This must be a parent who would not know my cell number.
“Hello,” I said, “Room 210.”
“Danny?” She sounded . . . off.
“Mel? What’s wrong?”
I heard the phone being fumbled maybe, and then another voice: “Mr. Daniels?”
“I was talking to my sister. Who is this? What’s going on?”
“Are you Mr. Daniels?”
“What’s — Yes, for godsake!” I took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m just — what’s this about?”
“This is Irene Thompson at ER Triage, Cornwall Community Hospital on McConnell Avenue. We are admitting your sister, Melanie Daniels, and she wants you to know.”
“She —” I felt the air go out of the room.
“I —” Something was squeezing my chest. “I’ll be right there.”
My sister had called me “Danny”. Something bad was happening.
As I barged into the hallway, shouldering through the lunch crowd, students scattered out of my way. Last night she had been feeling dizzy. I had gone to her place with some takeout for supper, and finally convinced her to stay home for a day or two, or at least until she — She had called me “Danny”. She never called me Danny.
I ducked into the main office.
“Miss Thompson!” I blurted across the space.
The Head Secretary turned from a student, her up-pointed finger putting him on hold for a moment as she turned her attention to me. Her eyes widened. I tried to catch my breath.
“Are you all right, Mr. Daniels?”
“My sister — hospital. Have to leave. My grade twelves can go to the library to work on their projects. I’ll explain to Maria on the way.” I was panting, clenching my fists. This was taking too long.
She smiled reassuringly. “That’s fine. I’ll look after things; you go and see your sister.” As I turned and headed back to the hallway, she added, “Better get your raincoat: it’s raining.”
Of course it was raining; it had to be. After babbling at Maria in the library, I stumbled on automatic through the noon hour gaggles of students, to the staff room on the way out, to retrieve my raincoat.
Jenn Brown was marking essays and eating a sandwich at a work table.
“Hey, Boss, a bunch of us are heading to the Parkway after work for some Friday brews. Are you in?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “I’m heading over to the hospital. Melanie. She’s — Maybe later: I’ll probably need a drink.”
Jenn looked disappointed. “Are you okay? You look kind of —” She touched my sleeve as I passed. “It’ll be all right,” she said. Then she smiled. “Okay boss man, we’ll keep a seat for you.”
As I donned my raincoat, I gave her a wave, then headed back into the lunch time chaos.
By the time I got to the car I was drenched and cursing my so-called raincoat, even my shoes were soaked. I could feel a cold trickle running down my spine inside my shirt. As I slid onto the seat, I realized I had my briefcase. I tossed it onto the passenger seat.
I clutched the steering wheel to stop shivering as I navigated the minefield of potholes and puddles. Water bullets gunned at the bottom of the car, water sluiced down the windshield. It felt surreal, like I was swaddled in a wet cocoon. She was my little sister, and she never called me Danny.
The hospital was just minutes away, but everything was slow: I caught every red light, and they were long, long, long. On the stretch with no stops on Lemay Street, I picked up speed until I came to the right-angle turn at the end, where I almost veered into as oncoming dump truck. I had to stop, fuming as I waiting at Eleventh, while everybody zoomed by on the way to lunch. I swore, screamed and pounded on my horn, hoping I would please, please wake up soon.
Finally I turned turned into the crowded parking lot at the hospital, found a slot, and slogged my way through the puddles toward whatever waited inside.
At Information I was told my sister was on a stretcher — I thought it was called a gurney — in the ER. A stretcher, like on a battlefield stretcher? She had been okay the night before, just a little dizzy. Why would she be on a stretcher? Follow the red footprints on the floor to the ER, they told me. Why red footprints? I looked down and saw I was mindlessly hauling my briefcase. Exasperated, I followed the blood red footprints on the floor through the labyrinth of hallways and doorways and voices and haunted eyes and fire extinguishers and oxygen warning signs and that hospital smell, and women in polyester pastel jogging suits and white runners that squeaked.
When I parted the curtain partition, I almost turned away. But it was my sister: she was pale, tiny; and her eyes looked unfocused, as if they were not her eyes any more.
She squirmed on the stretcher, as if I had prodded her with a stick instead of with her name.
One of the polyester ladies appeared by my side. “Are you the brother?” she said.
No, I am Mel’s brother, not the brother, I almost yelled at her. Then I remembered to breathe. “Yes, I’m her brother. Do you know yet what’s wrong?”
“She’s scheduled for tests in a few minutes, starting with a CT scan.” Her clipboard served as a shield that she pretended to consult as she stalled me. “Has she been having severe headaches for very long?”
“Severe headaches?” I said. “I don’t know of any headaches. She complained about feeling dizzy and a bit weird a few days ago. When it kept happening, I talked her into staying home. How — why is she here?”
Again the nurse flipped through her charts. “She called 911 at about 9:32 this morning, saying she was having very severe sudden headaches and thought she was going to faint. The paramedics said that it was a good thing she had the door unlocked, because when they got there she was half on a chair by the door, barely conscious.”
Another pastel jogger appeared suddenly, sweeping back the noisy curtain, and consulted the paper bracelet circling Mel’s wrist, comparing it to the form she carried. The other nurse handed her the clipboard, to which she attached the sheet of paper, placing the whole thing on the foot of the stretcher.
“We’re taking her for the CT scan,” the first one said. Then, one nurse at her head, the other at her feet, they wheeled Mel out. “You should wait here, Mr. Daniels,” she said, as they left. I placed the briefcase by my feet and sat, watching the blood red footprints, waiting, perhaps for them to turn green.
I took a breath and hauled my briefcase onto my lap. Inside it, I could see the edges of the batch of enthralling student essays on the English Romantics. As I sat there, I remembered whining to Mel that I spent half my days and most of my evenings and weekends evaluating student brain farts. After I finished my rant, she smiled and said, “Karma, Dannycakes. That’s the price you pay for having wonderful me as your sister.”
I looked at the essays again, wondering if perhaps they could turn green.
An hour later, I found myself still in the ER hallway, trying to slow my pulse by finding Rorschach patterns on the curtain across from me. They rolled Melanie past me. “There’s your brother,” said one of the nurses. Melanie smiled a little, and gave me a faint wave. I stuffed the unread essays away and followed her back to the curtained cubicle.
“She’s perked up a little,” said the same nurse. “Talking would be good for her; just don’t tire her out.”
I leaned my briefcase against the leg of the bed and pulled a chair over beside her, sat down.
“Hi, Mel. How you doing?” I gave her hand a squeeze.
Her fingers briefly squeezed back. “Don’t know. . .”
“I have a bunch of marking here, if you’d like to do it for me.”
“Funny,” she whispered. “Leave it, and I’ll. . . .”
“Sure you will,” I said.
There was not much to say,but Mel and I have always been okay with silence.
When I saw her reaching for plastic water cup with the bent straw, I handed it to her. I flashed back to our mother feeding her in a high chair. I watched her move it toward her slack lips. Finally she managed to suck in a bit of the water, part of which dripped down her front.
“You been out in the desert or something, Kiddo? Your lips look really dry.”
She struggled with that for a moment, then said, “My purse— ”
I looked around, but didn’t see it. “Probably still at home. You weren’t thinking of your purse when they hauled you out on the stretcher.”
“You might be here for a while,” I said. “Is there anything you want me to bring for you from your apartment? Anything I can buy for you? Get well card? Lapel spray flower? Clown nose? Model airplane to build? Talking Barbie?”
She honoured that with a little smile. “Yeah,” she said, “a baseball bat to hit you over the head.”
“Right,” I said. “Firstly, you were never any good at baseball; thirdly, you couldn’t hold a baseball bat if you got one; and, sixth and lastly, you couldn’t hit the side of a barn door, least of all, my head.”
“Watch it,” she said, then abruptly she rolled away from me, moaning, shaking, then convulsing.
After I fumbled for the call button, finally got my hand on it properly, and punched it, I could hear the alarm sounding. Then it stopped. Almost immediately, the nurse brushed aside the cubicle curtain and hardly pausing, pushed the blue button by the head of the bed. Glancing at the readouts from the monitors attached to my sister, she moved around and gently laid her hands on her.
“There, there,” she said. “We’re going to make it better.”
I heard an automated voice in the hall calmly and repeatedly announcing code blue.
Melanie was still shaking and sobbing. “It hurts! It hurts!”
“I know,” said the nurse. “We’ll make it better.” She turned to me: “would you mind moving into the hall, Sir? The team will be here very soon, and will need to get in there.”
I nodded, and walked back to the chair in the hall, with my briefcase.
I don’t remember how many days later, I heard the word: stagefourbraintumour.
Learned something interesting about cancer. There are official stages, zero to four. Stage one early; stage four is too late.
It was spreading; she was going to die. Soon. And oh, god, she did.
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