It all happened in what seemed like a fraction of a second.
The pain was so intense that it was tangible, and I almost crumpled to the floor in an agonized heap. I was shaking, shaking so hard that I couldn’t see straight and I couldn’t help but to grip the edge of the table before I passed out. I blinked twice past tears that seemed to feel like they belonged in my eyes, but I couldn’t cry. All I could do was to stare at the ceiling with lips trembling and the taste of blood in the back of my mouth.
Dr. Kierland was taking his clipboard and moving toward the door with a sympathetic glance back at me. From the corner of my right eye, I could see him awkwardly shift his weight from one foot to the other and raise a hand to push his wire-rimmed glasses back up his nose. He did this every day, I realized in numb shock. This was his job.
I don’t know how much time passed before I reached my hand out to brace my weight against the wall and move to stand on legs that were completely numb.
The hospital corridors had never seemed as long as that afternoon. Closing my burning eyes, I forcefully, systematically put first one foot in front of the other until I reached the end of that hall. Just a few more doors and I would be home free.
Whether it was the sudden fit of coughing that gripped my lungs in its claws or the sob wrenched from a room to my right, I stopped. Stopped right in the middle of the end of the hall with my hands pressed up against the cold, hard wall and eyes flying open as I could feel the color draining from my face.
“You’re not ok, are you?”
A voice low and gentle speaking out in the stillness of the oncology ward startled me and almost sent me cringing to the floor.
“Here’s my inhaler…if that’d at least help a little.”
A shaking hand fumbled in the black backpack slung over one of his shoulders, and I could see the way his jaw quivered whenever he would accidentally twist the left side of his body too much. Blue eyes the color of a summer ocean gazed serenely back at me as he finally held out the red inhaler with a Sharpie-scribbled named across the side.
Even the mere millimeters I felt my airways expand after a few puffs made the world of a difference. Tears jumping to my eyes, I smiled back at him and held the inhaler back out to him, but he shook his head.
“Something tells me that you’re gonna need that more than I do.”
I grimaced as I slowly stood back up straight and quirked an eyebrow.
“And what makes you so sure of that?”
He ran slightly trembling fingers through his dirt blond hair while his eyes wandered the corridor and finally rested on the door that had been closed behind him.
“Because you have cancer.”
A different book almost every day.
I grinned and glanced up at Liam as he swept a disinfecting wipe across the crook of my elbow and passed me the needle. Shifting my position in the vinyl recliner, I squinted across the few feet separating him and I, all while fingering the veins sunken even deeper my right arm. It was three months into treatment, and I had decided that, after the countless times that they had haphazardly injected the treatment into body tissue instead of veins, it was me who could best determine where the needle should be placed.
“Aha! Got it,” I triumphed with a smirk up at the RN.
“You’re so weird,” remarked Liam as he rolled his eyes in amusement. “And I guess your arm isn’t leaking blood all over the chair today. That’s nice. You need a blanket?”
“Is that even a question?” I threw back with as strong of a laugh that could come from lungs scarred to the point of triggering knifing pain with every several breaths.
Before my RN disappeared from the room, two heated hospital blankets were all but flung at me, and I was once again straining my eyes to decipher the microscopic title on the boy’s book.
“It keeps me distracted.”
The book lowered, and the blue-green eyes and I met gazes as a mutual smile widened on our faces.
“I was just wondering what was so interesting that you’ve been buried in that book for more than a day.”
“And I was wondering why you’re always buried in two electric blankets every day.”
There was a silence for a moment as Evan meticulously adjusted the way the needle was situated in his arm and considered how full the bag housing the chemotherapy toxins was. Pain etched its way more acutely into his face as he stirred from his curled-up position in the chair to stretching his legs out in front of him.
“It’s always so cold in here,” I shivered past the blanket pressed up to my nose. “Maybe they’re trying to get rid of the germs, but they must be trying to get rid of me too.”
He smiled, a smile that I had seen for every day of our same torturous chemo cycles. Pain radiated through every nerve in my body, but it could have been worse. It always could be worse, he told me every so often when I would see him curled up in the fetal position in one of the vinyl recliners, doubled over in agony.
He sat there hugging a pillow tightly to his chest and with the book slipping unheeded to the floor. There was first the quiver of a jaw that could not possibly have been clenched more tightly, eyes flickering shut and marble-white face graven with pain.
“No,” I choked past the lump strangling my throat, tears stinging at the corners of my eyes. “No, no, no—”
Throwing the blankets off of me, I staggered toward the chair that seemed so much more than only six feet away. The sudden agonizing pain in my right arm meant nothing to me, nor could I feel the blood beginning to stream through my fingertips. I blinked twice, and he was on the floor crumpled in a heap with arms wrapped around his chest.
“It’s gonna be okay,” I murmured repeatedly as I caught the heartbreaking whimpering escaping lips bit so tightly that I could see the blood beginning drip down his chin.
Stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he had finally admitted to me just a little over a month ago when we had been sitting out in the sun. It had been a precious moment, soaking up the warm sunshine and talking together for hours. He had been looking forward to striving toward his goal of being an electrician, had cherished the time he spent with his adorable nieces, and wished that he hadn’t broken his widowed mother’s heart with the final diagnosis.
I reached out a tentative hand, my heart trembling within my ribs like a caged bird. Breaths came short and harsh to my lips, and I could feel my airways beginning to squeeze shut.
My cold, quaking fingers wrapped around his freezing hand, and I held it so hard that I was terrified that I would hurt him. With all his pain, though, I wasn’t sure if he would feel anything different, so I held his hand, held it so tightly that his eyes finally opened and met my own tear-streaming ones.
Through the agony, he smiled. It was a smile I would never forget, a smile that was so pain-filled yet so deeply touched with tenderness. Unable to speak, those blue-green eyes filling with even the smallest measure of peace and relief expressed more than words ever could.
Shaking hands, fingers quivering so badly that I felt guilty even trying to reach up and touch his face. One last time, I told myself as my lungs began to constrict forebodingly, and I could feel the rasping sensation tickling my trachea. It was only a matter of minutes before I broke down into the coughing that brought blood spouting from deep inside my lungs.
I couldn’t talk, could only stare up into the blue-green eyes filled to the brim with tears. Tears that I knew would sure as heck cause me to lose composure and break down into uncontrollable sobbing. My one goal was to make sure that he didn’t cry, or else I knew my heart would finally break.
We both spoke at once.
Shaking his head, Evan bit the corner of his lip and stared out the window at the gray November afternoon gradualy fading into night. The flowers were there, the cold coffee sitting on the bedside table, even the precious framed photograph of the both of us sitting in treatment together with hands gripped together. He had kept on reminding that we were so similar that it was freaky, and maybe that bothered him, but he always denied it with it so vehemently with that adorable smile.
“You,” he said again with a small smile hinting at the corners of his lips and index finger tapping my nose, “are the strongest person I know.”
A smile so wide that it hurt spread across my face. In the last four months, I had learned that cheek muscles could ache with happiness, that lungs could burn with laughter, and that tears didn’t have to mean a heart was breaking. My lungs hurt more, my throat burned worse, but it was all unbelievably and undoubtedly worth it.
“No,” I choked with a weak laugh. “Do you need to see a psychiatrist instead of Dr. Kierland?”
“I don’t think so,” he grinned, nose scrunching up and a million smile wrinkles deepening around his beautiful eyes. “But I do think that I should go get you more oxygen, Hazel.”
His words trailed off into a soft whisper, eyes shimmering with unshed tears. A moment later, a hand as cold as ice was clinging to my own and bringing it close to his face.
“I already have oxygen,” I wheezed past lips once again breaking into a smile.
My hand was tremoring almost uncontrollably as I tugged at the oxygen tube nosepiece until it fell helpless onto the front of the gray hospital gown. Subconsciously, I felt my lungs and mouth instantly, almost desperately open wide for a gasp of the freezing air. I squinted past the tears and felt the cool air rushing into lungs burning with the fire of lactic acid.
“What is it?” queried Evan, voice beginning to shake. “Hazel, talk to me…”
For a moment, I couldn’t speak as I lay there, reveling in each trembly breath that rushed in and out of my lips. Lips that were already almost chapped beyond all recognition didn’t matter, and neither did a dried throat that was unceasingly desperate for water.
What mattered was that, for the first time in almost a year, I was breathing without the oxygen tube.
I turned to Evan whose eyes were swimming in tears and a boyish smile radiating his entire face. He understood, he knew without any words being spoken exactly what was running through my mind.
“You are…” he began helplessly, blue-green eyes sparkling with joy, “completely and absolutely beautiful.”
Voice shaking so much that I could barely distinguish one of his words from the other, Evan reached out and gently lifted the oxygen tube into fingers that handled it as if it were as fragile as a baby bird.
“I have never seen you not wearing this,” he whispered. “Hazel, you need it…”
“Not—anymore,” I coughed, struggling against the strangling sensation in my ribs.
“Don’t say that,” Evan protested with an expression of such pain in his beautiful eyes that it hurt my heart.
I wanted him to cherish his illusions, to imagine that I would get better and that he and I would escape the hospital world one day. His lymphoma was disappearing, leaving but a trail of scars and bodily agony that would never completely go away, they had confessed to him.
There was something in my face that he must not have liked. Turning away, he gripped the edge of the bed and glanced toward the clock and its glaring red numbers.
Perfect, I thought with a slight whimper escaping my lips as my heart began to tear. I lifted my right hand wearily to my neck, confirming what I had begun to suspect yesterday morning when I had woken up…not breathing.
It was only a matter of time, I thought as I counted each tangible beat of my heart. A heart that had beat for nineteen years straight and was just now deciding to finally give up.
It was choosing to give up before I had.
“I’m not done,” I wheezed as I reached out a hand again to pull his face again to look at me. “Evan, don’t let it take me…”
“Sweetheart, no,” he whispered as an electric shock seemed to have startled him and he grasped both of my hands in his stronger ones. Eyes wide and lips hanging open, speechless, Evan sat there with his head slowly falling onto my shoulder until it was resting there motionless.
“Time can heal, but this won’t,” I whispered as I weakly pulled one of my hands away from his.
I ran my fingers through his hair that had finally grown back after the chemo, even if mine hadn’t. It was so soft, so precious after the struggle he had been through and the time when his heart had stopped beating for five excruciating minutes. He was alive and healing, and I loved him more than I could ever express.
The world was growing hazy, each beat of my heart falling more half-seconds behind. He was shaking to the touch, every muscle in his body seeming to tremor as he sat there with his head buried against my shoulder.
“Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” I whispered in his ear as I could feel my eyes trying to close. I was sleepy, feeling sleep’s gentle tug as I lay there gazing at the precious boy who I had found through this struggle with cancer.
“Don’t leave me,” he pleaded brokenly. “Hazel, how am I supposed to let you go?”
“I never said that we would die together,” I choked as the tears began to overflow my eyes. “Evan…”
I knew it was a matter of moments, as I began to break down coughing, my lungs gasping for air and strangled with the tumors that overgrew their environment like a rainforest. I closed my eyes, feeling the hot tears begin to slide silently down my face as the room was filled with the raucous hacking. I had had this opportunity so many times, but I had always been terrified of actually taking the chance. My lungs hurt, I could taste iron in my mouth, but I knew that it was either now or never.
“I love you.”