Dying would be easy, and when Nevaeh really took stock of things, she was more worried about the people she was leaving behind than she was for herself. Sure, there were things she’d miss. Pistachio ice cream, TV medical dramas, pedicures. For the past few years, her life had been about grabbing the little pleasures wherever she could, and the thought that she’d had her last scoop of pistachio on a waffle cone was a real bummer, but it didn’t change the fact that she was ready to be done now, please. Ready to be done with the pain and the struggle and the need to constantly keep a brave face, to be a trooper, to endure.
Not much longer now, and she’d be able to rest. She was ready. She had only one complaint, and that was a pretty good tally, all things considered.
The door to her hospital room opened and her father entered. He was the kind of man who made other people nervous—big, black, burly. His clenched fist was almost as large as her entire head, and he lumbered instead of walked. But he was gentle and smart and kind, and today he carried a board game tucked under one arm in the hopes that Nevaeh would be strong enough to play. She usually only had an hour or two each day when she had enough energy to do things, and even that had begun to dwindle. Nevaeh craned her neck to see what he’d chosen. Ticket to Ride. Her favorite. Another thing to add to the list of stuff she’d miss, but still not enough to make her want to stay.
“How are you, angel?” he asked. She could see him trying so hard to keep the pain off his face as he looked at her, but he couldn’t hide his true feelings.
It wasn’t like he was sparing her anything she didn’t know. She was emaciated, her skin like ash, flaking off and blowing away, and pretty soon there would be nothing left. She’d blow away too, like dandelion seeds on the wind. Anyone with eyes to see could take one look and know the end was near. But she kept up the fiction, not for her own sake, but for his. There would be enough blame and guilt and pain after. If only she could share some of her peace with him before she went.
“I’m peachy keen,” she said.
Her voice was weak and breathless. He blanched. The lie was too far from the truth, and he could tell she was trying to protect him. He didn’t like it when she did that. He said it made him feel selfish.
“Where’s Mama?” she asked, changing the subject.
A beat. Then he rolled his eyes. “I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
“Arguing with the doctors again? Poor things.”
They exchanged a glance of complete understanding. Mama was convinced the doctors were trying to kill Nevaeh. When the first round of chemo hadn’t put her Hodgkin’s lymphoma into remission, Mama had pulled her out of the hospital and gone with alternative therapies. Most of her information was gleaned from the internet, a lot of it complete hooey, if you asked Nevaeh. But she’d gone along with it for Mama’s sake, chanted the chants and breathed the essential oils and sat for hours on end with crystals stuck in her belly button—which, by the way, felt as ridiculous as it sounded. Maybe it had helped, but not enough. Here she was back at the hospital, the end of all things looming over her, and no crystal-bedecked belly button was going to save her. It sounded much more dramatic than it felt.
“You’re killing my baby!” Out in the hallway, yelling. A familiar voice. “You filthy murderers! You should all be jailed! You’re killing her!”
Mama had been fighting with the doctors more often as Nevaeh’s health worsened, and over the past week the screaming matches had become the kind of daily happening you could set your clock by. It was embarrassing, though Nevaeh felt guilty for looking at it that way. Mama was just dealing with her grief by getting angry. The social workers had talked to Nevaeh about that at agonizing length. But understanding it wasn’t the same as liking it, and she had to make a concerted effort to hide her feelings.
This one sounded like it was going to be an epic fight; usually, they started out tame and escalated from there, but this one began loud. It would only get bigger.
“Mrs. Kraft, please calm down.”
But the calming voice of Carol, Nevaeh’s favorite nurse, did nothing to soothe Mama.
“I should sue you all for poisoning my daughter,” she yelled. “It’ll be your fault when my baby dies.”
Daddy dropped the board game on the floor with a clatter and hurried to shut the door, to shelter Nevaeh from things she already knew. Things she’d known long before anyone else. She’d felt it in her bones, her death, long before the doctors had given up. But you couldn’t tell people that without sounding like a flake, so she didn’t. Plus, she couldn’t bear to take the hope from Mama and Daddy, or from her brother and sister, even though they were so much older that the three siblings had never been particularly close. Still, blood was blood, and she did what she could to protect them, just like Daddy...