile and said, “of course, you can! What is it?”
“After I’m gone – ”
“Baby, please don’t say that,” she snapped, interrupting. “You’re NOT going anywhere. It’s been three months and just look how great you’re doing!” she declared defiantly, gazing with fiery eyes at her emaciated, gaunt and bald-headed daughter. Just a few months ago Jessica had been an athletic beauty all the boys coveted but, in such a short period of time, she had become so frail, she resembled a concentration camp victim.
“Mom,” Jessica said firmly, “after I’m gone, I want you to donate my good organs for transplant. The doctors say the ones that aren’t affected are as healthy as they were before I got sick. I want to give them. I want something good to come out of this.”
“Just promise me. All you have to do is say ‘I promise’.”
“Alright… okay… if you go, I promise I will do it for you. And I’m so proud of you, as always…” she said, her voice trailing off as she fought back the tears. She knew Jessica hated it when she cried.
“There’s one other thing and then I promise I won’t say ‘after I’m gone’ again.”
“Oh, what?!” asked Sarah, almost irritably.
“You’re still young and beautiful. I want you to find a nice guy – not like Dad – and have another baby after I’m gone.”
“Please don’t, Jess. I don’t want to hear this.”
“I can’t ask you to promise me, obviously. But it would make me happy because you’re such a great mom and you deserve it. I don’t want you to be alone.”
Sarah stared, glassy-eyed, at Jessica whose eyelids were now fluttering to stay open under the strain of fatigue. She could not hold back the tears any longer and she wondered, desperately, at what point her dying 13-year-old had become the adult and she had become the child.
One month later
“Yes!” said Sarah, leaping out of the cot and rushing to Jessica’s side. “What is it, baby?!”
“Can… can you…” she croaked, struggling to breathe and taking Sarah’s hand, “put your head … on my chest… just here.”
“Can you… can you… hear my heart… beating?”
Sarah listened to the steady, rhythmic beating of Jessica’s heart. “Of course I can.”
“It’s a… strong heart… super healthy… doctors say so.”
“I know, Jessy. I know,” said Sarah, suddenly cold with fear as the heartbeats started to slow and Jessica’s grip on her hand tightened.
“Give… give it away… Mom… you promised,” she said, in barely a whisper, as Sarah listened in anguish as the time between heartbeats lengthened until they gently came to a stop and Jessica’s hand went limp.
“Oh, God no. Please don’t go. Please don’t go. Not yet!” Sarah sobbed into the dark air where no one was listening.
One month later
“Please come in Sarah,” said her doctor, smiling weakly, from the doorway of the examination room.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice quavering just as it had done when she had gone to get Jessica’s results five months ago. She walked into the office where a middle-aged woman with short, blonde-dyed hair stood staring at the floor, her hands folded in front of her. She looked up with moist, sheepish eyes.
“Sarah, may I introduce Gillian Wallace. Gillian – Sarah Ferguson.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Sarah,” said Gillian quietly, extending a trembling hand.
Overcome, Sarah threw her arms around Gillian’s neck and hugged her tightly. “Thank for your lovely, generous gesture,” she said as she released her.
“Your daughter saved my life. This is nothing in return.”
“Okay, are we ready?” said the doctor, his voice cracking ever so slightly as he handed Sarah the earpieces end of the stethoscope and placed the bell end just to the right of Gillian’s left breast.
Sarah held the earpieces in her hands for a moment, suddenly not sure if she could go through with it. Reminding herself that Jessica would be so delighted, and for all she knew was even watching from above, she resolutely said “yes” and inserted the pods in her ears. The beat was so strong and steady. An athlete’s heart. My daughter’s heart, thought Sarah, as she closed her eyes and, for the first time since Jessica had died, she was able to remember all she had blocked out: giving birth to her, breast feeding her, her first steps, her first words, her first day at school, her first soccer game, her excitedly telling her about her first kiss just before she got sick – all of it went rushing through her mind in a chaotic stream of images like a photo montage. She was smiling broadly, almost laughing, and completely oblivious to the happy tears streaming down Gillian’s face.
Half an hour later, Sarah stepped out onto the street in front of the clinic. She looked left and then right. She had no idea where she wanted to go. She did know that it did not matter because she now felt confident that, in the end, she would be able to find her way.
- This blog was inspired by this post I saw on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/17W2HYd
- For readers of this blog, if any, I have NOT abandoned Deep Freeze. In the spirit of Christmas, I am dedicating December to try and put a jimmy cap on that piece of darkness.