I thought I’d share a short story with you all this week. I wrote this for the Summer writing contest through The Write Practice. While I didn’t win, I had a lot of fun participating and I learned a lot.
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains material that may upset or offend some people, especially those who have previously experienced a related trauma dealing with terminal cancer and the “right to die” movement.
A Sister’s Choice – K.W. Riley
“He collapsed because of a brain tumor, I’m afraid,” Dr. Xalvador said, holding up his clipboard.
Cressida and Caleb glanced at each other.
“Is that fatal?” Caleb asked nervously.
Dr. Xalvador placed his clipboard on the metal counter and pulled his stool in front of Caleb. As he took a seat, he said, “Unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good. We can’t operate because the tumor is entwined around your brainstem, but we could try chemotherapy.”
“And if that doesn’t work, then what?” Cressida asked.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Bancroft. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“So, he just needs to wait it out and die?” Cressida said watching the doctor intently.
“Because of his age, he wouldn’t qualify for Assisted Suicide, so he will need tobe monitored closely and given pain meds regularly to keep him comfortable, but yes,” the doctor nodded. “A nurse will be in shortly to get you set up on your IV to help ease your pain.” He flashed a quick smile and left the room.
Cressida remembered feeling optimistic about Caleb’s recovery, but the feeling was short-lived. The chemo didn’t work. “This isn’t fair,” Cressida whimpered to herself as she wiped tears away. She felt like she couldn’t breathe as she watched Caleb go from bad to worse in a matter of weeks. The nurse had estimated that he might only have less than six months. “Why,” Cressida wondered. “He’s thirteen. Why him?”
Cressida watched as Caleb slept. That’s all he did most of the time. His body was so weak from trying to fight off the cancer that he barely stayed awake long enough to maintain conversation and when he was awake, he wasn’t making much sense these days. But she couldn’t leave his side. If anything had happened to him while she was away, she’d never be able to live with herself. So, she stayed, watching him because there was little else to do.
As she sat there contemplating everything that had happened, Cressida’s eyes drew heavy. She’d almost drifted off when she heard Caleb’s voice, weak and out of character.
“Cress,” he said in a half-whisper.
Cressida jolted to an upright position. “Yea,” she said, trying to hide the fact that she’d almost fallen asleep.
“I need to ask you something and I don’t want you to over react,” Caleb’s face was solemn.
Cressida was unsure of how to respond. “Anything,” she said sincerely. Caleb was her younger brother, a built in best friend. They had a bond that matched no other. Since their parents had died a few years ago and she’d gained custody of him, they’d only grown closer.
“No,” Caleb said, mustering up all the energy he had to sit up in his bed. “I need you to promise you’ll hear me out.”
“You’re starting to worry me.” Cressida couldn’t imagine what would have him so distressed.
Caleb pulled the oxygen mask off his face and looked her in the eye. “I’m done.”
“I don’t know what that means, Caleb.”
“Cress, I can’t do this anymore,” he said, laying back in his bed. “I’m tired and I’m in pain. Nothing’s helping and I’m not getting better.”
“What are you saying,” Cressida asked, tears welling up.
“I’m saying I want you to help me die.”
Cressida froze. Was this him or the cancer talking? She didn’t know how to respond to that. He couldn’t ask this of her. He was the only family she had left and she didn’t want to lose him. She sunk into her chair, the one she’d previously found comfortable enough to fall asleep in that now felt cold and hard. It had to be the cancer.
“Caleb,” Cressida said teary-eyed, trying to gulp down the lump in her throat. “I can’t.” She dropped her head. “This is just the cancer talking. I need you to get better. I need you to live,” she sniffled.
“Cress,” Caleb said, reaching out to lift her head. “This isn’t the cancer, it’s me and this isn’t living. Look at me. Does this look like me?”
Cressida looked away. She knew Caleb was right, but she couldn’t bear the thought of being the one to aid his death. She would never be able to live with herself.
“I’m sorry, Caleb, but you’re all I have left. I won’t help you die.” Cressida stood up from the chair and paced the floor.
“It’s my life,” Caleb said, his breathing quick and shallow. “And I shouldn’t have to sit here and waste away.” He took more breaths. “I don’t want to be in pain anymore. I don’t want to struggle anymore. I don’t want to be tired anymore,” Caleb argued, almost hyperventilating. “You used to tell me you’d be there for me whenever I needed you. Well, I need you now. I don’t want to suffer anymore and if you won’t help me, I’ll find another way.”
Caleb placed the oxygen mask back on and took in a few deep breaths. Cressida watched as he struggled to do the simplest thing. Breathing was an involuntary process and Caleb was having to force his body to do it. Maybe he was right. But how could she possibly live knowing she’d killed him, even if it was out of mercy?
Hospital rooms were the worst place for the sick and dying. You’d think that they’d be placed in brightly colored rooms full of life and love and good vibes for getting well. But they weren’t. They were bare and cold. A reminder that death was imminent.
This room had frayed yellow curtains covering a brick wall to give the illusion that a window existed where none ever would. The walls were simply white, not old or peeling, just white. There was no television hung on the wall to pass the time or pictures to make it seem more homey. No cards or flowers to fill the empty counter space. It was completely devoid of any beauty just as Cressida was of any hope that Caleb would recover.
Cressida left the hospital room and took a walk in the park. She’d had so many memories of the two of them playing there. Caleb pretending to be a monkey, swinging upside down on the monkey bars while Cressida watched from the top of the rickety metal slide. She remembered him on the swing set, rocking back and forth, propelling himself higher and higher.
Cressida walked to the swing set and took a seat, her feet dangling in the air. “How am I supposed to let him go?” she thought. The breeze picked up and staved away the tears forming in her eyes. “How can you sit there and watch him suffer?” she thought to herself. “At least if you help him, you can take solace in the fact that he didn’t have to suffer any longer than he had to. You gave him peace,” she argued. “But you’ll always know you killed him,” she reminded herself.
This wasn’t fair. She’d forever be the one who killed her brother or the one who watched him suffer in silence because of her own selfishness. Cressida’s mind flashed back to the image of Caleb lying in his hospital bed, chest barely rising and falling. She knew what she had to do.
“I’m doing this for you,” Cressida said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “But before I do, I need you to know that I love you and I never thought… I never…” Cressida’s words wouldn’t form. These were the last words she would say to him and she couldn’t even get them out.
Caleb reached out and placed his hand on hers. “I know,” he said, pulling her in for a hug. Cressida wrapped her arms around him, the tears came quickly. She tried to take in every bit of him, the sound of his heart beating, the feeling of his embrace.
When Caleb finally pulled away, Cressida wasn’t ready and clung to him. “It’s time,” he said, shedding a tear. “I’m ready.”
Cressida nodded. She grabbed the tube attached to Caleb’s IV and unscrewed it from the bag containing the pain meds. This was the only way she knew how to kill him
that would be the least traumatic for them both. She watched as the tube filled with air, then reattached it back to the bag and kissed her brother’s head. The pressure from the fluids caused the air to enter Caleb’s blood stream. She wished she could take it back and have just a few more moments with him, but the deed was done. She could only wait for the air to reach his brain.
The day Caleb passed, he went quickly and peacefully, just as he wanted. Cressida felt broken, like she couldn’t breathe. Although she’d heard that time is a healer, she didn’t feel like there would ever be enough time to heal the hurt she felt the day she lost Caleb, the day she killed him.