Hospitals make me sick. Always have. The moment I walked through the door at Children’s, I felt nauseous. Down the hall I could see into the rooms. A boy in bed, with his mother sitting next to him, looked up at me and smiled. The Polaroids and artwork tacked up on the bulletin board were that of the kids. I wondered how many were alive, and if they took down the picture of the kids who died.
“She gets tired so don’t be surprised if she nods out,” said Sister. “They have her on a lot of drugs.”
She pressed a button on the wall and the doors to the Intensive Care Unit swung open. Colin was there, as if he had been waiting. He ran up to me. He had a smile on his face. He was comfortable in hospitals. Maybe he was too young to know any better. More likely, he was so used to being in hospitals with Nicole that he didn’t know this was the last trip. I held my arm up to his, noting the difference in skin tone. It was a game we’d played many times. His skin was the color of Bailey’s Irish Cream. It was the perfect mix of my soft pink and his mother’s dark skin, the color of baking chocolate.
“Mom got me a Blaster,” Colin said, eyes wide.
“What’s a Blaster?” I asked.
He opened his hand and showed me the plastic spinning top. “Want to play?”
Sister went into Nicole’s room and sat at her bedside. Nicole waved at me through the open door and smiled. She didn’t look that bad. The room was bright. Sun spilled in through the large closed windows. She was surrounded by machines that looked like an audience of robots.
Colin threaded a plastic strip into the side of his top then yanked it out. The top jumped off its base and landed spinning on the floor.
“You can use my old one,” he said. “It’s not as good as my new one so you’ll lose.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
The two tops danced a circle around each other like binary stars. Then Colin’s top crashed into mine, sending it over. “I win!” he yelled. We picked them up and played again. He was right. I lost every time.
“When Mom gets out of here, she’s going to take me to get another Blaster,” he said.
A little while later, Sister came out and took over playing with Colin while I went in to see Nicole.
“How are you feeling?” she asked me.
“Um, fine, I guess,” I said. “And you?”
“They got me on some very nice drugs,” she wheezed. When she moved, I could see an open cut in her side. Sister had explained how the doctors needed to keep her side accessible so they could periodically go in to scrape the phlegm from her lungs. Nicole’s lungs were so badly scarred from years of the cystic fibrous that they had become tough and hard when they should have been soft. She was drowning, and no one could save her.
Nicole glanced to the far side of the room. A video camera was lying on the side table. “Your sister read an article about helping children deal with the death of a parent. She wants you to videotape me.”
I didn’t say anything for a minute, searching for some kind of reassurance in Nicole’s face. She was studying my face for the same thing.
“I can do that,” I said finally. “When do you want to do it?”
“Whenever you want,” she said.
I picked up the camera, turned on the power button and gazed through the viewfinder. I zoomed in. Her skin looked mealy and her pours were clogged. She exhaled slowly through her nostrils. She looked old, like she had lived a full life already. Time meant nothing to her anymore. “How about now?”
I zoomed out and brought the camera close so her voice could be heard over all the beeping of machines in the room. Then she inhaled and began.
“I just want him to know that—”
“This is for him. For Colin. Talk to the camera or to me as if you were talking to Colin.”
“Okay,” she said. “Colin, I just want you to know that I love you very much. You made my life important, and I would never have lasted this long without you. Since the day you were born, I have loved you.”
She stopped, took in some air, and searched for what next to say.
“Talk about when he was born,” I told her.
She looked right into the lens, and even though she was weak I could feel her power, her life. “You were so small. Just a little thing… A little bigger than my hand, but not by much. The first time you looked at me, I noticed your eyes. They were so beautiful. When I have a hard time sleeping, I think of your eyes looking up at me.”
“What would you tell him about girls?”
“Watch out.” There was a flicker of anger in her eyes. “Be careful who you let yourself fall in love with. Love can be a dangerous thing.”
“What if he is having a really bad day?”
“Colin, you’re going to have some bad days. Days where you think they couldn’t get any worse. You have to remember that the next day will be the slightest bit better, and same for the day after. It will go on like that until you’re okay. Just think about making it to the next day.”
Sister walked back in the room with Colin right behind her. He bounced from foot to foot.
“We’ll finish this later,” I said and put the camera down.
Sister looked at me and said in a low voice, “Can you watch Colin? I need to go over some papers with Nicole.”
On our way home, we passed the road where Nicole grew up and then turned onto the Rock Creek Parkway. The road wound through the forest-covered valley. I watched Sister.
“They can’t do anything for her unless she gets a lung transplant,” she said. “But that’s unlikely. They put her low on the list, because of her depression.”
“Depression? What do they expect? She’s been told her whole life that she is going to die. Isn’t she allowed to be a little depressed?”
“Nicole’s father doesn’t believe she’s going to die and hasn’t made any plans in case she does. Nicole is the same way. If she dies, Colin will go to his natural father.”
“But he doesn’t want him,” I said. “Colin doesn’t even know him.”
“Well, that’s the law. So I’m trying to get her to sign guardianship over to her father. He’s old and has diabetes, so I’m next on the list.”
“What if he dies? You going to adopt Colin?”
“Yeah,” she answered vaguely.
The next day, we finished recording the video, and I caught a train back to New York. As the train raced past the fields of South Jersey, I thought about Nicole’s strength. Where did it come from? She wasn’t religious. If I was in the bed with all those tubes coming out of me, I would’ve been scared. She probably was too. But she didn’t show it. She had known she was going to die young since the beginning. I remembered her having problems breathing back when we were kids. We all made our own peace with the fact that she was going to die. Then she had Colin. That changed everything. She suddenly needed to live. She needed to live for Colin.
A month later, on Christmas day, Sister called. I had decided to stay in New York for the holidays, hoping to pick up some extra shifts.
“She became very weak and wasn’t able to breath on her own,” Sister said. “They induced a coma. She got worse. Her father didn’t want to let her go. I talked him into it so she could go in her sleep. He finally said yes. The hospital didn’t have a living will for her, so they had to revive her and let the drugs wear off to ask her if they could let her die.”
I couldn’t tell if Sister was sad. I watched her and Nicole grow up together and I watched them both turn into women. It was a beautiful thing, their friendship. They were like family. I remembered Nicole calming me down after fights with Sister, saying, “You don’t know how lucky you are to have her as your sister. She loves you. Just remember that.”
“The funeral will be next week,” Sister continued, “but I know you don’t do well at funerals, so don’t worry about coming.”
I fed Darby. She walked over to me and dropped her head in my lap. I wanted to cry, but not in the apartment, not in front of Finn and Orlando. I latched the collar around Darby’s neck. I grabbed my CD player. “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone came on. Usually it cheered me up, with its complete hopefulness. It’s a new day…It’s a new dawn…It’s a new life. This time it made me sad.
Outside, snow was falling. The whiteness covered the grey of the city. As I walked, I kicked the snow. Darby tried to eat it. The tears on my face were cold. It was 5:30 am and the city slept. The streets were ours. I took Darby’s leash off and let her run freely. Standing in the middle of Avenue A, I made snowballs and threw them as far as I could so Darby could chase them. The snowball exploded when they landed so she couldn’t find them. She bit and ate the snow around the landing area. After a few minutes, her tongue lolled out of her mouth. The steam from her breath drifted aimlessly in the air.