She smiled over at the sunflowers brightening the darkness of the room, reaching out a cold hand to feel the warmth of the sunlight on the petals. The slatted plastic blinds let in little sunlight, most likely because of the fact that Dr. Kierland had sternly told her on more than one occasion that she should be asleep for sixty-five percent of the day if she had any intention of getting better.
“Who are these from?”
Sadie glanced over at Uncle Liam who was slumped over in the chair with his face buried in the crook of one of his arms. Wincing as guilt pained through her heart, she quickly turned her face away and studied the brilliant natural yellow of the vibrant sunflowers, her favorite in all the world. Sadie could feel a smile trying to sneak its way onto her face and pulled the white sheet closer over her as the AC kicked on.
The frigid air, the dimness, the strange aroma of lemons…it must have all been finally getting to her after what seemed like five years instead of five months. She didn’t want to be here in the first place, but for some reason they had thought it necessary to bring her in. Maybe it had been the agonizing pain in her left back, or maybe it had been the irrepressible fever that had reached 106.
“What?” groggily queried Uncle Liam as he reached for the phone vibrating on the bedside table. “Ugh…no, it’s just your mother. Again. You said something about the flowers? They’re from that one kid…Nate?”
“Nate?” Sadie echoed blankly with a blink of her pain-dulled eyes. “How did I not know this?”
“That’s a good question,” he wearily grinned as he reached for the cold cup of coffee balanced precariously on the edge of the table. “The way that kid was tripping down the hallway I don’t know how everyone on this floor heard him. Not to mention his laugh. That alone is enough to earn me a hearing aid for the rest of my life.”
A shiver not from the cold air racing through the vents crawled down her spine. Biting the inside of her cheek as her eyelashes batted furiously, Sadie began readjusting the sheets becoming twisted with the countless IVs originating at the stand beside the bed.
It all hurt, everything.
“Did he—say anything?”
The words seemed to come from a voice not her own, and she felt herself almost choking on them.
“Just that he wanted to let you rest and not bother you.” Uncle Liam shrugged and downed a gulp of the stale hospital coffee before meeting her eyes with a firm gaze. “He misses you, Sadie.”
“No,” Sadie replied calmly, “he doesn’t.”
Eyebrows jerking upwards and lips parting slightly, Uncle Liam shook his head while shuffling his again-vibrating phone into his pocket. “You can’t just leave things how you left them, Sadie. You know that. You—”
“I did what I needed to do. Even then, he didn’t seem to care because of everything else he had going on at the time, and our friendship didn’t fit into that. It was obviously time to move on anyway.”
She idly twined one of the IV cords around a finger on her other hand, struggling to keep the memories from flashing back into her brain as vivid and painful as they had been on that day. There was no way that he was aware of what was going on, no way that he would even care, for all that mattered. What did matter was that she had guarded her closest friend from the most pain she had ever felt in her lifetime.
Sadie contemplated the sunflowers again and pushed them a little closer to the weak light straggling through the blinds. However long that they survived here, they would need warmth if they didn’t want to end up pale and lifeless like everything else on the oncology floor. Running a hand aimlessly over her smooth, cold head, she smiled over at Uncle Liam who was handing her a fresh cold brew from the fridge. With a wink, he gave his niece’s arm a reassuring squeeze and stood to leave the room.
“Don’t make me regret that,” he laughed with a grimace down at the vanilla cold brew. “Wait till after the dialysis, okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed with a grin that must have looked absurd with the amount of force she put into it.
After all, he was the one person who actually did decide to stick around through four torturous cycles of chemotherapy, not that Sadie blamed anyone else in the slightest. But it was all going to be okay. God was in control, and there was nothing that might happen during this cancer that would be out of His will. There was no need to fear under the protection and sovereignty of a perfect God.
As he tossed the clipboard down on the bed, Dr. Kierland stalked out of the room with his hands buried deep inside his white lab coat pockets, his footsteps swiftly retreating as he paced down the corridor.
“I don’t understand,” Sadie wavered as the tears stung the corners of her eyes. She reached her right hand out for the clipboard with the novel of pages and dragged it into her lap. Beneath the paragraphs of what seemed to be font zero writing, a blank and underlined portion was highlighted, evidently where her signature was required.
“It’s your consent,” Mom said firmly as she pointed an index finger at the top of the page. “Do you have a pen?”
“Liz, I don’t think she’s ready—” started Uncle Liam as he placed a hand on his sister’s shoulder.
“It’s about time we did something about this-this—issue. She can’t just continue sitting here and doing nothing for another two years until finally this kidney gives out. The bills are too much, she has college to finish, and there are better things to be doing than just—”
“That’s enough,” Uncle Liam interrupted with a shake of his head. “Give her at least a day to think about it before you force her to make a decision.”
“What decision is there to be made?” demanded Mom as the tears sprang to her eyes and she stretched a shaking hand out to the ECG monitor. “If you want this thing to keep on going, Sadie, then I’d recommend then you put your name down right now, so help me. I don’t know what you’re crying your eyes out about right now, but whatever it is, suck it up because this is going to save your life.”
“If it’s as simple as that, then why are there so many papers to read?” Sadie questioned as a frown wrinkled her brow and her trembling fingers fumbled with separating the pages.
“It’s an artificial kidney,” the nurse threw over his shoulder, as if there were no question in the world about it. “How else did you think they were going to save your life?”
It was nearly midnight.
For more than two hours, Sadie had been fighting against eyelids that seemed to never want to stay open no matter how much coffee she stubbornly kept on swallowing despite the queasiness gripping my stomach. She stared at the clear plastic cup and the small amount of dark liquid sitting in the last fourth of the cup, and a small smile twitched at the corner of her lips. If there was anyone aware of even the smallest amount of coffee in this room, they would never let it go. Simple as that, Dr. Kierland would state. Caffeine is practically a death sentence for you at this point.
How else could she stay awake to read this whole darn load of paperwork? Turning another page and setting it carefully in order on the small stack to her left that she had already finished perusing, Sadie suddenly gave a start as a tap sounded at the door.
Her immediate flinch was to jump up and walk to the door, but she caught herself before she tried to step out of the bed. Her face flushed with humiliation, and she bit the inside of her cheek as she remembered the last time that she had overestimated her own strength to walk on her own.
“Come in,” Sadie called out instead as she laid her head back on the pillow and quickly drew the sheet over the two stacks of papers.
It was in that moment that her heart all but stopped beating.
The treatment was finally getting to her mind, Sadie thought as she struggled to blink back the tears threatening to overfill her eyes. It had been the fourth cycle of chemo last week, and maybe the toxins were affecting more than just her stomach and the hair that had abandoned her head. She closed my eyes, letting the tears settle back down over her eyes as she drew in a deep breath of the frigid, sterilized air.
There was no mistaking the voice that Sadie had once heard almost every day of each week. She could feel a chill racing its way down her spine and raising the gooseflesh on her arms. Against her own will, Sadie’s eyes slightly opened and it was in that moment that her heart dropped.
He sat there in the bedside chair that Uncle Liam always inhabited, his face deathly pale and gray eyes staring as his lashes blinked feverishly. Hands clasped together and elbows propped up on his knees, Nate silently shook his head and forced a heart-breaking half-smile to his face.
“Your mom told me you were sick.”
The words seemed wrenched from the very depth of his soul, pain filling his eyes as they wandered around the small hospital room. Sadie’s hands were shaking, the needle twitching agonizingly in her left arm as she struggled to untangle one of the IV cords from around her arm.
“I’m fine,” she said with an unsteady smile. “It’s all going to be okay.”
His chest rose as he inhaled a deep breath and began chewing on the corner of his lip while raising one eyebrow. Involuntary memories began flickering through her mind all at once, from the first time she had ever met this kid to the last time they had spoken after she had come to terms with the fact that she would never see him again.
Stage 4 kidney carcinoma, had been the daily, hourly reminder that had finally driven Sadie to the point of telling him that she just had too much going on in her life for anything else. The words had burned in her mind, pressing to be said whenever she saw him, but there was no way she could bring the pain that had almost killed her onto another person.
That had been it. With the expression of shock mingled with bewilderment, Nate had simply sat on that front porch with his head sinking into his hands for who knew how long. Words—even thoughts—fell utterly short of expressing the grief Sadie felt at having been one of those people to break a priceless friendship based on the pretext of being “too busy.”
“How have you been?” she asked.
“You’re getting an artificial kidney tomorrow?”
His expression was blunt as a quizzical look crept into his eyes and he pressed his lips firmly together.
“Says who?” Sadie retorted with a shake of her head. “Why would I be getting an artificial kidney? I told you…I’m fine.”
“Then what are these?”
Out from under the edge of the sheet, Nate pulled the right stack of papers and held them up in front of her eyes as she winced from the sharp throb pulsating in her back.
“Those are not for you to see, that’s what. Nate, please. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be already.”
“Sadie, why on earth didn’t you tell me what was going on? Even when you didn’t have time to just talk, you could have at least let me know what was happening.” Casting his eyes up at the ceiling, Nate exhaled a short breath before shaking his head again. “I just don’t understand.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” she sighed. “Nate, you have enough going on in your life already without knowing about this. There would have been no point in me saying anything.”
A silence crept into the room as Sadie silently reached out for the papers, wordlessly pleading for him to return the novel that Dr. Kierland expected her to have read and signed by eight hours before now.
“Coffee…please?” she inquired as Nate turned the plastic cup around in his hands as his gray eyes were lost in a glazed-over expression.
“Yeah, sure,” he shrugged with the slightest hint of amusement flickering into his eyes. “How can you keep that down?”
Shrugging, Sadie took a sip and savored the strong taste so reminiscent of the old days when she would be at the library with mountains of textbooks sitting in front of her as she studied, fueled by the cold brew of the day at her favorite local coffee shop.
“If I don’t keep it down, they’ll know I’ve been drinking coffee,” she countered with a short laugh and a grin. “How else will I be able to read all of this before tomorrow?”
With the laugh that had broken free of all the stress and pain choking her heart, the year seemed to have disappeared from between them. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that, but she could see his eyes taking something back of that mischievous glint and old spark.
He was exhausted, Sadie realized as he sat there almost sinking into the chair and the dark circles marring the skin below his eyes. From the faded jeans to the wrinkled shirt to the rumpled hair, it was evident that this visit had not been pre-planned.
“They promised me I would get better,” she whispered brokenly, “that the treatment would work. I don’t want the artificial one…I know as well as they do that it won’t work. Mom is my only kidney match.”
She could see into the other room through the dimness, the grayness in the room that seemed to be drawing me deeper into the looming subconsciousness. The pain was there, her constant companion, the thing that had been closer to her than anything else besides God her comforter through all of this heartache.
She could see his face as the grayness began fading even darker now. The numbness was setting in as the cold liquid of the anesthetics crept up her veins through the permanent IV settled in her left arm, chills beginning to tremor all over her body. The room was cold, the air frigid and sterilized as ever as her burning lungs struggled desperately for the oxygen that was one of the only things now left to sustain her body.
The pain was leaving, the numbness like a beckoning hand drawing her closer to the unconsciousness as the surgeon appeared over the operating table with blue gloves snapping onto his hands. A pale white light shone somewhere distant over her head, and Sadie turned her head to avoid the blinding glare.
The hospital drapes shrouding the other partition of the room hung slightly apart. The scrub techs, BSN, and surgeon all stood crowded round the operating table as the ECG monitor beeped steadily on in the background of it all. Under the eerie light glistened the scalpels, forceps, and countless other sterilized metal instruments awaiting the surgeon’s choice.
The crowd momentarily parted, revealing an ashen face with two gray eyes gazing across the yards separating them. Cracked lips hanging slightly apart as he faintly inhaled and exhaled, he smiled faintly as a tear rebelliously escaped his glazing-over eyes.
For you, he mouthed as his eyebrows raised painfully slowly.
No, she mouthed back as the tears began to burn agonizingly in her eyes. No one asked you to do this…give me that artificial kidney, more treatment…anything. Nate…no.
He closed his eyes for such a long moment that Sadie could feel her pulse beginning to pound in her wrists despite the oncoming doses of anesthesia. His face was white to the point of being almost translucent beneath the blinding light, the dark circles an even more stark purple beneath eyes shut with pain.
A cold sweat was beginning to break on her forehead and render her palms clammy as she curled and uncurled her fingers. Everything was becoming darker, he eyes blurring over with hot tears as she buried her face with her hands. The taste of blood spread over Sadie’s tongue as her lower lip began to bleed under the pressure of her teeth. He wasn’t going to make it this time. There would be no miraculous event that would save his life, no guarantee that his life wouldn’t slip out of the surgeon’s hands as they endeavored to replace his only kidney with the artificial.
Nobody said that it would last forever, was the last thing she read on his lips as he smiled and shook his head while his beautiful gray eyes shone with the tears now shimmering in rivulets down his cheeks.
Everything now was muted, even as the lips of the medical personnel moved and Sadie felt her leaden eyes struggling against the inevitable. She wanted to see him, to see his face one last time before the moment when everyone knew she would lose consciousness forever. Her cold hands fell heavy onto her stomach, and the whiteness of the ceiling flickered in and out of darkness. Among the overwhelming pain and tears, the comfort of knowing that in moments she would be with the Lord through the salvation of Christ’s blood surfaced above all others.
I never said we had to die together.