The next day I went to practice despite they lack of doctor clearance. I was running around one of our standard practice runs around the local reservoir, but the workout was becoming nearly impossible. Every time I landed on my feet, a pain shot through my head like lightning. I had to stop and walk. Coach drove by and asked if I needed a ride. Feeling defeated, I accepted. I got back to the school, went through my book bag and took two more Tylenol.
The next run I had leave early—I had my M.R.I. appointment. I had no idea what to expect and that scared me, but with everyone’s assurance that this was only a precaution, I didn’t expect anything to be wrong. The technicians explained that I would be in a narrow tube and could not wear anything metal. The magnetic pull of the machine would rip any metal right off of me. There would be a drumming noise, but there was an intercom so they could talk to me at all times. Another technician came out beforehand to ask me a series of questions.
“Do you wake up with the headaches?”
“Do they go away if you take Tylenol?”
“Well, that’s good.”
I became certain that nothing was wrong.
The M.R.I was difficult because, as it turns out, I am claustrophobic. I imagined that this is what being in a casket must feel like (if one were to actually know what that feels like at the time). The drumming was more of a jackhammering construction worker drilling deep into the street, right over my head, which the technician said I'd get used to.
“One day you’ll be able to sleep right through these.”
I thought he was crazy.
“Doesn’t matter,” I thought, “I’m never going to come for another one of these anyway.”
As it turns out, I can, now, sleep right through them. I also pass out immediately in movie theaters. But that’s a different story.
Once it was over, I wanted them to tell me I was okay, but legally they aren’t allowed to say anything until a doctor reviews the films. They’d be mailed to the doctor and then someone would be in touch with me—within a few days. Frustrated I still didn’t get the final OK that I was all right, we headed home. My focus shifted back to running and I just wanted to get home in time for that evening’s practice. As soon as we hit the driveway I ran in the house to get ready. I went into the bathroom to put my hair up and wash my face. The phone rang.
My dad answered and I was hoping he wouldn't be long, or this wouldn’t be Uncle Jimmy needing help, because I needed to leave. I was sixteen and still dependent on my dad for mobility. He said only a few words and then became silent.
"Well I'd like a meeting with you to discuss this," he said.
Something was wrong, that was easy enough to tell by his voice. But, it was me. I knew this was about me. Something was wrong with me. I felt my body start to tense and a flutter of anxiety settled in my chest. I tried to convince myself that the call probably wasn’t even about me and I was overreacting. Besides, the tests were all just a precaution, I just needed glasses. That’s what everyone had said.
The second he got off of the phone, I asked him what was wrong. There was no answer. He paced the living room with a red face and his hands on his hips, holding in a breath. He looked like if he let that breath go, the entire world would fall apart. The two minutes that it took him to tell me felt like an hour. It could have even been thirty seconds, or ten. It was the longest pause I had ever experienced. He knew he had to tell me. He knew he had to break my heart only a few moments after his had been ripped out. I asked again.
“Oh God, give me a minute, it’s just a shock,” he said, still seeming like he hadn’t exhaled.“What?" I pleaded.“They found a tumor.”
Numbness, then blackness; or maybe it was the other way around. Those four words hit me like a truck. I suddenly felt the floor beneath me. I was on the floor, overwhelmed, trying to catch my breath and fruitlessly trying to wipe my cheeks dry with tear soaked hands. At first I didn’t know if I was really crying. For a few seconds it felt fake. Like, under the circumstances, I had to cry. Then my vision blurred and I could feel the tears roll down my face—but I couldn’t feel my legs.
“I’m going to die,” was all that ran through my head. I was too young. I wasn't ready. Not like this. Four days until school. Running. Future. The thoughts crashed together and filled up my mind. I didn't know what to do first. My dad went downstairs and left me alone.
High school had forced me into certain habits and ways of thinking, like any other adolescent. At the time, this was what life was and only looking back do you realize how simple life was then. I had become very good at balancing time between classes, running and my job at the ice cream shop. Aside from the dysfunctional home life, I was a teenager and life could be very superficial. I had a boyfriend, Dominic, and felt a large part of my life revolved around that relationship. But that life, that version of my life, had just ended.
The first thing I did to try to hold onto the life I had until ten minutes ago, was to call Dominic. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I wouldn’t be able to speak. I forced out a “Hello,” but couldn’t find much else beyond the tears. He asked me if I wanted him to come over and I managed to tell him I did.
I had to call to tell coach Mizzone. I still wanted to go to pratice that night and tried to think of a way to make that happen. I definitely didn’t want to go downstairs and join in whatever was going on down there. But the words left my mouth before I could even try to stop them.
“I can’t make it to practice tonight,” I said.
“Why?” he asked. “What did you find out?” I had to say it for the first time.
“I have a brain tumor.”
“Did they tell you anything else?”
“No,” I said, crying again.
“Call me back when you find out anything at all.”
The panic slowly but continuously began to grow inside of me. Maybe I could just focus on breathing. Just breathe. I went down stairs in a daze. I was told to sit down and relax, but I wanted to scream. I stumbled to the kitchen where I found my father telling my grandmother.
“Don't tell me that. Don't say that,” as she started to cry. “No, no, no,” my grandmother said over and over as if she could somehow with her words refuse to let it happen.
My cousin stood leaning against the counter next to the sink, speechless. I stood observing for a moment before they realized I was there. Seeing me, they tried to gather themselves. They straightened out their shirts, wiped their faces with their hands, like they could magically erase the redness of their eyes and the look on their faces. I imagined myself reading their minds, “Be strong for her, we’ll have time to be upset later.” I was floating through all of it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not be a part of the same reality.
The room felt uncomfortable and suffocatingly small, so I went outside, just in time to see Dom pulling into the driveway with his dad. He got out of the car and I collapsed into his arms.
“What is it, baby?” he asked softly.
He put his arms around me. As he hugged me, I cried into his shoulder, “I have a brain tumor.”
I clung to him, like he was a safety raft. If I could just hold him long enough this would end. We could just freeze this moment and I could just stay there, inside his arms.
But time would have none of that. The rest of the day blends together like a bad dream. My grandmother stood outside assuring me that I was too beautiful for anything to happen to me. It was a ridiculous notion, that almost made me angry because I wanted some solid reassurance that I was going to be okay, but I smiled.
My mother arrived amidst the confusion with her live-in boyfriend, later to be her second husband, Mike. I hugged her, as she cried in my grandmother’s living room. I remember her face, the helpless face of a mother who could do nothing to help her child. I found myself assuring her that it would be okay. It was hard to say, because I didn't believe it myself. Right then, I thought I was dying, so I might as well comfort everyone else. Everyone had an unsettling, calm demeanor, except my mother who cries hysterically in movies theaters, so there was no relaxing her now.
The tears had nearly sealed my eyes shut and my nose was shut down, adding an unneeded layer of discomfort on top of everything else. There wasn’t enough space in my head to think and my house seemed to be growing small enough to wear, like I had eaten the wrong mushroom and was growing at an alarming rate. I had to get out. Maybe I could run. Maybe I could just out run this. Leave it at the house, and I could run away and have it still be there, without me. There was this thing in my head trying to kill me and there was nothing I could do. There was nothing anyone could do. It wasn’t an arm or a leg that you could stare at and disassociate from—worst case, we cut off the appendage that is trying to kill me. No, it was my head. I definitely couldn’t cut off my head. The best I could do was to get out and get some fresh air. So Dominic and I went out for a walk.
We went to the church, where I had recently been confirmed as a Catholic in honor of my grandfather, but it was closed. A sign perhaps? Not sure where we were headed next, I subconsciously walked towards my friend Erica’s house, a path I hadn’t actually walked in years. She lived three streets above mine, but early on in our childhood we discovered a set of stairs that cut through the first street. They were narrow, cement stairs with a wooden fence and rusted railing on the right side and two houses on the left. I passed the first house and the big round pool in its backyard, its cover filled with water around the supporting bulge in the middle. As long as I could remember, I have never seen that pool open. It always had that same green cover with leaves, snow, and water taking their turns resting there with each season. We passed the second house that a friend once described to me as “periwinkle” and I had laughed at the strange new word.
Although I had been this way, maybe a thousand times, this time it was different. Everything I did that day was different; it may be the last time I was ever going to do them. It became one of the longest walks I ever took. Time slowed down, sped up and froze all at the same time. Questions began to flood my mind and I poured them out to my companion, who had not yet let out any sign that he, too, was terrified. He let me talk and held my hand.
“Can I not picture myself in the future because I’m not meant to be there? Is the future clear for you? Like, when you see yourself in twenty years, do you really see yourself or is it just some hazy illusion of what might be? Maybe I see it like that because it’s not really there. Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why this? God, am I going to die? I don’t want to die. I’m not ready.”
I searched for some place to ground my mind, and for a while I found it in reviewing the facts. I repeated what I knew to myself; I was number one on the cross country team, I was academically in the top ten of my class and I was dating one of the “popular” boys. All that was only one week away...but now it seemed like an unattainable time and place; myself an hour ago was impossible. And then I was lost again.
When we reached Erica’s house her father came to the door.
“Hey, stranger,” he said.
“Erica around?” I asked.
“Nope. How you doing?”
“Good, good. Can you just tell her I stopped by?”
I had grown up splitting my time between her house and my own. Her father was my dad away from home. The images of my father holding in his pain flooded my head. I couldn’t do that to her father too; so I mustered up the energy I had and made believe I was fine. I left without saying a word about it; to come back to my house, where it was waiting for me.
When I got home I was still trying to make sense of some of it. All I could figure was that I was going to die. I have no recollection of where the next few hours of my life went. At some point, I stood with my father outside, in front of our house. We leaned against the old white Chevrolet we used to have before Tina totalled it. I stared at the two maples lining my yard. It was dusk and the air was growing cooler, another reminder of the impending school year...
...The hours eventually passed. Every now and then I would drift into an unsettled sleep. I had one vivid dream that night—it was my funeral. There were white bouquets spread all around the room. All of my friends were there and wearing black, a color none of them would ever wear, having grown up in the fluorescent eighties. I saw my father’s pale face. He was in shock.
“My baby. My baby,” he said, hunched over in a chair in the first row.
“Don’t cry Dad. I’m okay. Look Dad, I’m right here. I’m fine.”
But he wouldn’t acknowledge me. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t listen to me. He was staring directly in front of him, right through me, so I turned around to meet his gaze. There was a casket. I inched up to it, afraid of what I would find inside. When I peered in over the edge, I saw my body and I saw my chalk white face clearly, and then I understood.