I never thought that it would come to this. I guess a part of me always knew it would, but still, seventeen years is not a long time to live. This is my third month in the hospital, seventy-two days of chemo and confinement to these halls that reek of antiseptic and bad hospital food. I don’t blame the doctors, they did the best they could. When they discovered the strange growth in my chest was cancerous, they gave me two weeks to live. At least I can die knowing it wasn’t without a fight. I was afraid, but not of death. It was the possibility of being forgotten that made me fearful.
I look around the few people crowding my small hospital room to say their last goodbyes. My mother is crouched by my right arm, her chocolaty eyes filling with tears that leak down her brown face. My younger sister, Uzuri, is behind her. At only age three, she’s too young to understand that she’ll never see me again, but at least they will be together after I’m gone. Cheyenne, my best friend, stands behind them. She and I have known each other since the first grade, two inseparable girls, Cheyenne with her light skin and beach-blond hair, and me with my near black skin and bouncy ringlets.
I’ve already choked out goodbyes to her and Uzuri, giving them each one final hug. There’s only Mom left.
“Jua?” my Mom’s voice is quivering as she says my name, and I know she’s trying to be strong for my sake.
“Mom,” I say. “You don’t have to be strong for me. I’m not afraid.” Her lower lip trembles and she places her hand on my arm.
“I know, you’ve always been the tougher one out of the two of us.” She gives it a gentle squeeze and all of the sudden I feel myself fading. I think she can sense it, and all of the sudden she throws her arms around me and we are locked in an embrace.
“I love you, Jua. Your life has been a wonderful one,” She says.
“I love you too, Mom.” And then, I take my final breath.
I open my eyes, but there’s nothing to see. Inky blackness surrounds me, and I feel like I’m suspended in the air. I bring my arms up to my face and examine them. Where there used to be dark spots and rashes, there was now perfect skin, as smooth as a baby’s cheek. Then I lift my restored hands above my head and feel the collection of soft, thick curls that now cover my scalp and swirl around me. That had been the worst part of chemo, losing my hair, and having it back feels like a reunion with an old friend.
Where am I?I think. I know that I’ve died, and obviously I’m no longer in the hospital room. My surroundings are unrecognizable, just blackness swallowing and surrounding, completely and totally absolute. Then I turn my head. There is a speck of light dotting the end of a tunnel ahead. Instantly I know that’s where I need to go, almost like it’s calling for me. I try to move my legs, but they don’t respond. After a few minutes, I figure out that I need only to will myself in the direction I want to go.
I remember the last thing my mom had said to me: Your life has been a wonderful one.And I smile, or, at least I think I do, and attempt to recall some significant memories of my existence. Then, I’m suddenly accompanied by a faint glow, like a TV screen. In front of me, a giant glowing rectangle starts to flicker, showing scenes of my life.
The first was my birth, something I’ve never been able to recreate before. But instead of watching as if through a television or computer, it’s like I’m really there. I can feel the soft blanket wrapped around me, and smell the stark odor of the hospital. My mother’s tired face is above me, a soft smile making her glow. Next to her is a tall man with an angular appearance and glasses. He looks just as proud as she, and I recognize him as my father.
“Welcome, little Jua,” her soft voice coos.
“Hey there, Sunshine.” My father’s voice is deep and rich as he uses my nickname for the first time. Then there is a rushing sensation, like a strong wind pulling at my mind, stealing me from the memory.
I blink. The sharp, cold light of the hospital room is replaced by the warm glow of the sun. I tilt my face to the sky and absorb its heat, my skin prickling with comfort. I look around, taking in the surroundings. I’m dressed in a frilly lavender dress with ribbons on the sleaves, lying on my back on a red and white checkered picnic blanket. The sky is blue and speckled with fluffy white clouds. On my right side is Mom, also on her back. Her slender arm is out stretched towards the sky, her index finger pointing at the different clouds. Dad is sprawled on my left, his arm around me as he and my mom debate over what shape belongs to what cloud.
“It’s a dog!” says Dad, playfully.
“No, it looks like a baby,” Mom argues.
“What do you think, Jua?” she asks. I remember these trips we used to have. The three of us would go to the park and have lunch, then stare at the sky, making pictures of the cotton balls above.
“A duck!” I reply enthusiastically. My voice is shrill and sweet, and I think I’m only six or seven years old. Happiness and contentment surge through my body, like an electrical pulse. A girlish giggle rises in my throat and spills from my lips, then the gust returns and sweeps me away once more.
“Ready?” Cheyenne’s face is lit up with excitement and anticipation. She smiles mischievously, one eyebrow cocked.
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” I ask nervously. The light of a full moon illuminates the large house in front of us, and I laugh in remembrance of this time. Jamison, the cutest and most popular boy in 7thgrade, had just broken up with me the day before and Cheyenne is determined to get him back for it.
“Absolutely,” she replies, swinging a blue duffle bag off her shoulder thumping it to the ground. She unzipped the top, revealing rolls upon rolls of gleaming white toilet paper.
“Did you bring the cling film?” she says, her voice dropping to a whisper.
“Yeah,” I reply reluctantly, tossing her my backpack. “But, what if we get caught?”
“Stop being such a chicken, Jua,” she scolds then hands me a bundle of TP. “You get that far side there; I’ll work on the door.”
Carefully, I creep away from my hiding spot in the bushes and position myself to get a good angle. Then, I let loose.
An hour later, our work is done. Jamison’s house looks like a Halloween ghoul was put through a shredder. Strips of toilet paper flutter in the wind, like white flags of surrender. Despite my earlier reservations, I had enjoyed myself.
The next morning at school Jamison decided to return the toilet paper, and Cheyenne and I had some unexpected surprises when we opened our lockers.
I was taken to a lot of other places before the trip ended. Most of them were happy times, Uzuri’s birth, my first car, sweet sixteen. But some were painful, like my first breakup, or when I was eight and broke my leg. But it was the last memory I experienced that hurt the most.
“Honey? Are you awake?” The moment I enter this new memory I know what’s going to happen. I recognize my bedroom with its blue walls and white bedspread, the blinds are drawn and outside the sky is pitch black. My mom sits on the edge of my mattress and shakes me awake even though I haven’t slept for hours. I pretend to be dreaming for another few seconds before I sit up, pulling the sheet tight around my shoulders.
“Mom?” I say, confused. My thirteen-year-old self is baffled by the fact that my mother has come to me in the middle of the night looking so worried.
“Jua, baby, your father has been in an accident.” Just like my mom, always straight to the point. I feel my lungs contract, taking in a quick gasp of air.
“Is he okay?” I ask, my voice filled with concern.
“No, sweetie, he’s not okay.” She smooths my hair back and tucks it behind one ear, then takes a deep breath. “Daddy was killed upon impact. The doctors said he experienced no pain.” Mom’s voice cracks and tears begin to snake their way down her cheeks. For the remainder of the night, Mom and I sit on the bed, wrapped in each other’s arms, mourning my dead father. I relive every excruciating moment, ever tear that spills from my eyes, every sob that racks my shoulders. My throat feels raw from the devastation, and it’s as if the embrace of my mother is the only thing keeping me from crumbling into dust and floating away. And just when I think I can’t bear it a second longer, the familiar tugging sensation is back, but stronger than before. I welcome it and allow myself to be taken from this nightmare.
After what seems like forever, I reach the end of the tunnel. But as I get ready to pass through the threshold, an invisible force keeps me back, blocking my path. I push my palms against the barrier, testing for weaknesses but to no avail. My hands ball into fists and I begin to pound, desperate to go to what’s beyond. Glimpses of joy and contentment leak through the blazing light, and my chest aches to join the celebration. I begin to cry out in desperation.
“Let me through!” I shout. “How do I get through?” My voice cracks, and I start to sob. I don’t know why it’s so important to me to get past that barricade, but all of the sudden it has become the most vital thing in the world. The silence roars in my ears, driving me to the last sliver of sanity. Then, a large majestic voice thunders around me coming from the light, chasing away the quiet.
“How would you describe your life? Does it make you worthy to enter?” I think about the question, reviewing the various scenes I’ve witnessed.
“I mean, I think I’ve been a good person. I’ve never stolen anything or killed anybody.” I try to make my voice strong, but wince when my defense comes out as a pitiful squeak.
“And that makes you worthy?” the voice scoffs. “There are many who live as you say, claiming that they deserve what they did not give, just because they weren’t as bad as their neighbor.”
“Then who is deserving?” I ask, feeling a tad combative.
“None,” says the voice
“If none can enter,” I counter, confused, “then how do I get in?”
The voice doesn’t answer, but I swear I saw something like a smile on the Light before me.