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*Short turned into full-length novel titled Underneath the Sycamore Tree*

There’s a dead clump of auburn hair resting in the palm of my porcelain hand.

The pad of my frail fingers run over the once-silky strands, a mixture of lighter brown tones resting next to the red from my failed attempt at dying it eight months ago. Mama warned me my hair was too brittle, but I got my stubbornness from her and wouldn’t listen.

Wrapping the evidence of my abnormality tight in my grasp, I force myself up and toward the bathroom. Usually I keep my head down as I go about my morning routine, refusing to look in the mirror. I hate seeing my reflection these days because I don’t recognize the girl staring back at me.

Today I make myself look to see just what this disease has done to me. Letting go of the lost hair on the granite countertop, my fingers rise to touch my sunken cheekbones. There’s no color to them, not even the faintest dusting of pink. Mama won’t look at me for too long because she says it’s hard to see how visible my bones are since I dropped the weight.

Trailing up, I graze the dark bags under my eyes. It looks like I haven’t slept in days, even though sleeping is all my fatigued body demands. My hazel eyes look more green than they do brown, mostly because they’re so glassy it brings out the gold flecks in them. And when I cry, they turn a vibrant shade of emerald.

I blink, hesitating to brush my fingers through my hair. It used to be so thick that hairdressers had a field day layering it during haircuts.

Haircuts.  The concept seems so mundane, just something I used to do every six weeks with Mama and Grammy. Now I miss the idea of having people play with my hair. Whenever I was sick, Mama would comb her fingers through it and lull me to sleep.

Better your hair than your life, Mama would say.

For months I had to watch Mama pretend she was all right with how I looked, knowing the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. The blood tests came back fine, the CT scans, the MRIs, the X-rays. There were no answers as to why I was deteriorating in front of everybody. Just wild accusations from specialists who insisted they knew what they were doing.

I remember how crushed I was that nobody wanted to believe me. Back then I was eerily pale, my eyes were sunken in, and there were times when getting out of bed felt like an Olympic sport because my joints hurt so bad. Mama would call Uncle Will to come pick me up when I couldn’t move on my own, because she couldn’t. Knowing I couldn’t function because my body hated me was hard.

The worst part of it all isn’t that I feel like death, it’s seeing what my health does to Mama. I remember the soul-crushing moment when I realized she was suffering, maybe even more than me. Mama never cried. Not when Daddy left, or when she lost her job for taking too much time off to bring me to appointments and procedures. Mama told me the tears weren’t worth it, because she knew we’d be okay.

My fractured thoughts were washed away by Mama’s voice. “Willow?”

Her voice startles me as her figure appears in the mirror. Her eyes widen as she takes me in, and I can see the pain living in the brown hues. I get my eyes from Dad, although it’s been so long since seeing him that it’s hard to remember how similar we look.

“I wanted to know if you were hungry,” she inquires, voice cracking in the process. She averts her eyes, looking at my beach-themed bathroom décor—the blue shower curtain, seashell bathmat, and matching towels hanging on the rack. She pays attention to anything but me.

I want to say, Look at me, Mama. I’m still your little girl.

But we both know I’m just the hollow vessel of the girl she raised. 

I turn around. “Please don’t be sad,” I plead instead. “I’m okay. Promise.”

She presses her lips tightly together, blinking away tears. Rather than smiling in comfort and nodding in agreement, she shakes her head. “No, baby. You’re not.”

Her eyes are transfixed on the fallen hair. They trail up to my head, where I’m sure a thin patch now rests. I feel a draft there, and her horrified look only confirms my suspicions.

Taking a deep breath, I grab a pair of scissors from the medicine cabinet. It’s full of prescriptions, some I can’t take anymore because my liver and kidneys aren’t strong enough to handle their side effects. Having Lupus is bad enough on the immune system. The medications they give you for certain symptoms slowly eat at your bones and vital organs the longer you stay on them.

Turning back to Mama, I reveal the scissors in my hand. “I don’t want to watch it fall out anymore,” I admit quietly, not wanting to upset her. “I can ask Amy to do it when she gets here, because I can’t cut it on my own.”

Her hurt transforms into something completely different—a pain that is far deeper than any I can ever experience from my disease. It spreads in her eyes like a fire consuming her. And like always, I have to acknowledge that I’m the one who set it.

I think, just remember that I love you, Mama.

“Baby,” she whispers brokenly, quickly closing the gap between us. “If this is what you want then I’ll do it. It’s not … it’s just hard for me. I know I should be stronger, but a mother never wants to see her baby go through this.”

She guides me to the toilet, making me sit on the closed lid. Taking the scissors from my hand, she uses her thumb to brush away stray tears from my cheek. I try not cry in front of anyone, but especially not her.

Cracking a small smile, she adds, “If I wasn’t already old, I’d want to be you when I grow up, kiddo. You’re stronger than I’ve ever been. You’re stronger than me and your father combined.” Her lips twitch over the topic, but she says, “He’d be proud of you.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. If Dad was proud of me, he’d be around more often. Instead, I get two phone calls a year—one for my birthday, and one for Christmas. He’s too busy entertaining his new family across the country to put more effort into the one he left behind when I started showing symptoms that were too much for him to handle.

My life is nothing more than regulated schedules and monitored outings. My calendar is color-coated to show which doctor appointments I have on what days. At this point, the local hospital should rename a wing after me. I had to give up so much—my college degree, apartment, and job—because I’m not healthy enough to live on my own.

Dad doesn’t care. Mama told him about my disease as soon as we found out. He never called or checked up. Not even when we told him how fatal this can be. If he’s proud of me, if even cares, he has a funny way of showing it.

Mama exhales softly, grabbing a razor from the drawer, setting it down on the counter next to her. “Are you sure about this? You only have a few more chemo treatments left.”

Cringing, I nod. “I have bald spots that can’t be hidden. It needs to go.”

“Well we can always look into a wig,” she prompts, bringing the scissors to my hair.

But I don’t want a wig or to pretend I’m fine when I’m not.

My eyes stay closed through every snip of the scissors and graze of the razor. After what feels like forever, I open my eyes to see my hair scattered on the white tiles. My hands rise to my bald scalp, feeling only the prickles of hair that remain.

Finally, I look at Mama. She stares at the ground with a distant expression cloaking her face. I reach out and hold her hand, and for the first time in our lives, we cry together.

Mama meets my eyes, and chokes out, “Your eyes are emerald.”

When Mama cries, her eyes turn gold.

***

My head is covered in peach fuzz, which Grammy says is cute. Puppies are cute. Babies are cute. But the wiry monstrosity coming out of my head like a Chia pet does not make that list.

It’s been almost two months since my last chemo treatment, but I barely feel the difference. I’m still achy, tired, and look like Casper the Ghost.

Thanks to Mama’s encouragement, I made small changes in my life. She convinced me to take online classes to finish my degree since I was a year from graduating before I dropped out. So, I spend every day working on assignments while she keeps an eye on me from across the room like I’m not supposed to notice.

A week after my last treatment, she finally got a school nurse position at the local high school. Even though I told her I’d be fine on my own, she had her doubts. I insisted I didn’t need a babysitter, so she promised not to get me one. The next day, our neighbor Amy conveniently wanted to hangout with me right after Mama left. We spent the day watching movies together, she cooked me lunch, and then suddenly remembered she had plans elsewhere when Mama got home.

No babysitter, my ass.

When I walk into the living room, my movements are more sluggish than usual. My hand grazes the wall to keep me upright, and my eyes are half-closed to avoid the brightness of the fluorescent lights. It’s Saturday, so Mama is home for the weekend. Usually I’m up by nine, but it’s almost noon, and I’m surprised she never woke me up for breakfast since she always pesters me to eat.

As soon as she sees me, her warm smile shifts to a wavering frown. “Baby, what’s wrong?”

It’s a question I hear far too often, but this time I wonder the same thing. The doctors told me I might still feel sick to my stomach a month after treatment, but we’re past that point. I’ve puked up nearly half my meals lately, had raging headaches on and off throughout the week, and back pain that keeps me in bed longer than I like.

“I don’t know,” I rasp.

There’s no pretending it’s nothing, because the feeling settled deep in my bones tells me it’s everything that I need to be worried about. A thousand explanations rage through my head. My immune system, which is compromised because of my disease, was nonexistent because of chemo. I learned a long time ago to read my body and trust when it says something is wrong. And it’s waving flags and sounding alarms so loud I can’t avoid it.

I try to stand up, but everything goes fuzzy. The last thing I hear and see is Mama crying out and reaching for my free-falling body as I blackout.

***

I hate this room.

It’s not even just this room, but this hospital. The bitter smell of antiseptic burns my nostrils and the noise isn’t loud enough to drown out the pestering thoughts in my head. The walls are too white—too pure. It isn’t the type of place you get bad news in.

And the ridiculous pain charts? I want to rip those smiley faces to shreds. When they ask me on a scale from one to ten how bad the pain is, I don’t want to point to the face that looks like it just had a mild stroke. I want to tell them on a scale from one to holy fuck I’m in the been-hit-by-a-bus range.

Mama holds my hand as I voice my bitter thoughts silently. Rarely do I ever complain, but I’m long overdue. Taking every day by stride wears you down. It’s time to let it out—to finally be angry instead of hopeful.

I swear I can hear Mama’s nervous heartbeat from where I lay on the stiff bed. But my heartbeat? It’s calm—too calm.

The nurse had taken blood samples and wheeled me back from radiology almost twenty minutes ago. They didn’t have to tell me what to do during the MRI, I already knew. Don’t move, keep your hands above your head, breathe when they tell you to, hold your breath when they say so. It never changes.

Except maybe the results did.

Based on her sullen expression, dehydration wasn’t the culprit.

So here I am, waiting for the inevitable. The “I’m so sorry” or “I hate to inform you.”

When the curtain draws back, Mama’s grip tightens around me. I stay withdrawn, staring at the salt-and-pepper haired man standing in front of me. He looks sympathetic—his eyes drowning in untold apologies and answers.

“Ms. Ambers,” he begins, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this …”

I hear his words but don’t absorb them. No. Instead I try to calm down Mama, whose body is racking with silent sobs.

Kidney failure.

End stage.

Dialysis.

Kidney transplant.

Between Lupus itself and the chemo for it, my kidneys suffered immense damage. Too much to slow down, with no way to cure it. It isn’t until this moment when he tells me that I need to be admitted, to look into a blood transfusion, that I realize something.

It all makes sense.

My lack of friends. My unwillingness to settle down, to find a solid job, to dream. I never wanted to date—to make time for people in my life. I make thousands of excuses that hold me back from truly living, and the final puzzle piece reveals the reason why.

I’m not meant to.

The realization slams into me, slices through me, opens me up. But I welcome it—the truth.

I’ve never been a religious person, but I believe that there’s a reason for everything. Maybe the reason I could never feel satisfied with life is because I’m not meant to live a full one—to meet my future husband, to have children. The fewer people who care about me, the fewer people I hurt when it all ends.

Maybe Mama will finally start dating then. She won’t say it, but she stays single because of me. I’m her anchor—the weight that slowly drowns her. After all, I’m the reason Dad left. I’m the reason she lost her job. Her love for me ruined her life, and I just want her to be happy again. 

I stare at Mama with unblinking eyes. They’re probably a boring hazel.

But Mama’s eyes are a glorious shade of gold. She’s talking, patting my hand, kissing my cheek. The doctor is telling us the next step, the options, the necessities.

I don’t listen.

I just look into Mama’s eyes.

Are we not okay, Mama?

For once, I think I am. 

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