I used to forget. When I’d wake up, I’d forget. Only for a minute. But for that minute, I could stay in my head. It was beautiful. Blissful, even. Which made it even worse when I remembered what had become of me. I opened my eyes, one at a time, savoring what strength I had left in me. A tall doctor, whose name I couldn’t quite recall, towered over me and asked me questions, which I ignored because the headache I’d woken up with was pressing against every inch of my skull. His breath was warm on my face as he spoke to me, and he smelled of hazelnut and menthol cough drops. The four interns behind him stared at me, their pencils moving fast across the page of notes that they were required to write about me. The red headed nurse bolded my name at the top of her clipboard.
Marley Josephine Williams.
When the doctors left, I turned to look at my mom. She was sitting beside me in a rocking chair that’d grown creaky from her constant company. She looked at me but didn’t say anything. She hadn’t said much since they’d told us how much time I had left. My mother was also pregnant, and the thought that I might never meet my baby sister haunted her. My illness and those images of her children had aged her more than the birthdays she’s spent here with me.
I reached to take the medicine that occupied the old wooden desk, but my mom got there first. I took a sip of water, relieving my lips of the dryness that came with last night’s sleep. She dumped the pills from the small plastic cup into my hand, and the bitter taste of calcium kissed my tongue as I drowned them in one sip. She walked to the wall, where I’d hung a calendar, and dragged her finger across the date. June 23, 2013. She’d been counting the days we’ve been here. 432.
The rocking chair sighed again, and I realized that my mother had returned to her spot, her arms placed delicately on each side of the chair, her feet leaving and returning to the ground as she pushed back and forth. I could tell what she’s thinking. I always could, because it was always the same. She’s not supposed to bury her baby.
The night that I died, I ran that thought through my head a million times. She’s not supposed to bury her baby, she’s not supposed to bury her baby. It was loud, echoing off the walls of my brain.
They say when you die, you see a bright light, but I didn’t. I saw moments of my life, pieced together like a home-made film that you’d watch with your family five Christmases after it was taken. There was my father, pushing me down the small slide we’d gotten off the curb of my neighbors house, my smiling face almost splitting the lens with its happiness. And my mother, on our porch swing, mimicking the way she’d sit on the rocking chair twelve years later. My broken arm, and the line to sign my cast in the cafeteria. My elementary school graduation, my Grandpa’s funeral, my first kiss, and my lead role in the school play. And the day of my Confirmation, in my white robe, standing next to the same priest who’d bury me, wearing the same smile from the slide in my backyard. The tall doctor, the interns, and the calcium. My mother.
“Only good girls go to heaven,” my grandmother used to warn me, her face caked with yesterday’s makeup, and her finger pointed inches away from the bridge of my nose. I’d had this idea of heaven in my head. I’d been painting a picture in the back of my mind since I got sick, though I wouldn’t imagine that it’d look like this.
No one knows what heaven looks like. I guess whoever is up there knows, but until you’re actually there, you’re completely in the dark. When I woke up imaginary, I found myself on a bed, fit with grey polka dotted sheets, and a lacey canopy hung from the ceiling by a plastic dollar store hook. A small pillow sat on a rocking chair in the corner of the room, and a dresser stood tall with a mirror. My reflection no longer wore the thin skin or hospital gown that had once been my everyday attire. In the mirror, I was alive again, more alive than I had ever been before and though I felt the happiness that I had longed to feel since the day I became sick, I wished my mother were here to hold me and to wrap me in a hug the way she used to.
The thought quickly left my mind when my eyes were drawn to pictures that lined the dresser. A beautiful little girl smiled inside the painted picture frame that she’d obviously created herself. I ram my index finger across the dresser, collecting the dust that no one had ever cared to clean. That’s when she ran in. A girl my age followed closely behind her, gasping for air.
“Eden, can we slow down?”
Eden plowed into the room and pointed her finger directly at me. “Ms. Megan said imaginary friends will help me make real ones at school.”
Imaginary friend. I’m not in heaven. I am this little girl’s imaginary friend. The girl behind Eden looks just as uncomfortable as I felt. I shot her a look, one that said “what the hell is going on” but then I recalled that she couldn’t see me. A car horn sounds from out front and Eden shreaks.
“Who’s here?” I asked, both scaring and comforting myself with the sound of my own voice.
“Everyone,” she said, “today’s my birthday party.”
She raced to the window.
“Look,” she pointed at someone walking towards the house, “my mom got me the best birthday cake ever!” She pounded on the window, commanding her mother’s attention to the second floor. The woman stopped in the driveway, peered up at her and smiled a gentle smile, though you could tell she was exhausted.
It was a smile I could never forget. I knew it because it was my smile.
“Do you see it?” Eden grins at me.
It was Eden’s smile.
It was my mother’s smile.Our mother’s smile.