Wading Through Troubled Waters
Filed under | Living With Cancer
By Jolina Petersheim
My best friend, Misty, and I stand stock still. I am fifteen, and Misty nineteen. The Grey Bull River growls as it surges around us. Misty glances behind her, and our eyes lock. Fear glows there as if she is watching her life flutter by, carried by a current.
“Let’s go back.”
Her words are whipped into whispers, but I understand.
My Timberlands slide over the rocks as I turn around. My mind and body feel numb. I glance behind me to watch Misty’s progress. She moves with as much trepidation as I do. I begin begging the Lord to let us live to a ripe old age. I pray that He’ll let us sit on white-washed rockers on our front porch, sipping tea while we reminisce about these adventures instead of joining Him early because of them.
Unable to find my footing, I falter and clatter over the stones. But Misty is there, her palm against my spine, buoying me up, giving me the strength to continue. She holds me up, yet I give her something to lean on. Together, we make it across the treacherous torrent and collapse onto the shore.
Four years later
“I don’t want to park here…at least for today,” she says.
I try to smile, but my hands shake as I unfasten my seatbelt. A shuttle for chemotherapy patients careens to a stop in front of the hospital entrance.
The driver is smoking.
Inside, a glass partition separates one department from another, hiding nothing of what is transpiring within. Rows of patients with shadow-rimmed eyes and gaunt cheeks sip carbonated beverages while poison seeps into their bloodstreams. They flip through magazines and watch daytime soaps until the cresting waves of nausea overwhelm them with as much force as a tsunami.
It is then that I must turn away.
I stand close to Misty to feel her radiating warmth, to know she is still there. She asks the nurse, “May we look at the wigs, please?”
Like a hostess leading us to our table, the nurse smiles and chatters while maneuvering us through the corridor. The colors are mauve and cream, the lighting low. There are no pictures on the walls. Maybe the patients would become bitter if their time here appeared normal when it so obviously is not.
The nurse makes a sudden shift to the left, wedging her key into the lock. She twists the knob and thrusts it open with an ample hip. Her smile falters as Misty and I file inside. She glances between the two of us, calculating who appears the healthiest. I feel like shouting, “If you knew her before you could tell!”
I feel angry but I don’t know to whom I should direct my anger. My best friend’s barely twenty-three and has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Those are things that happen to Lifetime movie heroines and characters in Nicholas Sparks books, not to your best friend who’s more like your sister.
Misty can sense the nurse’s embarrassed stare. She raises a hand as if she knows the answer to the question the teacher does not want to ask. “I am the one with cancer.”
The nurse nods, her chocolate-brown eyes melting in tears. “You’re so young,” she whispers. It is too much. I turn to my right and grip the back of the salon-style chair.
“It’s okay,” Misty soothes.
Patting the cushioned seat, the nurse says, “Come here, then.” Misty plops into it and spins around to face the mirror. The nurse runs her fingers through Misty’s long red hair.
“It’s such an unusual color,” she states more to herself than anyone. “Such a shade may be hard to find.”
“It’s all right,” Misty chuckles. “I’ve always wanted to be a blond.”
The nurse opens the white double doors to the cabinet and takes down three decapitated mannequins with hair in shades of strawberry blond not resting within God’s color spectrum.
The nurse peels the monstrosity from the mannequin’s foam head and tenderly places it over Misty’s hair. The wig’s Doris Day cut and Lucille Ball color cause me to smile despite it all.
“Whatdaya think?” Misty asks, puckering her lips and raising a pale eyebrow.
“Beautiful,” I retort before we both bathe in the healing Balm of Gilead. Laughter.
One Year Later
Misty and I arrive at Piney Campground and unpack our things. Lacing up our hiking boots, we journey deeper and deeper into the pulsing heart of the forest. Sweat nestles against our spines and our feet burn. A red-tailed hawk spreads its mottled wings and soars. It is enough to make me cry.
The trail curves and opens to reveal a sun-seared, shimmering lake. Crawling down a lip of earth, we toss our backpacks to the side. With our backs to the lake and the shifting sun, we pause a moment and Misty holds the camera. We angle our baseball caps so that my sweaty, freckled face can be pressed against her own. Misty wraps a strong arm around my back. She is there holding me up, and yet, I am offering her something to lean on. Once again we have traversed the treacherous torrent and made it to shore. With this knowledge, we smile with every fiber of our being — threaded together as best friends, almost sisters — the way it was meant to be.
She then snaps the picture.
This picture of Misty and me was taken during a hike in Scotland two summers ago. My best friend will be cancer-free for five years in May.
Jolina Petersheim holds degrees in English and Communication Arts from the University of the Cumberlands. Though The Outcast is her first novel, her writing has been featured in venues as varied as radio programs, nonfiction books, and numerous online and print publications. Her website is syndicated with The Tennessean’s “On Nashville” blog roll, as well as featured on other creative writing sites. Jolina and her husband share the same unique Amish and Mennonite heritage that originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughter. Visit Jolina at http://www.jolinapetersheim.com/.