Cancer

First and Only. Just like every other newborn on the… | by Roman Balch | Apr, 2024

A field of sunflowers at sunset

Just like every other newborn on the planet, James Holiday knew all the secrets of the universe. When he came out of the womb wailing, the doctors assumed — as all doctors assume with newborn babies — it was because he had been submerged in darkness for so long and the world was too bright. They were wrong. James, like every other newborn baby, cried because he knew how life would turn out and he didn’t want to leave the safety of his mother’s womb.

As time passed and James grew older, he forgot the knowledge of the universe and his life. Sometimes, something would happen and cause a flash of recollection to surge through him, although he was certain that the event was entirely new, this is what is commonly referred to as “déjà vu.”

The first time that everything came back to him was on his first day of kindergarten. James was a shy kid, and had trouble making friends. During arts and crafts, he sat by himself, dipped his fingers into the paint bucket on his desk, and painted swirls on the paper in front of him, unclear on what the main objective was. That was when she spoke to him.

“Are you lonely?”

He looked up. It was her. She said her name, and he knew what it was before it even came out of her mouth. Lisa King. He fell in love with her the moment he saw her, as he was destined to. He was so stunned by her presence he couldn’t speak. She sat down in the floor beside his chair.

“Mommy says it’s nice to talk to people when they’re lonely. Mommy’s always right.”

They talked for a while. James introduced himself and Lisa’s eyes seemed to sparkle when he said his name, which told him she knew who he was too. They painted the sheet of paper together and at the end of arts and crafts, Lisa painted a heart on the top-right corner of the page and hugged him. They were inseparable from that point forward.

Throughout grade school, James and Lisa were inseparable. They sat with each other in class and during lunch, they played together on the playground, and the two of them giggled together more than they ever laughed when either of them were alone.

James’s parents and Lisa’s parents were under the impression that their love would fade. James’s father often told him it was puppy love and to “snap out of it.” While Lisa’s parents scheduled playdates with girls from other schools in an attempt to broaden Lisa’s social circle; Lisa never had fun, though. The entire time, she would be thinking about James.

James and Lisa never stopped loving each other, despite their parents’ insistence. As grade school transitioned into middle school and James and Lisa blossomed into preteens, their love for each other grew. Some nights, James couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about Lisa and how excited he was to see her the next day. Other nights, she was all he dreamed about.

As Lisa’s body began to blossom, she started to receive glances from the boys at her school. No one tried asking her out, though. Everyone knew that you couldn’t have Lisa without James, and that was just the way it was.

Towards the end of eighth grade, James looked at Lisa and mustered up all the courage he could. She smiled at him and his heart was already beginning to melt.

“Will you go to Morp” — that’s the eighth grade version of prom, for those who don’t know — “with me.”

James didn’t think it was possible, but Lisa’s grin grew wider and she kissed him on the cheek. A move that stunned the two of them; they had talked about kissing, but they’d both been terrified of doing so. The color of Lisa’s cheeks matched her hair. She stared down at the floor.

James forced himself to look into her eyes. She was impossibly beautiful, and in that moment he wondered how he’d gotten so lucky. He loved her, he always knew that, but that moment affirmed it.

“Yes,” she said, “of course I’ll go with you.”

Just like that, they were going to have their first date.

The second time recollection struck James was the night of Morp. It was 6 PM and the sun was cresting behind the trees of Parker Middle School. James and his dad stood outside and waited for Lisa to arrive. James became anxious as he watched other students strolling into the school. Most of the men were wearing tuxedos; James wore a dress-shirt, tie, and the best pair of pants he had and decided to call it a day. The shirt was so tight he felt as though his lungs were being compressed.

Lisa arrived at 6:05. She was wearing a turquoise dress with glitter running through the midsection. Sparks glittered in her hair as she stood in the glistening sun, giving James a look-over. She couldn’t help but smile.

“I like it,” she said. “You’re so handsome.”

He blushed and looked down at the floor, afraid that if he looked her in the eyes he would burst into flames or be turned to stone.

“Yeah, well don’t get used to it. If I inhale too deeply, I’ll probably rip my shirt.”

She giggled.

Their parents told them to behave themselves. Lisa’s dad said that he wanted pictures of them from inside and that he expected her to tell him “the whole scoop” when he picked her up. Once their parents were gone, they walked into the school gymnasium where Morp was being held. Above the door to the gymnasium there was a banner that read “WELCOME TO MORP!” and underneath in smaller type, “Please do not spike the punch!” A photographer stood at the entrance and took their picture. In the picture, James’s eyes were closed and Lisa had laid her head on his shoulders.

Inside the gymnasium, a song that James could swear he’d heard before but couldn’t remember the name of played over the sound system. People were on the dance floor, swinging their arms this way and that in an attempt to dance. Attempt failed. School faculty were standing around and talking to one another, most likely wishing they were anywhere but in a gymnasium full of anxious, sweaty teens.

James and Lisa sat on the bleachers and watched people. Most people would have been walking around trying to socialize (unsuccessfully), but Lisa and James couldn’t socialize better with anyone than each other. They looked out into the gymnasium for a while. James sighed. Lisa grabbed his hand.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m just wondering if any of these people are still going to be together once high school’s over.”

Lisa shrugged and laid her head on his shoulder. He could feel his cheeks burning like molten lava.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I know two people who will be together when high school’s over. And every year after.”

He smiled. He wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t known immediately that Lisa was the love of his life. Would he have met her, thought nothing of her, and spent his life with another woman. Living a life where he wasn’t truly happy. He shrugged the thoughts away. The point was that he had her, and she was all he needed. They sat that way for a long time, their bodies unconsciously swaying to the music.

At the end of Morp, the DJ announced it was time for all couples to get together and dance to one final song. The two of them stood up and made their way to the dance floor. The lights dimmed as the final song began to play. As the intro to “You and Me” by Lifehouse began, everything came rushing back: The slow fade-in of the light above their heads, casting them in purple; the way his heart-rate accelerated; the way her body felt against his; the way the two of them swayed together as if they were the only ones in the room, as if everyone else had frozen so they could have this moment alone.

“I love you,” he said. “I always have, and I always will. I guess you could say it’s just you and me.”

She laughed, and before he knew it, they were kissing; it wasn’t a quick peck, it was a long, drawn out, “I love you more than anything” kiss. He could hear some people around them saying, “aww,” and “they’re so cute.” And they were right, James and Lisa were cute together, and they always would be.

At the end of the night when James got into the car, his dad said, “So, how was it?”

“Awesome,” James said excitedly with no elaboration. He wouldn’t tell anyone about their kiss. It would be something he would keep to himself, and no one else besides he and Lisa could share it.

His dad only chuckled and drove home.

After Morp, time passed by in a flash. Time wouldn’t slow, and they were both growing older. They still loved each other, of course, but James and Lisa noticed how quickly time flew, and they both knew that one day life would pass them by.

After high school (where nothing of importance happened, except the two of them were voted “Cutest Couple” for their senior yearbook), James and Lisa attended community college; Lisa studied Psychology with the hopes of becoming a therapist, and James focused on religious studies in the hopes of finding out the reason why we all exist, having at this point forgotten all the knowledge he’d attained before he was born. By the end of the first term, he’d given up searching for meaning and switched to studying for a Bachelor’s in English.

James proposed to her at the end of their senior year, although there wasn’t really a point considering the two of them knew they would be spending the rest of their lives together. She said yes, and the wedding was held in a church with very few people attending, and Lisa King became Lisa Holiday. There was no reception. Since neither of them had a lot of money, James’s and Lisa’s parents chipped in to rent them a house in the suburbs. As James carried her across the threshold of their new home, he felt as though he were stepping into a new life. If he had looked behind him, he would’ve sworn he saw his younger self watching them from across the street. They giggled as he closed the door.

After their wedding, James and Lisa could finally enjoy each other’s company for the rest of their lives. Lisa had started her training to be a psychiatrist. She sat in the room with other psychiatrists while they talked to their patient. Taking notes down about the rights and wrongs of psychiatry; what she was and wasn’t supposed to do. James stayed home and wrote. He hated the moments when he stopped typing; the house became so quiet and he started missing her. He brought this up to her one night as they were about to go to sleep, and he knew what her answer would be before it even came out of her mouth, because he’d been thinking the same thing.

“We should have a baby.”

And from that point forward, they kept trying. There were countless mornings when she would wake him up, screaming with joy because the test was positive, but every time she took the test again, it would show up as negative. Until one morning when she woke him up screaming that the test was positive and it stayed that way. The happiest week of their lives was interrupted when she lost the baby.

After her miscarriage and they’d gotten the all-clear from the doctors (who’d all said it was perfectly normal for the first pregnancy to be a miscarriage), Lisa couldn’t bring herself to try anymore. She told James that she couldn’t bring herself to risk going through that much pain again. He understood, just like he always had and always would.

So, their lives went on as expected, but there would always be that one topic they strayed away from.

Soon after, the cancer came.

It started with pain in her abdomen; it felt as though someone was inside it, twisting her guts in an attempt to make her scream. Two weeks passed before she went to the doctor. By then, her urine had turned dark. James and Lisa expected the worst and hoped for the best. The diagnosis was nonmetastatic pancreatic cancer. Stage IV. With a prognosis of one-to-three months without treatment, and five years with, based on previous data.

When the doctor read the results, telling the two of them in his dimly lit office, he sighed.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said, looking up from the results. “With treatment, long-term survival is…extremely optimistic. But without treatment, you likely won’t last three months. It’s up to you — “

“I want it,” she said.

Lisa’s health insurance only paid a quarter of the amount required for her treatment. Her doctor had slipped a secret that the hospital wouldn’t care if she couldn’t pay, but they couldn’t bring themselves to be that way. So, James took a mortgage out on their home and started looking for full-time jobs to help pay for her treatment. He would take as many jobs as he had to as long as there was a chance Lisa could be cured.

The nights after treatment were the worst. Lisa would be so tired that she couldn’t get out of bed. She struggled to make it to the bathroom when she had to throw up. On those nights, she usually slept on the bathroom floor. He would lie beside her, unable to sleep a wink.

After three weeks, Lisa said that she didn’t want treatment anymore.

“I’d rather die than be this miserable,” she said. “There’s no point to prolonging a life that’s no longer worth living.”

James was hurt to hear her say that. For a moment, he selfishly thought: “What about me?” He knew she was right, though. It killed him to see her this way, but at the same time, he didn’t know what he would do without her.

A month after Lisa asked for her treatment to be stopped, she died. It wasn’t anything like Hollywood makes death out to be; she didn’t go on a voyage to the stars or slip away from James’s fingers. He just woke up beside her one morning and she was no longer there. Her skin had gone pale and for a moment he didn’t recognize her. She looked more at peace than she had in the last two months. He laid beside her and wept.

It didn’t rain at all the week Lisa died. James kept waiting for rainclouds to descend and spout out rain for the rest of his life, but it never happened. The sun poked its head out every day and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The world has no right to be happy, he thought. Not when she isn’t here.

The funeral service was nice. People showed up from every walk of Lisa’s life. Family members, friends, co-workers. When the pastor officiating the service arrived, he walked over to James and hugged him. He had been James’s youth pastor at the church he went to when he was younger. James had always had a finicky faith, like a game of Jenga, and the pastor knew that one wrong move could send the entire thing tumbling down.

“Don’t let this bring you down,” the pastor said. “She’s home now. It’s all part of God’s plan.”

James shrugged and it took all he had in him not to start crying. “I don’t know. I just wish He had decided to let her stay with me.”

“I know. Talk to Him about it, and He will guide you in the right direction.”

Throughout the service, James thought about how much Lisa meant to him. How she could make him laugh like no else, and could make him weak. She was the first person to do that to him, and she was also the only person to do that to him. He supposed God puts us on Earth for a purpose. He didn’t know what it was, exactly. But he felt that Lisa had been sent for him, and he had been sent for her. And if that was the case, she had accomplished her mission.

That was the first time he cried since she died.

One night, ten years after Lisa died, James laid down on his bed and wished she was beside him. He never remarried. He couldn’t imagine himself loving anyone as much as her, and so the other side of the bed had remained empty. The only people he had were the friends he made at church. They would come over and keep him company on most days. On the days they weren’t there, they texted him constantly, sending him funny photos of cats with their tongues sticking out. They made him happy, partly because he knew Lisa would have loved them (and she would have laughed at every cat photo, that thought made him even happier). When he wasn’t texting them, he would listen to “You and Me” by Lifehouse. He couldn’t, at first, it was too painful. But as time went on, it got easier, as he started to feel closer to her when he listened to it. It gave him peace. He could be on the dancefloor with her again, stuck in that perfect moment.

He slept for what felt like years. When he finally woke, he wasn’t in his bed. He was standing in a green field with beautiful sunflowers covering every inch. There was a mountain in front of him, and in front of the mountain, there was Lisa. Smiling and waving. He walked to her. He could hear singing somewhere beyond the mountain.

“Welcome home,” she said when he got close to her. Every detail was right. This was her. He started to cry.

“I missed you,” he said. “It’s good to be home.”

He took her hand, and they walked towards the singing together.


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