All week Id think of the conversation Id have with my parents the following Sunday after church, collecting imagined victories, social engagements, popularity, good behavior, although I had not told them I was going to Mass every Sunday or how little I missed the long silence of Quaker Meeting, only that noon was the best time for them to call.
I had it in mind to draw the picture of a busy twelve-year-old girl living an ordinary life in a hospital at which children got better and better and never died. I would tell them of crushes and best friends and compliments from doctors on my progress and athleticism, from nurses on my good citizenship and work on behalf of others. I was, in short, deliriously happy at Warm Springs, as they desperately hoped I would be, and grateful for the opportunity to get better for free, costing my parents almost nothing, as a result of President Roosevelts March of Dimes, money collected in a highly successful campaign held every year on the anniversary of the presidents birth, which supported, among other things, the treatment of children at Warm Springs.
Stopped in my wheelchair in a corner of the courtyard, thinking of the dead baby, some dead baby passing sinless into heaven, substantial or insubstantial I just didnt think it was possible or desirable, and the thought of it, dying and going to heaven, was unacceptable. I wanted to call my mother, my darling mother, and tell her, A baby died today in the Babies Ward, and hear her soft, magical voice pressed to the receiver, saying my name. Susan. But of course I would never tell my parents that a baby had died. It would frighten them, so far away from me, so vulnerable to my fate.
My plan for the day, after Joey Buckley got his wheelchair, was to go with him to the candy shop, where we got to go sometimes twice a week, always on Fridays, and this was a Friday. Wed get cheese crunchies and Grapette and sit in the sun behind the buildings, where no one would expect to see two patients sunning. Id buy him bubblegum with baseball cards as a present for getting over surgery and wed talk. I was an excellent listener.
And when wed finished our snacks and I had hold of little pieces of Joey Buckleys life, wed race our wheelchairs down the steep paved hill where on Saturday afternoons the stretchers and wheelchairs wound their way down the path between the buildings from the courtyard to the movie theater.
I wheeled across the courtyard to the top of the paved hill and looked down. I was good with a wheelchair. I could push the chair up to a high speed, take hold of the right wheel with a strong grip, and make a 180- degree spin so that my body, like a keeling racing sailboat, was nearly parallel to the sidewalk. I could wheel up that hill without stopping, without slipping backward, my hands like little vises on the wheels, the bone showing through the skin. I wanted to move as fast as the chair would go crouch my body down low so my head was just over my knees stretched out in front of me. I stopped at the top of the hill on level ground just before the bend, but if I were to move inches into the downgrade, the chair would be off on its wild ride to the bottom of the hill and Id be holding on for dear life. Thats how I saw myself, and imagining the speed, imagining Joey Buckley flying beside me, our hands on the wheels, ready to stop on a dime, I decided wed do just that wed race down the hill this morning, early, before too many people were sitting around the courtyard on such a fine day. First, before doing anything else, wed race to the bottom and secure our friendship like surviving warriors. Wed make it to the bottom and fall into each others arms.
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Richards Shreve. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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