remember to live
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do
than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
-- Mark Twain
I had my back to the hospital bed, looking out the window a group of hot air balloons rising in a colorful rainbow against the blue of the sky. Movement from the bed made me turn around.
“I wanted to ride a hot air balloon,” Jack said. He was so pale against the bleached sheets of the hospital bed that I thought again he wouldn’t need makeup to play the part of a ghost. But I pushed that thought away and turned again to my husband, who was still alive. Not dying.
“We’ll do it, together,” I promised. “As soon as you’re well.”
He laughed, a fading chuckle that turned into a coughing fit that I was not equipped to help. I couldn’t even touch him—as gentle as I was, bruises formed where my fingers had been. “Ana,” he said, when the coughing paused. “I’m not going to get better. I can hear. I can read. The chemo isn’t helping.”
I shook my head and bowed it so I couldn’t see him anymore. “No,” I said, but I knew better. The doctors had been trying to prepare me for his death every time they finished with him and brought me out in the hallway for another talk. I hated that hallway. The posters were too cheery, with an undercurrent of antiseptic that caught in my throat and made me teary.
“I’m dying,” he said, and that simple statement made it real to me. I was going to be a widow at thirty years old. My Jack was dying at thirty-two. My sight blurred.
“I don’t want you to be dying,” I said.
He chuckled—and I was glad that this time, he didn’t start coughing. “I’ll fight it as long as I can. I don’t want to be dying, either, but I am.” He reached over to touch me, his fingers so dry that they felt fragile on the back of my hand. “And you are going to live.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “I’m not sure I’ll want to.”
“You have to,” he said. “There isn’t a world without you in it.”
I bit my lip so that I didn’t tell him that for me it was the same thing. I wasn’t sure the world would be worth living in if he wasn’t there with me. We had been together since high school and through college—two lonely children coming together through our dreams. My parents were dead—his absent. No siblings. No children—we hadn’t been ready. No one but each other.
I looked at him—his eyes were closed but his face was still smooth and I wondered suddenly if it was wrong of me to stay here with him so that he didn’t have a private moment when he could let his pain show on his face. I knew he was hiding it for me.
Then he opened his eyes, and they were the same clear blue that I’d always known—clearer than they’d been in weeks. “Let’s make a list,” he said.
I felt my brows rise and jaw gape. “A list.” I said the words without inflection, wondering how we’d gotten from dying to this.
“A list of things that I wanted to do. All the things you need to do without me once I’m gone.”
I shook my head at the thought. “No. I’ll write a list, but only if you agree it’s a list of all the things we’ll do together once you are better again.”
We both had our stubborn faces on, but I was the one who won this battle—I think because he knew he hadn’t the strength to out stubborn me at the moment. He nodded. I dug a pen out of my purse and found a scrap of paper and titled it “Remission list.”
A year later I watched as the team filled the bright gold and blue envelope with hot air. It was spring and the sky was clear and blue and the sound of the burner was loud against the stillness, filling the bag in bursts of heat. Arms wrapped around me from behind and I heard Jack’s voice in my ear, “I’ve always wanted to ride a hot air balloon.”
I nodded. It had been the first thing on the list—if not the first thing we had done when Jack had been released from the hospital. Remission was such a difficult word—it didn’t mean the cancer was gone or he was out of danger. It just meant it had been beaten back for a while and might come again.
I hoped it wouldn’t. I found myself watching him as he slept, looking for signs that it might be coming back. If he overheated in the night I could barely hold off panic. Last week, we’d gone in for some blood tests—standard ones that would tell us whether it was coming back.
I hadn’t been able to bear looking at the mail or answering the phone since for fear of news.
We were bundled up—and I was sweating with it, although the air was crisp and still on my face. But it would be cold as we rose. “Why?” I asked, twisting around.
“Why a hot air balloon?” I nodded. Jack got a distant look in his eye. “In a balloon, there’s nothing you can do. You’re at the mercy of the wind to go wherever it wants to go, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He looked down at me and kissed the end of my nose. “We always struggle against fate. I’ve been fighting it since before I met you. And it always sounded so peaceful to just drift. Let fate decide where we go.”
I frowned. I didn’t trust fate to be kind. It never had before.
“Besides,” he added, and there was laughter in his voice that must be directed at me and my frown, “they’re beautiful. Every time I see them, it reminds me that there is hope. Things are not as bad as they could be as long as a rainbow of balloons drifts across a blue, blue sky.”
I nodded. I could understand that.
The pilot beckoned us into the basket, reminding us of the rules as he did so. I just nodded, letting safety wash over me in a torrent of words while I stood with my husband. He was still alive. There was still hope. And we were following his dreams. I only had one dream. Let him live.
An envelope was waiting for us when we got home late that afternoon. Just a glance told me that it was from the doctor. That was a good sign, right? If it were bad news, the doctor would call.
I turned away from it and hurried into the back to change, still caught in the memory of the balloon. It had been eerie standing there in the gentle breeze, not feeling it because we were moving with it. Only the creak of the basket and the roar of the burner to tell us that we were moving through the air with the chasing car below us, trying to find the place we would set down.
And Jack with me, holding my hand, quiet. His eyes had darted everywhere, drinking in the whole experience—the beauty of the envelope above us, the passing landscape below. Everything was so sharp and bright in the balloon—the trees greener, the sky bluer, the roads dark rivers and the cars a tiny multicolored string of beads along them. It had been peace, as Jack had promised, but I had spent the entire ride caught in my own worries for Jack.
He had been laughing as we landed, his cheeks glowing pink and healthy—and I couldn’t resist rising to my toes and pressing my cheek against his. And wondering if the warmth I felt was health or fever.
When I came back out, he was reading the letter, frowning. I could feel my face grow white and I turned away to get a glass of water. “What is it?” I asked.
“Inconclusive,” he said. “More tests next week.”
My shoulders sagged, not ready to face it again. I needed to know for certain if the cancer was back. I couldn’t bear this continual wondering. I blindly drank and felt a dribble of water run down my chin.
He came up behind me and caught me around the waist. “Ann.” That was all. He just said my name.
I waited and put my glass down and wiped a towel across my face. “Jack.”
He sighed. “Please, don’t.”
“Don’t what?” I could feel the sharpness in my tone, and I hated it.
“Ann, let it go,” he said. “You’re spending so much time waiting and worrying—I need you to live with me. For as long as I can.”
“I am. I do,” I turned around and buried my face in his neck, taking in the smell of him, so close that I could feel the thud of his heart in my own chest. It was strong. I took comfort in that.
He rubbed my back. “Not dying isn’t the same thing as living. You can’t spend all your time thinking about dying. If you do, we’ll never live.”
I bent my head back to look at him. “It’s so hard.”
He smiled—the same crooked smile I remembered from when I first met him, sitting behind me in English class, asking me for a pen. “Let the wind blow. We can find our way back home again wherever we land. Together we can face anything.”
I smiled back, but I could feel the shakiness of it. “I’ll try.”
“So will I.”
word count: 1678