I hate first person - so I went to practice it.
To write a goodbye note to your mother, not one where you knew you would be back two weeks later after a fun holiday but one of the final ones is hard. Very hard. Which accounted for the fact that I had been sitting in this corner of the nicely manicured gardens for each day for the last two weeks and all I had to show for it was one line. Dear Mama. And below that a large white area, unmarked. That was all. And I had not even started writing to Tommy yet.
“Your last will and testament?”
I knew who belonged to that snide voice, did not even have to look up to know the lanky frame leaning against the gazebo. Jason. Some of the other girls at the hospice called him the prettiest boy on Earth, all dark hair and pouty mouth. Which only shows that even near death people are stupid.
“No one is going to care what you do with your barbie anyway. They will give it to the charity shop and be done with it. Possibly already have done so.”
He was a bully and what he said made no sense. I had never owned a barbie. Still, it was hard not to be hurt, even harder not to react. But I had learnt in school that you have no chance against bullies. When you don’t have a nose, you learn these things quickly.
As a parting shot that was weak.
The next day was worse - and so much better. The next day was visiting day. To be honest, most days were visiting days, with her mother missing the three hour round trip only once or twice a week but today she would be brining Tommy. Something always got brighter in me when she was bringing Tommy.
A voice impossibly high, little legs pumping as fast as they could and a face almost permanently stained with something. Tommy. Her little brother. Mama had been worried about how I would react to the new arrival three years ago but there had never been a question. The little compact body hurled itself into my arms and I held on to my little brother, burying my face in his tickly hair, breathing in the scent of little boy and jam. This was the most precious thing on Earth, the thing I had been living for. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shadow move, disappear into the copse of trees.
“Liz came over last night with a casserole and you won’t believe…”
I tuned out Mama’s cheerful chatter, her determined attempt to keep up the every day. It meant the doctors had said something bad. Not that there was much good to say anymore. I should have died three months ago, was living on borrowed time. But then, or so said Google, children often lived longer than predicted.
“I am fine, Mama.”
It was a try to calm her even though the sentence was ridiculous considering the circumstances. Just as with the letter. What do you say to a mother who is about to loose her sixteen year old daughter? It does not get easier if you are the daughter.
A moment of uncomfortable silence as Mama looked out over the the rhododendron bushes fighting with tears she tried not to show me.
“I know” her voice was too choked up to say more so she also took refuge in platitudes. For a while we just looked out over the lawn, watching Tommy chase his ball.
“Darren said he wants to come along tomorrow.”
So, the doctors thought it was this bad then. Not that her stepfather did not come to visit her regularly, he was here every weekend. She never doubted that he loved her but he worked shifts and coming during the week was hard. He only came when the doctors thought she would not make it to the weekend. Again.
A thump alerted them to Tommy’s ball disappearing in the rhododendron. Neither of them moved as the little boy followed it. He knew his way around this area having spend the majority of his life on regular visits here.
But I did not know how to say it, how to express all that was in my heart. Tommy’s giggle reached them before the little boy broke through the undergrowth again.
That evening I sat on the roof. I needed to be outside, needed to escape the oppressive solicitousness inside. The cold air cut into my skin and I liked it. It made me feel alive - what a lie.
“How old is he?”
Somehow I knew who Jason meant. Silence. I wished he would go away and at the same time I wanted to have him here. Someone I did not have to pretend for.
“I wanted to write him a letter.”
I do not know why I told him, the bully, why I gave him more ammunition which he would undoubtedly use against me. I just needed to say it out loud, hear the silliness of it. I did not really expect him to understand or say anything.
But he asked the one question I dreaded.
“Because I want to matter.”
And there it was.
Jason had to work a lot harder at getting through the window than I had. The disadvantages of height I assume - not that I would know about those at 1.67. I heard a thump and assumed he had hit his head on the narrow corner. Good.
“That brat thinks the world of you.”
He squeezed his lean body besides mine on the narrow ledge, pulling his knees close to his chest.
“He’ll forget. In a few weeks, latest a few months I will become a fading memory. I won’t really matter to him anymore.” I knew the truth of this. Tommy loved me with all his heart and he would mourn me. But he was three. His memory was short and in a few years there would nothing be left other than a slight memory of pain and loss.
“So you decided to write a letter.” The emphasis on that last word made clear what he thought of it.
“Yeah.” I couldn’t help laughing at the futility of this. “But I couldn’t even write the letter to my mother in which I wanted to tell her about the letter to Tommy.”
His warmth started to seep into my side as I waited for his next derogative remark. But he stayed silent for a long time.
“They visit you every day. They fight like mad for the smallest chance you could get another day. I think you can be certain you matter to them. And they will miss you. They will think of you every day.”
I heard the envy in his voice - and the pain. His parents came once a month, always the first weekend of the month. That was it. I had never thought about what that meant for him. And suddenly I did not know what to say anymore. So I did what came natural; I took his hand. And he took mine. And we were silent on the roof.
Darren came the next day, and the next day, and the weekend, and the weekend after that. And I was still there. Tommy enjoyed the gardens when the weather was nice, and the long hallways to run along when it was not. Jason went back to mocking me and every night we would climb onto the roof and stay there for hours, often silent, rarely speaking more than a few sentences. But we held hands and most days that was enough. One evening, long after that first one, Jason sat besides me and gave me the biggest present anyone can give you.
“You are stupid if you think you do not matter to that boy.”
Tommy had been visiting again that day, his laughter filling the house.
“I know I matter to him but he will forget.”
That hurt. For a moment I could not breathe. But when I tried to withdraw my hand from his he tightened his grip.
“So what?” He repeated. “It does not matter if he can remember the colour of your eyes, or what you said to him. He is three years old. You are in every one of his smiles, in the way he carefully picks up a beetle to carry it across the path. You are in his head, in his mind and in his heart and no one can take that away from him. He might not remember you, though I think you do not give him enough credit there, but he will carry you with him with every breath.”
I knew Jason was right.
And then came the best day of my life. It had been the best day of my life three years ago when he had been born and each year it was the best day again. We had rainbow cake and played hide and seek in the garden. There were paper hats, fairy lights and chocolate ice cream. And Jason was there. Tommy fell asleep in my arms after he had told me the thousands time that birthdays are the best. That night I looked down over the ledge for the first time.
“You want to?”
It was so tempting. So very tempting. To have the choice, to take back that final decision. It is one of the worst things about dying this slowly - you loose the right to choose. Someone else cooks your food, tells you what to do when, how to walk, how to sit… what to wear. I remember the last piece of clothing I chose myself - it was a bright red sweater, too large now, but still soft and brilliant. I had worn it that day.
“Do you want to jump?”
Jason asked again. I shook my head. It was Tommy’s birthday and I would not do that to him.
Looking up I met the calm eyes of the boy besides me and knew I would not make the choice alone.