Here is Jennifer McMurrain's personal essay that took 1st place in the Friends of the Library Creative Writing Contest nonfiction category.
I pull into the parking spot, turn the engine off and take a deep breath. I don't want to go inside. She’ll see me worried. I need to be strong.
Just take some more deep breaths. Breathe in… breathe out.
“This Old Man” plays in the distance.
Stop the meditation, Mom's calling.
"Where are you?" she asks.
"I'm in the parking lot."
"Are you coming up? It’s room 826."
"Has the doctor been there?"
"Tell me now,” I say, voice trembling.
It can't be. My twenty-four-year old sister can't have leukemia. That’s something little kids and old people get.
My heart starts pounding in my head, and I feel tears spilling over my cheeks.
"Are you ok?" Mom asks.
"I will be. I need to get myself together before I come up."
"They caught it early. She's going to be ok."
"I know." I hang up the phone and brush the tears off my cheeks.
She's going to be fine. They caught it early.
I pull over the rear view mirror to check out the damage my crying had done to my makeup.
My eyes are puffy, cheek’s red, and mascara is running down my face.
How am I going to pull this off? She knows me too well. Doesn't mattet. I have to go up there. I have to be with her. I have to show her that I'm going to be there for her. This isn't about me. I can do this.
I wipe my eyes with a McDonald's napkin and take in some more deep breaths.
I can't cry in front of her. This isn't about me. I have to be strong.
I get out of the car and start walking to the front doors.
The hospital looms above me. I feel so small.
What can I do against cancer? What advice can I offer? I have no experience with this. I rarely catch a cold; never anything as serious as leukemia.
I try to lose myself in thoughts of optimism.
She's going to be fine. They caught it early.
I try to turn my brain around before I reach her room. Thankfully the front doors open for me, avoiding a face plant. The smell of disinfectant and popcorn assault my nose, bringing me out of my internal pep talk.
"Can I help you?" A lady wearing a pink sweater, stands behind the information desk bagging popcorn.
"Just behind the atrium, you'll see some double doors. Go through them, and then turn left," she says with a smile.
"Thanks," I make no attempt to smile back.
I have to be strong, she is my little sister, and I have to be strong for her. I can do this. She’s going to be fine. She's a fighter. Just the other day she threw a can of soup at me because I made a nasty comment about her new boyfriend. Leukemia doesn’t stand a chance.
I see the double doors.
Why do they make these doors silver? You can see every hand print and smudge. How many of these people walked in here with a loved one, only to leave alone and broken hearted? How many fingerprints on this door are souls that no longer live? No, don't go there! She's going to beat it. I'm not leaving here without her. She can't die; she knows that I need her, that we all need her. She's going to make it. They caught it early.
I push the doors open, leaving my own set of fingerprints and turn left. I arrive in front of the elevator and push the up button. I stand there and watch the numbers above the elevator doors descend to my floor; counting down to a situation that I don't want to face.
How do I go into that room? How do I go on without her? Does she even know how much she means to me? The strength she gives me every day?
The ding of the elevator snaps me back to reality.
No, she's going to fine.
I step into the elevator and push the eighth floor button. Just as the doors are about to shut a young man steps in with a bouquet of flowers and a pink teddy bear. He's smiling from ear to ear as he pushes the button for the fourth floor.
"I just had a girl!" He beams.
"Congratulations." I try to smile, but know it can’t be seen in my eyes.
We stand there in awkward silence, two opposites sharing the same elevator, representing two women; one coming into life, the other fighting to keep it. The door opens to the fourth floor and the man leaps out, off to find his new daughter. He looks forward to many years ahead. As I listen to his hurried steps down the hall, I think of my own future family.
I hope my sister's alive to meet her nieces and nephews. I hope she's here to see me get married. Does she know she'll be my maid of honor? She will be there! She'll be there, and she'll look amazing, more amazing than I will. She has such beauty it overwhelms any room she walks in to, the kind of beauty that deserves a long life of happiness.
The elevator opens to the eighth floor. I freeze. Stepping onto the Oncology floor makes it real.
I don't want it to be real. I want to go back to the fourth floor where there is life abundant. I can't do this. I can't fake this optimism. I have to. I have to show her I'm going to be there, through it all. I have to!
Another deep breath and I step out. The elevator doors close behind me as if to say, "There’s no going back."
I walk to the Nurse's station, "Room 826?"
A young nurse looks up from her paper work.
"You must be the sister. They wondered how long you’d sit in your car. I think they have a bet going. I'll take you down."
"Thanks," I say with a smile that almost makes it to my eyes.
To think my mom and sister are betting on how long it will take me to pull myself together. It’s as if they don't have anything else to talk about… to worry about.
I followed the nurse down the gray hallway.
"You'll have to wash your hands when you enter the room, every time you enter the room. She can't have any flowers or plants, so spread the word.”
A hospital room without flowers; talk about gloomy. Here she is fighting for her life and all she has to look at is eggshell-colored walls and gray carpet. Oh let's not forget the numerous machines she'll be attached to, those are festive. What anti-flower Gestapo put that rule into affect?
"Here we are, if you need anything, just buzz. Don't forget to wash your hands."
So this is it. Room 826, where my baby sister lies in a hospital bed awaiting her first chemo treatment. She waits for her hair to fall out, waits for the sores to develop in her mouth, waits for the day the doctors say it's gone. Here is where she waits. I will wait with her. I'm not going anywhere. We will wait together. All I have to do is push this door open and wait. That's not hard. I push doors open all the time. Here we go, push and go in, she is waiting.
I open the door and there she is, my mother sitting by her side. My sister's face lights up watching me walk to the sink to wash my hands. Her beauty radiates the room; no hospital room could take that away from her. She owns her situation. She is not afraid.
She sits in the bed with 100 thread-count sheets and smiles. I can't help but smile back; this time it does reach my eyes.
"Took you long enough," she teased.
"Yeah, I know. I was talking to some hot guy in the elevator. No flowers or plants, huh?"
"No, they carry bacteria. I can sit in the atrium as long as I wear a mask."
"At least you have the penthouse view." I look out the window avoiding eye contact, "There's nothing like watching hospital traffic."
It's time I faced it. I can't joke this away. Knowledge is power and I can't help her fight something I know nothing about. It's time to know, it's time to look her in the eyes.
"So what are we looking at?" I turn towards her.
"Well, the doctor said that I have a good chance of going into remission after the first round of chemo. Apparently if you're going to get leukemia, this is the kind to have."
"The first round, huh? What does that involve?"
"Seven days. How many rounds?"
"Three, it's not so bad. Many people don't even lose their hair, but I'm not getting my hopes up." "We'll just buy you a hat."
So it begins; she has to spend the next seven days in this flowerless room and every day she gets chemicals injected into her body. She may or may not lose her hair and she may or may not go into remission after the first round. The last two rounds are to keep it that way. Ok, so it all sounds good. We are looking at around 21 days in the hospital, I can do that; I can be here for that. I'll bring cards and puzzles, her laptop so we can watch our chick flicks on DVD, we can do this.
We spend the next two hours talking and watching hospital cable. Dad and my older sister arrive and we all hug. My aunt, uncle and Grandpa show up and we all hug. More relatives and more hugs, we are surrounding my sister in our unconditional love. We want our love to radiate through the room like her beauty does. We want our love to beat her leukemia.
"It's late, I need to go. I am exhausted." I rub my eyes and then kiss my sister on the forehead. "I'll see you tomorrow. Love you."
"Ok, goodnight. I love you, too."
I lean against the wall just outside the door and before it shuts I hear my sister say, "I'm worried about her."
She's worried about me? That is the definition of my sister, here she is fighting leukemia and she's worried about me. Such strength, such grace... talk about unconditional love.
I walk to the elevators and push the down button. As I wait, I know she's going to be okay. She's going to beat it and we will both be better people in the end. I step into the elevator and push the ground floor button. As the elevator slides down, so does my anxiety. It comes to a stop and I walk to the sliver doors; they have been cleaned. No more fingerprints.
It's a good sign. She's going to make it.
The pink sweater-lady and her popcorn are gone, replaced by a janitor sweeping up the day’s dust. I walk to my car alone. My sister will not make her walk alone. Mom, Dad, our older sister and I will be there, not to mention numerous relatives. I walk across the parking lot, the big building still looms over me, but now I don't feel as small. I have a say.
I can help, and I will help her through this.
I make it to my car and sit down. This is where it began. This is where my world changed. I am not helpless and neither is my sister. We will make it through this, she will survive and the world will never be the same.