A brain tumor. I never knew such a real thing existed outside of made for TV movies and the little jars at grocery store registers where most people deposited their spare change. Now Sanjay was one of those faces on the jars. One of those, sad, sad faces who had nothing left but hope. I couldn't even stomach the thought.
At most, the doctor said, Sanjay had four months to live. Four measly, bullshit months to cram in seventy years of life that would be stolen from him.
"We'll start prepping him for surgery soon," the doctor said. "We're going to try to remove as much of the tumor as we can. It's embedded partially in his brainstem and occipital lobe. The occipital lobe controls the vision and that would have greatly impacted the symptoms you explained, Ellie." His face fell sober. "But if we try to remove the entire lobe, it could result in permanent neurological damage."
The doctor went on to tell us that this surgery would do nothing more than prolong Sanjay's life. As if it were their choice, their say as to how much of such a precious thing he was allowed. Time. That's all we had now.
Before the he could say another word, I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to throw up. Nobody came barreling after me, and nobody called for me to come back. They all just stood there, frozen and numb. For once, they let me go. I didn't cry while I was away. I knelt there in front of the toilet, listening to it hum as the water refilled in the tank, my head bowed and my hands resting palm up in my lap. I stared at my hands for a long while, trying to remember the last time they were wrapped up in Sanjay's own strong, dark hands. He knew every curve of my hands, every freckly and scar. He told me that once while we were lying together on his living room floor. His mom and sister were away for the weekend and that afternoon was the first time we'd ever dared to kiss in his mother's house.
He said, "I think I know your hands better than anyone else."
I smiled at him. "Even better than me?"
He nodded wordlessly and ran his hand over my hair, as if he'd been waiting a long time to brag that up to me. I only smiled again and nestled deeper against him, pressing my nose into his shirt to inhale his scents. I had never loved him so much as I did in that moment.
And as I sat there on that cold tile floor, staring into my lap, I realized he was right. I saw the freckle on my left ring finger that Sanjay must have kissed a thousand times before. The freckle that I had always secretly wished for, one day, to have a ring to match it, where Sanjay would continue to press his lips until we were old and gray. I saw the scar on the pad of my thumb where I had cut it on a steak knife when Sanjay and I were doing dishes and playfully splashing water back and forth. It took four stitches to fix and Sanjay was there, holding my hand for every single one. I saw the lines in my palm that he always traced his fingers along when we were alone together on the couch. He knew me better than my own father did. But Sanjay knew me in a different was than my dad did, in a way that nobody ever would.
Suddenly I felt a breath catch in my chest and I had to brace myself against the stall door to keep from crying. The air felt heavy in my lungs as I tried to imagine my world without him. My mind scanned everything I loved about him; his curls, his smile, his hearty laugh, his chocolate eyes, his cowlicks and dimples, the way he'd place gently kisses against my cheekbones every Saturday morning when my dad would take my brother and sister on errands with him, and Sanjay would always sneak in early to wake me and we'd end up lying in my bed for hours together, his arms wrapped comfortably around me all morning long. I thought about how he'd always hold my hand and how he'd first kissed me the night at the fair, my lips sticky with cotton candy.
I closed my eyes to remember the night my mom died and how I ran crying to his front porch. He answered the door and immediately gathered me in his arms and we collapsed there in the doorway together. We sat there for three hours as I cried and cried and cried. Neither of us said a word the whole time. He offered no advice or verbal consolation, because he knew that's not that I wanted. I just wanted someone to give a damn. But then, when I was too exhausted to even sit up by myself, he ran his thumb across my cheekbone and wordlessly scooped me up in his arms and carried me all the way home, into my house and up to my bed. When he laid me down and covered me up with my blankets, he knelt beside my bed and simple took my trembling hand in his own, interweaving our fingers together. I stared at our clasped hands for a long time, his dark skin against my own pale flesh.
"Elle…" he whispered almost inaudibly. Just the sound of his voice made me break into sobs again and he immediately leaned forward to stroke my hair.
"Please don't leave. I don't want to be alone, okay?" I wept, reaching out to press my fingers to his temple. Without prompting, I moved over and he climbed into the bed beside me. And he wrapped his arms around me as snug as he could manage and pressed his lips to my temple…
I opened my eyes then and stared emotionless at the toilet in front of me. I knew they would be missing me down the hall so I struggled to my feet and pushed open the door, almost too weak to hold myself up. I rinsed my mouth out in the sink and reluctantly began a slow stride back to the reality that would soon forever rock my world.
When I walked back into the waiting room, I found my father sitting alone in the far corner, his head buried in his hands. Tears were running down his arms, and his soft sobs echoed loudly in the empty room. I stood there, silent, numb, and helpless as the door swung shut with a thud and his stare met mine. We said nothing for a moment as he wiped his eyes dry and I tried not to fall to the floor in hysterics. The sound of his sobs forced me to avert my eyes and choke back the lump forming in my throat. I didn't want to say a word. Not a damn word because I couldn't afford to fall apart no w.
He lifted his head again and smiled feebly, his face red and slightly swollen. He folded his hands and rested them against his chin. "Ellie…" he simply said, as if he couldn't bring himself to continue.
I clenched my jaw as the tears came gurgling up my throat. I shook my head, folded my arms and tried so hard to act angry. But inside, I was falling to pieces, my gut turning over and over again until it felt like mush. I pressed my hand to my face as my chin crinkled in a sob as my father pushed himself to his feet and—in three long strides—made his way across the room to me. He immediately wrapped his arms around me. By then, I couldn't deny myself a genuine reaction to the news and I gladly accepted his embrace and fell against him, weeping loudly into his shoulder.
He pressed his hand to the back of my head and rested his stubbled chin against my widow's peak. He began to blubber again in a way that was unfamiliar to me. He hadn't cried this hard in my whole life, even when my mom died. His rattling chest against my cheek rocked the tears harder from the depths of my shattering heart. I didn't bother to fight them. I only turned my head to the side to be able to catch more breath to let out more cried. He held me tighter to him then, his arm pressing against my nose and forehead.
"I wish I could fix this, baby," he wept in my ear. "I wish I knew how."
I watched the tears drip from my nose and splatter onto his skin, with tiny droplets catching on his arm hair. He knew better than to say anything else, knowing that I would immediately burst into louder sobs and probably make a break for the nearest exit.
He held me for a while, no more than twenty minutes, as I cried and screamed and sobbed as loud and hard as I could possibly manage. We both knew I wasn't a pretty crier. I'd always been one to throw a huge, soggy, teary, snotty fit just to feel better about anything and everything. But now, with each shattered piece of my world crashing at my feet, I felt as if no good cry would ever be able to clear me of this feeling.
Suddenly, I heard myself squeak, "Daddy, I'm scared." And that was all it took to completely lose it. In that moment, I genuinely wanted to die. March right to the window, throw it open, kick out the screen and throw myself out that fourth story window and hope the EMTs right outside can't save me. But as I felt each of my father's teardrops splatter against my hair, the more and more I wanted to cling to this moment for the rest of forever and never have to move on to the next stage of this awful nightmare.
Moments later, we heard the door swing open and in came Yahvi and Indira, their bodies frail and eyes bloodshot. Yahvi looked as if she would never be able to survive this day. They both collapsed in unison on the bench, dazed, as Indira turned to me and said, "Ellie, he's asking for you. The doctors waiting in the hall."
I grew instantly silent and looked to my dad for some sort of reassurance. He nodded gently, wiping my cheeks dry. I made no move to leave at first. I only stood there, pressing my cheek against his chest in a feeble attempt to hold tight to his unconditional love. He ran his fingers across my matter bangs, gently encouraging me towards the door. I staggered for a moment, too afraid to take one more blind step into this reality. But, as I made my way through the door and saw the doctor's kind face, I took a quick breath and tried to convince myself that he could fix Sanjay.
The doctor nodded his head, offering his hand and said softly, "I'm Dr. Mel Carson."
I took his hand and whispered, "Ellie."
His eyes fell to the floor for a moment as he cleared his throat to speak. "I know this is hard for you, Ellie. I really do. But we're going to do everything we can."
I nodded soberly and wiped my tears on my sleeve. He told me to follow him and I did. We walked together wordlessly down the stretch of hallway, anxious doctors passing by quickly, often bumping shoulders with us. I moved closer to him, too nervous to have to fight off the crowd. Finally we turned a corner into a less crowded hallway, but I still stuck close to him absentmindedly. After ten paces or so, we slowed to a stop and I could feel my breath catch in my throat.
"Don't worry, Ellie. It'll be just fine," Dr. Carson said.
I tried so hard to believe him, but as he opened the door to let me in, I felt a knot of doubt twist up in my stomach and I bit my thumb as hard as I could to keep from crying. I stepped into the room and gently lifted my eyes to spy a curtain. I knew this moment would haunt me the rest of my life. I looked to the doctor for reassurance and he nodded encouragingly, stepping back out of the door and shutting it between us. I turned slowly back to the curtain, my heart choking me with every beat. Tears swelled in my eyes and I angrily dried them before Sanjay could hear me stifle. After taking a few courage breaths, I reached out to the curtain and said, "Sanjay?"
It was silent for a short moment, the air still and heavy. But then I heard his hoarse voice, barely a whisper, reply, "Come in."
I pushed the curtain aside and carefully directed my eyes to his bed. He was propped up on a pillow, his face pale and tired. There was gauze wrapped around his head to cover the stitches and I realized there was no hair under that gauze. They had shaven a quarter of his hair away, mostly by the stitches and where they were planning on making an incision. His eyes were red and swollen, like it had been days since he had slept. I didn't know what to say after seeing him in such a state, so I just stood there, feeling my heart shatter into dust.
He smiled weakly, a tiny laugh escaping his lips. "Don't look so scared, Elle."
I diverted my eyes to his feet. "I can't help it, Sanjay."
He held his hand out to me now, inviting me over to sit near him. I moved slowly and hesitantly, afraid I'd fall to the floor in a fit of anger before I made it there. When I reached him, I clasped his hand lightly and settled into the chair directly beside his bed. He was smiling sleepily at me, running his thumb over my knuckles lightly. I couldn't stop staring at the IV in his arm, the breathing tube in his nose, the cheap hospital gown across his chest, the clip on his finger, the…
"Ellie," he said, forcing me to focus my attention on his face. He could see the frustration and confusion and sadness in my eyes. I knew he could. He'd always been able to see right through me. I could feel my chin start to quaver. The tears came pouring before I could stop them and I had to bow my head to muffle my sobs. I felt Sanjay squeeze my hand and I sucked in a breath to compose myself, glancing up at him and forcing a smile. A tear dripped from the corner of his eye and he rubbed it away quickly and he said, "Come here."
He pulled my hand towards him and I silently crawled into the bed beside him, wrapping my arms tightly around him as he did the same. We laid there and cried silently together, my gut twisting and turning angrily with each tear.
"I love you, Ellie," Sanjay whispered into my ear, as if this would be the very last time he'd ever be able to say it. I felt my heart wrench and I had to bury my face into his neck to stifle the sobs.
The title of this chapter comes from Jack Johnson's "If I Could."