It wasn’t the building that scared me, necessarily. No—the building was actually quite pretty with a large crystalline fountain at the entrance surrounded by miniature dogwood trees. Glassy windows reflected the sun, up to five stories tall. Rows and rows of flowers always lined the sidewalk leading from the parking lot to the rotating door entry, changing with the seasons.
At the moment, bright red poinsettias stuck out of the soil, greeting everyone with Christmas cheer. If I were anywhere else, anywhere at all, I would’ve pulled out my phone to snap some pictures of the poinsettias. Maybe even posted it on Instagram unedited, captioning heart eyes and Christmas trees.
But I wasn’t anywhere else, and I definitely wasn’t taking a picture to remind me of this place. Instead, I was sitting in the backseat hugging my knees to my chest, breathing deeply in and out while my parents searched for a parking space.
“Honey, you’re going to have to uncurl yourself to go inside,” my mom said from the front seat. She was looking at me through the little mirror in the visor. I flicked my eyes upward to meet hers. “I thought you’d gotten over your fear of hospitals?”
“Just because I was forced to come here doesn’t mean I got over my fear, Mom,” I grumbled. Last year, I got a horrible case of the flu. I threw up everything that was in my stomach until I eventually became too dehydrated. I kicked and scratched when my parents took me to the emergency room. A few minutes of that, and then I was passed out on the linoleum floor. I still shiver at the memory of waking up in that sterile, stiff bed.
“Maybe not, but you’re seventeen. Isn’t that a little old to be scared of a silly building?” Mom wasn’t looking at me anymore. She was scanning the parking lot, directing my dad into a spot near the back.
“It won’t be that bad, munchkin,” Dad chimed in, unintrestingly. I rolled my eyes.
Why they refused to give up the childish nicknames was beyond me. Once the car was parked, it took all I had to not go sprinting the other direction into the open road, away from that evil hospital. Of course, then there was a chance I could get hit by a car and end up right back where I was running from.
I was still calculating the odds as my parents were opening their doors and my mom was staring daggers at me through the window, her arms crossed tightly.
I swallowed. I peeled my legs away from each other, joints burning. My limbs trembled all the way out the door and I gripped my mom’s shoulder for support.
She held me steady, but I could feel the annoyance radiating off her. I didn’t care. I gripped onto her arms for dear life.
Dad got a duffel bag out of the trunk that contained several meals and then we headed up the poinsettia-lined sidewalk to the hospital entrance. The sun was setting, casting unsettling shadows on the building. I kept my head down the whole way.
I heard the linoleum tiles click under my tennis shoes. I watched as the tiles sped by from red to blue until they began to blur in my vision creating a cohesive purple. This was my ritual every time I came to the hospital, which was a lot that past year. It did nothing to calm my nerves or dwindle my fear, but at least it gave me something to focus on. Something to keep my mind occupied while I pushed away the real reason we were there.
It always went by too fast. Suddenly the purple tiles faded into a matted carpeted floor, leading into a room that smelled of medicine and Lysol. My stomach twisted and I whimpered.
Mom placed a hand on my shoulder. I jumped, nearly forgetting she was beside me. “Genesis,” Mom said, softly. I swallowed the lump in my throat and glanced up.
There she was. She looked the same as I remembered, but slightly worse. She always looked worse than before. Tubes impaled any exposed skin on her body, sticking up in every direction. Her frail body was covered in them with only a pale blue, thin hospital gown acting as a barrier.
Mom and Dad were already shuffling past me to greet my grandpa, but my feet stayed grounded.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek and darted my gaze down to the floor. There weren’t any tiles to count so I counted the stains on the matted carpet, willing my nausea to simmer.
“Hey there, Geney. Nice of you to join us.” A soft hand patted me on the back twice. I unwillingly flicked my gaze up.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I said, quietly.
“How’s we?” he asked, his voice raspy but smooth like silk.
My lips twitched. I never understood the phrasing of his greetings to me, but they soon became my favorite words to hear. Grandpa and I were never too close when I was younger. I always clung to Grandma because she was the most like me—always taking photographs and obsessed with anything that sparkled.
Once Grandma got diagnosed, I quickly latched onto Grandpa. He held me while I cried and cried, desperately screaming for the doctors to take the tubes out of my grandma. They were terrifying. They were hurting her.
“We’s okay,” I replied, sinking into my Grandpa’s wrinkly hand. He wrapped me in a hug, and I wished he would never let go.
“Angela,” he called to my mom. “How dare you bring this poor girl out here, huh? You are torturing her!”
I smiled slightly against Grandpa’s chest, but when Mom pinched her lips together, the smile disappeared. “Genesis, will you come over here? Help us sort through the meals,” Mom said sternly.
I let go of Grandpa and my stomach jolted, the nausea boiling back up in the pit as I glanced briefly at Grandma. She was out, her eyes fluttering the way they do when you're deep in a dream, but even that made my insides do somersaults.
I wobbled my way over to Mom and bent down to retrieve the meals from the duffel bag. They were still hot, and it burned my fingers. I followed her out to the waiting room where everyone was seated—from aunts, to uncles, to a few family friends, and my cousins. They were all piling up in the hospital waiting room right outside my grandma’s room.
My limbs shook as I handed out the meals from Olive Garden. My close relatives thanked me with a tight smile and the family friends simply took them from my hands without a glance up. My mind was occupied, and I became solely focused on passing out the meals. I made eye contact with no one. That is, until one of the packaged meals was aggressively ripped out of my hand.
I startled and froze. My eyes skipped up and met the icy blue stare of Nala, my cousin.
She smiled. “Genesis! Didn’t expect to see you here,” she said brightly. Her tone was mocking.
We used to be close years back. Close is honestly an understatement. We were practically sisters, a bond that made my four-year-old sister, Lanie, jealous. She was the only cousin I got along with and actually enjoyed seeing at annual family gatherings.
She froze me out when I started freaking out every time she mentioned a hospital. Nala never understood my fear; she never even tried to understand it. I was just the freak with a fanatical fear of the doctor’s office.
“Sister at home?” Nala asked, raising her eyebrows.
I gritted my teeth. “She’s too young to come to a hospital.”
Nala shrugged. Her eyes glinted mischievously, and I straightened my spine. “I think she could handle it. Maybe she could babysit you while the rest of us spend time with Grandma Linn before she dies.”
My nostrils flared. I shoved the meal towards her where it was still hovering mid-air between our hands. She stumbled to grip it. “Enjoy your meal,” I sneered.
I ate my dinner in peace. The rest of the family and friends conversed and laughed, some watched the soap opera playing on the flat screen mounted on the wall, complaining about how cliché it was. Mom and Dad sat beside me but stayed silent as well. Mom patted me on the back once and, when I flinched, she took her hand away.
This next part, I remember all too well. I picked apart the ravioli in front of me, watching the cheese squirt out the sides, when someone called out our name.
“Labelle family?” they said, butchering our last name. No one ever got it right.
Mom raised her hand. I glanced up from my food and saw a doctor come shuffling over to us. Their scrubs were an intense blue that made my eyes burn and their eyebrows were knitted together.
Suddenly, the ravioli turned and twisted inside my stomach, rolling up, up, up.
“Is everyone here?” Yeses circled around the room. “All right, good. As you all know, Ms. Linn has been battling cancer for several years and has progressively gotten worse by the second. I’m afraid to say that…”
My ears went numb. I could no longer distinguish the doctor’s words from my own echoing in my mind. No, no, no, no. I hunched over, my dinner sliding off my lap and onto the floor, cheese, and sauce splattering everywhere.
The ravioli was definitely coming up now.
All those years of being so obsessively terrified all led to this. The moment I feared constantly. My grandma leaving me forever.
I stayed bent over the toilet in a small bathroom with smells that made me want to hurl even more. My hair stuck to my face and I wiped at it with the back of my hand. Two beats went by before I sat up and fell back against the bathroom wall.
A shy knock sounded at the door and I groaned, squeezing my eyes shut. “I’m fine, Mom. Just give me a moment,” I said. I grimaced at the taste in my mouth.
“Geney?” I opened my eyes. “Geney? It’s me,” called my grandpa, cautiously. “Are you all right?”
I took a deep breath and slowly got to my feet. Turning on the faucet, I splashed cold water on my face. I didn’t dare look in the mirror, not wanting to see the hideous creature that stared back.
I unlocked the bathroom door, opening it slowly. My grandpa greeted me on the other side with kind eyes. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
He chuckled low and deep. “Let’s go sit down.”
With one arm around me, Grandpa led me to another waiting room, one that held no obnoxious family members. He stretched out a Coke towards me, condensation dripping down the sides. I took one long sip, fizz burning my throat.
“Do you remember how much your grandmother loved taking you shopping?” he asked, suddenly.
My lips twitched. “We would try on nearly every dress. We spun around, measuring each one’s twirl velocity.” A small laugh escaped me. “She always bought me the one that twirled better than the rest.”
Grandpa chortled, his shoulders bouncing up and down. “She always had a thing for frilly dresses. Do you know how upset she was when the doctors told her she couldn't wear a dress to the hospital? She had this bright yellow one picked out, bright as the sun."
"Sounds like Grandma," I whispered, wistfully.
Grandpa stayed silent for a moment. I took another sip of my Coke, my stomach settling down. Finally, Grandpa sighed. "Your grandmother is not doing well. We've known this for a while."
I braced myself.
"She is closer every day to meeting Jesus. But," he paused to take my hand, "she is still here."
My breath hitched. "She's...she's not already…? But the doctor…"
Grandpa nodded. "The doctor came out to say that they decided to take her off one of her medications. It's a vital one, but it was causing her too much pain. She proposed the idea the other day."
A shuddering exhale of relief shook my whole body. I felt tired all of the sudden. Grandma was still with us. "Thank goodness," I whispered, more to myself.
"I know things are different right now, but she really is the same ol' Grandma Linn. The one who loves you very much."
"Not exactly the same given all the tubes stuck everywhere." I gestured to my body. Tears pricked at the edge of my eyes. It was such a cliché reaction to such cliché sentiments, yet it still made me emotional. Ugh.
"If you were here more often," he said, winking, "you could see her awake and talking. I know she would love to see you."
I scoffed. "I thought you were on my side with the phobia, old man?"
He laughed, patting my back. To my dismay, I chuckled too. "I'm just saying, maybe it's time you face your fears. Maybe seeing ol' Grandma while she's awake might dim those nightmares."
I stayed silent.
"Geney, she...doesn't have long." Grandpa’s words choked up. I looked at him. He cleared his throat before speaking again. "Maybe you could join me for work one day? Give you a chance to see Grandma."
"Work?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, volunteer. Since she got admitted for good, I decided to take up volunteering so I could help with medicines and other stuff."
I screwed my nose up, but I could already feel my defense breaking down. I hated hospitals, truly and deeply. But I loved my grandma more than this fear of mine. I couldn't remember the last time I talked to her or even looked at her for more than a second since she was admitted.
"Just think about it. In the meantime, shall we go join the rest of your family?" Grandpa stood up and held a hand out to me.
I took his hand. My heart was pounding, but Grandpa’s wrinkly hand in mine kept the nausea down. "Can...can we go see Grandma first?" I kept my gaze down, but I felt him grinning at me with glee.
"I believe she'll be up right about now."
I let him lead me to her room where it still smelled of the sickly scents of death. I looked down at my feet where the linoleum tiles met the matted black carpet. If I was going to volunteer here, I needed to talk to someone about some candles and new flooring. This place needed some updating.
With one long breath and a few beats of stalling, I stepped into Grandma's room.