This personal narrative was originally published in early May in “Well-being,” the second issue of the Talisman magazine.
I still remember sitting on the beach with my best friend, Anna, that summer — our toes pressed into the powdered sand, our ears keenly attuned to the sound of waves crashing against the shore. She and her brother had joined my family and I for a weeklong vacation to Tybee Island, Georgia.
At the time, we were both young and invincible, caught in the middle of our teenage years. I’d passed my driver’s test a few weeks earlier, and Anna would probably take hers soon.
Coverage of the Olympics was everywhere that week: in stores, in restaurants, you name it. The world’s most physically fit were gathered in London, their strong, healthy bodies vying for gold. Almost every night, after a day of swimming or shopping or sunbathing, we watched professional swimmers and gymnasts compete.
One night, we sat down at a seafood restaurant with our group of six — my parents, Anna, my brother and her brother, who were close in age and had a strong friendship as well. White, Styrofoam cups and more hushpuppies than we could eat sat on our sticky table. The restaurant had a pool of live alligators and a great view of the coastal Georgia marshland. I told the group I wouldn’t be eating any seafood because it would make me sick.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my friend was the sick one. That week, she suffered headache after headache. She complained of backaches, too.
I could hear the sound of little pills rattling around in a little pill bottle in the middle of the night. I was sleeping on the top bunk, and Anna was on the bottom, reaching for another painkiller.
I felt sorry for her. She didn’t complain much, but the whole week, I could tell she wasn’t feeling well. And I wanted her to feel better, so she could enjoy our trip to the beach.
But I also remember thinking she was overreacting, at least a little. She’d suffered a back injury earlier that year after years of ballet dancing. I knew that still probably caused some pain, but nobody hurt that much. Right? Surely, she was overreacting.
That’s what I remember thinking.
I still remember the day I found out — that dreadful afternoon. It was only a few weeks after we left Tybee Island.
I was sitting at the computer, up on the second floor of my family’s home in Kentucky. A junior in high school, I was pretending to study, but I was actually scrolling through Facebook. I knew I should get to work. I had a college fair to attend that night, and I needed to finish my pre-calculus homework first.
Before I could get focused, my mom called me downstairs. We stood in the kitchen and she told me the news — the dreadful, dreadful news that made me feel guilty and heartbroken and confused all at once.
There was a reason behind Anna’s frequent headaches in Tybee Island — a reason none of us could have imagined or understood.
I fell into my mom’s strong, comforting arms and cried.
I went to the college fair that night anyway, but the whole time, I felt like I was walking through a bad, bad dream. Nothing felt real. Nothing felt right.
I was thinking of Anna.
My Aunt Margaret called me as I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s SUV on the way home that night. My mom must have told her about Anna, I thought. Over the phone, Aunt Margaret offered encouraging words and promised to keep Anna in her prayers. I’m sure I said thank you, but I can’t remember.
I don’t think I finished my math homework that night either.
I still remember seeing Anna again for the first time — the first time since our week at the beach, the first time since her diagnosis, the first time since she endured surgery after painful surgery.
Again, I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s silver SUV, but this time she drove it around and around the parking garage at Scottish Rite, a children’s hospital in Atlanta.
There were far too many cars in the garage. Were they all here for the same reason I was? Were they all here to visit a sick friend? I hoped not.
Finally, we found a spot and walked into the bright, colorful lobby of the expansive children’s hospital.
We walked past paintings and fish tanks strategically designed to make the place look less like a hospital and more like something it was not. The trick didn’t work on me.
I got to the door of Anna’s room and stepped inside.
Right away, I recognized the bright blue Winnie the Pooh blanket spread across her bed. It was the same blanket I used to sleep under when I spent the night at her house when we were kids.
I made small talk, I think, before gingerly sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, as if applying too much pressure or if coming too close would somehow hurt my friend even more. I was uncomfortable in this unfamiliar environment, but I didn’t want to let it show.
Her hair was so different from how it had been only five months earlier when we were at the beach. Then, it was pulled into a long, dark, wavy ponytail, still wet from the Atlantic Ocean. Now, only short wisps peeked out from beneath a sock hat.
Her eyes were wide, and they looked like they were unable to focus on anything.
Despite the changes to her physical state, Anna’s voice sounded just as I had remembered it, just as it had all the years of our long friendship.
Now, though, I remember thinking it resonated differently. Maybe it was her tone, maybe it was her delivery, maybe I was imagining it altogether, but something had changed in the past five months.
She’d struggled. I hadn’t.
She got sick. I didn’t.
“She’s still the same Anna,” I remember telling others when they asked me how she was after I left the hospital that afternoon. “She hasn’t really changed.”
But of course, that wasn’t true.
She had, in fact, changed.
Life had changed her.
Brain cancer had changed her.
And maybe she’d never be the same Anna again.
Cancer didn’t happen to me; it happened to Anna.
But maybe, I realized, maybe it had changed me, too.