“Does everyone hate me now?”
The uncle looked from the floor in the corner of the room to the five year old boy fitted into his propped twin bed by thousands of dollars of medical equipment and sighed slowly, comfortably tired, and said “Of course not, bud. They all love you more than anything in the world.”
The boy was pale and long in the face and his bones showed with sickly clarity and his sheets were white as a folded sheet of unmarked paper. “No they don’t,” he said.
“And why do you think that?”
The uncle sat forward in the wooden chair. He’d been the one appointed to deliver to his deceased brother’s son the news of his inevitable and quickly approaching mortality. Waiting another day might’ve meant wasting half of his remaining time to do so. “Well, we all love you very much, kiddo, and you know that. We’re just … so … worried about you.”
“Because something’s wrong with me.”
It might’ve been a minute. It might’ve been more.
“… You’re sick, there’s no doubt about that. But … that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Everybody gets sick, and … some get, more, sick, than others.”
“But people get sick and they just get better.”
“Oh, bud … It doesn’t, um, doesn’t always work like that.”
“So I won’t get better?” Even from the boy’s voice hung the sickle of death. His mouth opened and it felt to his uncle that he was looking at a table the cloaked man himself had reserved. How does one even speak?
“Do you remember, bud, in the show about the cat? you know, wearing the suit?”
“Yes. Yes. Do you remember when Mister Hairball had that pet mouse?”
“Sure you do, they were worried that he wouldn’t be able to take care of him, and, uh … yeah, he had to give him away because the mouse was so afraid, because he’s a cat. Do you remember that?”
He tried to smile. “But we’ve watched it nearly a dozen times.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Joe,” and he began to cry.
The uncle sat on his bed at his waist.
“Hey, bud, hey. Why are you sorry?”
And he said, roughly, “Bu- Because uh- I make it huh-hard for uh-everybody-y-y.”
“No you don’t.”
He wished he could lift the boy, he wished he could hug him, but he was hooked up to too many wires and suction cups of which the uncle was dreadfully unknowledgeable. And he knew showing this would make the boy feel worse.
“Hey, no you don’t. Easy buddy. Come on, why do you say that?”
The boy said again that everyone hates him.
“No we don’t,” he said sternly. “Can you calm down for me, bud? Please. There’s no reason to fuss. Come on.” He rubbed his arm, that’s all he felt safe doing.
When the boy calmed he said “Can you be strong for me?”
“Can you say it?”
He mumbled it.
“Come on, that doesn’t sound very believable. That’s not the strong man who learned to juggle when he was three. Where’s that strong man? Tell him to say it for you.”
He tried to tickle his neck gently. The boy squeezed his chin to his shoulder in defense and let slip and smirk. He retracted his hand as if he’d dipped it in lava.
“Oh, I see it. He’s in there! I know it! Come on bud say it real loud for me!” and the uncle pounded on his own chest and made a silly warrior face.
The boy laughed. “I’m strong,” he said.
“Ohhhh, you’re stronger than that! I know you are!” He tickled him again.
“You’re so very strong, kiddo. You know, between you and me, if you weren’t hooked up to this silly nonsense, you could probably whoop my butt.”
The boy giggled, seeming as if he was truly trying not to feel weak.
And a soft moment went by. The uncle became serious.
“Um … Listen, bud,” he put a hand on his arm, “I have to be honest with you. And I know I can do that because of how strong you are, okay?”
“Um, well … do you remember when, a few days ago, they put you in that huge machine thingy?”
“Yes. The magnet … Well … that was a test. And the test was to determine how you were doing. Understand?”
“Well … the results came back, and, uh, they, uh, weren’t so great, bud.”
“What does that mean?”
“It said that your sickness is bad. It’s, uh, really bad. It wasn’t … the best news.”
“Okay,” the boy had grown sullen again, put his head down.
“Buddy you don’t have much longer.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means you’re going to die. Soon. And …”
Oh the throat. Don’t let it break. The will is there if only the throat doesn’t break.
“… and it’s something we all do, kid, eventually. Some, are given more time. Some … just aren’t. And you haven’t …” he had to whisper now, “been given much of it.”
The boy was crying. Who knew what he thought.
He calmed the boy down again.
“But I need you to understand that everyone … everyone … around you loves you and has done everything they can to give you as much time as possible. But … some things just happen," he shrugged, almost laughed, “Some things just happen and it sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it’s never over. Think about the best you’ve ever felt. That’s what’s on the other side. Do you understand?”
He didn’t answer. He was staring at the foot of the bed.
“Well,” he sighed, “you may have a week at b- … um, it may be less than that, though. But! um, everyone who loves you is going to make it the best time possible for you. And Doctor Lynn is going to make you feel as comfortable as she can … Okay?”
Background noise: beeping, humming, faint gurgling, strained voices from downstairs.
“You know, I don’t have very long either. Everyone’s time comes. I’m not healthy. I’ve been sick and will be sick again … Are you okay, bud?”
“Do you want to see your mom?”
“Okay, I’ll go get her. But you gotta be strong, huh? You have to show her how strong you can be, okay? Because she’s not as strong as she should be right now. Okay?”
He walked downstairs. His footsteps stirred a silence within the family room. Mother, two sets of Grandparents, Auntie, the other sets of Aunts and Uncles, ten year old Brother, father’s Sister, all staring at him in wet wide eyed anticipation.
He sat. “He knows,” he said.
The mother began sobbing into the grandmother’s arms. Everyone who wasn’t sobbing looked down. The uncle put a hand on his wife’s hand on her knee.
“I think the most important thing we can do is to not treat him any differently. Believe it or not I think he feels guilty-”
“Oh god,” the mother sobbed.
“and we all have to be strong for him. I think the last thing we should do is let him see any sorrow. It’ll just scare him.”
“Well,” one of the uncle’s other sisters said with a face snide yet scrunched from crying, “we can’t just ignore him.”
“We don’t have to by any means. But we can’t all cry over him like he’s ruining our lives. Think about it. I’m sorry. But he’s only going to feel worse if he thinks he’s causing us pain.”
“Well how do you know that? What makes you think he feels guilty for any of this? How can you say that?” she said.
“I can just tell. You can tell just by talking to him, about which I’m truthfully not surprised you all don’t realize it considering …”
His wife hit him. He received a few cruel stares from his sisters.
“Look, Sarah, he wants to see you. I told him you’d be up. I think you should compose yourself.”
Marie looked at him, “How dare you,” she said.
“You all sent me up there! … Look,” he said heavily, “We’ve all been through this before. We’ve all seen death in one way or another. He hasn’t. He just sees all the things we have to go through for him to be sick. Is this making any sense?”
Only the grandfather, his father, nodded at him, and he did so discretely.
“Alright,” he sighed,” I’m sorry. Sarah, just go up there. You have to let him know it’s okay.”
She was sobbing now harder than before. “I can’t,” she wailed muffled into a wet shoulder, “I just can’t.”
He hushed his voice, “We’ve known this was coming. It was unlikely it would go the other way. Bereavement has to be saved until after the fact. This is just silly, Sarah. Go up there and convince your child it’ll be alright.”
She couldn’t stop her shoulders from convulsing. Her chest had an infinite stock of swollen hot tears.
He looked at his wife and back to the general crowd, his closest family.
“Alright, well, I’m just making things worse,” he stood, and his wife did as well. “He’s waiting for you Sarah. See you all tomorrow,” and they left.
He shook his head, driving, and sighed when they’d exited the driveway.
“You did the best you could, hun.”
“Do you think I was right? Really?”
“Hmm, I certainly don’t think you were wrong. But that kind of stuff is really hard on some people, especially when you drop it on them like that.”
“I think- I thought it kind of had to be.”
“And you’re not wrong.”
“Do you think it’s selfish?”
“What? How you acted?”
“No … I mean the way she … well, I actually don’t know. Nevermind.”
“No, what? Tell me.”
“Nothing. Really. Nothing.”
“But, man, if I were that kid…”
(August 29th, 2015)