I adjusted the blinds to let the sunshine into Becky’s room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It was one of those luminous late summer days in Manhattan when the sidewalks are thick with people—office workers, shoppers, vendors, tourists from all over the world. The energy was almost palpable, not at all like the quiet little town I lived in upstate where everyone knew everyone else. “Come and look,” I said to Becky and my sister, Kathy, Becky’s mom. “It’s an amazing view.”
My 19-year-old niece had been battling Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer, since January. She’d entered Sloan-Kettering that morning so she could have a stem cell transplant, a desperate effort to wipe out the cancer that radiation and chemotherapy hadn’t been able to destroy. It had been a long, tough year, and I just wanted this procedure to cure Becky and for things to go back to normal.
Becky got into bed and I was still admiring the view when the door opened and in waltzed a young woman. Not just any young woman. This one had spiky black hair, a line of earrings snaking down each ear, eyebrow rings and a stud in her nose. The silver glinted in the sunlight, and for a moment I just stared. “May I help you?” I asked.
“Hi, I’m Tami. I’m going to be Becky’s primary care nurse.” Becky sat up and shook Tami’s hand. I tore my eyes from Tami’s face long enough to glance at her uniform. Something told me a belly button ring lurked underneath it. I’d seen a few kids decked out like this when I was substitute teaching, but they were a tiny minority in our town. And with two teenage sons, I’d seen my share of music videos. But this girl was a hospital nurse! How could someone who seemed to have no problem inflicting damage on her own body be trusted to take care of someone else’s?
I watched silently as Tami hooked up Becky to a couple of monitors. “I’ll be back to check on you later,” she said.
Becky turned to me the moment Tami left the room. “Aunt Ine, how could you act like that? She’ll think you don’t like her!”
“What? I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to. The look on your face said it all.” I’d never been very good at hiding my feelings. But I had to watch out for Becky. My only niece was in a fight for her life. She needed someone caring, dependable and responsible nursing her.
I unpacked Becky’s things and said nothing, resolving to keep an eye on Tami. No point in upsetting Becky further. She’d been through so much already. Having to drop out of college freshman year. Nine months of outpatient treatment at Sloan-Kettering. And the worst symptom of her illness—an intense itching that made it almost impossible for her to sleep. Her only relief was having someone rub her feet, where the itching was most severe. Becky’s father had to stay upstate and work, so I often made the eight-hour trip to Manhattan to help my sister with the round-the-clock foot rubs while Becky was being treated.
My prayers had become round-the-clock too. Ever since her diagnosis Becky had been optimistic, a real fighter. “My grandfather lived for years after he got sick,” she told her doctor. “I’m going to be just like him.” But every time it seemed Becky was getting better, we got more bad news. My pleas turned into frantic questions—Why aren’t you helping Becky, God? Why aren’t you watching over her?
We couldn’t even rub Becky’s feet anymore without wearing gowns, masks and gloves because she was at a high risk for infection until she got her new stem cells. Her friends couldn’t visit her. But Becky’s face lit up whenever Tami came in. They chattered on about TV shows, music, boys—especially their exes. It was like they’d known each other for years!
How could my wholesome niece—who loved the outdoors and never bothered with jewelry—be so comfortable with a big city girl who had more metal on her than a bicycle chain? Granted, some days Tami looked almost normal—the piercings were visible but the silver was missing. One afternoon she strutted in wearing a leather dog collar studded with metal spikes. “That girl has a problem,” I told Becky after Tami left. “Nobody with a healthy self-image would dress like that.”
Becky rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t mean anything, Aunt Ine. It’s just her style!”
Style? I didn’t see anything stylish about it. But I had to admit I also couldn’t see any reason to doubt Tami’s nursing skills. In fact, Becky seemed so at ease with Tami that Kathy and I started going for walks while she was on duty. The day of Becky’s stem cell transplant, we went all the way to South Street Seaport to buy her a watch for her “transplant birthday.” Becky recovered quickly, and on Halloween she was released. “I’ll miss you, Becky,” Tami said as she hugged her goodbye, her eyes moistening. “Now go home and celebrate.”
The celebration didn’t last. Right after Thanksgiving the cancer came back. Becky started outpatient radiation treatments again. Then she caught a cold she couldn’t shake. The day after Christmas she was rushed back to Sloan-Kettering. She had pneumonia.
A couple of days later I sat alone in the waiting room reading the same magazine paragraph over and over while I waited for Becky to be brought out. Someone sat down in the chair next to me. Tami. There was something almost comforting about her familiar strangeness. She looked me straight in the eye. “You know Becky’s in very bad shape,” she said. “There’s someone I think she needs to speak to.”
“Her old boyfriend. Can you track him down?” Before I could answer, Tami slipped a piece of paper into my hand. “My home phone number,” she explained. “In case you ever need me.” With that she hurried off on her rounds. For a moment I felt as dumbfounded as I’d been the first time I’d seen Tami. I tucked her number into my purse and went to find Kathy so we could contact Becky’s ex.
Tami was right. Becky was in good spirits after she talked to her old boyfriend. But her lungs were filling up with fluid and she developed shingles.
By December 30 the worst seemed over. Becky had even improved enough to eat a Big Mac. On New Year’s Eve morning, I told Kathy to catch up on her sleep. I planned to sit with Becky a few hours before taking the train home to spend the holiday with my husband and sons. I couldn’t wait for the year to end. I wanted to forget all about 1997.
But it wasn’t over yet. Becky’s doctor had ordered an X-ray that morning. The results came back just as my sister arrived at the hospital. The moment I saw the doctor, I started shaking.
“The cancer has exploded inside Becky’s chest,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
The doctor shook her head. “It means the cancer will grow into Becky’s throat. When it does, she won’t be able to breathe.” Her voice sunk to a whisper. “You’d better call the rest of the family—now.”
Within an hour the others were on their way. But they wouldn’t get to the city until at least midnight. Somehow we’d have to get through the night on our own. We couldn’t tell Becky, not when she was finally feeling better. Not on New Year’s Eve.
Kathy sat with Becky. But I couldn’t. One look at my face and Becky would see my feelings as clear as always. So I paced. Around and around the halls I went, trying to rid my mind of the image of Becky gasping for air. My niece was dying. And I couldn’t stop it. Couldn’t even manage to sit with her and rub her feet.
Every prayer I’d said for Becky had failed, yet I could do nothing else but pray. Oh, God, just take care of my niece. Give her comfort. Help me understand all this!
Down the hall a nurse turned the corner. I wished it were Tami. But she was off for the holiday. I dug into my purse and pulled out her number. In case you ever need me. I hesitated. It was New Year’s Eve after all, and Tami was young and single. Finally I went to the pay phone and called her. “If you could maybe come keep Becky company for just an hour…give us time to gather our senses…”
“Think you can hold on till eight o’clock?”
“Oh, yes! I know you probably already have plans.”
“I do now. See you soon,” she said.
I pulled myself together and joined my sister in Becky’s room.
Right at 8:00 p.m. Tami burst in, eyes shining. Hoisting a bottle of sparkling grape juice into the air, she shouted, “Let’s party!”
Tami unloaded a stack of videos, four pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and four plastic champagne glasses on the windowsill. In minutes we were all scrunched together on the bed watching movies, eating ice cream and toasting with grape juice. We were laughing so much we hardly noticed when midnight passed. Who knew someone who’d once seemed so strange to me could make things feel so normal? I watched Tami slip her hand—a ring on nearly every finger—into Becky’s.
Judge not according to the appearance, I recalled from the Bible. Tami was the answer to prayer I’d been waiting for. She hadn’t looked like the answer I’d wanted. Yet God had provided in his own perfect way. He had provided for me by providing for Becky.
Tami would be there again four weeks later when Becky slipped away peacefully, surrounded by all of us who loved her. But when I think of Tami—and that’s often—I think of the joy she brought to those final minutes of a terrible year. And the only thing I remember about how she looked that night is the love in her eyes.
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