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Chapter 12

She had leukemia; she’d known it since last summer.  The moment she told me, the blood drained from my face and a sheaf of dizzying images fluttered through my mind. It was as though in that brief moment, time had suddenly stopped and I understood everything that had happened between us, understood why she’d wanted me to do the play: I understood why, after we’d performed that first night, Hegbert had whispered to her with tears in his eyes, calling her his angel; I understood why he looked so tired all the time and why he fretted that I kept coming by the house. Everything became absolutely clear.  Why she wanted Christmas at the orphanage to be so special . . .

Why she didn’t think she’d go to college . . .

Why she’d given me her Bible . . .

It all made perfect sense, and at the same time, nothing seemed to make any sense at all.

Jamie Sullivan had leukemia . . .

Jamie, sweet Jamie, was dying . . .

My Jamie. . .

“No, no,” I whispered to her, “there has to be some mistake. . . .” But there wasn’t, and when she told me again, my world went blank. My head started to spin, and I clung to her tightly to keep from losing my balance. On the street I saw a man and a woman, walking toward us, heads bent and their hands on their hats to keep them from blowing away. A dog trotted across the road and stopped to smell some bushes. A neighbor across the way was standing on a stepladder, taking down his Christmas lights. Normal scenes from everyday life, things I would never have noticed before, suddenly making me feel angry. I closed my eyes, wanting the whole thing to go away.  “I’m so sorry, Landon,” she kept saying over and over. It was I who should have been saying it, however. I know that now, but my confusion kept me from saying anything.

Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t go away. I held her again, not knowing what else to do, tears filling my eyes, trying and failing to be the rock I think she needed.

We cried together on the street for a long time, just a little way down the road from her house. We cried some more when Hegbert opened the door and saw our faces, knowing immediately that their secret was out. We cried when we told my mother later that afternoon, and my mother held us both to her bosom and sobbed so loudly that both the maid and the cook wanted to call the doctor because they thought something had happened to my father. On Sunday Hegbert made the announcement to his congregation, his face a mask of anguish and fear, and he had to be helped back to his seat before he’d even finished.  Everyone in the congregation stared in silent disbelief at the words they’d just heard, as if they were waiting for a punch line to some horrible joke that none of them could believe had been told. Then all at once, the wailing began.  We sat with Hegbert the day she told me, and Jamie patiently answered my questions. She didn’t know how long she had left, she told me. No, there wasn’t anything the doctors could do. It was a rare form of the disease, they’d said, one that didn’t respond to available treatment. Yes, when the school year had started, she’d felt fine. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that she’d started to feel its effects.

“That’s how it progresses,” she said. “You feel fine, and then, when your body can’t keep fighting, you don’t.”

Stifling my tears, I couldn’t help but think about the play.  “But all those rehearsals . . . those long days . . . maybe you shouldn’t have-“ “Maybe,” she said, reaching for my hand and cutting me off. “Doing the play was the thing that kept me healthy for so long.”

Later, she told me that seven months had passed since she’d been diagnosed. The doctors had given her a year, maybe less.

These days it might have been different. These days they could have treated her.  These days Jamie would probably live. But this was happening forty years ago, and I knew what that meant.

Only a miracle could save her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

This was the one question I hadn’t asked her, the one that I’d been thinking about. I hadn’t slept that night, and my eyes were still swollen. I’d gone from shock to denial to sadness to anger and back again, all night long, wishing it weren’t so and praying that the whole thing had been some terrible nightmare.  We were in her living room the following day, the day that Hegbert had made the announcement to the congregation. It was January 10, 1959.  Jamie didn’t look as depressed as I thought she would. But then again, she’d been living with this for seven months already. She and Hegbert had been the only ones to know, and neither of them had trusted even me. I was hurt by that and frightened at the same time.

“I’d made a decision,” she explained to me, “that it would be better if I told no one, and I asked my father to do the same. You saw how people were after the services today. No one would even look me in the eye. If you had only a few months left to live, is that what you would want?” I knew she was right, but it didn’t make it any easier. I was, for the first time in my life, completely and utterly at a loss.

I’d never had anyone close to me die before, at least not anyone that I could remember. My grandmother had died when I was three, and I don’t remember a single thing about her or the services that had followed or even the next few years after her passing. I’d heard stories, of course, from both my father and my grandfather, but to me that’s exactly what they were. It was the same as hearing stories I might otherwise read in a newspaper about some woman I never really knew. Though my father would take me with him when he put flowers on her grave, I never had any feelings associated with her. I felt only for the people she’d left behind.

No one in my family or my circle of friends had ever had to confront something like this. Jamie was seventeen, a child on the verge of womanhood, dying and still very much alive at the same time. I was afraid, more afraid than I’d ever been, not only for her, but for me as well. I lived in fear of doing something wrong, of doing something that would offend her. Was it okay to ever get angry in her presence? Was it okay to talk about the future anymore? My fear made talking to her difficult, though she was patient with me.  My fear, however, made me realize something else, something that made it all worse. I realized I’d never even known her when she’d been healthy. I had started to spend time with her only a few months earlier, and I’d been in love with her for only eighteen days. Those eighteen days seemed like my entire life, but now, when I looked at her, all I could do was wonder how many more days there would be.

On Monday she didn’t show up for school, and I somehow knew that she’d never walk the hallways again. I’d never see her reading the Bible off by herself at lunch, I’d never see her brown cardigan moving through the crowd as she made her way to her next class. She was finished with school forever; she would never receive her diploma.

I couldn’t concentrate on anything while I sat in class that first day back, listening as teacher after teacher told us what most of us had already heard.

The responses were similar to those in church on Sunday. Girls cried, boys hung  their heads, people told stories about her as if she were already gone. What can we do? they wondered aloud, and people looked to me for answers.  “I don’t know,” was all I could say.

I left school early and went to Jamie’s, blowing off my classes after lunch.  When I knocked at the door, Jamie answered it the way she always did, cheerfully and without, it seemed, a care in the world.

“Hello, Landon,” she said, “this is a surprise.”

When she leaned in to kiss me, I kissed her back, though the whole thing made me want to cry.

“My father isn’t home right now, but if you’d like to sit on the porch, we can.” “How can you do this?” I asked suddenly. “How can you pretend that nothing is wrong?”

“I’m not pretending that nothing is wrong, Landon. Let me get my coat and we’ll sit outside and talk, okay?”

She smiled at me, waiting for an answer, and I finally nodded, my lips pressed together. She reached out and patted my arm.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

I walked to the chair and sat down, Jamie emerging a moment later. She wore a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat to keep her warm. The nor’easter had passed, and the day wasn’t nearly as cold as it had been over the weekend. Still, though, it was too much for her.

“You weren’t in school today,” I said.

She looked down and nodded. “I know.”

“Are you ever going to come back?” Even though I already knew the answer, I needed to hear it from her.

“No,” she said softly, “I’m not.”

“Why? Are you that sick already?” I started to tear up, and she reached out and took my hand.

“No. Today I feel pretty good, actually. It’s just that I want to be home in the mornings, before my father has to go to the office. I want to spend as much time with him as I can.”

Before I die,she meant to say but didn’t. I felt nauseated and couldn’t respond.  “When the doctors first told us,” she went on, “they said that I should try to lead as normal a life as possible for as long as I could. They said it would help me keep my strength up.”

“There’s nothing normal about this,” I said bitterly.

“I know.”

“Aren’t you frightened?”

Somehow I expected her to sayno, to say something wise like a grown-up would, or to explain to me that we can’t presume to understand the Lord’s plan.  She looked away. “Yes,” she finally said, “I’m frightened all the time.”

“Then why don’t you act like it?”

“I do. I just do it in private.”

“Because you don’t trust me?”

“No,” she said, “because I know you’re frightened, too.”

I began to pray for a miracle.

They supposedly happen all the time, and I’d read about them in newspapers.

People regaining use of their limbs after being told they’d never walk again, or somehow surviving a terrible accident when all hope was lost. Every now and then a traveling preacher’s tent would be set up outside of Beaufort, and people would go there to watch as people were healed. I’d been to a couple, and though I assumed that most of the healing was no more than a slick magic show, since I never recognized the people who were healed, there were occasionally things that even I couldn’t explain. Old man Sweeney, the baker here in town, had been in the Great War fighting with an artillery unit behind the trenches, and months of shelling the enemy had left him deaf in one ear. It wasn’t an act-he really couldn’t hear a single thing, and there’d been times when we were kids that we’d been able to sneak off with a cinnamon roll because of it. But the preacher started praying feverishly and finally laid his hand upon the side of Sweeney’s head. Sweeney screamed out loud, making people practically jump out of their seats. He had a terrified look on his face, as if the guy had touched him with a white-hot poker, but then he shook his head and looked around, uttering the words “I can hear again.” Even he couldn’t believe it. “The Lord,” the preacher had said as Sweeney made his way back to his seat, “can do anything. The Lord listens to our prayers.”

So that night I opened the Bible that Jamie had given me for Christmas and began to read. Now, I’d heard all about Bible in Sunday school or at church, but to be frank, I just remembered the highlights-the Lord sending the seven plagues so the Israelites could leave Egypt, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Jesus walking across the water or raising Lazarus from the dead. There were other biggies, too. I knew that practically every chapter of the Bible has the Lord doing something spectacular, but I hadn’t learned them all. As Christians we leaned heavily on teachings of the New Testament, and I didn’t know the first things about books like Joshua or Ruth or Joel. The first night I read through Genesis, the second night I read through Exodus. Leviticus was next, followed by Numbers and then Deuteronomy. The going got a little slow during certain parts, especially as all the laws were being explained, yet I couldn’t put it down. It was a compulsion that I didn’t fully understand.

It was late one night, and I was tired by the time I eventually reached Psalms, but somehow I knew this was what I was looking for. Everyone has heard the Twenty-third Psalm, which starts, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” but I wanted to read the others, since none of them were supposed to be more important than the others. After an hour I came across an underlined section that I assumed Jamie had noted because it meant something to her. This is what it said:

I cry to you, my Lord, my rock! Do not be deaf to me, for if you are silent, I shall go down to the pit like the rest. Hear my voice raised in petition as I cry to you for help, as I raise my hands, my Lord, toward your holy of holies.  I closed the Bible with tears in my eyes, unable to finish the psalm.

Somehow I knew she’d underlined it for me.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said numbly, staring into the dim light of my bedroom lamp. My mom and I were sitting on my bed. It was coming up on the end of January, the most difficult month of my life, and I knew that in February things would only get worse.

“I know this is hard for you,” she murmured, “but there’s nothing you can do.”

“I don’t mean about Jamie being sick-I know there’s nothing I can do about that.

I mean about Jamie and me.”

My mother looked at me sympathetically. She was worried about Jamie, but she was also worried about me. I went on.

“It’s hard for me to talk to her. All I can do when I look at her is think about the day when I won’t be able to. So I spend all my time at school thinking about her, wishing I could see her right then, but when I get to her house, I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t know if there’s anything you can say to make her feel better.”

“Then what should I do?”

She looked at me sadly and put her arm around my shoulder. “You really love her, don’t you,” she said.

“With all my heart.”

She looked as sad as I’d ever seen her. “What’s your heart telling you to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe,” she said gently, “you’re trying too hard to hear it.”

The next day I was better with Jamie, though not much. Before I’d arrived, I’d told myself that I wouldn’t say anything that might get her down-that I’d try to talk to her like I had before-and that’s exactly how it went. I sat myself on her couch and told her about some of my friends and what they were doing; I caught her up on the success of the basketball team. I told her that I still hadn’t heard from UNC, but that I was hopeful I’d know within the next few weeks. I told her I was looking forward to graduation. I spoke as though she’d be back to school the following week, and I knew I sounded nervous the entire time. Jamie smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, asking questions every now and then. But I think we both knew by the time I finished talking that it was the last time I would do it. It didn’t feel right to either of us.  My heart was telling me exactly the same thing.

I turned to the Bible again, in the hope that it would guide me.

“How are you feeling?” I asked a couple of days later.  By now Jamie had lost more weight. Her skin was beginning to take on a slightly grayish tint, and the bones in her hands were starting to show through her skin.  Again I saw bruises. We were inside her house in the living room; the cold was too much for her to bear.

Despite all this, she still looked beautiful.

“I’m doing okay,” she said, smiling valiantly. “The doctors have given me some medicine for the pain, and it seems to help a little.”

I’d been coming by every day. Time seemed to be slowing down and speeding up at exactly the same time.

“Can I get anything for you?”

“No, thank you, I’m doing fine.”

I looked around the room, then back at her.

“I’ve been reading the Bible,” I finally said.

“You have?” Her face lit up, reminding me of the angel I’d seen in the play. I couldn’t believe that only six weeks had gone by.

“I wanted you to know.”

“I’m glad you told me.”

“I read the book of Job last night,” I said, “where God stuck it to Job to test his faith.”

She smiled and reached out to pat my arm, her hand soft on my skin. It felt nice. “You should read something else. That’s not about God in one of his better moments.”

“Why would he have done that to him?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Do you ever feel like Job?”

She smiled, a little twinkle in her eyes. “Sometimes.”

“But you haven’t lost your faith?”

“No.” I knew she hadn’t, but I think I was losing mine.

“Is it because you think you might get better?”

“No,” she said, “it’s because it’s the only thing I have left.” After that, we started reading the Bible together. It somehow seemed like the right thing to do, but my heart was nonetheless telling me that there still might be something more.

At night I lay awake, wondering about it.

Reading the Bible gave us something to focus on, and all of a sudden everything started to get better between us, maybe because I wasn’t as worried about doing something to offend her. What could be more right than reading the Bible? Though I didn’t know nearly as much as she did about it, I think she appreciated the gesture, and occasionally when we read, she’d put her hand on my knee and simply listen as my voice filled the room.

Other times I’d be sitting beside her on the couch, looking at the Bible and watching Jamie out of the corner of my eye at the same time, and we’d come across a passage or a psalm, maybe even a proverb, and I’d ask her what she thought about it. She always had an answer, and I’d nod, thinking about it.  Sometimes she asked me what I thought, and I did my best, too, though there were moments when I was bluffing and I was sure that she could tell. “Is that what it really means to you?” she’d ask, and I’d rub my chin and think about it before trying again. Sometimes, though, it was her fault when I couldn’t concentrate, what with that hand on my knee and all.

One Friday night I brought her over for dinner at my house. My mom joined us for the main course, then left the table and sat in the den so that we could be alone.

It was nice there, sitting with Jamie, and I knew she felt the same way. She hadn’t been leaving her house much, and this was a good change for her.  Since she’d told me about her illness, Jamie had stopped wearing her hair in a bun, and it was still as stunning as it had been the first time I’d seen her wear it down. She was looking at the china cabinet-my mom had one of those cabinets with the lights inside-when I reached across the table and took her hand.

“Thank you for coming over tonight,” I said.

She turned her attention back to me. “Thanks for inviting me.”

I paused. “How’s your father holding up?”

Jamie sighed. “Not too well. I worry about him a lot.”

“He loves you dearly, you know.”

“I know.”

“So do I,” I said, and when I did, she looked away. Hearing me say this seemed to frighten her again.

“Will you keep coming over to my house?” she asked. “Even later, you know, when . . . ?”

I squeezed her hand, not hard, but enough to let her know that I meant what I said.

“As long as you want me to come, I’ll be there.”

“We don’t have to read the Bible anymore, if you don’t want to.”

“Yes,” I said softly, “I think we do.”

She smiled. “You’re a good friend, Landon. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

She squeezed my hand, returning the favor. Sitting across from me, she looked radiant.

“I love you, Jamie,” I said again, but this time she wasn’t frightened. Instead our eyes met across the table, and I watched as hers began to shine. She sighed and looked away, running her hand through her hair, then turned to me again. I kissed her hand, smiling in return.

“I love you, too,” she finally whispered.

They were the words I’d been praying to hear.

I don’t know if Jamie told Hegbert about her feelings for me, but I somehow doubted it because his routine hadn’t changed at all. It was his habit to leave the house whenever I came over after school, and this continued. I would knock at the door and listen as Hegbert explained to Jamie that he would be leaving and would be back in a couple of hours. “Okay, Daddy,” I always heard her say, then I would wait for Hegbert to open the door. Once he let me in, he would open the hallway closet and silently pull out his coat and hat, buttoning the coat up all the way before he left the house. His coat was old-fashioned, black and long, like a trench coat without zippers, the kind that was fashionable earlier this century. He seldom spoke directly to me, even after he learned that Jamie and I’d begun to read the Bible together.

Though he still didn’t like me in the house if he wasn’t there, he nonetheless allowed me to come in. I knew that part of the reason had to do with the fact that he didn’t want Jamie to get chilled by sitting on the porch, and the only other alternative was to wait at the house while I was there. But I think Hegbert needed some time alone, too, and that was the real reason for the change. He didn’t talk to me about the rules of the house-I could see them in his eyes the first time he’d said I could stay. I was allowed to stay in the living room, that was all.

Jamie was still moving around fairly well, though the winter was miserable. A cold streak blew in during the last part of January that lasted nine days, followed by three straight days of drenching rain. Jamie had no interest in leaving the house in such weather, though after Hegbert had gone she and I might stand on the porch for just a couple of minutes to breathe the fresh sea air.  Whenever we did this, I found myself worrying about her.

While we read the Bibl............

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