10. In Love With Spring: My Novel Online
Updated: Jan 18
"HOW LONG HAVE YOU been in pain?” Dr. Kenney asked gently.
“She hasn’t been in pain,” Mom answered. “Just the fever, and she’s been really tired.”
“No…Mom…my stomach has been bothering me the whole time. It’s been really sore.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mom turned to Dr. Kenney. “She never said she—”
“I didn’t want you to worry. You had so much on your mind, with Dad gone and everything. And I kind of thought maybe it was from being so empty, since I didn’t feel like eating.”
“So…a month or so?”
Dr. Kenney patted Lisbeth’s knee. “Well,” he said, “the diagnosis is not as good as we would have liked. But it’s not the end of the world either, okay? Please remember that, because I am going to tell you something pretty scary.”
Lisbeth’s eyes went wide. “What,” she said.
“All the tests showed that you have leukemia.”
“Leukemia!” Lisbeth slid off the examination table and into Mom’s arms and started to cry. “I knew it! I always knew I would die young!”
“Lisbeth,” Dr. Kenney said, “this is not a death sentence. We have treatments. There have been lots of advances in this field. So we have every reason to think you’ll be just fine.”
Mom, holding Lisbeth tight, kissed her head over and over, trying not to break down in tears too. “Did you hear that, Lissie? You’re going to be just fine.”
Dr. Kenney added encouragingly. “Boston has the finest hospitals in the country. Maybe the world.”
Lisbeth, who hadn’t heard a single word since leukemia, kept crying. She kept crying, and she could not stop.
Mom sat them all down and told them what Dr. Kenney said, emphasizing the high incidence of remission in kids with Lisbeth’s form of the illness. She repeated the line about Boston having the finest hospitals in the country, and she outlined the treatment course. She showed them all the brochures about leukemia, about the chemotherapy which would begin immediately.
“I’ll lose my hair,” Lisbeth whispered.
“It’ll grow back,” Jules said. “You’re going to be just fine.”
They all nodded. Just fine just fine just fine.
“It’s not that bad,” Lisbeth told Jules. “I take something for the nausea so it doesn’t last that long. I’m okay.” The energy required to smile was, like everything else she did, exhausting. She knew she looked horrible: skin gray, with dark circles under eyes, hair gone, even her eyebrows and eye lashes. There was always a gross taste in her mouth from throwing up, and she imagined her breath must be really bad, so she tried to cover her mouth when she spoke. “Just need to sleep.” She heard Jules say, “Okay,” and felt Jules kiss her hand. She tried to say Please don’t worry, but she didn’t have the strength to even get the first word out.
The medical bills took Mom by surprise. “But I have insurance,” she protested for the third time to the woman in billing.
“Thank God for that,” said the woman. “Otherwise you’d owe us thousands of dollars.”
“But I do owe thousands,” Mom said. “Thousands.”
“Well trust me, without insurance it would be more.”
Mom wanted to say, I hope you never have a little girl with leukemia; I hope you never have to know what it’s like to feel so helpless and so scared that you want to scream! But instead she said, “Thank you,” and hung up.
Over and over during Dad’s increasingly-frequent visits he said, “We’ll get through this.” But how? He was sending as much money as he could, and she’d taken a second job working evenings as a cashier at Tools, Etc. For several weeks, Mandy had been staying home to take care of Lissie during the day, but then Mom got permission from her boss to work from home in the mornings and come in after lunch. That left Mandy available to accept a secretarial position at a place called Perry’s, Inc., and meant that Lisbeth would only be alone for two hours before Jules and Allie got home. Then Jules, with her high grades, convinced her teachers to let her have a couple of half days a week so she could be with Lisbeth on the mornings when Mom absolutely had to be at work. Lisbeth, lying in bed, overheard hushed discussions of the complicated, burdensome logistics, but was too sick to feel guilty.
Simon came over every single day, trying to cheer her up by talking about music and songs he wanted to write with her, but his visits were no longer happy and playful. As soon as he heard about the devastating financial circumstances, he told Grandfather, who roared, “This is unacceptable!” It was the first time Simon had ever seen him honest-to-god furious, and together they went next door, and Grandfather announced that he would paying for everything from now on. Mom broke down in tears and gratefully accepted, under the condition that he allow her to pay him back. “Just as soon as I can,” she promised, and he said, “Please don’t worry about it.”
And as summer faded into the dreariest autumn any of them could remember, the atmosphere of the April household became somber and lifeless.
LISBETH'S FAVORITE TIMES were the afternoons and the evenings. She could lie in bed and luxuriate in the sounds of her family bustling about, trying to maintain some semblance of normal life: her sisters chatting, watching television, or preparing dinner. It was comforting to know that if she called out, someone would immediately be at her side, lovingly asking what could be done for her.
But during the night she lay awake, hating the silence. No words could describe the terrifying loneliness she felt while the rest of the family slept, even Jules who was in Allie’s bed just a few feet away. She mostly passed those hours anticipating death; trying to comprehend what it would be like when it came. Would she be alone, or surrounded by her family? In the hospital or at home? Would she struggle for breath, or die like they did in the movies—eyes shutting gently, head nodding to the side just the slightest bit?
Dad’s most recent visit…the alarm in his eyes…the way he extended his visit from one week to two, to “whenever”…she knew that he knew she was going to die. That scared her more than anything.
What would it be like, to no longer exist? She pictured her soul—her fears and happy memories and all the facts she learned at school—dissipating; a miniscule puff of smoke in an enormous, unforgiving universe. And it wasn’t so much horrible as it was…annoying. I wasted my whole life being afraid, and now it’s going to be over and I didn’t enjoy it at all!
It was by no means the first time she’d been mad at herself. But with all those hours to do nothing but think and think, she was starting to realize that being mad wasn’t enough. She had to do something. So one night made a deal with God: If You let me live, I’ll get over my shyness. I’ll stop being so nervous, I’ll stop worrying about dumb things. I’ll stay up late, I’ll go out in the rain without a coat, I’ll chew gum in class and have to go to the principal’s office…I’ll do everything, if You let me live.
Jules was ill suited to playing the role of the helpless bystander. After a few weeks of trying to deal privately with her fury and despair, she went to the library to research cancer. But she wasn’t looking at medical texts—she was reading about the power of the mind to cure the body. She learned how the immune system is aided by a positive attitude, how being cheerful can be responsible for actual physiological changes in the body by releasing chemicals that block pain and promote healing by reducing inflammation. And the results of studies done on the survival rate of patients who meditated regularly were encouraging. She began bringing books home, and each night she and Lisbeth would discuss them. Jules told her to insist on beating the cancer; to kick it out. “Plus don’t forget,” she must have said it a dozen times, “the chemo is definitely doing its job. Dr. Kenney said your numbers are going in the right direction, and that this kind of leukemia has a high survival rate.”
Allie, who was sleeping in the bed vacated by Jules, would hear their voices and think, I should sit with Lisbeth too. But then she’d fall asleep. In the morning she’d dress quietly, blow Lisbeth a kiss from the doorway, and before she knew it, she’d be laughing with her friends at school; joking about boys, making fun of the teachers, or losing herself happily in her drawing. It was only when she came home and saw the listless faces of the rest of the family that she remembered that she was supposed to be sad too.
It wasn’t that she didn’t worry about Lisbeth. She just didn’t understand that Lisbeth might die. Old, sick people died, not sweet-tempered sisters who made sure you got up in time for school and always told you how beautiful your hair was.
Two or three times a day she’d go in and ask Lisbeth, “How are you feeling?” but she couldn’t bring herself to sit on the bed the way the others did. She marveled at the way Mandy, who’d put herself in charge of preparing all of Lisbeth’s meals, even fed her when she was too weak to raise a spoon to her lips. To Allie, the room smelled so gross…like throw up and those shakes Lisbeth drank when she couldn’t eat.
One afternoon a few months after Lisbeth’s diagnosis, Allie was sitting outside in the cold October sunshine, looking through a sketchbook she’d worked on the previous year. I’m really good, she thought, admiring in particular a drawing she’d done of the fence separating the Aprils’ yard from Simon’s: the chipped white paint, the crumbling wood, the yellow dandelions flourishing in the sun. She remembered the day so well, how excited she’d been that school was out and she had the whole summer ahead of her to do nothing but draw and hang out with her sisters. Turning the page, she saw a drawing of Lisbeth at her piano. It was a wonderful likeness of the way she’d been then; rosy with health, confident, masterful, unaware that she was being sketched. Allie’s heart twisted. She looks totally different now! Tears filled her eyes. If Lisbeth died, who would play silly songs and make them laugh? Who would fix everyone’s coffee in the morning? A tear landed on the page, and then another and another. Allie pushed the sketchbook aside and buried her face in her hands. She cried until her nose ran and her head throbbed and her throat ached. She cried until she couldn’t cry anymore.
The air grew chilly. She was exhausted and her toes felt like ice. Wearily, she got to her feet, gathered up her drawing materials, and headed into the house.
Mandy and Jules, sitting at the kitchen table, noticed her puffy eyes.
“Allie?” Mandy reached for her. “What happened?”
Allie looked at her, then at Jules, then hung her head. “I’m going to miss Lisbeth when she…”
“Shut up,” Jules interrupted fiercely. “Shut up if you’re going to talk like that.”
“She’s just scared. We all are.” Mandy forced herself not to give in to her own tears.
“Lisbeth is going to be fine! I’ve been talking to her and the chemo is working and she’s going to be fine!”
“Shh, you’ll wake her,” Mandy warned, but it was too late: a small voice said, “Hey, you guys.”
Startled, the sisters looked up and saw Lisbeth standing in the doorway. She was supporting herself by leaning against the wall, but she was on her feet by herself for the first time since any of them could remember. Her white cotton night shirt, translucent in the late afternoon sun streaming in the window, revealed how skeletal she’d become, like a survivor of Auschwitz.
“Lissie, what are you doing out of bed?” Jules leapt up and grabbed both her hands and guided her to a chair.
“I heard Allie crying, then I heard what you were saying about me, and I couldn’t stand it, I had to come out.”
“I’m so sorry, Lissie,” Allie said quickly, “I didn’t mean it! I was just…I just…I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it!”
Lisbeth held up her hand. “No, it’s fine. I don’t want you to worry about me.”
Her sisters swapped looks. “We’re not worried,” Mandy managed to say.
“I know you are. I would be too.” Lisbeth decided not to tell them about her deal with God, it was too weird. Instead, she said to Jules, “I’ve been reading the books you brought home, especially The Anatomy of an Illness. At first, I wasn’t interested, I only pretended to be so your feelings wouldn’t be hurt. I was so tired and so sick and reading made me feel really icky. But then I started doing those visualization exercises you told me about, and picturing my body getting healthier and stronger. I do them at night while you guys sleep, instead of lying there being scared. Instead of thinking I’m going to die I make myself think about getting better. I picture myself showering and getting dressed. I think about how I might need to buy some new clothes because I’ve lost so much weight. I think about how I might start wearing really cool earrings, because since I lost my hair, you can see my ears.”
“I’ll go earring shopping with you,” Allie said right away. She opened her pad to the drawing she’d done of Lisbeth, and tore it out, and with a magnet shaped like a chocolate chip cookie, affixed it to the ’fridge. “I’m going to do that visualizing thing too, I’m going to picture you going back to being like this.”
“Wow, Allie,” Mandy said. “It looks exactly like her.”
“I remember when you did that one,” Jules laughed. “I said something like That’s really good! and you told me to be quiet.”
“I had no idea you were drawing me.” With a bit of effort, Lisbeth got to her feet and went over to take a closer look. “You made me look so pretty.”
“You are pretty, you silly,” Mandy stood next to her in case she needed help getting back to her seat.
But Lisbeth felt sturdy as she stood there, fascinated by the expression on her face in the drawing; so unlike the face she saw in the mirror or in photos, where she’d either have her eyes shut or be looking away from the camera, spoiling just about every shot. She heard Jules say, “This is what you look like when you play. When you’re at the piano, you’re brilliant. You don’t give a shit about anything but your music,” and she thought, This is who I want to be all the time.
Just then the door opened. Jules called, “We’re in here, Mom!” and a moment later Mom appeared. Her mouth dropped open at the sight of Lisbeth standing, and she walked straight into her arms.
“She’s getting better!” Allie said.
Mom pulled away and inspected her. “Are you, Baby?”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. I was about to tell everyone…I was afraid to live, but luckily, I was more afraid to die.” She meant it as sort of a joke, but it was a somber silence that followed. “Hey, what does a girl have to do to get a cup of tea around here?”
Everyone burst into action: Mandy put on water, Allie opened up a package of cookies, Jules hurried into the bedroom to fetch Lisbeth’s robe, and Mom dialed the phone number of Dad’s room at the motor lodge. Soon Lisbeth was snug and warm, sipping hot tea, nibbling on a cookie, and chatting with Dad about a song she’d heard on the radio that she thought he’d like.
“So she’s cured?” Mom asked.
“When it comes to cancer, we’re kind of reluctant to use the word cured,” said Dr. Kenney. “But the chemo worked, and Lisbeth is in remission. That means there’s no cancer anywhere in her body. Her blood tests came back looking exactly the way we wanted them to. So…Lisbeth, as far as I’m concerned, you got your life back. Now you go out there and live it.”
Mom was suddenly crying so hard she couldn’t even breathe. She covered her face and her heart was shouting, Thank you thank you thank you! And through her tears she heard Lisbeth’s response: “I will, Dr. Kenney. Believe me, from now on, I will.”