CANCER

By Bailey Route

I don’t like hospitals.

 

The clashing scents of bleach, blood, antiseptics, and vomit. The constant beeping and buzzing of monitors. The drip, drip, dripping of an iv. The worst part is the aura of death.

 

No matter how much the nurses try to dress it up. No matter how many colored ribbons or “you can do it” stickers they decorate the place with, many, including me, are dying. Dying slow, painful deaths. 

 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I stared at the tiled ceiling of my dark hospital room. I didn't bother to brush them away as they burned my eyes. Just one of those nights. 

 

I rolled over and turned on the lights above my bed. The dim light illuminated the night stand and the items it held: photographs.

 

Photos are snapshots, windows into the life that it captures. A moment forever frozen in time. Smiles curling lips for eternity, eyes lit up until the end of the universe. Pure happiness condensed on a square of picture paper, made to never fade. That's why I love them and have so many of them.

 

Small nuggets of eternal happiness that highlight the brightest points of life. Something to cling to when life stops being so great, and I sure am holding on tight. 

 

One picture holds a beach selfie of me, my parents, and my siblings: Madison, Jace, and Zac. Another was my twenty-first birthday with John, Charles, and Nate, some highschool friends. 

 

The third, though it might not be fair to my family and friends, is my favorite. 

 

It's a photo booth picture strip from my senior prom. All four of the mini photos held the same two people: my girlfriend, Joy, and I. She wore that stunning red dress that seemed to glow and I was in a cheap rental tux. Our love was palpable even through the paper and ink that composed the photograph.

 

“Come on, Titus, we’ve got to slow dance. It’s, like, prom 101,” Joy laughed, dragging me into the middle of the school gym aka the dancefloor.

 

“Just prepare yourself for crushed toes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” In actuality, I had been practicing slow dancing for weeks, so as to not screw this up.

 

“My tootsies are gonna be safe, don’t worry.”

 

“‘Tootsies’? Didn’t know I was dating a grandma.” 

 

Joy rolled her eyes at me before resting her hands on my shoulders. I robotically placed my hands on her waist. She must have noticed my stiffness and wrapped her arms around my neck in a hug-like motion. I reciprocated by crossing my arms behind the small of her back and pulling her closer as we began to dance.

 

Joy, like almost every other girl here, had discarded her heels by a gym wall. This made her seem so small and warm against my chest, a sparkling red dress standing out in the dark room.

 

She pulled me down by my neck to whisper in my ear.

 

“I love you, you know that, right?”

 

“Yep. I love you, too.” I rested my chin on top of her golden locks and just let us sway with the slow music. As the song neared its end, she looked up at me and leaned forward so she was standing on her toes and left a gentle kiss on my lips filled with all of the “I love you’s” in the world.

 

Back then, we were so young, dumb, and full of love. Back then, we had never even heard of small cell lung cancer. Back then, we were so happy, and nothing could ever stop that.

 

I didn’t notice I was crying until salty tears caressed our unaffected smiling faces.

 

One of those nights, I guess.

 

I placed the photo strip back down on the nightstand, then shakily stood up. I almost fell back onto my bed, feeling suddenly weak and faint. I swiped my tongue over my dry, cracked lips. It felt like cotton in my mouth.

 

I could kill for a glass of water right now. Dehydration is apparently a side effect of chemotherapy, but what isn’t a chemo side effect at this point? 

 

Somehow, I managed to cross my room without falling until I was leaning against a wall with a mirror. Taped to the mirror were several “get well soon” cards along with another picture. 

 

This one was of my parents, siblings, a friend or two, me, and Joy in the very room I'm standing in. Judging by the bags under my eyes and lack of hair andor eyebrows, you could tell it was a recent photo.

 

“Hey, everyone, I’m so sorry to interrupt but visiting hours are up in five minutes.” A sweet nurse apologized to the large visiting group.

 

“No, it’s okay, dear,” Mom replied. The nurse left the room, signifying the end of their visit. That was always the worst part.

 

“Alright, Jacksons and crew, we’re gonna have to head out soon,” Dad announced in the most dad-like way. Even though a big part of his world was dying in front of him, he still stayed himself. Everyone did. It was almost like every time they visited me they had some sort of “don’t let Titus see you cry or he’ll cry” pep talk.

 

“Bye, Titus, we’ll miss you bunches,” my little sister, Madison, said as she half-strangled me in a hug. She sounded choked up. Maybe she missed the memo today.

 

“It’s alright, Madds, I know you all are gonna come back. If you guys had it your way, everyone would camp out on the hospital floor, roasting smores and everything.” 

 

Everyone laughed at that. Just keep them laughing to avoid them crying. If they are forcing themselves to stay strong around me, the least I could do is return the favor.  

 

“I know. I just can’t wait for you to get better,” she responded, hugging me tighter. 

 

She felt so little with her face pressed against my neck. But I felt little too. I wished this hug was because she was scared on the first day of school; not because she was scared of me dying at twenty-five.

 

“Madison, be careful of him,” Mom warned. I felt a flash of misplaced anger. I am not fragile. I am not breakable. And I hate people thinking that now. 

 

In all honesty, I can't be that mad, though. I'm projecting my anger to my mom who is actually feeling fragile and protective. Knowing her, she’ll probably be sobbing as soon as she leaves my room. Who could blame her? Her baby boy is practically wasting away before her eyes.

 

Eventually, there wasn’t any more time to stall.Everyone had to say their goodbyes. No one seemed willing to move from their spot on or around my bed, especially Madison who has the surprisingly strong grip of a koala for a nineteen-year-old. 

 

I said the same thing to the family and friends that had come to see me as I always do, something along the lines of “Save your goodbyes, you’ll be back soon.”

 

           Soon enough, everyone had left the room. Except for the two of us.

 

“Visiting hours ended like three minutes ago, so prepare to get assassinated by my nurses.”

 

“Woah, since when did hitmen get medical degrees?” Joy quipped back, crawling into bed next to me.

 

With Joy, my jokes were never forced coverups to mask the dim reality of my situation. Whenever I'm around her, I'm not in a dark hospital room or in a bed with sheets that someone had probably died in; I'm home. She is my anchor, without her. I’d just be drifting in a sea of depression and funk that my disease has put me in.

 

“You’re beautiful, have I ever told you that?”

 

“Mmm... probably only a million times,” she guessed. A million? Definitely a low-ball estimate. “Have I ever told you you were gorgeous?”

 

“Yeah, but I’m not sure if I believe that one.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Joy challenged.

 

“Yeah. I probably look like Doctor Phil without a moustache.” She ducked her head and squealed into my chest at that statement.

 

“I hate you for putting that image in my head! It's like… a lumpy boiled egg.”

 

“Sounds like me.”

 

“Well you’re the cutest lumpy boiled egg I’ve ever seen,” she said with a quick kiss near where my hairline used to be.

 

“Romance isn’t dead,” I joked, causing us to laugh a little too loudly at the ridiculousness of our conversation. A knock on the door interrupted our hysterics.

 

“Visiting hours are over, and I need to take his vitals” the nurse from before said with an apologetic smile, sticking her head in with the cart used for vitals visible behind her.

 

“Well, don’t want you to be taken out by assassin nurses…” I trailed off, trying to hide my disappointment at our time being cut short.

 

“Of course not. I love you, Titus,” she responded, her spirits lowering too. 

 

Joy leaned her face closer to mine until our foreheads touched and our lips barely brushed against each other. We have our own superstitions when her visiting time is up. We never say goodbye and we never properly kiss. Both of those acts hold too much of an air of finality. Once things really started getting bad, that’s what we counted on to ensure I'd make it to see her again in a couple of days.

 

“I love you too. See you in a couple of days.”

 

“See you then,” she said, barely above a whisper. We hugged until the nurse cleared her throat, cueing Joy to leave. I watched her climb out of the bed and leave the room, pausing before she excitedly blew me a quick kiss. 

 

She was wearing a yellow dress that day, like twisted sunlight wrapped around her. That sunlight left as soon as she disappeared into the hallway.

 

“Get well soon, I’ll be waiting. - xoxo Joy” was written on the mirror beneath the picture. Next to her handwriting was my reflection. 

 

She thought I was beautiful, she loves who I am. But all I saw staring back at me in the mirror was a stranger. A hairless, underweight, depressed, baggy eyed, alien-looking stranger in my own skin. This unrecognizable being posing as Titus Reed Jackson is who Joy chooses to love. Who Joy Emily Blake, the most perfect girl in my eyes, chooses to wait on.

 

 Maybe I was having one of those nights, but right now it feels like I'll leave Joy waiting forever.

 

I pressed my forehead against the cool glass, letting the tears flow freely now. My family and Joy hadn’t visited in a couple of days. As pathetic as it sounded, Ii missed them. But they all have lives and things to do. I can’t blame them for not always being here in this sterilized prison.

 

Madison got accepted into college. Josh, Chris, and Nick are thinking of starting a band; House of Heroes, I’m pretty sure. Jace, who seemed to be going to kindergarten just yesterday, is even starting high school. 

 

I should be there with them, celebrating the highs and getting ice cream during the lows. I should be cheering on Jace at his basketball games or going to bars to see my friends play their first gigs. I should be going on dates with Joy and planning on how to propose to make her forever mine. Yet, here I am, slowly fading away and wallowing in my own misery. I was too sick to even go to my grandpa’s funeral.

 

I'm a horrible brother. I’m a horrible son. I’m a horrible boyfriend. I’m a horrible friend.

 

I. 

 

Am.

 

Horrible.

 

Maybe that’s why they haven’t been back in a while.

 

Just the thought of this sent me to the floor. It was something blatantly not true that my weak and scrambled mind spit out and my depression ate up. It nestled itself into that idea and screamed it over and over again.

 

They don’t want to see you. They don’t want to see you. 

 

THEY DON’T WANT TO SEE YOU.

 

 I laid there, crying, too weak to get up. I felt like an old person in a life alert ad, but by god am I not calling for anyone’s help. My chest constricted, already weakened lungs trying to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide through a contracted throat. A hand flew to my mouth to dampen the sobs.

 

Eventually the tears slowed, but my breath didn’t return to normal. No matter how much I tried to breathe in slow, or fast, or deep, or shallow, it didn’t work. I was sent into a panic.

 

I can’t breathe.

 

I can’t breathe.

 

I can't breathe.

 

I felt possessed, but something inside me was yelling, screaming that tonight’s the night. I needed to do one thing, and quickly.

 

At any moment, the box strapped to my chest that makes sure I'm still alive is going to send a signal that I am in distress. That I can’t breathe. That my body is shutting down. 

 

I ripped the box by its velcro straps off of me. I have a certain amount of time before someone comes barging in to check why the box is not receiving any vitals. Precious time.

 

If anyone were to walk in and see me now, they would have thought I had lost my mind. I was gasping, and crying, and crawling, and repeating the mantra “Joy, Joy, Joy” in hurried pants.

 

After what felt like an eternity, I reached my nightstand. I snatched my phone from where it was charging. 

 

“H-hey, Siri?” the tone echoed throughout the silent room. “Ca-call Joy.”

 

“Alright, calling Joy.” I turned around so that my back was resting against the side of the bed to catch my breath. I’m going to need oxygen if I make it through tonight.

 

But it doesn’t just feel like one of those nights.

 

“Hello?” her voice was low and crackly with sleep. According to my phone, it’s two thirty-seven a.m. “Titus, is that you?”

 

“J-jen.” my chest felt constricted. “I love you.”

 

“I-I love you too? Are you alright?”

 

“Goodbye.” She must have immediately realized something was very wrong. We never say goodbye. I could almost hear nurses coming down the hall to check on me. I reached under the bed for something that’s been hidden there since I've been diagnosed.

 

A sparkling diamond ring still in its black case.

 

“Titus, do I need to come? Are. You. Alright?” I heard shuffling like she was getting out of bed. It was the middle of the night, and she was ready to come to my side.

 

“Just… goodbye. I love you and goodbye.”

 

“Titus, just hold on, please!” No response. “Titus!”

 

I heard the nurses opening the door and Joy yelling my name and the too-fast beating of my heart and my gasped breaths. One sound eventually cut through the cacophony.

 

“Goodbye, Titus. I love you, goodbye.”

 

That was my release. I was freed from my agonizing, miserable existence with one word. A two-syllable, seven-letter word let me go.

 

There I sat, asphyxiating, crying, laughing, clutching a wedding ring in my hand, and my lover on the phone for one last time. That is how I disappeared.

 

Guess it really wasn’t just one of those nights.

 

~~~

 

Joy sat on the fresh dirt. It might have been dirtying the bottom of her dress, but she didn’t care. Anything to get closer to him, even though he was six feet below her. She placed the red roses in front of her.

 

“Hey, Ti.” she said, trying to keep her voice from wobbling. “I miss you already, but maybe you’re in a better place now.”

 

After a few moments of silence, she continued.

 

“I wish you were still here, I've got your ring. It’s beautiful. Just like you.” Joy traced the letters on the tombstone with her left hand. The one with a sparkling rock that held a silent question never to be asked. 

 

Titus Reed Jackson

1988-2013

Beloved son, brother, friend, and boyfriend.

 

“Your family and friends miss you too. We all do,” she cleared her throat and wiped her wet cheeks before pressing on. “I love you, Ti, and I always will.”

 

           Joy stood and wiped the excess dirt off of her dress. The yellow one that he said looked like captured sunshine. Titus never liked the idea of everyone wearing black at a funeral. He'd unfortunately been planning his own for a while and wanted to be buried in his favorite colors and all of the attendees to do the same.

 

“Goodbye- I’ll see you soon, Titus. I’ll see you soon. I’ll still miss you, always...”

 

If Joy could have stayed all day just dictating open letters to her dead boyfriend, she would’ve. It wasn’t that she had nothing else to do, but Joy explains it best…

 

“C-cuz the hardest part of this is leaving you.”