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Authors: Lurlene McDaniel

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BOOK: No Time to Cry
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Seventeen

T
HE next afternoon Dawn looked up and saw Jake standing at her doorway. For a moment, her breath caught and she could scarcely breathe. He looked so handsome, even with a green mask on.

He looked healthy—and out of place. “Hi,” he said. “Up for a visitor?”

No!
her mind screamed. “I—I—sure. Come in,” she replied hesitantly.

He entered the room cautiously, eyeing the equipment and hospital paraphernalia. “I—um—I’ve never been in a hospital before,” he confessed.

“I don’t recommend it,” she said. In her mind she was thinking,
Welcome to my world, Jake
. She felt awkward and self-conscious and wished she were wearing one of her cute nightshirts instead of the hospital gown that tied behind her neck.

“Sorry, I have to wear this thing.” She apologized for the mask that covered her mouth.

“Rhonda said you had pneumonia.”

Dawn was a tiny bit relieved. At least pneumonia was something that could happen to anybody. Maybe she wouldn’t have to make a big deal about her cancer. “It’s clearing up,” she said.

“I brought you something.” He pulled a small shopping bag from behind his back and grinned sheepishly. The tips of his ears were bright red, and Dawn could tell he was self-conscious, unsure of himself.

“You brought me a present?”

“Only one’s a present. The other is something we talked about doing together.”

Mystified, she opened the bag and took out a small, cuddly white teddy bear. She rubbed her cheek against the soft fur.

“He’s adorable. Thanks.”

“I remembered that you liked teddy bears.”

“I had a whole collection once. And I still have Mr. Ruggers.”

“Mr. Ruggers?”

“He’s my favorite. Left over from my crib days.”

Jake laughed. “I had a stuffed football and a blanket that I dragged around.”

Imagining Jake as a toddler made her go all soft inside. She thought back to when they’d been in fifth grade and how crazy she’d been about him. And then she’d gotten leukemia. Five years was a long time to have a crush on somebody. “What else did you bring me?” She poked inside the bag.

“It’s that CD of today’s top hits for the time capsule. I hope you don’t mind that I recorded the songs without you. I—um— didn’t know if you’d still want to do it. If you don’t want to use it, it’s okay. I only wanted to help out.”

She had completely forgotten their discussion about it! She cleared her throat. “I appreciate it. Really. It’s just that I don’t know if I’ll be attending that ceremony.” She fiddled with the CD case, wishing he’d drop the subject.

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure how all this is going to turn out, Jake. I don’t know if I’ll be released by then or not.” Telling him felt awkward and painful. It was an admission that her hospitalization was more complicated than pneumonia.

“Oh.” He sounded shocked. “I didn’t think . . . I mean, I just figured you’d be fine.”

“It’s no big deal. Relapses happen.”

“But you will be all right again, won’t you?”

“Probably so. I’m used to this, you know.”

“Are you saying it can happen again after this?”

“Maybe. No one knows.” She hated having to tell him the truth. All of a sudden, she wished he’d never come to visit her.

“The truth is I’m getting sick and tired of it all.”

“You sound as if you’re giving up.”

Dawn felt a flare of irritation. “You don’t understand what my life is like! You’re healthy, and you can come and go as you please. There’s nothing holding you back. I hate going through this over and over. Sick. Well. Relapse. Sick. Well. Sick.” She ticked her hospitalizations off on her fingers. “Don’t you understand that every time it happens, it gets harder and harder to keep on smiling?” Dawn felt tears filling her eyes. Quickly she glanced away.

“How could I know what you’ve been through? You never talk to me about it. You just tell me everything is ‘fine.’ You make me feel like I should apologize for being well,” Jake said.

“That’s dumb!”

“No, it’s not.” Jake sounded angry. “What’s dumb is you giving up. What’s dumb is you acting like this setback is the end of the world. What’s dumb is me standing here arguing with someone who won’t even
try
.”

“Well, at least you’re free to
leave
,” she snapped.

“Is that what you want?”

“You bet. I didn’t ask you to come, and I’m not asking you to stay.”

“Then fine. I’m leaving.”

She watched him turn and stalk out of the room. For a moment she sat in stunned silence while waves of pain washed over her. The pain wasn’t the same as the pain from chemo and needles and cancer. She was accustomed to that kind of hurt. This was a deeper kind of pain. This was the pain of feeling her heart breaking in half as Jake Macka walked out of her life.

Eighteen

“H
I, LITTLE lady,” a man’s voice said from Dawn’s doorway. “They told me down at the nurses’ station that you were a patient. And they told me that today was an especially good day to visit. The word down at the nurses’ station is that it’s your birthday—your sixteenth, they say.”

“Dr. Ben! What are you doing here?” Dawn struggled to sit up in bed. She hadn’t seen Dr. Ben, director of the cancer camp, since the previous summer when she’d been a counselor in training.

“Occasionally, I work here.” He came alongside her bed and took her hand. “I just admitted a newly diagnosed patient from my private practice. She’s twelve and a cute kid. Reminds me a little of you.”

“Poor kid.”

He laughed. “Poor
me
! I can’t imagine having another Dawn playing pranks on me.”

She couldn’t help smiling. “We got you pretty good, didn’t we?”

“You and that Chandler girl first; then you and Mike. And I can’t forget Marlee Hodges either.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with that one.”

“She was in your cabin.” He dragged a chair over and sat down. “How are you feeling?”

“Better.” That was partly true anyway. She was feeling physically better. But inside, she still hurt over Jake. And she couldn’t make that hurt go away, no matter how hard she tried.

Dr. Ben studied her thoughtfully, then asked, “You’re feeling a little blue, aren’t you?”

His perception surprised her. “You’re a hard person to fool.”

“Want to talk about it?”

His white lab coat and necktie made him look too professional. She was used to seeing him in a T-shirt, shorts, and his favorite baseball cap. Then she noticed that his ballpoint pen had left a glob of ink on the pocket of his lab coat. Somehow, the stain made her feel more comfortable, less formal. “No one understands what my life is like. Dr. Ben. The only people who really understood— Sandy, even Marlee—are dead.” Dawn picked at her blanket. “When I got sick this time, when I saw that rash, I freaked. I—I thought I was rejecting, and I knew I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m so tired of this hospital. I want to be well. You know—normal—like other sixteen-year-olds.”

Dawn sighed. She had tried to forget that this was her birthday. She and Rhonda had made great plans—shopping, a movie, and dinner, and knowing Rhonda, she would probably work in some boy-watching, too. Now the whole thing had been postponed indefinitely. She looked at Dr. Ben’s kind face. “I just want to have a normal life,” she said wistfully.

“Hmmm. I think I know what you mean,” he said. “Do you know why I decided to be a pediatric oncologist, Dawn?”

She shook her head. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to be. How can you watch kids die?”

“I had an older brother who died from leukemia. That was back in the Sixties, when the diagnosis was usually an automatic death sentence.”

“I didn’t know . . .” She thought of Rob and wondered how she would have felt if this had happened to him instead of her.

“Peter was athletic and smart. I was puny and bookish. Watching him die, seeing how it affected my parents’ lives, really influenced me. I thought that by becoming a doctor, I might be able to help kids like him.”

“That’s the way Sandy’s brother feels,” Dawn said softly.

“It’s hard to stand by and watch people you love suffer,” he continued. “You feel like there’s something you should be doing to make a difference. You watch people you love die, and you feel guilty because you’re still alive.”

Dawn felt her cheeks redden. Hadn’t she’d felt
exactly
that way? Hadn’t she wondered why she’d been left alive while her friends had died?

“Sometimes it’s hard to be left behind,” she replied.

“We doctors wish we could cure everyone. Every time we lose a patient, it hurts, because it reminds us that we’re only human, too. The good news is that because of research, because of all kinds of new drugs, some forms of leukemia have pretty high survival rates, and kids are living into adulthood. In Peter’s day, most kids with the disease simply died.”

“You mean, we’re human guinea pigs.”

“When traditional therapies fail, when there’s no other choice, yes. People are given experimental drugs and techniques. Your bone marrow transplant was highly experimental in the Seventies. Today, such procedures are far more common. And because of immune-suppressant drug research, we have successful transplants between non-blood-relative donors. There’s the National Marrow Donor Registry to help make genetic matches between organ donors and recipients. If a person wants to be a marrow donor, all he has to do is take a simple blood test. The results are programmed into the data banks, and doctors can search for possible matches for their most critical patients. Sometimes we get lucky and find a match. Believe me, it’s a gift of life to someone who needs it.”

His eyes looked owlish behind large-framed glasses. “Did you know that we have a survivor support group here at the hospital?”

“Katie told me about it.” Dawn didn’t want to admit that she’d resisted attending.

“Believe it or not, now that the cure rate’s gone up in cancer victims, so have problems of adjustment.”

“What do you mean?”

He placed his hand on her shoulder. “It’s sort of like soldiers attempting to readjust to civilian life after the trauma of war. That adjustment can be tough. Sometimes it helps to talk to others who’ve had similar experiences, so the adjustment can be made more easily.”

“I just don’t know where I fit in, Dr. Ben. I’m tired of having cancer. I want it to be over forever.”

“You should check out the group. You’re good at helping people. I remember the first time I saw you at cancer camp. You were with the little Chandler girl, and the two of you made quite a team. You befriended Greg and Mike—no small feat. Mike was a very angry, bitter kid about having his leg amputated. But somehow you two cut through his armor and drew him out.”

“That was mostly Sandy’s doing.”

“It was the two of you. He came back to camp even after Sandy was gone. And you were the person Marlee wanted with her during her hospitalization. No, Dawn,” his eyes sparkled mischievously behind his thick glasses, “like it or not, you have a gift for working with people. You have the gift of caring. You’d better watch out. You may end up becoming a doctor, too.”

“What’s this? Are we adding a new medical recruit to our staff?”

Dawn and Dr. Ben looked up to see Dr. Sinclair in the doorway. He waved some papers at her. “These are the results of your latest blood work. It looks perfect. So you can take that worried look off your face and call your mother to come get you. I’m kicking you out, Dawn Rochelle.”

Nineteen

A
BALMY April breeze ruffled Dawn’s hair as she sat on the stage, facing an audience seated in folding chairs on the hospital lawn. At the podium, the mayor was giving his speech, but Dawn scarcely heard him. She would be next, and her mouth felt cotton-dry. Other dignitaries sat on the stage with her. A photographer and a TV cameraman skirted the audience of a hundred, taking pictures and recording the event.

On a table beside the podium, Dawn saw the metal box that was to be the time capsule. Her fingers brushed the edge of the bag by her feet, holding the treasures for the capsule. Propped next to the capsule was the gold-plated shovel the mayor would use to scoop out the first shovelful of dirt, marking the groundbreaking for the new cancer wing.

In the distance, she saw green, manicured grounds and patches of daffodils waving in the soft spring breeze. Overhead, the sky sparkled blue, freshly washed by an April shower. Dawn’s eyes skimmed the audience. Her parents, Rob, Katie, and Rhonda were sitting in the front row.

Right before spring break. Dawn had decided to fill out a schedule card for the next school year. But when she’d shown it to Rhonda, her friend looked aghast. “Why all the science and math courses? I
hate
science and math. We’ll never have any classes together if you stick to this schedule!”

“I need them for college,” Dawn explained with determination. “I’m thinking about going into medicine.”

“You want to be a
doctor
?”

“Don’t look so shocked. I know more than most first-year med students already. Heck, I figure I’m halfway to a degree by now.”

“All right, I won’t complain,” Rhonda said with a grin. “I’m just glad you’re making plans again.”

From the front row, Rhonda fluttered her fingertips and made a face at Dawn up on the stage. Dawn quickly glanced away. She didn’t want to have a giggle fit, and if anyone could start one in her, it was Rhonda.

Her gaze fell on Jake, who sat in the very end seat in the last row. Dawn had almost fallen over when he’d asked if he could come for the ceremony, especially after the harsh words they’d had at the hospital.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she’d told him stiffly over the phone.

“Good,” he’d replied. “I’ll see you there.”

On the other side of the makeshift aisle, she saw the Chandlers. It had been hard talking to them right before the ceremony began. She hadn’t seen them since the time they’d picked Sandy up from camp, when she and Sandy were thirteen. Mr. Chandler looked older, more weathered, and uncomfortable in his suit. Mrs. Chandler was slim and blond, and Dawn could see traces of Sandy in her mother’s features.

Brent caught her eye. She rolled her eyes, a subtle protest to the mayor’s long-winded speech, and Brent grinned. Dawn kept remembering the night before, when he’d shown up at her door, saying, “My family’s holed up in a hotel downtown, but I’ve managed to escape. Can I come in?”

Laughing, Dawn threw her arms around him. “You should have brought them along.”

“Are you nuts? I’ve been plotting my escape all afternoon.”

They went down to the rec room and settled on the sofa. He wanted to hear every word about her hospital stay. She wanted to know all about college. Haltingly, he told her about a girl he was dating. She was glad for him, and said so.

Then he took her hand and said, “I’ll never forget Christmas. The talk we had that night about my sister, the things you gave me . . . I took them to campus with me, and sometimes I take them out and hold them. It’s like she’s there in the room with me.”

Dawn touched Brent’s cheek. “Sandy’s the glue that holds us together,” she said, knowing it was true.

“I care about you,” Brent said.

“And I feel the same way about you,” she replied.

“Will you be a camp counselor next summer?” he asked.

“I made up my mind at Marlee’s funeral that I would. And you?”

“I’m not sure.” He looked long and deep into her eyes, put his arms around her, and hugged her tightly. “I’ll never forget you, Dawn.”

“You’d better not.”

Now, looking into Brent’s face, she knew the past was truly over.

“. . . speaker, Miss Dawn Rochelle.”

Dawn jumped at the sound of her name. The audience burst into applause. She took a deep breath, picked up the bag, and walked to the front of the stage.

“It’s a real honor to be up here,” she began, glad that her voice didn’t crack. “Marlee and her grandmother meant a lot to me. I’m just sorry they can’t be here with us today.”

The audience murmured, and Dawn forged ahead. “I got leukemia when I was thirteen. In the hospital and at camp, I met others who also had cancer. We became great friends. Forever friends.” She saw Mr. and Mrs. Chandler take each other’s hand.

“Many of them are gone now.” Dawn held her head high. “But I’m still here. I’m still alive. And according to my doctors, many of the kids who will come to this new cancer clinic to be treated will be alive twenty— even thirty—years from now.

“So I brought some things to put in this capsule in the hope that when it’s opened a hundred years from now, people will see them and ask, ‘What was cancer? Did people really die from it?’” Dawn saw her mother dab her eyes with a tissue.

“These things will remind them that people did die, but they will never be forgotten.” She opened the bag, reached in, and pulled out the newspaper from the day the new cancer wing was announced, “I thought they might want to read the news of the day, to see what was important to us.”

Dawn noticed people in the audience nodding and smiling, and she continued. “And a friend of mine made a CD of today’s top hits, so kids from tomorrow can talk about our weird taste in music.” A ripple of laughter went through the listeners.

“I’m also including some items entrusted to me by my two most special friends. From Marlee Hodges, a letter she wrote to me before she died. She knew she was dying, but she was no longer afraid. And she asked that we carry on for her. And from Sandy Chandler, a page from her Bible. The verse says: ‘For everything there is a season . . . A time to live and a time to die.’” She looked up. “Nobody gets to pick his or her time to die, but living every day to the max is something we all get to do.” Dawn took a deep breath to control the slight quiver that had crept into her voice.

“And I’m putting in my personal diary. In this diary, I wrote down all my thoughts and feelings about having cancer. And I wrote about watching my friends die, one by one.” Dawn saw Rob nod with approval, and Katie wipe her cheek.

“Also, I’m burying Mr. Ruggers.” She pulled out her old, rumpled teddy bear, with its missing eye and bald spots. “He’s been loved a lot, but I figure it’s time that he had a long rest. Maybe some kid from the future will love him as much as I have.” She gently placed the tattered bear into the box on top of the other things.

Her hand trembled as she removed the final item from the sack. “And last of all, I want to put in this box of ashes from the bonfire at cancer camp. We’re supposed to bring the ashes back each year and sprinkle them onto the new fire for the kids who can’t come back, for the ones who’ve died. But I think they belong in this capsule to remind people that we all eventually turn to ashes, even if we don’t have cancer.” She picked up the now-empty bag and said into the microphone, “So that’s about it. I want to say thank you for giving me this privilege. Thank you for helping us win this war.”

People began to applaud, then to stand. She felt a lump clog her throat and tears mist her eyes. She gazed out at the audience, at the faces of the people she loved most in the world—her family, her friends, Sandy’s family. All at once, through the din of the applause, she heard birds singing in the trees. Their song, new every morning, gave her a special sense of peace.

BOOK: No Time to Cry
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