I was afraid of her and she knew it. She was so frail and tiny. Her black, wavy hair, spread across the pillow, made her look as though she’d been blown in by the wind from another world. When Dr. Lauder removed the needle from her spine, he signaled to me to hold pressure to the site. I released Marlena’s hand to apply the dressing.
Dr. Lauder smiled, first at Marlena, then me. “Good job,” he said. He patted me on the shoulder, then left the room.
Marlena was only nine, but I sensed such wisdom in her. “You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Why should I be afraid?” I countered.
“You know I’m going to die, so you won’t look me in the face. Nobody does. Except Dr. Lauder.”
Marlena was diagnosed with leukemia. She had spent many days of the past few months in and out of the hospital, mostly in. I knew from her lab values that she was getting sicker and sicker.
Only nineteen myself, I was uncomfortable with the thought of death. Unless I died the next day, Marlena would beat me to the finish line by ten years.
Marlena knocked her paper cup off the bedside table, deliberately spilling water across the top sheet and the floor by her bed. She folded her arms across her chest and said, “I thought you would be my friend, but I was wrong. Friends share secrets with one another.”
I covered her with a clean top sheet, and grabbed the wet one to wipe up her spill. “Okay,” I said. “Fair enough. My secret is – my secret is, I think Dr. Lauder is extremely handsome and very nice.”
Marlena giggled. “He’s old enough to be your father!” she said.
“I didn’t mean it in a boyfriend kind of way. He’s …just…nice.” I thought of his simple words of praise, his gentleness, even tenderness, with Marlena.
“Know what? He’s my boyfriend, too. He’s the only person who listens when I want to talk about dying.”
“Does your mother know that you know?”
Her brown eyes, her eyes of knowing, bored into me.
“Of course she does. My family thinks they’re doing me a favor by skipping around the truth, but I’m not afraid of death. They are. Don’t you think they should let me talk about the most important event of my life?”
My stomach untied itself. “Maybe they have never looked at it that way. I think they’re just trying to protect you.”
“They can’t protect me! Besides, when I go to sleep at night, I see an angel on each side of my bed. Angels are the best protectors.” She pushed the button that raised her to a sitting position and started twirling her long hair with her fingers.
“Do you think that means – are you expecting those angels to keep you from dying?” I asked.
Tears hung from her eyelids. “You think I’ve got false hopes – hopes that I won’t die.” I wondered how those dark eyes could burn through my skin and stare right at my soul. I wanted to say, There’s always the possibility that you can beat the odds – at least for this year. But I knew she would see through the lie.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know why the angels are there. They protect me from worrying.”
“And they will take you straight to heaven when the right time comes,” I said.
An invisible magnet drew us together. As we hugged each other, I felt her tears mingle with mine. Then she pulled back far enough to look me in the eye. “I have an assignment for you. I want you to pretend you are me for the next few days. You’ll see things differently. You won’t worry as much. You might even tell Dr. Lauder that you think he’s really nice.” She grinned and squeezed my hand.
I left her room a few moments later, passing Dr. Lauder on my way to the desk.
He touched my shoulder. “Did she give you good advice?”
“Yes,” I said, blushing. “And thank you for being so kind and tender. She really likes you.”
He nodded. “She really likes you, too. You’re going to be a good nurse.”
That’s when I knew what had really taken place in that room. Nine-year-old Marlena was teaching me how to live. My job was to help her learn how to die.
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