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I am being chased, though I don’t know where I am. It is night, and I can hardly see where I am going. I stop, turn around; I am confused. It pounces, and then I wake up.
I shudder as I am pulled from the nightmare. I am swimming in sweat and my heart is beating somewhere in my throat. It is neither the first nor the hundredth of a series of nightmares that have been plaguing me for weeks. Every night, I go to bed, hopeful that maybe it won’t happen again, and every night I am awakened several times by different nightmares. It’s like my mind is rotting from the inside out.
I blink several times before I realize that, much like in my dream, it is still night outside. The red LED of my alarm clock glares 2:30 as I take deep breaths, trying to calm myself so I can go back to sleep.
But what’s the use? I’ll wake up in another hour or so just as I am now. So instead of being a good girl and going back to sleep so I can function in school, I slide out of bed, into a pair of slippers, and pad downstairs for some alone time.
The white kitchen light is harsh and bright when I turn it on. My glasses skim down my nose when I put the teakettle up to boil. I shove them back up, and they slide right back down. Much like my life, my glasses pay no heed to what might be best for me.
For some reason, talking to myself has more of a calming effect on me than tea does. So I try it.
“It’s not as if there’s anything I can do about it.” I mumble as I pull my favorite mug from the cabinet above the counter. I climb off of the chair and reach down for a tea bag. Chamomile. “I don’t have any control over what happens, anyway. So why am I worried? Worry is a useless emotion, anyway.”
I answer myself as if I’m having a conversation with another person. “Because you have every right to be worried. You can’t be upbeat and optimistic all the time. You have to allow yourself the time and emotional space to explore your problems.”
I raise my eyebrows at the answer, getting into talking to myself now. “Do you even know what that meant?” I ask, but I don’t expect an answer.
I feel grown up when I sit at the table in the middle of the night with a mug of tea, thinking about my adult problems. Who cares if I’m only fifteen? I’m entitled to problems, too.
The dark blue mug feels warm and secure when I wrap my hands around it. I have long fingers—piano fingers, as my music teacher calls them. I’ve played piano since I was seven. I sing, too. I’m the musical one in the family, but that doesn’t really matter anymore. What good will music be if I can’t use it in real life? What will music do for me in this mess of an existence? How can music comfort me if I cannot be comforted? I don’t know the answers to these questions, which is why I think that music is useless, even though playing does give me some escape from the harsh realities of life.
The tea is too hot to sip, so I let its warmth comfort me while I watch white tendrils of steam rise from the surface. The mug looks like a mini cauldron. I smile, thinking of the tea as a calming draught; then I scold myself because sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that Fantasy is not Reality. Pretending that I live in a Harry Potter book won’t really help me right now.
I take a deep breath that turns into a sigh. Two months ago, my life wasn’t so complicated. I was a tenth grader in high school, a good student, and I had a lot of friends. You could say that none of that has changed, but everything changes with a cancer diagnosis, even if it isn’t mine per se.
I remember how a friend once called me the “little miss perfect” of our clique. That was just before the diagnosis, just before Life came in and rudely snatched my childhood out from under me. Now, I’m lucky if that friend even speaks to me. She’s one of about three that is afraid of me and what my family represents. We were the normal ones, the happy ones. Everyone likes to think that bad things only happen to bad people. Until they don’t. Then people just run away from you because if it happened to you, then it could happen to them, too
Though I am still in school, it wouldn’t do you any good to ask me what I’m learning in any of my classes. Lately, my grades are as slippery to hold on to as my fragile reality. I’m slowly finding myself caring less about school work because, in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter, anyway? It is for this reason that I know that high school is not made for people like me. High school is made for teenagers who haven’t considered life enough to realize that torturing yourself over grades and friendships and gossip is pointless. I’ve broken out of that mold, but what I’ve been accepted in to is far, far worse than a meaningless life.
I hear footsteps creeping slowly down the stairs, and even though I can’t see him, I know it’s my father. He’ll want to know why I’m “still” up. I don’t know what I’m going to tell him.
But he doesn’t ask me that. He asks “is there any hot water left?”, like it’s perfectly normal to find your teenaged daughter, who has school tomorrow, brooding in the kitchen at three AM.
He sits down next to me and gently runs his big hand down my long, straight, strawberry blond hair. “You couldn’t sleep, either, huh?”
Here I am, having a nice, intimate, father-daughter moment in the middle of the night, and I don’t even know what to answer other than “no”.
His hand stops petting me and it comes around my shoulders, instead, pulling me into a one-armed hug. The other hand is wrapped around his favorite mug. I get my piano fingers from him. I’ve never thought about it before, but I realize that my mother has shorter, stubbier fingers. My father’s and mine are long and elegant. I wonder why I’ve never noticed this before.
“It isn’t easy.” He states to no one in particular. Maybe it’s to the ghosts of our past lives, who we were before tragedy rudely intruded.
“No,” I say as I shake my head softly. I can feel my hair brushing my back as my head moves. “But no one expected it to be.”
His honey-brown eyes look at me with respect. “Since when are you so deep?”
“Since my mother was diagnosed with cancer.” Before that point, I was never blunt—I was always a tactful kind of person. But since the diagnosis, since the lack of sleep, and the lack of emotional strength, I don’t have the energy of be anything but.
His hand occasionally rubs up and down my arm, and I let him because I know he’s not just comforting me. Sometimes, you need to touch someone to know that you’re real, that they’re real, to make sure that your pain doesn’t really obliterate other people, even though it feels like it might.
I don’t know how long we sit like this, but I’m afraid to check the clock because I don’t want to break the moment of shared experience. Everyone’s life is so short; who knows how many more times I’ll be able to do this with him? My parents are mortal. They will not live forever. So I soak up the moment and let him sit there with me, even though I thought I’d wanted to be alone.
“What do you think?” I ask suddenly, pulling away so I can look him in the eyes.
My father seems startled. “About what?”
“About Mommy.” The contrast of calling my mother “mommy” while asking about her chances of survival strikes me as absurdly funny. Stupid paradoxes.
My father rubs one large hand over his face, from his eyes to his stubbly chin. “I don’t know.” I can see from his eyes that it hurts him to admit this to his only child, even though I’m mature enough to handle it.
I know I should drop the subject, but I don’t. “You have to know something.”
“I know what the doctors told us. I know what the statistics are. I just don’t know what I think of it all.” That’s exactly how I feel; confused because I’m overloaded with information.
“Walk me through it.”
He thinks for a minute, then says, “The way I see it, the survival rate of pancreatic cancer is bad, but the doctors are hopeful, which is good. They think she might beat it because they caught it early. And they’re specialists, all the way at the top of the food chain. She might go in the direction they say and beat it. Or she might follow the statistics and lose the battle. Beyond that, I don’t know what to think.”
Now I let the topic drop.
We sit there for a few more minutes in silence. It feels as though everything has changed, even though nothing really has changed at all.
“Are you going back to sleep soon?” He finally asks as he rubs his eyes.
“As soon as I finish my tea.” I tell him, holding up my cup.
“Okay, then.” He wishes me a good night while leaning down to kiss the top of my head.
“Good night.” I wrap both arms around his neck and press my lips to his middle-of-the-night cheek stubble. It itches, but I don’t say anything, even though it’s something I might have done at another time, in another life.
He leaves, and once again, I am alone. The only difference is that it is now 3:40. I don’t care, though, because if I don’t go to sleep, I won’t have any more nightmares tonight. There are some days when I think that the “rest” I get when I sleep through a nightmare isn’t really rest at all; it’s even more tiring than staying up. The other days, I’m so tired that I don’t care.
I think about when the last time I got a decent night of sleep was, and realize that it was before my mother started treatments. I then realize that I do not remember what life was like before my mother started chemo, even though it sounds like that was such a short time ago. My then sweet, even-tempered mother now has outbursts of anger when she is coming off the steroids, and dangerous bouts of melancholy between treatments. Her hair has fallen out, she has lost weight, she is susceptible to infections. But her skin is softer now than it ever was and she eats ice cream without worry. In fact, ice cream is the only thing she will eat, because no other foods interest her. Cancer is a disease of paradoxes.
We are all not what we used to be I think, sipping my tea and pondering this heavy thought. I finally conclude that it is true. Our shadow selves haunt the house, the people who we used to be wandering around wondering what has happened. My mother is quieter, less apt to speak, even when spoken to. My father broods more. And I? I have nightmares.
But I remember what life was like before, so I see the ghosts of my family’s past lurking in the corners. I see my happy, young, vibrant mother, even though now she is gray and dull. I see my calm, strong, caring and empathetic father, even though he is now withdrawn and even though I can now see the fear in his eyes. And I, who never had nightmares, even as a little kid, sit around in the kitchen the whole night because I am fifteen and scared to go to sleep.
The mug clatters in the sink and I trudge upstairs to my bed, thinking of the shadow of myself that used to sleep there. I stand by my bed and I can almost see her, dreaming peacefully about smiley faces and rainbows and unicorns. She looks clueless, but she’s happy that she’s clueless. This girl feels sorry for people like me, those that have to grow up before they really should.
I want to say something to this child, warn her about the impending changes, but I can’t bring myself to do it. A solitary teardrop leaks down my face in memory of this clueless kid who doesn’t know any better.
When I blink, she is gone, replaced by rumpled bed sheets and a purple comforter pushed all the way up against the wall. The sheets are no longer damp, so I fix the blanket and climb into my bed. Once upon a time, I would have been happy to be here, ready to head towards bliss, but now my stomach dreads going back to sleep. Every time I think about sleep, and every time I think about my mother, my stomach clenches. It is as if sleep and my mother are somehow equal. But if they are equal, does that mean I’m afraid of my mother?
I reach for a stuffed animal that I know, without even bothering to look, has fallen between the bed and the wall. I fish up a mid-sized TY Beanie Baby cat, furry and striped, whose name is Silver. Silver has, so far, been with me through this whole ordeal. Though I am too old for it, I sleep with Silver every night, hugging her for all she is worth as I slip into what is no longer oblivion.
I am fifteen in chronological years, I am an adult by maturity standards, but I am three years old when I am alone.
I snuggle with Silver, but it is not enough to quell the emotional torrent inside of me. My iPod beckons from my nightstand. It’s not like I’ll sleep, anyway; I might as well be calm while I lay here for hours.
I am wandering. I can not tell if the city is actually deserted or if it’s just empty because it’s nighttime. The cracks in the sidewalk are deep fissures that lead to oblivion. Every house is the entrance to a black hole. Rusty metal garbage cans line the street like sentries, reminding me that I am alone. I wish there was someone, anyone, who could swoop down and make me feel like I belonged, but contentedness is no longer something I am capable of feeling…