By Jess Hessler
I wasn‘t too excited about visiting Gramps. After his last stroke, the doctor decided to keep him for a couple weeks to monitor the after effects. Gramps couldn‘t talk or do much. He would just lay in the white bed while the various machines groaned and hissed periodically.
Mom glanced at me from the driver‘s seat. “Honey, I know you don‘t like hospitals, but Grandpa is all alone. You can at least visit him.“
I shrugged and turned on the radio. Mom sighed, and we rode the rest of the way without conversation.
Grandma passed away a few months ago. The doctor said the stress and grief might have caused Gramps‘ stroke. He missed her and had not gotten over his sorrow. Supposedly only time heals wounds like that. I wasn’t sure there was enough time in the world to get over the loss of a loved one. When Grandma died, I sobbed on my bed for hours, feeling cold and dreary like the icicles outside my window. After that day, something seemed to plug my emotions. I couldn‘t cry anymore. I went through the motions—high school, homework, and sports. The funeral passed, and winter melted into spring. Then summer came.
That was when Gramps had his third stroke—a particularly nasty one, according to the doctor. I didn‘t like to think about Gramps being in the same hospital Grandma had died in only months before. It didn‘t help that he had to stay longer this time either.
Mom and I made the trek to the city hospital every day. I‘d sit by Gramps‘ bed, sometimes reading, sometimes talking, and sometimes doing nothing but sitting in silence—as I did on today‘s visit.
Mom came back into the room. “How about you get a snack? Grandpa is asleep, and I need a break from dealing with all the insurance companies.” She smiled at me. She knew I hated hospitals, but she forced me to come anyways. So unfair.
“Okay,” I said, withholding my thoughts. I followed the tidy blue and white signs until I reached the snack bar, which featured a few candy bars and a couple pieces of fruit. I selected a Nerds rope and paid the exorbitant fee.
On my way back, I got lost in my own thoughts and missed a sign. I ducked into the room I thought was Gramps‘ and saw a small child on a bed. I could only tell she was a girl because of her clothes. Her head had been shaved close—a sign of chemotherapy.
Turning quickly, I tried to leave unnoticed.
“What are you doing in here?” the girl asked.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I got the wrong room.“
“Please stay,” she begged. “It gets kind of lonely here. I have no one to talk to, except my mom.“
I hesitated, inwardly grimacing. Another sick person who would probably die too. I hated myself for thinking like that.
“Okay,” I agreed. “I only have a few minutes though, or my mom will wonder where I went.“ I walked over and sat in the hard chair.
“I‘m Avery,” the girl said. “What is your name?“
“Carol. What are you here for?“
“I have leukemia. Sometimes it blows up, and I have to come here. I‘m going to get a bone marrow transfusion at the state hospital soon.” She eyed me curiously. “What about you? You‘re obviously not a patient.“
“My grandpa had a severe stroke. My mom and I are visiting him.“
“I‘m sorry,” the girl said. “What about your grandma?“
I stared at the sterile white floor that was too bright and too harsh. “She died last winter.“
“I‘m doubly sorry.”
“How old are you?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Nine,” she replied. “My birthday‘s in September.“
“You look younger.” The moment the words left my mouth, I regretted them. “Oh no, I‘m so sorry, I…“
Avery smiled wryly. “That‘s okay. It‘s the drugs.“
A tall, blonde woman stepped into the room. “Who are you talking to, Avery?“
“A friend,” Avery said. “Her name is Carol.“
I glanced at my watch. “I better go now.” It was awkward talking to Avery, and I sensed it would be worse with her mom present.
“Will you come tomorrow?” Avery asked.
“Yes, I‘ll stop by.” I smiled uncomfortably and exited the room. Avery‘s mom followed me.
“I appreciate you talking to Avery. It‘s dull here for a kid.” She sighed.
I smiled uncomfortably again and left. I meandered through the halls and found the right room.
“Hi, honey,” Mom greeted me. “Grandpa‘s up now. I‘ve been reading to him. Want to take a turn?“
I shrugged. “Sure.“
I picked up the book and started reading. I didn‘t pay attention to the words though. My mind was elsewhere.
When I arrived back at our house, I headed to my room and shut the door. I listened to music on my bed until dinner.
“Come in!” a cheerful voice called through the wood when I timidly knocked.
“Hiya,” I said cautiously. “How’s it going?”
“I’m a little tired,” Avery said.
“Okay, I won’t stay long then.”
We chatted, but it was apparent she wasn’t feeling well. I was relieved to be able to leave earlier than I expected.
“Can you come back tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I think I can,” I replied reluctantly.
The next afternoon, Mom relieved me of my post again. I slowly followed the signs to the cafeteria. I didn‘t want to spend time with Avery, but I had promised. I grabbed a Snickers bar and walked purposely into the children‘s ward.
“Hello,” I called, cracking the door.
“Come in,” a small voice answered.
I painted on a fake smile. “Hi, Avery, how’s today been?”
“It’s been okay.” She had an intravenous tube in her arm. The bag hung on a metal stand.
“Would you like a candy bar?” I offered.
“Thanks, but no thanks. Doc says no candy.”
“Oh, sorry.” I bit my lip.
She shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Where’s your mom?”
“She isn’t coming until later because she works during the week.”
I couldn’t think of a reply. Noticing some books on her table, I asked what she was reading.
“Oh, some fantasy and fairy tales.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “Even though I’m nine, I still like fairy tales. They make me think of happy endings.” She glanced at the needle in her arm.
“That’s fine,” I said, mustering a smile. “I like fairy tales too.”
I pointed to a deck of cards on the table next to the books. “Know any card games?”
“Sure. Want to play Go Fish?”
It had been ages since I had played a round of Go Fish, but I nodded anyways, and she solidly beat me.
“How did you know what card I had every time?” I asked, shaking my head in bewilderment.
She grinned crooked. “I have a weird ability. The drugs they give me make me smarter.”
“Wait, that’s cool.”
She burst out laughing. “No silly, that’s hogwash. You showed some of your cards!”
The door opened and a nurse entered the room. “Sorry girls, medicine time.”
Avery stopped laughing and sighed. “Okay. You will come back tomorrow, right?” she pleaded with big blue puppy eyes.
“I‘ll try, but if not, I will the next day.”
“Great, hopefully tomorrow,” she said, brightening.
I responded with a genuine smile. “Hopefully.”
I returned to Gramps’ room a little happier.
The following day we visited Gramps later than usual. I skipped the snack bar altogether and beelined for Avery’s room, hoping she would still be there. When I knocked on her door, she didn’t answer. I gently pushed the door open to reveal a vacant room.
A nurse who was passing by stopped and explained, “Avery needed to get extra help. She’ll be back tomorrow.” She gazed at me sorrowfully. “Advanced ACL isn’t the kindest. She probably told you that she’s getting a bone marrow transfusion. If she gets an infection afterward, her body may be too weak to handle it.” She sighed. “She’s a tough little kid. Hopefully she’ll make it.”
I could hardly imagine the heartache nurses and doctors experienced every day. “I will be back tomorrow,” I promised, feeling hollow inside.
I returned to Gramps’ room, thinking about how unfair life was. Death seemed to choose the good people—the innocent and defenseless ones. Even though Gramps couldn’t answer, I talked to him about Avery and her leukemia. Mom asked why I didn’t have a snack. I told her that I wasn’t hungry.
The next day was Friday. I knocked on Avery’s door.
“Just a moment,” an unfamiliar voice responded. A nurse appeared at the door with a smile. “If you are visiting, you have to wear these.“ She handed me a white gown and gloves, and I put them on.
“You are all set. Just try not to come in contact with Avery. We’re rather fond of her, little as she is.”
Avery giggled from the bed.
“Hi,” I said when the nurse finally left. “I came yesterday, but you weren’t here.”
She wrinkled up her face. “Yeah, they had to give me another blood transfusion.”
“Oh, that’s icky,” I replied, not sure what to say.
She gave a half shrug. “How are you doing?”
“I’m all right. I guess I’m a little depressed.”
“Why?” she asked with childlike inquisitiveness.
“My grandma loved days like today.”
“Sounds like you really miss her.”
“We used to feed peanuts to the blue jays, and she would give me jars to catch fireflies in. Summer was her favorite season.” I laughed shakily. I didn’t say anything for a minute, angry that I couldn’t control my emotions.
Avery broke the silence. “Can you read to me? It’s easier for me to listen.” She gestured to a big book on the table.
I picked up the book, which had The Holy Bible imprinted on the front. “Um, are you sure you want me to read you this book?”
After flipping through the pages for a while, I gave up and checked the table of contents. Avery observed me with some mirth.
“Your mom didn’t take you to Sunday school, huh?”
I ignored her. I located the correct section and commenced reading.
When I had finished a few chapters, I noticed Avery looked tired. “I’ll come again on Sunday,” I whispered. I crept out of the room, hanging the protective gear on the door.
My parents didn’t make me visit Gramps on the weekends. I requested to go on Sunday though. They were surprised, but said yes. After thirty minutes of reading to Gramps, I asked if I could visit my friend. Mom leaned over and whispered in Dad’s ear. He nodded.
“Go ahead, but we’re leaving at noon.”
I hurried through the hallways, but found Avery’s room empty again.
A nurse approached me. “Are you looking for Avery? She and her mom are at the chapel service now. They will be back in about fifteen minutes.“
I thanked her. After contemplating for a minute, I decided to go to the chapel to wait. When ten minutes passed and the doors opened, only a smattering of people was in the small room. I easily spied Avery in a wheelchair.
“Hi, Carol!” Avery called. “Did you come to the service too?“
“No, I waited outside for you.“
“Oh,” Avery said. Her mom managed a smile at me. We walked back to the room.
“I‘ll let you girls talk,” Avery’s mom said with a wink and left.
“I’ll be going home tomorrow, and then on Friday I get my transplant,” Avery announced.
“Aren‘t you scared at all?” I asked. “You don‘t know what can happen.“
Avery thought for a moment. “I suppose I‘m a little afraid, but Jesus will be with me.“
I marveled at her childish faith. My parents never attended church. I preferred believing in concrete evidence, rather than some God in the heavens.
“I won‘t get to see you again. Gramps will probably go home at the end of the week.” I felt sadder than I thought I would. I had let myself get attached to this girl who might die. “Can I have your address? We can be pen pals.“
She beamed. “There‘s a pen and paper on the table. It‘s 1862 Bright Star Drive.“
I scribbled my address on the notepad too, ripped out the piece, and placed it on the table.
We chatted for a long time about nothing in particular. I sensed she liked not thinking about her leukemia. I was happy to give her a distraction. When I glanced at my watch, I realized an hour had passed.
“I need to go now. I‘ll send you a letter before your transplant. I‘ll miss you.” I realized that, deep down, I truly would miss this cheerful girl. “Can I give you a goodbye hug?” I asked shyly.
She held her arms out. I embraced her gently.
I waved at her and stepped into the hall, a warm drop of water sliding down my cheek.
I wrote Avery a letter as soon as I got home. It was something about friendship and courage, and other things I couldn’t recall.
The week after Avery’s scheduled transplant, I received a large package. I carried it to my room because I recognized the return address: 1862 Bright Star Drive. I wanted to open this one in private.
Whoever sealed the package had made sure nothing would come undone. It was like wrestling a small elephant to wrangle the tape off. Inside, packing peanuts protected a sealed envelope and a stuffed rainbow bear. I slit the envelope open.
Avery survived the operation, but caught an infection soon after. Her body was so weak that she couldn‘t fight it off this time. She passed away on Monday evening and is with Jesus now. I just wanted to say thank you for being her friend. It‘s not easy to talk to or play with a child who is terminally ill. She loved the attention, especially from an older kid. Avery wanted you to have these. At the bottom of the box is a note from her. Again, thank you.
Mrs. Ida Forrest
I dug frantically to the bottom of the box. The note was under a book. I tore it open and started reading. I blinked tears away, but they kept coming. I read the letter twice, then again.
Things aren‘t looking good. I‘ll miss you. You‘re a great friend. I hope your grandpa feels better soon. I asked my mom to put the bear and the Bible in the box too. Please know that I‘ll be all right. Please read the Bible. If anything, do it for me. Terry, my bear, was my friend before I met you. Now he can be your friend.
I cried for a while into my pillow. The tears were for Avery and Grandma—tears I wasn‘t able to release before. Then I grabbed a tissue and dried my eyes. I picked up the Bible and searched in the table of contents for Luke, memorizing the page so I would never have to look in the contents for it again. I read for several hours. That night, I prayed my first prayer, the first of many.
Miraculously, I felt better than I had in a long time.
Jess is a teenage girl who lives with her parents, her two little brothers, a dog, and a fish in humid North Carolina. She enjoys anything concerning words and is known to spend hours with a dictionary and thesaurus. She loves reading, and has even read the car manual when she’s run out of reading material on car trips. She’s been creating stories ever since she could talk, and she started writing them down when she was six. She started writing more seriously at age twelve. When not writing, she is probably playing the piano, hanging out with friends, doing something artsy, or blogging at www.theartfulauthor.wordpress.com.