I have been sitting on this park bench for two hours. It is cold and the sun is beginning to set. An old couple walks by, holding hands. A father is helping his son. feed the ducks. The sound of children’s laughter is in the air. But all I can see is her face, all I can hear is her tinkling laughter. I can almost feel her soft hands on my cheeks. But she isn't here, she is suffering and I cannot help her.
My neighbor Susan is twenty-seven years old. We have known each other for almost eight years, ever since she moved into my apartment building. Back then she was a very pregnant, very desperate young woman, all on her own. She had lost her parents in a tragic car accident when she was only fourteen years old and had been alone since then. At the age of eighteen she got pregnant and the father of the child she was carrying had left her as soon as he found.
Ever since the first time we had met, I knew she could see me. The real me. She wasn’t just looking through the mask I put on every day. Susan helped me in ways I will never understand. She broke through my barriers and saved me from my thoughts and my constantly changing emotions. One moment I was superman saving the world and the next I was deeply depressed and caught in my own thoughts. Susan was able to bring me back from this darkness. I had always been bipolar and that will never change, but she helped me in ways the countless therapists never could.
Over the years, we grew to know each other. In fact, she knew me better than anyone else. And I found out so much about her. Susan was a wonderful mother to her son, Jimmy. She loved him more than anything in the world and had given up almost all of her big dreams to be the best mother she could be. But Susan was also as kind as she was beautiful, and occasionally volunteered at the homeless shelter, helping out as often as she could. This was one her virtues, but her son, Jimmy had always been her biggest priority.
One time I asked her why she volunteered when she barely had enough time or money for herself and the baby. She smiled and told me: “I’ve been where these people are, I am no better than them. I got out, I still haven’t found the right person to be with, but I have a roof over my head. But I never forgot.” She paused to rub the back of her neck, as she often did while thinking. Sadness seemed to be written all over her face. “I owe it to the people who helped me, who gave me clothes and shelter and helped me get on my feet to help as many others as I can.”
I remember seeing her walking down the hallway with little Jimmy, balancing two big bags overflowing with groceries. She always had her dark brown hair up in a messy pony tail. Part of it had come loose and was hanging over her face. Gently, I reached out and tucked it behind her ear. “Thanks”, she said, softly, as I took the groceries out of her hands. I could feel her warm breath on my neck.
Remembering this encounter, I reach a hand up to my throat, lightly touching the place where her lips had brushed my skin, so long ago. As I get up and wipe my hands on my jeans, I recall the fateful words. The words that made me wake up at night for weeks to come, drenched in sweat and taking in panicked, ragged breaths.
She told me the day after she had collapsed in the stairwell and been rushed to the hospital. Over the past couple of weeks she had developed a cough, but it was worse that anything I could have ever imagined. “The tumor is very aggressive and has spread to my lungs. The doctor said I only have two or three more months to live.”
Cancer, a deadly illness with only few survivors. All I could think about was how it wasn’t fair. Why did it have to be her? What had she ever done? She had given so much to the world, and all she had faced in her short life was trouble, pain and despair. She did nothing to deserve this, and in a twisted way, I believed it was my fault this had happened to her. A way to punish me for the mistakes I had made in the past: taking away what mattered to me most.
I hate myself for what happened next. I could not stand to see her. The clothes that fell off of her skinny body, her sunken cheeks, the grayness of her skin. But worst of all was her smile. She still smiled her most beautiful smile, like nothing was wrong. I drew back, I couldn’t face her. I could not look into her smiling face and her beautiful brown eyes knowing that they would most likely be indefinitely shut in the near future. She would not be there to laugh at my stupid jokes, to comfort me, to hold me close. I didn't answer her phone calls and only spoke to her when we saw each other in the hallway. I felt terrible, but I knew I could not be in her presence.
One night, someone knocked on my door. Opening it, I saw Susan’s pale and tired face. She looked worse than the last time I had seen her, her thin frame covered in clothes far too loose, making her appear even more fragile than she already was. Nonetheless she smiled at me.
All I wanted to do was to take her in my arms and hold her tightly, keeping her safe. I desperately yearned to tell her that everything would be okay, that the cancer could be cured. But it couldn’t be, and we both knew it.
“Do you have two eggs I could borrow?” she asked “We’re making pancakes, you’re welcome to join us, Jimmy misses you. I miss you”
I replied: “Sorry, I haven't got any and I’m going out tonight, see you around?”
The hurt was visible in her eyes, but her smile never faltered. “Oh, yeah, sure, see you around.”
There was a full egg carton in my fridge, and I didn't have any plans that night. I had lied through my teeth because being around her hurt too much.
The apartment across the hall from mine has been empty for the past week or so. Jimmy is staying with some distant relative and Susan is here. In the hospital. I walk up to the front entrance and as I walk into the building, I wonder whether I have made the right choice by coming here.
“Miss Marks, you have a visitor.”
She is sitting in a chair facing the window, wearing a pale pink robe over a hospital gown. A headscarf covers her bald head.
“Oh no. I told Aunt Grace I don’t want Jimmy coming here anymore, he shouldn't have to see his mother like th-“ she stops when she turns around and sees me. We stare at each other without saying a word.
“I see you have a lot to discuss” the nurse says. She leaves, closing the door behind her.
Susan shakes her head and says: “Come, sit down”
Her voice is so weak I can barely hear her. I sit on the windowsill. She is silent and watches me, rubbing the back of her neck with her head slightly tilted. It is clear that she expects me to say something. There is so much I want to say, but I am lost for words.
“Listen, Susan, I’m so-“, I begin to say but she cuts me off.
“I know. And I forgive you.” She coughs violently and reaches for an oxygen mask. Her fingers fumble with the strap and I reach out and put my hand over hers, securing the strap for her. I do not let go of her hand. Instead I put my arms around her and hold her close to me. We sit like this for what seems like hours.
And then, all of a sudden, I know. I know I have to tell her how I feel about her.
“Susan, I-“ I cannot finish my sentence. Looking down at her face, I can see she has fallen asleep. She looks so peaceful, no sign of the pain she feels when she is awake.
The nurse enters the room. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says, “But visiting hours are over, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
I get up and plant a long kiss on her forehead.
I go home and fall asleep instantly, remembering the feeling of her lying in my arms. When the telephone rings at three o’ clock the next morning, I know.
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