A Matter of Pride
Know that feeling when someone calls your name but you turn around and no one’s there? I feel that all the time, every moment, every second someone sits beside my bed and talks to me. Their words may just fly over me, but I always hear them say my name, whispering it, sometimes guilty, sometimes hopeful, sometimes angry….
It took me the longest time to realize the reality of my life. My eyes had been closed, eyelids squeezed together by a force I could not control. It was impossible to move, and screaming was but an exercise in futility. I screamed so loud once, I was surprised they didn’t hear me. I’ve been here a couple weeks. It’s been two weeks since the operation. Two days since my grandmother’s death.
When they took me to operating room—this cold place I really didn’t care for—I was screaming, they just didn’t know. They didn’t know the anesthesia didn’t work, that I was just in a daze, feeling pain, at the mercy of their torturous instruments. I made it through only because of what my sweet grandmother said. When she walked me as far as she could, her parting words had been a promise. She had promised to be there, adding that she was proud of her “strong little boy.”
Jell-o cups stacked up beside me, counting every hour I didn’t wake. There were five there beside me when I heard my mother’s voice. My mother, a severe lady with a disdain for hospitals, never came around, but she dropped off my sister. She was the one who brought me the Jell-o cups, always bringing me the green ones. They’re my favorite.
She ate the red ones beside me, talking about her friend Kate, how they were having problems over a boy. I felt the wind on my face when she shook her head, her long ponytail swinging. It always slapped my face before, and I didn’t care for another lashing. I didn’t stir, but she didn’t notice anything. I was still supposed to be asleep.
My stomach was growling by the time my sister left, grumbling about how I was a selfish brother, how I’d never help her even if I was awake. I really wouldn’t. I was just that kind of brother—the conceited kind. She believed otherwise, but I proved her wrong. My silence was just how I ended the argument.
The doctor grew worried the next morning, whispering with the nurse about lowering the dose, administering some kind of drug to wake me. I didn’t want that, but I couldn’t protest. It would be a foolish endeavor. A tingling spread out, burning through my nerves as the first hour passed and I didn’t stir. I didn’t realize then that I couldn’t. I was just holding out, waiting for my grandmother. She hadn’t shown up. No one had mentioned her, either.
The nurse that treated me that day was nice. I only noticed because of how gentle she was, wiping my forehead with a cool cloth, humming a lullaby under her breath. I didn’t realize I had a fever. Sweat coated my skin, chilling me after a while, but I wouldn’t shiver. She was still looking, eyes locked on my face.
She almost sighed, letting out a shaky breath. I wished then that I could touch her face, comfort her. Right then I could see her pain, perhaps about seeing so many patients die. She took my hand again, gently, almost like I could shatter. Some part of me snorted at that.
Day three came with little interruptions, just the doctor checking in, muttering something under his breath. When he lifted my eyelids, shined light in my eyes, I didn’t flinch. My eyes wanted so badly to close, to just recoil, but I couldn’t move. Nothing moved. I didn’t try to move my legs, just focusing on swallowing my distress. They left me be after that, finally allowing my sister to come in, dragging my mother behind her.
My little sister, who wasn’t really little but rather something of fifteen, didn’t say anything to me for the longest time. She just held my hand, grasping it like she could give me strength, whispering my name in a prayer. I smelled her perfume when she leaned in close, placing a kiss on my forehead. Sometimes it was like I was the younger sibling, but I couldn’t let her see any weakness.
She told be about Michael, the guy she and Kate fought over. He ended up going with Kate, tearing their friendship apart. It made her sad, not angry. I wanted to ask why, but I told myself I didn’t care. When she whispered she loved me, I didn’t move. I didn’t melt when she brought me a Jell-o cup, having found the tray empty.
“Let’s go, Mary,” my mother said shakily. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her shuffling, agitating the curtain blocking my roommate to the right.
“Why?” Mary retorted, gripping my hand tighter. She wasn’t delicate about the bones in my hand rubbing together. “You haven’t seen Parker the whole time he’s been here.”
She sighed. “I’m staying. Go if you want.” Pause. “I’ll have a friend drive me home.”
“Who?” My mother said sternly. I could almost see her flaring, blue eyes chips of ice. “Michael? I told you not to see that boy again. He’s no good for you.”
“As if you know what’s good for anyone, Mother,” Mary grumbled, inching her chair closer to my head. My bed was between them. I imagined it was a barrier.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she cried, voice making the air shake.
Mary shook her head, her ponytail swishing through the air. “Nothing, Mother,” she said. She probably raised her chin at their mother, glaring back with those crystal eyes. She was so fragile, really.
Instead of responding, my mother just left. I could hear her heels strike the linoleum, the rustling of the contents of her purse as she pulled out her phone. It was a barrier, that stupid phone. I hated it. She always posted these “I survived” pictures, too, and it disgusted me. I wasn’t going to end up like that, barely surviving.
Mary drew my attention back to her with a sigh. “I’ll be back later,” she said, voice cracking. A cool tear fell on my hand, unsettling me. “I have to go visit Grandmother.”
Why, I wanted to ask. That was the first time I had felt like speaking since I’d been there. She pulled her hand away slowly, and at that moment I wanted nothing more than to hold it tight, reciprocate her grip, keep her here, beside me. I needed her next to me, talking to me, telling me about our grandmother.
The desperation made me want to break free of these restraints, the ones that bound my wrists and ankles. It had been too long since I moved on my own, since I breathed sweet air, since I opened my eyes and saw the world in full color.
It wasn’t chilly in the room as much as I just didn’t have a blanket. The nurse moved it off so my hands were out in the open. They were cold, joints stiff like I couldn’t move them. I focused my time on moving them, perhaps reaching for a pen I thought to be on the stand beside me. I didn’t realize how much time had passed until the lights went off, until my outside matched the back of my eyelids.
The darkness calmed me. Slowly, it washed over me, the deep sleep that came with release. My chest rose and fell once, and I stopped breathing. All the little balls stopped annoying me. I called the small masses of cells balls, like those little pieces you might find when you break open a beanbag. They were going to target those next, but only because I said they bothered me. I was only going to do it because of Mary, because she needed it.
The doctors came when they heard the flat line. I didn’t even realize my heart had stopped. They brought me back, stuffed a tube down my throat to force me to breathe. They said I shouldn’t feel it, that I should be conked out. But they also said I should have woken up. Why didn’t I wake up? I wish they’d told me.
The guy beside me reminded me of a wish I’d made when I was first diagnosed. His friends always came by, not talking about themselves, but about him. They’d just leave things, explaining they’re significance, the impact he’s had on their lives, the love he’s given them and how it’s changed them. I got to know the kind of man he was.
He was a kind man, sometimes angrier than most, but good. He’d always walk his dog, Nasha, every morning, coming back when the sun was up to say hello to his daughters going off to work. I got to see how they saw him, what they thought of him.
They caught mine early, stage one or two or something. My friends didn’t talk to me for a while there, and my sister didn’t know what to say, so she just babbled about the stupidest things. So self-centered. My mother waited a month before taking me for treatment. She didn’t seem to care.
All their reactions told me was that I wasn’t really much of anything to them. Friends who’d been there for me since childhood were gone without a word. Had I really been that bad a person? Had I really been that bad a friend? The questions plagued me as the days passed, my health deteriorating. My sister came some days, but she wouldn’t say much anymore.
One day, though, this stupid bastard came and stole my Jell-o cup. It was only one out of seven, but he just stole it, snatching it like some greedy pervert. My sister had squirmed on the other side of the bed at that. I could feel the tension, but I didn’t stir. I couldn’t talk, but only because I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to move.
“Mary,” my mother called from the hallway. She sounded nervous. “Can I talk to you a moment? Outside?”
“No,” Mary replied firmly. “Anything you can say to me you can say to Parker.”
“But he’s not really here—“
“Yes, he is!” Mary hissed, nails digging into my hand. It hurt to listen to that.
“The doctors said he’s not going to wake up, especially not after two weeks—“
“And the doctors—“
“They couldn’t explain why he’s not waking up. They’re wrong.” Mary sniffled, brushing my hair from my eyes. “They have to be.”
“Haven’t you thought that maybe he doesn’t want to wake up? That’s not as uncommon as you think, Mary.” She sighed, bracelets jingling as she dropped her arms. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to fight anymore, sweetie…. Leave him be. Come with me to visit grandma.”
“I’m not going.” She huffed. I could just imagine her lifting her chin spitefully.
“You will come with me this instant.” My mother ordered, stomping her foot. She wasn’t wearing heels today. “Your grandmother is sick. You don’t know how much longer she has.”
“Doctors said she had a couple weeks.” Mary said pointedly.
“And you just said the doctors are wrong.” My mother said, ending the argument. “Now, come on.”
They left, off to see my grandmother as they’d said. She died the next day, and though they never told me, I just knew. Not because of that day’s conversation but because I felt alone. Grandmother said I’d never be alone as long as she was around.
I’ve never really been alone. I’ve had people around me all my life. But they’re the kinds of people who don’t get me, who never listened, and who really never will. Only my grandmother does. Did, I mean.
I don’t listen anymore when they talk to me. It’s too painful to hear my sister cry, jabbing at me with needles to try to get me to stir. It makes me too angry to hear my mother’s footsteps just outside the door, tapping her heels impatiently. She was mad at something, someone. I didn’t care anymore. All she’d ever given me was my stupid cancer.
When I’d seen her fight, battle the invisible foe that took down too many, I had said I didn’t want to fight like her. I didn’t want to turn out that way, shivering and crying at every MRI, just worrying to see if the battle would have to be fought all over again. It was disgusting and rather disgraceful.
When I’m not ignoring them, I’m with my grandmother. She sometimes comes, I tell myself. I convince myself she does, hearing her voice in the hum of the air conditioning, in the shallow breathing of my roommate. Sometimes I hear her, her sweet, old voice. She told me to fight, to scream, to try and come back.
And I hold onto my name. That’s all I have left of me. I don’t listen to what people tell me about themselves, I listen to what they tell me about me. That’s why I like funerals. They remember me with pride, dignity, and honor, and I’m more than just my name.