When I was 19, my best friend Nina got into a car accident on the freeway while driving home from work. I was cozied up in bed in a pair of red satin pyjamas that I loved, complaining to my mum about a pimple that was boring its way out of my forehead as I applied a DIY night mask on my face. My mum, who was not nearly as vain as I was and also short-sighted, insisted that I was overreacting. She didn’t see anything, at least nothing worth fretting over. Looking for the validation my mum could not give me, I decided to give Nina a call and tell her my frustrations. My mum left to tend to her chores as I dialled her number. She picked up while driving and told me we could talk – she had Bluetooth on. I asked about her day and then went on to tell her about the pimple. She knew exactly what to say to make me feel comfortable in my vanity. I asked her what was new about work that day. She had met a guy during lunch. They had talked and laughed, and she found it refreshing because it had been a while since she had that – someone to make her laugh. She hoped to see him again, to have impressed him enough to make him ask for her number. Before I could counter her self-deprecating comments about how he probably didn’t find her pretty, we were plunged face-first into chaos. She began to scream and grunt as her wheels screeched against the wet road – it was raining – and I kept calling out to her, asking what was going on as though she could freeze the crash in place and describe it to me. I fell out of my bed crying, translating every morsel of sound my phone picked up into moving images, turning my room into a bloodied crash site. Then, everything around her went dead silent for a moment. Then I could hear her laboured breathing and weak murmurs like she was right there beside me. My heart broke at the sound of her toil, at the thought of her latching on to life by the teeth and it slowly slipping from between its gaps until it sat on her parted lips. I stayed on the line, defeated, as she carelessly breathed it out like it was something as recyclable as air. Then everything came back to life again but her.
My mother came running into my room moments after, dropping to the floor beside me. She picked up the phone and saw that it was Nina on the line. Several loud voices echoed into my room, one shouting, “She’s gone. It’s too late,” and my mother, realising what had happened, hung up on them. As she helped me onto the bed, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. A primitive re-imagining of the Joker: face painted white, dark lines running down from my eyes from where tears eroded the white and blood red lips whose colour I smudged onto its corners in an effort to wipe snot away. I unconsciously washed it off as my mum waited by the bathroom door.
In the days that followed, my mother welcomed my grief into her home with open arms, like a guest she had been expecting. She did not try to drag me out of it by my wrists despite having her fingers wrapped tightly around them. She followed me around with a care package of love – a box of tissues, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and origami art of my favourite mythical creatures, as she would when I was a kid. She dressed up my bedroom mirror with sticky notes of unbearably kind words; there was nowhere I turned that she had not stamped with her suffocating empathy. Her tenderness was like hairy spiders crawling up my skin, leaving me with a devastating need to rip it off and hang it somewhere she could never reach. Within months, I had chased all the grief away just so I could escape the crushing weight of the love she poured into me to balance out my sorrow. What she did not expect, or know how to fix, was my newfound fear of driving that dropped onto my lap unannounced on a sunny Saturday at the car park.
I was already 20 then, about nine months after Nina passed. I had always wanted to learn how to drive, and Nina promised to teach me once she came back home for a holiday. It was supposed to be the December after she died. We never got around to it. The driving school my mother enrolled me in was just starting. Greg, the instructor, was her childhood friend and had promised to be kind to me. The park was big enough to fit 20 columns and 10 rows of cars. It was mostly empty, save for the cars. No grass, no stubborn tree that defied the odds and grew right in the middle. It was also at the edge of town, secluded. Its vastness and isolation gave it a gloomy atmosphere that sent chills down my spine from the moment I set foot on it. I sat in the driver’s seat with Greg, watching him tie his seatbelt and place his notebook on the dusty dashboard. My hands had already gone cold then, but I wrote it off as nerves; it was only my first time. Greg smiled at me and told me to start whenever I was ready. I clasped the steering wheel with both my hands, took a deep breath, and waited.
When I had not moved two minutes later, Greg called out to me again. “You can start when you’re ready,” he repeated. I turned my head to look at him, tears gushing into my eyes, flowing out of them in multiple streams. Fear forced its way out of me in intermittent sobs as though it had been chained at my throat. My body started shaking, my hands slowly letting go of the steering wheel, all while Greg shook me, his voice quivering with helplessness as he asked if I was okay. I did nothing but frantically try to catch all the breaths that escaped my lungs without filling them. He carried me out of the car, placed me down on the dirty plastic-covered ground, and called my mother.
I had calmed down by the time she arrived. Greg had done a fine job of distracting me with a ridiculous impersonation of some TV character I had never heard of. He pulled Mum aside, telling her what had happened. I suppose they thought I could not hear them back there, but the silence was so grand I could hear a pin drop. They said I was traumatised because of what happened to Nina. I might need professional help.
That was only half-true. The other half is the part of grief nobody talks about. The shadow with a voice that reaches out from behind our shoulders and whispers that it is the very thing that kills the people we love that will eventually kill us too.
The doctor’s office is small with a glass table in the middle and only two chairs – one for him, the other for his patient. He has an office plant, a succulent of some sort, at his window. I can’t tell if it’s real or not; I’ve never been able to tell with plants unless I touch them. Looking at the doctor, a middle-aged man with a moustache covering his entire upper lip and glasses hanging off his long nose, I imagine he’s not the type of man to care enough to keep plants alive. The lens of his glasses, now reflecting the screen of his laptop as he looks through my results, are smudged with oily fingerprints, and the stack of papers at his desk have tiny dog ears that I itch to straighten out. He prints out my report, and as the printer runs, he leans backwards on his chair and smiles. He intertwines his fingers and looks at me for a moment before stretching back to pick up the warm pieces of paper and stapling them together. He creases his eyebrows and straightens his lips as he gives the report one final look.
He then gives me the news of my diagnosis like it is the weather forecast for a mundane Tuesday afternoon.
“You have pancreatic cancer.”
I go cold. My heart is too startled to start back up. My stomach ties itself into knots, and my skin itches from the inside. I stand up on my feet, unsure of what to feel. I ask him if he’s sure as I chew on my nails. When my eyes start to water, I bite my tongue to hold the tears at bay. He gets up from his seat and offers me a glass of water as he sits me back down. Leaning on the side of the overcrowded table, he watches me stare at the glass. When I take a sip from it, my teeth loosen on my tongue, and the hitherto barred tears trickle down my face. I force the remaining water down my closing throat.
“What does that mean for me?” I ask, wiping tears off my face.
He takes the report and starts pointing at my MRI scans. Using the tip of his pen, he circles around what looks like a wilted lanceolate leaf – he says it’s my pancreas – and points at the cancerous growth. I smile sadistically at how unremarkable it is, how it has camouflaged so well into my anatomy that I can’t tell where it stops and I begin. If he were to lift his pen from paper and ask me to show him what part was killing me, I would not know where to place my fingers. He taps his pen on the mass a few times before flipping the page. Most of his medical jargon leaks right through my brain, but when he says that the cancer has metastasized to the liver, I know what he means. It is an invasion, a takeover. As he mumbles about tumour markers, I take out my phone from my jean pocket and go on Google.
What is cancer? By definition, it is what occurs when abnormal cells divide uncontrollably. It is my body drawing enemy lines onto itself and starting a war it can only truly win by losing.
“How long do I have?”
“About a year on chemoradiation. Give or take a couple of months.”
I slowly nod my head as I take in the weight of his words. A year. One year.
“And with no chemo?”
“Roughly six months. It’s hard to tell and again, all these numbers are averages. You could fall into the smaller percentile of people that make it almost two years.”
We both know I won’t. There are people worthy of miracles, and I am not one of them.
“You will be needing pain medication, and down the line, we might be looking at surgery.”
“In case of bile duct or gastric outlet obstructions, we’ll need to do a bypass or place a stent.”
I continue nodding my head and staring blankly at him. I can barely remember what he says the minute the words leave his mouth. He goes back to his seat and tells me he’s a certified psychologist. It is an invitation to talk about the dark thoughts flooding my mind.
“You know I always thought I’d die from a car accident,” I say, chuckling as my lower lip quivers and tears pool into my eyes.
He looks at me like I’m an enigma, opening his mouth to say something and then deciding against it at the last possible moment.
I tell him I find him too callous to believe he’s a psychologist, stand up off his beat-up chair, and leave. As I walk the corridor leading out towards the reception, he calls out to me. I look back to find him waving a thin brown envelope in the air.
The waiting area is full now compared to when I arrived. People are seated in groups of two, others three, holding hands and rubbing each other’s backs. As I walk past them, I can’t help but notice crow’s feet on their eyes and drooping smile lines on their cheeks. I realise I will never grow old enough for time to cruelly mark itself on my skin.
Mum took me to see a therapist after the car incident. Liam is soft-spoken and patient. He listened even when I was not talking. He could interpret my silence in a way no one else could. He cut my life up into two small compartments that fit into the little box he drew in his notebook. He called it before and after I lost Nina. He filled the boxes with random memories and thoughts that I gave him; when they were full, he drew others on separate pages and started again. Looking back at the time I spent with him, I realise we went about it all wrong. There was never an ‘after losing Nina’. It has always been during because there is no day that I wake up that I don’t lose her all over again.
We talked about guilt a lot, Liam and I; the lingering feeling that she would still be here if I hadn’t called. Everybody thinks it too, despite not saying it. If I had hung up when she told me she was driving, she would have had all her attention on the road and would still be alive. If life were somewhat fair, I would have suffered the same fate she did. I would have died in a car accident at 22 and left my mother childless. But maybe I did not deserve a quick way out. Maybe the wage for my sin was to have a trace of death planted inside my body, sprouting leisurely unbeknownst to me until the moment of its reaping.
A day after my diagnosis, I asked Liam to meet me at a coffee shop outside campus. It’s a small shop with even smaller windows and curved geometrical patterns all over ochre walls. The Parisian bistro chairs and tables, coupled with slow jazz music that plays on a vinyl record player, give it a serene vibe, making it one of my favourite places to hang out. When Liam arrives, I am already on my second cup of coffee. I hand him the envelope as soon as he sits down. He puts it aside and engages in conversation with me, asking inane questions like “How are you?” and “How’s life been since we last talked?”
I take a page from my doctor’s book and give him the news without warning. He chokes on his coffee as soon as the words leave my lips. I stretch my hand towards the envelope he pushed aside and place it in front of him. He reads every detail with so much attention and care that it begins to scare me. My heart grows restless, as though bound within a box that was slowly running out of air and it was pounding against its walls, desperate to break through before it gave out.
He holds my hand when he’s done and gives me a nod. My lower lip starts to quiver with dread, but I wash it down with a gulp of ice-cold coffee.
“I’m okay, really. It’s been a long time coming,” I say, shakily breathing out.
“This isn’t a punishment, Cecile. It’s just life in its unadulterated barbarity.”
“I’m opting out of chemo,” I say with the same brutishness I picked up from my doctor.
I pause for a moment, surprised at his question. I didn’t quite expect him to ask why. I wanted him to talk me out of it, give me 10 different reasons why I was deserving of 6 more months. But that wasn’t Liam. Liam was just a guy holding a mirror, daring me to look at myself. When I tell him I don’t know why, he says he’ll wait until I do. He orders his second cup of coffee and we both get cinnamon rolls. After a few bites, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and throw it all up. When I come back, I am brave enough to face myself.
“I’m scared of fighting. I am scared of going on my knees, cupping my hands and stretching them out towards God asking for a little more life and having Him turn me away, empty-handed.”
It’s been a month since my diagnosis. Leah, my roommate, who is as curious as they come, found the envelope tucked under my pillow one night and read it. She is an insufferable optimist who believes everything works out for good and somehow manages to spin this rancid fate into something almost palatable. So far, she has convinced me to drop out of law school and spend all the money I’ve saved for years on buying a ticket to a one-month cruise around Europe. It explores all major cities in Europe and I have always wanted to go.
I spend most days checking off some activities from my bucket list, like swimming with dolphins and ice skating. At night, I toss and turn around in my bed for hours, unable to sleep. An image floats in my head, an ominous hourglass of cognizance that trickles and trickles and trickles into the dead of the night. By the time I wake up in the morning, it is almost noon, and I get angry with myself for sleeping my already fleeting life away.
Mum is picking me up from campus for the holidays today. She should be here anytime now. The last time she saw me, I was 30 pounds heavier and just starting life. Now, the ring she gave me before I left for college falls off my bony fingers, and my eyes have no life in them despite the loud colours I smear on their lids. Leah and I sit silently next to each other on one of the campus’s disease-infested benches as we wait for her. As time ticks away, she begins to shuffle her feet and wring her fingers together, a sign that she wants to say something but is afraid to.
“What?” I ask, a little irritated.
“I love you. And I don’t want you to go through this alone.”
I want to tell her that it is the only way to, but she picks up before I can find my tongue.
“I’ve deferred my classes”—she pulls out a ticket from one of her sleeves—“I’m coming to Europe with you.”
I shake my head at her as I muffle back a cry. She wraps her arms tightly around my neck and I wrap mine around her waist, sobbing. We remain like this until we’ve both quieted down. Once we let go, we both glare at the noisy traffic of students before us, stealthily wiping tears from our eyes. I move my hands towards hers and intertwine our fingers. I whisper, “I love you too,” and scoot closer to her, resting my head on her shoulder. In a minute or two, my mum pulls up in her hand-me-down saloon car and drives me away from a hyperventilating Leah.
On our way into town, we pass by the secluded car park. It has barbed wires stretching all around its perimeter. At the furthest end, too far for my eyes to clearly make out, are raised rectangular platforms. When I ask Mum what they are, she says they are tombstones. The car park has recently been reinstated as a public graveyard. I break my neck looking back at it as we pass by, terrified of the thought that I would one day be under that barren ground. If life has a sense of humour, I think, maybe I’ll end up in the same spot Greg placed me on when death was as evitable as refusing to learn how to drive.
“Last year of law school has done a number on you,” is the first thing my mum says when we get home. I play with the folded envelope in my hoodie pocket as she says this, trying to find the right time, the right way, to tell her. But what exactly is the right way to tell your mother you’re dying? To watch all the blood drain from her body and her heart implode upon the realisation that she will outlive you? She leads me towards the guest bathroom and asks me to step on a scale. I hesitate at first, but she nudges me forward until my feet are squarely on it. On reading my weight, she clicks her tongue in disappointment, but her face frowns with worry. She holds me by the waist and pulls back my hoodie to see just how much of me there is. Her hands tremble as they travel towards me, almost as though they were unfamiliar to my body.
We haven’t seen each other in a year despite the campus being only an hour away. Things had never been the same with us since Nina. I wasn’t the only one who changed. She grew too scared, and it translated into a dozen calls during night outs with friends asking if I was safe, calling the cops the minute I turned my location off, and showing up at parties to give me the bottle of pepper spray that I intentionally left at home despite her insistence that I never leave it behind. Liam called it her rude awakening: the realisation that life was not discriminatory, that it could take me just as fast as it took Nina. Within no time, the fear she carried around in her palms like every good mother and mindlessly rubbed onto my skin took root inside me. It turned into a vine growing out from my chest, winding itself around my body, choking me. When I found a way out of her hold, I did not look back. Like a child learning to take her first steps, I entered the world stumbling until I steadied myself.
“Goodness Cecile, are you starving yourself?” she asks, looking me in the eyes. I shake my head. She cups my face with her hands, gently tracing my sculpted cheekbones, then asks if everything is okay. I can see the fear in her eyes, behind them, rather. It is a little girl standing barefoot on shards of glass, trying not to cry. My heart crushes into itself when I see her like this, and it takes all the strength I have in me not to break down into her arms.
She walks into the kitchen and serves me a glass of milk with chocolate chip cookies. I sit at the kitchen counter to eat as she ties a kiss-the-chef apron around her waist and starts making dinner. On the refrigerator by the wall, held in place by a butterfly magnet, is a picture of me and Nina during a visit to the water park. We were 8 and 11, had missing teeth, and big pink goggles on our eyes. We wore matching swimsuits and held each other’s hands, smiling. When Mum turns her back to me, tears drop out of my eyes, soaking her cookies. I look at her through clouded eyes as she makes origami out of the kitchen cloth.
At night, when she’s asleep, I tiptoe to the kitchen and burn the tired brown envelope to ashes.
Buke Abduba is a writer from Kenya. Her short story ‘Price Tags’ was shortlisted for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has been published on adda. As a writer, she believes she has a unique voice that brings life to her stories and hopes to use it to tell stories that are important, especially to her community. She is a pharmacist by profession.