Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school. We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, cafeteria menus, diet softdrinks, jealous siblings, the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.
People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shades open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspiculously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school. We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later, at which point I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitely, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.
Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.
My youngest daughter is fourteen now and to me, she is a little baby. I look at her sometimes and time stops; I remember Gayle’s blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?
I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.
During college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Children from those months in those wards now had HIV. I should be informed and seek appropriate counselling.
This didn’t frighten me in the least. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it to college, experienced love, trusted in all my youthful naivite that I had already lived a full life.
My twin daughters are now twenty years old. I look at them and wonder what I could have been thinking.
Gayle has no daughters. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father, her mother, those who knew her as the baby she was? As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had not yet begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents. I am so sorry I didn’t keep in touch. I am sorry I didn’t know what you lost. I am sorry my memories of your daughter are worth so very little in their belated attempt to keep her alive.