Many years ago my grandparents traded their large suburb home in central Durban in favour of a smaller home by the sea. It was a three bedroom cottage, with white-washed walls, a blue roof, white picket fence and all of the furniture was made from pieces of wood my grandfather had found on the beach. The garden was small, but anyone would forgive its size when it opened up straight onto the beach. There were many other houses like this, all in a line. Some were bigger and grander while others were smaller and cozier. I had always loved coming to this house on holidays, but I hadn't been here since my mother had passed away. But now I was back, with the same illness my mother had. Poetic, isn't it?
It had been two months since I had written that letter to Tyler and secretly moved out of Cape Town, but I still couldn't stop thinking of him, what he was doing and how he was feeling. It was awful writing that letter. I had had to re-start it three times because my tears smudged the ink so much. Maybe I should have left those smudges, just so that he knew how hard it had been to say goodbye.
My health seemed slightly better here in Durban. Whether it was the warmer climate or the sound of the ocean just outside my bedroom window that was improving my condition, I couldn't say; but I felt a little bit stronger than before. My grandparents were amazing care-givers. They knew the cancer drill, having cared for my mother when she was ill. The many doctor's appointments and chemo sessions were all made bearable by their gentle and loving presence. If they had been older I might not have followed through with the move, but my grandparents were only in their late sixties, but young late sixties. When I was too weak to walk, they would help me bath and dress, and when I felt more capable they would force me to do some exercise even if it was just light stretching in the middle of the lounge.
"Adriel, honey your breakfast is getting cold," called my grandmother from the kitchen. I was having another one of my chemo sessions today and she was driving me to the hospital in central Durban where I would receive it.
I stood in front of the mirror in my room, having come straight out of the shower. I removed the towel from my waist and regarded my reflection. It was scary. I literally scared myself. I looked like an oddly shaped piece of clay molded by an eccentric artist, with funky twists and turns that resembled my rib cage and sharp points to portray my bony prominences. My skin was pale and completely void of any hair. I was a piece of sad art. I was cancer art. There it was again, that word...cancer...Cancer. It lived in my bones and travelled in my blood, all day and all night. Cancer never took any breaks, which means I couldn't take any breaks either. I quickly dried myself and threw on a pair of tracksuit pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt and some sneakers. I hurried to the kitchen and ate the bowl of oats my grandmother had set in front of me. I managed to get down half of it, which was a good sign for the rest of the day. Perhaps I wouldn't puke my guts out until after the chemo, when puking was a given.
We arrived at the hospital on time and I was plugged in to my chemo machine. I looked around at the other patients, sitting quietly and calmly in the armchairs around me. To my left was Thandi, a 13 year old African girl from Durban, and on my right was Sean who, just like me, was 15 years old. Our cancers were a variation of the same thing, or so we derived during our in depth analysis of our charts, and using Google on Sean's phone, which was more high tech than the one I had. Today we discussed what movies were coming out in the next few months and which ones we were going to see. We also talked about Thandi's going back to school to write her exams and Sean's girlfriend problems. He felt she was only staying with him because he had cancer and that he should actually break up with her to save time and effort used to carry on a fake relationship. When he told me this, I didn't say anything. I wasn't able to relate much to his story. I broke it off with Tyler before our relationship could turn into anything, fake or anything else. I thought about the letter I had written him those months ago. I wanted to cry all of a sudden. I wanted to get up and go the bathroom but my veins were hooked up to a machine. I couldn't go anywhere for the next hour or so. I choked back the tears.
Thandi began singing a song, in her African language, probably Zulu since she is from Durban. It had a soft, subtle sound and the melody was slow and winding like a river. She had a sweet voice and she lightly breathed the words into the air. It sounded like a lullaby. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, one of the nurses was shaking my shoulder.
"It's time to wake up now Adriel," said the nurse kindly. She carefully removed the tubes from my arm and pushed the machine aside. I stood up slowly, knowing that any sudden movement would bring on the nausea. As I left the chemo room, the nurses handed me a cookie, like they did when you donated blood, and walked with me to the nurse's station where my grandmother was waiting for me. She had gone out for a little while to do some shopping in the city and had come back to pick me up.
"You okay?" she asked. One may think it insensitive to ask someone with cancer if they were okay, but I knew the question was relative. And I was feeling relatively okay this time. So I nodded.
When we got back to the house I literally crawled into bed and slept for a few hours. When I finally woke up, it was with a heavy feeling in my chest. The heaviness moved towards my head and I knew I wasn't going to make it to the bathroom. I leaned over the edge of my bed and puked into the bucket that I kept there for emergencies. It lasted until I felt completely empty, as though my insides had collapsed altogether without anything holding them up. Even the air was out of me. I got up out of bed and turned on the bedside lamp. It was 20:00. I stood up and left my bedroom. My grandparents were in the living room watching something on television.
"Hi," I said and walked passed them into the kitchen.
"Hey guy," said my grandfather and followed me into the kitchen.
"I threw up again," I said, sitting down at the kitchen table, I was feeling tired already. "I feel so empty."
I put my head on my arms and started crying. I did feel empty. All of the life was being drained out of me; physically, emotionally and mentally. My grandfather let me sob for a few minutes before putting a plate of buttered toast in front of my nose. He put his hand on my back and hugged me towards him. I snuggled my head under his arm and cried into his side. He held me there for a minute or so before lifting my head up in his hands and wiping away my tears.
"I can see it's hard Adriel," he said to me, "but don't ever forget that you are strong, don't ever forget that you are young and that you are a fighter. You always have been. You will win this."
I looked at my grandmother, who was standing now near the couch. She had been watching and I could see the reflection of tears on her cheeks. She smiled at me and motioned for me to come to her. I stood up and with the plate of toast in my hand and went over to her and we sat down on the couch in front of the television. My grandfather joined us and I ate the toast he had made for me. I sat there, warm and comfortable and full between my loving grandparents, feeling more hopeful than I had ever felt in a long time.
An hour after my grandparents had gone to bed, I switched off the television and went to my room and sat by the desk. I opened the drawer and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. I began writing:
1 October 2005
I had another session of chemo today, and it was the same as any other, so I will spare you the gory details. I looked at myself in the mirror today, a little but longer than I usually do and I fear that if you saw me now, I would scare you halfway across the continent. I sometimes forget what I used to look like and I have to take out old photos to remind myself. I still have dark hair and pale skin, but everything is dull and dusty. I feel as though my skin may flake off and I could stand, in front of the mirror, in merely my disease ridden bones.
It's almost always warm here, but I can feel it getting warmer every day. I am hopeful that I will reach the summer, if only to let the sun wake my skin into life.
I love you.
I neatly folded the piece of paper and put it into an envelope. I retrieved a miniature treasure chest from my closet and unlocked it with a key I kept on a silver chain around my neck. I lifted its lid and placed the envelope inside it along with the other letters I had written Tyler every day since I had left Cape Town.
November through December had been a rough patch although it seemed the New Year had slightly better things in store, including my much anticipated 16th birthday. I had never been this excited about getting older and I wished I could grow older faster so that if the cancer did take one last swing at me I wouldn't go down at such a young age. For now, the cancer was staying put in his corner while I recovered in mine. On the 17th of January my dad and grandparents celebrated with me. They had set up a little picnic just outside of their garden, on the beach. My dad, granddad and I were sitting on the large picnic mat, under an umbrella, and talking about various things: how I was coping with the home-schooling issue, how my dad had to leave this evening so that he could be on time when the schools re-opened the next day. The summer weather was perfect. It was late in the afternoon and the world took on a burnt orange tone, the sun was unrelentingly warm and not the slightest breeze existed to disrupt the white beach sand. It was the kind of summer I loved, one with a passionate commitment to its name. A group of older boys played rugby a short distance from us and I watched as their tanned, taut bodies twisted and contorted as though made more supple by the sun itself. One body in particular held my gaze even when the action was elsewhere. His long muscular legs rose from the sand like tree trunks into a pair of black swimming trunks that ended a few centimeters above the knee. His upper body was built like a tank. He was pure muscle. His pecs were perfectly visible beneath a light covering of dark chest hair that thinned and trailed down, between four sets of abs, and disappeared into his shorts. His shoulders were broad and angular and his arms stretched and contracted as the rugby ball traveled to and from him. His face was more difficult to delineate as he wore a pair of sunglasses and his jaw was covered in what seemed to be more of a 10 o'clock shadow than a 5 o'clock one. His hair was dark and slightly messy.
My dad nudged me out of my fascination.
"Adriel, don't you want to blow out the candles on your cake."
I looked at the little chocolate cake packed with sixteen candles.
"Am I not too old for candles guys," I said smiling.
"What! You've always loved blowing out the candles on your birthday cake," defended my dad.
"Okay, if you insist," I said and drew air into my lungs. At that moment, just as I was about to exhale a rugby ball landed in the sand next to our picnic and sprayed sand all over the cake and us. I looked around to see where the ball had come from and realized it could only have been from the group of guys playing rugby nearby. A few of the guys came over to fetch the ball and proceeded to apologize profusely. My dad stood up, his colossal form rising from the sand. The rugby players took a few steps back. My dad gave me a sly smile and walked over to them. I knew he wouldn't do anything to them, and in no time at all had started chatting to them about rugby. I was never someone he could take sports to, and neither was my mother, so he took the opportunity to do it with similar minded people as much as he could. I looked out over the beach to see if the where the rest of the guys were. The beautiful tanned rugby player was standing near the edge of the water and looking out, with his hand shielding his eyes, at the group assembled next to the picnic. It seemed he was waiting for them to retrieve the ball and resume the game. Instead, my dad had started an in depth conversation about our current national squad with the group. The tanned guy waked around in a tight circle, digging his toes into the wet sand. I turned back to my grandparents. My grandfather had joined my father and the boys discussing rugby and my grandmother had started packing up the picnic.
"I think I'm going to go inside and take a nap, I think I've had enough excitement for one day," I said.
"Oh, haha," snickered my grandmother, "well, there may not be any sandless cake left, but by God if anyone gets sand into the lovely dinner I'm preparing. I won't be as forgiving as your father."
I stood up and followed her into the yard. Before entering the house and I turned to see if the beautiful rugby player had finally joined the crowd outside the house. He hadn't. He had waded out into the still ocean, his handsome form the only irregularity on the horizon.