Thanksgiving Day is a new project of mine about a group of strangers and the way they spend their Thanksgiving holiday. Below are the stories of Alejandro, a twenty-three year old man in college; his brother Alejandro, who was paralyzed from the waist down a few years prior who had attempted suicide; Trina, a nineteen-year-old in college; and her younger sister Rory, who has been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.
“Fancy seeing you here,” the young man said, leaning forward against the arms of a wheelchair, in which was almost like the younger version of himself.
Trina was in disbelief. “How’d you find me here?” she asked, but Nurse Roxanne standing behind him spoke for the scene.
“Alejandro here wanted Arturo to make a friend,” she said brightly. Trina really admired the nurse for her way to instill hope in the hopeless. She was her favorite nurse in the teen ward. “How’s Rory doing today?”
The little hope Trina had ran short. She stood aside so the nurse could see her sister. At one point, Rory had been like all children her age. Then when she succumbed to leukemia, she had become a permanent resident of the hospital. With all of the chemotherapy and other treatments, the once already skinny girl became rail thin and lost all of her hair, even her eyelashes. Her eyebrows were thinning as well. Her skin was permanently bruised and pale, and she looked like just a gentle push would cause her to fall over and break.
“She’s been better,” Trina said, sitting on the edge of Rory’s bed and squeezing her hand gently. She tried to ignore the feel of the IV against her palm. It was just a nightmarish reminder that the doctors at the hospital were essentially playing God, and that at any moment, if something went wrong, she would lose her sister…the one person she truly loved.
“So, this is Rory?” the man called Alejandro said. “Well, hi, Rory. I’m Alejandro. And this is Artie.” He gestured to the boy in the wheelchair.
There was a sort of lackluster charm to the paralyzed boy. His eyes were a startling black in color, lifeless and dull. He had his hands folded neatly in his lap. Trina wasn’t sure if the gloves he wore were because of the manual wheelchair he was in or to hide the scars that she knew lined his wrists from Alejandro’s account of why he was in the hospital.
“Hello, Artie,” Trina said, rising to shake the boy’s hand. He shook hers, holding it in a firm grip.
“Hello,” he said back warmly. He grabbed the wheels of his chair; Alejandro let go of the handles immediately. Artie wheeled himself to Rory’s bed and began talking with her. It seemed that despite the obvious age gap, they got along quickly. They shared their stories of being in the hospital, their struggles, their desperate attempts to just be normal kids.
“Trina, a word?” Roxanne asked.
Alejandro almost asked who Trina was, but the way the girl responded, he knew who it was. She had a grave look in her eyes. “Come with me,” she breathed to Alejandro. He nodded and followed the two women out of the hospital room.
They stood in the hall as two nurses in scrubs walked by towards the elevator. There were tears forming quickly in Trina’s hazel eyes. Without thinking, Alejandro took her hand, but if it bothered her, she didn’t show it.
“How’s Rory?” she said immediately.
Roxanne wore a grave expression. “She’s stopped responding to the chemo.”
“But she’s completely bald, and she’s been losing weight. Aren’t those side effects of the treatment?”
Roxanne nodded. “It’s true that a chemotherapy patient usually does have side effects from this method of treatment, yes. But her body has been rejecting treatment. And I’m sure you know that ALL progresses fast. So I believe…”
“You’re telling me that my sister’s dying?”
The nurse bit her lip. “She’s living on borrowed time.”
Tears were pouring down Trina’s face, but she stayed composed otherwise. “How much time do you think she has?”
The nurse shook her head. “All I know for sure is that this will probably be her last Thanksgiving, and she’ll more than likely make it to Christmas and the New Year, too. In adults, the lifespan is about six months to two years. In children…”
“My baby,” Trina breathed. As she was leaning against the wall, she took her hand from out of Alejandro’s grip and buried her face in both hands, sliding down the wall.
“Is there any way?” Alejandro asked Nurse Roxanne.
She shrugged, shaking her head. “I’m not sure. Chemotherapy is the best bet of treating any kind of cancer, but Rory’s body has been rejecting treatment lately, so that’s out of option. There’s stem cell transplantation, but a lot of people have rejected stem cell research. And radiation therapy, but I’m afraid it will result the same as the chemo.”
Alejandro nodded. He could only imagine what was going through Trina’s mind. “Thanks, Roxanne,” he said politely.
Her pager started going off. She looked at it, gave Alejandro an apologetic look, and said, “Duty calls,” then took off down the hallway.
Alejandro crouched down on the ground, looking at Trina intently. She now had her face with her eyes on her knees, sobbing with a sick shake throughout her entire body. He placed a hand reassuringly on her shoulder. He didn’t even want to think about what would have happened if he hadn’t found Artie—the pain of possibly losing him was too surreal. What Trina had to be going through tore him up inside.
“I don’t know what to do,” she finally sobbed. “Rory…she’s all I have left. We have no family! She’s the only thing I really love, I can’t lose her…why couldn’t it have been me who got sick? Why, God, why…”
“Trina, calm down,” he said in what he hoped passed as a soothing voice as he thanked God it wasn’t him going through that kind of emotional pain.
“How long do you think she has?” she asked, looking up. She hugged her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth.
He shook his head. “You heard Roxanne. Six months, two years.”
She shook her head as well. “If she had as long as two years to live, I don’t think they would have bothered me about it now.”
“Well, you better calm yourself down,” he said gently. “I’m sure Rory and Artie are probably wondering where we’ve gotten ourselves.”
She nodded, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. She did her best to turn the waterworks off, but even that couldn’t mask how bloodshot her eyes were. Alejandro was struck by how red the sclera was when she stood. “Well…how do I look?”
He didn’t think it would have been good to say ‘like you just found out your sister’s dying’, so he stuck with, “Like you just got hit by a truck.”
“Not a truck,” she said sadly. “A dose of reality.” She tried to smile, but it ended up looking like a grimace. “Well, it’s now or never…” She turned back to the door and turned the handle to open it again.
When they opened the door, they saw Artie showing Rory the scars on his left arm. “I know they’re not really pretty, but…”
Rory was counting them with her index finger. “This one’s new, isn’t it?” she asked, pointing to one about halfway up his forearm.
“I wouldn’t say ‘new’,” he said, “but most recent.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Trina said, stepping into the room. “Isn’t it almost time for that new Hannah Montana episode?”
Rory looked up at her sister and saw the same bloodshot eyes that Alejandro had just been looking at. “Trina, have you been crying?”
Before she could stop herself, tears dripped out of Trina’s eyes and she wiped at her cheek in attempt to stop them. “A little, yeah,” she said offhandedly. “But it’s nothing big. Now what do you say…”
Rory could read her sister like a book; Artie, too, was now watching Trina’s every move. “Trina, am I dying?”
Things seemed to be moving in slow motion. Alejandro watched as Trina gently scooted around Artie and his wheelchair and sat on Rory’s bed, grabbing the small girl—small, even by the standards of an eleven-year-old girl—and holding her in her lap, stroking her hair and kissing the top of her head. “I should have done more for you,” she said, sobbing. Alejandro, unsure of what else to do, came all the way in the room, grabbed the box of tissues off of Rory’s bedside table, and offered the box to Trina, who shook her head as a response.
“I should have done more,” she said again. “I should have given you bone marrow, I should have paid for more surgeries…I should have taken you to the doctor sooner than I did, I should have known something was wrong with you…”
“How long do I have?” Rory asked.
Trina shook her head. “I don’t know.”
She broke free of Trina’s grasp momentarily, grabbing a sketchpad off the bedside table, but soon she was enveloped in her sister’s arms again, who had resorted to covering the little girl with kisses and tears, continuing to stroke her hair.
Rory flipped through the sketchpad, then stopped on a loose sheet and eased it out of the book. She was surprisingly calm, in Alejandro’s opinion, for finding out she had very little time left.
The piece of paper was passed from sister to sister, Trina taking it in a shaking hand. She stopped her tears long enough to read it, then looked up. “Is this a bucket list?”
She nodded. “Since I’m dying, I’d like to do some of the things on this.” She talked about her impending death as though it was the weather. Trina read the list again. There were eleven items on the list, one—she presumed—for each year of Rory’s life.
Her life that would tragically be cut short.
- Go to a Hannah Montana concert
- Go to Disneyworld
- Swim with dolphins
- Plant a tree
- Be a princess for a day
- Sing the National Anthem on TV
- See a shooting star
- Help my sister
- Catch fireflies in a jar
- Get married
- Get better
“We’ll do everything,” Trina promised reassuringly, taking her sister’s hand with the IV on it in both of hers and kissing it. “I promise you, Rory, we’re gonna finish your bucket list.”
Surprising the four of them, Alejandro piped up, “We sure will.”