memory of bones
By Grace Cope
October 31st, 2018
Two years ago today, a kid named Ben Hale died from osteosarcoma.
He was sixteen when it happened. It’s the year where you are finally getting your feet on the ground, finally gaining that first thrilling sense of independence. It’s the year that college applications and ACT scores start becoming the most important things in the universe, and you can feel the anticipation of change in the air as you walk through the high school hallways. At sixteen, everything is supposed to be beginning. But for Ben, it was all ending.
He was in my class at school. We suffered through the same math classes, and I sat on cold metal bleachers and watched him and my brother play baseball when we were kids. He always had a silly grin on his face even when they were losing. He had shaggy brown hair that always fell into his eyes. His mother always tried to trim it but he liked it long, so it always stayed that way. He was obsessed with LSU football, so he wore purple and gold attire wherever he went. It became the colors that symbolized his journey when he got diagnosed.
We were never friends. I want to make sure that this is emphasized. I think people make the mistake of claiming they were close to a person once they are dead. No one can call them out, because the person who could can’t talk anymore. It’s as though people want to feel they were close to this person, so that they can convince themselves they were there and they helped, even if they didn’t.
People also seem to have a sudden disinterest in the social hierarchy once a kid gets sick. Ben was never the picture of high school popularity. He played video games and hung out with kids who smoked themselves delirious on the weekends, and because of this, he fell on the lower rungs on the popularity ladder. But then his diagnosis caught wind and suddenly, all of the cheerleaders and the jocks and the people who never gave him a second glance started giving him the time of day.
I’m not saying this isn’t good. He needed the support, most definitely. I just don’t see why he didn’t deserve this attention before a tumor grew in his knee.
One day, mid-October, once Ben’s hair had fallen off and his skin had paled and an LSU beanie covered the tops of his ears, I was sitting next to him at a football game. He was watching a friend of his, Anna, who had long blonde hair and bright blue eyes and had started being a best friend to Ben the moment she found out the tumor was malignant.
“I have a crush on her,” he said to me, softly, under his breath. “But I don’t know how to tell her yet.”
That was the last time I heard him speak. I don’t know if he ever got a chance to tell Anna before he died on Halloween morning.
Two years before this, I found myself dressed in a pair of army green scrubs with a nametag clipped to my pocket, tending to oncology patients as they received chemotherapy. I found the volunteer opportunity at my local hospital in downtown Birmingham, and after an interview, was admitted as an assistant to oncology nurses. At fourteen years old, it was far out of my comfort zone. When I applied, I was expecting more of an answering-phones-and-filing-papers type deal. Instead, I wound up witnessing people during the worst years of their lives.
I have not forgotten the people I met that summer. The healthy ones and the sick ones. After staying there for a month, I began recognizing the ones who returned often.
One of them was a young woman, no older than nineteen. She had long brown hair that hung limply on either side of her face, and she always brought an older women with her, perhaps her mother. Her mother brought everything she might need for entertainment– books, endless stacks of magazines, big headphones and an iPad filled with movies. Her mother got Chick-Fil-A from the hospital cafeteria and they both sat in the chairs and read magazines together until her chemo was finished. They never wanted to talk, but they had each other, so there wasn’t a need to.
Every week or two at noon, an old woman would come in. Her daughter, a middle-aged woman, helped her walk to her chair each and every time. The old woman would sit herself down, and I would retrieve a heated blanket for her and lay it over her legs, thin underneath the fabric. Her bones were memorable in that they slid around underneath her paper skin whenever she moved, as though they had come loose somehow. She would say, “thank you” in that shaky voice of hers, and the nurse would insert a needle into the crook of her arm, and she would fall asleep. Her daughter talked on the phone while she slept.
A husband and wife came in every Friday afternoon with two cars full of food for the patients. One of the oncology nurses whispered to me as they came in for the first time, “These people are incredible. They keep our supplies full every week. The hospital doesn’t have to fund a single thing.” They were retired, and they were hard workers. My days were always less busy whenever they arrived, because they swooped in and managed to never stop moving the entire day.
Some patients valued silence. They came in, they received their therapy, and they did not speak a word to anyone. Most of these people did not have anyone accompanying them, and they stared at their blanket-covered feet for hours with an unopened package of almonds on their bedside table until they were cleared to leave.
Others were talkative. They would call out to me as I rushed past carrying supplies and ask me to pull up a seat. It wasn’t until then that I realized why they put their youngest applicant of all time into a cancer unit. It’s for the people who need someone to talk to, someone young and bright and not burdened by the weight of the world quite yet. For those who wanted to talk, they primarily focused on asking me about myself. In the beginning I didn’t know what to say. I was about to start ninth grade, the last year of junior high at my school, and I was ordinary. Unspectacular. But soon I realized they just wanted to focus on something other than the poison being injected into their veins. So I talked more than I had ever before in one sitting. I talked about my dogs, my family, about school. I talked about piano and cross country and any other random topic I could think of, and I delivered them snacks and blankets and anything else I could provide for them. The only topic we never discussed was what was happening to them.
My childhood best friend, Ella, had a father who suffered from lung cancer. I knew he came for his treatments at the same clinic I was working at. As I wiped down the beds and fluffed the pillows, I watched the door, wondering if and when he would come through. Cancer is always different when it’s a stranger versus someone you know. When its a stranger you can detach yourself. You can watch them receive their blood transfusion and wobble like skeletons out of the room, and you can selfishly say to yourself: “Thank God it isn’t someone I know.”
Ella grew up with her father sick and dying. Once we became closer friends she started calling me as her car was pulled over on the side of the road with her father retching on the pavement, an ambulance screeching their way. She asked me for a distraction. I didn’t know what to give.
He died the same year as Ben. Two weeks into January.
A couple months before hospice was requested, he gave my mother and I a jar of figs picked from his backyard. We put it inside our kitchen cabinet two years ago and it hasn’t moved since.
Two years after he died, Ella called me crying, informing me that her mother had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She was an only child. She had little contact with relatives. She did not say it and neither did I, but we both thought it. Where would she go?
“She’s my person,” she said.
I did not know how to reply. I was lucky. My parents were healthy. She was scarred and cut up and beaten to a pulp and she looked at me for consolation, but I had no words. My privileged life has led me into a situation where the only comfort I can provide is presence, but I cannot relate to what she is feeling, and in that way, I am a burden.
She once told me she wished she knew someone in the same situation as her so she could talk to someone who understood. I know she wished badly that could be me.