“You’re doing great, Brian. Keep going.”
Sweat trickled down my forehead, running along my nose and dripping onto the mat below me. I gripped the wooden bars on either side of me, using what little strength I had to keep myself suspended in the air.
“Try putting more weight on your legs,” Dr. Gardner said. He stood in front of me, ready to catch me if I fell.
“I can’t… do this.” It was difficult to get the words out. The past six months in the hospital had left me weak and exhausted. I wasn’t capable of this. I wasn’t ready.
“Help me down, please,” I said. Dr. Gardner placed his arms under my armpits and lowered me into my wheelchair.
“It will get easier, Brian. You’ve made great strides so far. I’m sure within the next few—”
“I’m not getting better, doc. Physical therapy isn’t going to change this.” I tapped the plastic that replaced the spot where my legs used to be.
“The first couple of weeks after the operation are the worst.” He squeezed my shoulder. “How about we try again tomorrow?”
I nodded in agreement. What else did I have to do? It’s not like I had classes to go to, or friends to hang out with. I didn’t have a life outside of these four walls. Those things all ended the day I found out I had cancer again.
Nurse Becca, the nurse assigned to me for most of the day, wheeled me back to my hospital room. She’d been here for me nearly every day since I arrived at this hellhole, constantly giving me my medicine, shaving my head, and making sure I was still alive.
“Ey, Brian! How was PT?” I barely made it through the door before my obnoxiously enthusiastic roommate began snooping into my life.
I ignored him and focused on maneuvering myself out of the chair and into my bed. Nurse Becca fluffed up the pillows around me, asked if I needed anything, and left with a brief wave. I turned my attention towards Tommy.
“I thought you were starting chemo again today,” I said, moving my prosthetics closer to the center of my bed. Tommy was bald, like most of the cancer patients in the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was supposed to be the best ranked cancer center in the country, but it just felt like any other stupid hospital to me.
“Well, you thought wrong.” He launched himself off his bed, dragging some of the scratchy sheets with him. Unlike me, Tommy had four limbs. I couldn’t help the pang of jealousy that coursed through me seeing him walk around. I had always taken my legs for granted, up until they were amputated five weeks ago in order to remove the cancer that sprung up only four months before that.
“The doctors cleared me today. They killed all the cancer cells in my brain. I’m officially in remission,” he said.
Remission. It was a word I had heard all too often the last seven years of my life. Cancer wasn’t a new thing to me. I was first diagnosed when I was ten. During a soccer game, my opponent accidentally tripped me, I fell to the ground, breaking my tibia on impact. That’s how they found the bone cancer in my right leg. Of course, one of the many nasty things about cancer is that it spreads. Within the first year, cancer popped up in my left leg as well. What followed was six more years of being told I was cancer free, only to be right back in the hospital a few months later. Even so, I’d always been ecstatic to hear that after months of chemotherapy, I was finally in remission.
But hearing Tommy say he was in remission made me more pissed than happy.
“Whatever, man. At least I won’t have to be stuck in the same room with you anymore,” I said, refusing to meet his gaze. He chuckled, a reaction not unlike Tommy at all. Always laughing, smiling, and telling me that everything’s going to be okay.
“Don’t miss me too much. I’ll come visit, of course. And once you’re back on your feet, we’ll—”
“Shut up, Tommy!” I threw the first thing I could grab across the room. The pillow smacked his face. A look I’d never seen replaced his usual bright smile.
“I’m just trying to help, Brian.”
“Well don’t. You don’t understand what I’m going through.”
Tommy tossed the pillow back onto my bed.
“You’re right. I apologize.”
His apology made me grip the sheets around me until my knuckles turned white. Why couldn’t this kid just shout or curse or do something that would give me reason to hate him? He always took the high road, which probably made him think he was better than me. What a stuck-up jerk.
“Did you catch the game yesterday?” Tommy asked, quick to start another conversation. I grabbed some headphones from my bedside table and pressed them into my ears. I turned up the music to a deafening volume, hoping he’d get the message.
Not even an hour later my mom came to visit. Her gentle knock on the door perked up Tommy’s ears. He ran over to her like a puppy when its owner comes home from work.
“Mrs. Rivers! How are you today?” he asked. My mom smiled widely.
“Tommy, so great to see you! I am very well. I was just talking to some of the nurses about you, and they said you’re in remission. Congratulations!”
“Thanks, Mrs. R. I’m bummed I have to leave Brian, but I’m sure he’ll manage without me. I bet he’ll be walking in no time too.”
My mom absentmindedly approached my hospital bed. She tidied up the sheets around me, pulling them tightly up over my prosthetics, almost as if she thought my legs were cold or something.
“Aw, well I’m sure he’ll miss having you as a roommate,” she said, casting a quick glare my way. She knew exactly how much I disliked the guy, and yet she didn’t see how anyone could. She would always describe him as a “pleasant young man who was raised right.” Sometimes it felt like she wished that he was her son instead of me. At least he was able to stand up to greet her at the door.
Later in the day, Tommy finished packing up. He left a little letter on his bedside table for his nurse like he did almost every day. He probably thanked her for saving his life or some crap like that.
“Well, Brian, my parents are here. I guess this is goodbye.” He held out his hand for me to shake. I’ll admit it wasn’t one of my proudest moments when my own self-pity caused me to refuse his handshake. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Why was he able to walk out of here cancer-free, when I couldn’t even walk?
His hand dropped to his side. Without another word, he left me alone in the room.
I was moved into the other wing of the hospital a week after Tommy left. This wing was designated for those in PT who weren’t sick anymore, and honestly, it was a pretty pathetic group. Everywhere I looked there was some person that was incomplete: a missing arm, a leg, a part of their torso even. I wheeled past a young girl who was missing half her leg. She wore a light pink ballerina tutu, with a tight bun pinned on the top of her head.
“Mommy, I don’t think this is going to help me dance,” she said, running her fingers along her own prosthetic leg. Her mom quickly dissipated her doubts, telling her that this leg would be even stronger than her last.
I looked down at my two “legs,” consisting of plastic covers and long metal rods extending from my mid-thigh down to my feet. No bones, muscle, or blood. Another burst of anger and frustration boiled in my chest. Why me? Why did this have to happen to me? I didn’t deserve this. Anything would be better than this.
Dr. Gardner helped me back onto the parallel bars. He fixed the positioning of my legs on the blue mat and held his hands out in front of me.
“I’ll catch you if you fall, okay? This time really focus on transferring the weight from your arms to your legs. Your prosthetics are strong, Brian, you just have to trust them.”
I already felt the muscles in my arms straining. I had yet to actually move across the entire bar since I started therapy all those weeks ago. Looking at the end now, it seemed so far away. I was half a man. How was I supposed to rely on my legs when I didn’t even have any?
I let out a frustrated grunt just as my left foot moved forward. I rocked my hips back and forth, managing to take another step. My eyes widened as I got into a rhythm and continued on, shortening the distance to the end.
“Well done, Brian, keep going.” Dr. Gardner’s eyes lit up at my progress. Even I could feel a flutter in my chest. I couldn’t tell if it was nerves, exhaustion, or excitement, but I think I was actually walking.
It was hard to stay balanced, and I knew I would fall without the parallel bars, but eventually I reached the end. Dr. Gardner helped me back into the wheelchair, beaming from cheek to cheek.
“That… was pretty cool,” I said, allowing myself a small smile. Dr. Gardner chuckled.
“Very cool. Give it a few more weeks, and you’ll be running around this place.”
“I don’t know about that, doc.”
“Just you wait.”
Nurse Becca entered the training room to take me back to get some rest. She wheeled me out the doors, and down the hall to where a receptionist sat. Two nurses stood talking, one of whom I recognized as Tommy’s nurse when he was here. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.
“It’s so sad. His poor family. And so soon after entering remission.”
“He was always so positive too. He used to always leave me thank you notes.”
My heart dropped in my chest. I grabbed the wheels of my chair and forced Nurse Becca to stop pushing. Blood rushed to my head, making me lightheaded and dizzy.
“Tommy?” I asked, my voice cracking.
The two nurses turned their attention towards me. The look in their eyes answered my fears.
“I’m sorry, hun,” Tommy’s nurse said. Nurse Becca squeezed my shoulder.
I didn’t even know what to say. I never liked Tommy, I won’t deny that. But the kid had a bigger heart than anyone I had ever met.
“But he got out. He was better.”
“It was the side effects from the chemo treatments. He had liver and kidney failure, as well as problems with blood circulation to his brain.”
I shook my head in disbelief. He was dead? All I ever did was complain to him about my own problems. I never showed an ounce of kindness towards him, and now he was gone. Honestly, the kid deserved so much better.
Nurse Becca wheeled me back to my room. She explained to me more in depth what happened to Tommy, but I hardly listened. My hands trembled, and my thoughts ran a mile a minute.
In fact, my thoughts ran back to the last encounter Tommy and I had. Me sitting in my bed. Him standing beside it, his arm stretched out towards me.
Damn. I didn’t even shake his hand.
Kaitlyn Dillon is a sophomore civil engineering major who previously had a prose piece published in the Mordechai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition.