My hands tremble as I rummage throughout my pockets for any spare cigarettes. When I finally grasp one, I pull out the lighter from my left pocket and try to light it without burning myself. I laugh ironically as I inhale and blow a cloud of smoke from the very thing that had brought me here, right across the Cancer Center of London.
The scenario that happened a few minutes ago still burned in my mind. I remembered how the doctors whispered among themselves and sneaked glances towards me as they examined an x-ray of my lungs. I clenched my fists so hard, knowing exactly what they would say. One doctor finally approached me.
“Mrs. Holmes…. Grace... can I call you Grace?” the doctor stammers as he tries to break the unpleasant news to me. When he notices that I did not respond and was much more interested in staring at my muddy boots, he sighs and calls over the doctors holding the X-ray. “Grace... since when did you start… smoking?”
I close my eyes and let out a raspy breath. I remember the day as clear as crystal icicles that hang from the roof of the building.
My mother was sitting outside as she read the newspaper with the radio beside her that played some blues tunes while she smoked a cigarette. I had been sitting on the freshly cut grass underneath the tree as I read The Infinite Jest by David Wallace. It had been a beautiful Sunday, the first time in weeks that there had been no rain or clouds, but it wouldn’t matter soon. Father was supposed to come back from Iraq that day and when I heard the engine pull over, I was so certain it was him, so gullible. I had dropped my book and dashed towards the blue car. I saw a man wearing a military uniform step out of the vehicle, but when I had come closer, I stopped for that hadn’t been my father. As my mother approached me and saw the man that was standing right across us, with sadness that glimmered in his eyes, her cigarette dropped into the grass, we both had realized exactly why he had come. My mom ran to the man, who had served with my father for years and cried on his soldier as he had tried to calm her down with tears of his own. I had been too shocked to even respond and just stood there. The once peaceful blues had started ringing in my ears. My vision had finally started to cloud with my own tears as I stared at the smoke coming from the cigarette my mother had just dropped. That very night, I had seen my mother smoke and drink like crazy. When I had entered the living room that night and saw her passed out on the couch, well, I had thought that maybe smoking would help me calm down and sleep too.
“Grace?” the doctor repeats himself one more time as he pulled me back into reality.
“Since I was 12”, I whisper clenching my fist even harder to the point of almost feeling blood dripping down my fingers. All the doctors’ eyes open wide as they stared at me with disgust and shock. I try to ignore them and look up at the main doctor. He looks at the x-ray and turns back to me as if everything was clear in his mind.
“Grace, I’m sorry but you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, stage 4.”
I nod solemnly as I slowly get up from my chair. I look back to the doctors who are now avoiding my stare.
“How long do I have?” I ask, only to get the response of wind blowing outside.
“2 years at most,'' he finally responds.
I stand in the middle of the parking lot not knowing what to do. Droplets blur my vision as I pick up my phone and scroll through, trying to find who to spend my last few hours with. My finger stops scrolling as I see a phone number that catches my eye, one I had tried to avoid ever since that day since I blamed her for my addiction to nicotine. I pull out a last smoke from the cigarette and drop it onto the road, crushing it with my heel. I let out a deep breath, feeling the snowflakes fall on me, knowing that I won’t survive to see them again. After a while, I finally click on the green button and place the phone on my ear. A few seconds pass in silence with only the sound of ringing. Just as I lose hope, I hear a soft voice on the other side of the line.
“G... Gracie is that you?” At the sound of hearing her voice, my bottled emotions spill out into the snow. I fall to a bench next to me and start crying. The voice on the other line tries to console me but nothing works.
“I’m scared mom,” I tell her, and with that, I spill everything about what happened at the hospital and how I had suspected it for a long time but was stupid enough to ignore it and not quite smoking. My mother breaks. She cries along with me and blames herself as I desperately try to tell her it was no one’s fault but my own for making such a stupid decision. Finally, when we both calm down, silence ensues us.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Mother asks with clear sorrow in her voice.
I dig down more into my right pocket, past the cigarette box and find my wallet. Out from there, I pull out an old picture that I didn’t even know I still had. The picture consists of a tall, fit man with blond curls and green eyes holding a little toddler with grey eyes and the exact curls as his, wearing an army hat that was too huge for her tiny head.
“I think I will follow dad’s footsteps,” I said softly, carefully placing the photo back into my pocket and heading towards the bus stop.
“But it’s a dangerous job with such hard work and dedication, I don’t want... I don’t want the same thing to happen…” my mother couldn’t bear herself to finish the sentence.
“Mom, I will die soon anyway. At least if I die out there on the field, I will have died a hero, not some weak girl spending the rest of her life in hospitals,” I reply with bitterness in my voice, but immediately regret it. Of course, it wasn’t my mother’s fault. She had lost her husband 18 years ago and was now about to lose her only daughter to cancer.
“Aren’t you afraid of what awaits you after you depart from this world?” she asks and that immediately silences me. She was right. I never thought about it. What would happen to me after I died? I was never much of a believer to think there would be someone waiting for me up there on the clouds, beyond the golden gates. And even if there were, I’d probably be going down underneath the ground, with a devil waiting for me beside the gates riddled with thorns. I don’t like the idea of eternal darkness, so I’d prefer to think that after you die, you are reborn as a shining new star. I know it sounds weird, but I remember how my grandmother used to climb up with me onto the rooftop and stargaze with me at the beautiful night sky that draped over us. She would tell me that all of our relatives and loved ones were up there as stars, watching over and guiding us on the right path.
“Peace will finally come to me,'' I respond after a long while of contemplating. I feel my mother slowly nodding on the other line as silence fills us once more. I hadn’t really had the chance to talk to her ever since father passed away, guess it’d explain why things were still awkward with us, in fact, this was the longest conversion we’d ever had since forever. I see the bus finally pulling over and I climb onto it, feeling the familiar smell of different aromas filling the air. I make my way to the usual seat in the back of the vehicle and sit down. I think about how soon someone else would sit on my seat when going back home.
“Mom is it ok if I come over tonight, before I apply for the army?”
“Of course baby,” she responds as her voice changes from despair to slight bliss. Before hanging up on her, I hesitate slightly, but then smile as I decide to tell her something before it’s too late.
“I’m still here honey.”
“I... I just wanted to say ... that... after all this time...I... I still love you.”
Before I rush to hang up, feeling embarrassed, I hear her response that fills my dried-up heart with life.
“I love you too.”
we all have our reasons