When Hope arrived at the hospital, her mom was already dying.
She fled her grandma’s car and raced to the oncology unit—she knew the way by now—only to come crashing to a halt. A crowd of people spilled out of the doorway of her mom’s hospital room. Small for eleven, she had no difficulty darting between them. Alarms blared, but once she crossed the threshold, she couldn’t hear them anymore, as if her sense of hearing had abandoned her. She held herself still.
The chaos of the scene played out before her in slow motion. She clung to the doorframe with trembling arms while a doctor did something terrible to her mom’s body. His arms thrust downward on her bare chest, her hospital gown ripped open to the waist. Hope flushed. If her mom were awake, she wouldn’t want all these people to see her nakedness.
“Clear!” The doctor at the bed shouted and lifted his hands in the air. Sound rushed back into her ears.
Her mom’s body convulsed, back arching, and flopped back down on the bed. Her limbs flung outward, a lifeless puppet being yanked around on invisible strings by the nurses and doctors.
A tube snaked out of her mom’s mouth. A nurse stood over it with something like a clear plastic balloon that she squeezed every few seconds. Hope held up her palm to signal the woman to stop, but no one saw her. She needed to tell her that it was too late, her mom had been eating nothing but air for weeks. It would only float out and up and away.
As if following the air, her eyes lifted to the ceiling, half expecting to see her mom’s spirit hovering there, the way she’d read about in books. But it was only an empty ceiling, white tiles and square lights and a lone fire sprinkler.
Only then did she notice her father crumpled on his knees at the foot of the bed, head folded down to his chest. She knew she should feel sad to see him this way, but she couldn’t. She had no more sadness left.
A woman and a man, both in green scrubs, tugged at her dad’s shoulders, trying to pull him away from the bed. She saw them exchange a glance as if bothered by having to deal with her uncooperative father. Her muscles quivered. Were they bothered by her mom for getting sick on them as well?
The first doctor shook his head, his mouth set in an angry line. “Call it.”
Hope scanned the room for the phone, but no one else seemed to be searching for it. She must have made a sound, maybe a cry. She didn’t hear herself, but something made the doctors and nurses turn.
One of them made a strange face at her. “What are you doing here?”
She shrank away from the noise—the alarms, the raised voices, her father’s incoherent sobs. He was the only one in the room not facing her now, but she didn’t expect any help from him, anyway.
A woman with a stethoscope slung across her shoulders stepped toward her, arms outstretched, but Hope shrank back. The doctors were the ones who had poisoned her mom with their false promises. Hope slipped under her grasp and rushed forward. She would do what her dad and all the doctors couldn’t. She would wake up her mom.
But one of the nurses pulled a sheet over her mom’s body before Hope could reach her. “Poor thing. She fought so hard.”
The first doctor stepped over to the sink and washed his hands. “It was out of our hands. I don’t think the treatments ever did much for her. But she chose to keep going with them.” He dried his hands and crumpled the towel into a ball. “I think the only thing that kept her alive this long was hope.”
From the way he said it, Hope understood he felt the same way about it that she did, no matter her name. Hope would promise you everything but get you nothing.
The second doctor had caught up to her and was steering her out of the room. She didn’t try to slip away this time. She no longer had control over her body. Was this real? Was it possible to be this empty inside and still exist?
She stiffened under the grasp of the doctor’s hands on her shoulders. Through her shirt, the trembling of those hands reached her skin. An understanding grew inside of her, the doctor was afraid. But somehow, Hope wasn’t anymore. She’d never be scared again, there was nothing left for her to lose.
Doctors were supposed to know everything, but Hope knew now that they didn’t. Her mom’s death was all their fault. They’d lost control, and then they’d made things worse. If she were a doctor, she’d never be like them.
The hands were still pressing her toward the door. She twisted her head to look back one last time. Long enough for the vision of her mom’s body in the bed, arms splayed outward from under the sheet, to be forever seared into her memory.
For the rest of her life, she’d recall the reason she had been late and wish she could go back and do things differently. But that was a childish thought. And she was no longer a child.
Her eyes drifted to the ceiling before more hands pulled her the rest of the way through the door. A certainty seized her that her mom’s spirit would hear her silent message. She would make a new promise. One that wouldn’t let her mom down. And if she had to give up a part of herself to make it happen, well, that would be worth it. She sent her thoughts upward. I’ll figure out a way to do better, I won’t lose control like them. I’ll do it for you. I promise.