I really didn’t expect Phoenix’s story to take up so much space. But I guess it’s a good thing. Maybe.
Now to continue . . .
Phoenix Sky Ryder teetered on the edge of a fountain that stood about waist-high, walking it like a balance beam or a tight rope. Her arms were spread wide, as though she might be able to fly if only she were able to balance for a minute. But she always slipped off the instant I thought she was going to be able to do it.
The fountain sat outside the front entrance to the hospital and it was as far as we were allowed to go. The nurses could keep track of us better that way.
“So, Middle,” she said. For some reason, my name had gone from “Jove No-Middle-Name-Caraway”, to “No-Middle-Name”, to “Middle” in one afternoon. “Where are you from,” she asked.
“Illinois.” I smiled. “And what about Phoenix? Arizona, maybe?”
She rolled her eyes and hopped back on the fountain’s wall. “Very funny. I’m from Ohio.”
“The Phoenix from Ohio. They could write a book.”
“Ah, you know.” But I didn’t know either. What was I talking about? Something to avoid the inevitable that loomed ahead, maybe . . . just maybe.
But then she said it.
“And Middle has what kind of cancer . . .” she suddenly stopped to flail her arms around in an attempt to stay on the wall, but fell back to earth all the same.
“Acute Monocytic Leukemia. And Phoenix from Ohio has . . .” I paused for her answer.
She turned slowly towards me and her eyes met mine. They were the saddest, oldest eyes I’d ever seen, and I’m sure I’ll never see any like them again. There was so much heartbreak there, so much pain, that I thought my own heart may crack right down the middle. But it didn’t and I just ended up with an empty ache in the middle of my chest.
She never did tell me. And I’m not sure if I’d want to after the way she looked at me. But I still wish I’d have learned more about her in the short time we had together. And not only that day. The whole three weeks we had were obscured by insecurities and things we held from each other. Even so . . .
The next day, she led me around the hospital in her wheelchair because she was too weak to walk.
This time, she wore a zigzag-rainbow pattern cap and had her brown/white dirty-patches cat on her
lap the whole time. And that day we pushed past the barrier of small talk.
“What is your family like,” she asked. (It was the only question she had time to ask.) And I told her about how Jeremy was on his search for self-identity, how Cam was a prep in the making, and about what mom and I had fought about most recently. But mostly, I talked about Ellie.
How she was always there or me, how she had cracked the code to a human heart, and how she seemed to be the only one who was with me in the whole cancer thing; but mostly just random things about her. Stories from when she was little and about our animal shelter and Creature came up. The other animals, Brad and Eliot, my youth pastor . . . and everything else that didn’t have to do with her came up too.
And when I realized we had reached Phoenix’s door and I was sitting on the floor leaning on the wall as I talked, Phoenix had started to yawn and try to cover it up. But I knew it was just because she’d been out of bed so long and I’d been jabbering about everything for the past hour and a half, maybe.
I stopped and said, “Sorry, Phoenix. I didn’t mean to make you so tired.”
She waved me off and shrugged. “You don’t need to say sorry to me. What you need right now . . . is a friend.” Then she wheeled herself through the door and paused just before she closed it.
“I’m here for you.” She held out her hand and turned in the chair. “Let me be your friend.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I knew that what she was doing for me was symbolic. So I took her hand in mine and said, “And I’ll be here for you.”
A smile crossed her eyes, but nothing showed on her flat-lined lips. “Thank you, Middle.”