Love is tricky for the young. Especially during those awkward years between teenage infatuations and true love, the years when you think you know everything and you really know nothing. How much more so when you add the complication of a life-threatening disease.
David loved Lucy, a spunky blonde, still in high school, a patient escort in the hospital where he cleaned, and she couldn’t have made it more obvious she had him in her sights, dropping everything when he came into the room and calling him ‘pulchritude,’ but he was vaguely aware of his lack of maturity to bring that love into a relationship. She was only a year younger, but he was out of high school.
David always faced the truth, no matter how difficult, unable to function any other way and it showed in everything he did at work and play. They weren’t ready yet. The doubts compounded upon him, but he was patient.
Coming back from delivering a patient to his family, Lucy came to David, buckling and crying. He sat her down and called for help. The doctors came and whisked her away, the cruelty of HIPAA leaving him in the dark, waiting for her to come back.
They diagnosed her with Leukemia, and instead of coming back, her family took her away to a hospital closer to home, and David didn’t see her for months after she’d been through the harrowing chemotherapy treatment. She wore an obviously fake wig, the baldness not even entirely hidden, but she was cheerful, energetic, and in remission.
Hospital personnel surrounded her when David walked onto the floor.
“Hey there, pulchritude.” Lucy smiled, left them, and skipped down the hall, wrapping her arms around him. “I missed you.”
David embraced her, closer than they’d ever been. A chemical smell came off of her, like plastic and alcohol, the wig dry and strange against his cheek. But it was her, and he never wanted to let her go again.
They dated for a few months, dealing with the weirdness wrought by the leukemia, the chemical smell that never left her, a turban covering her baldness at intimate moments, the unmistakably pervasive effect that the disease had on all of her relationships.
They were barely old enough to understand what they had without the disease, but David found it more and more difficult to speak plainly with her. To be hard on her when he should, to talk bluntly of the disease, or to observe how others lacked frankness because they were trying to be nice to the ‘sick girl.’
Lucy went away for a week to a four state ice-skating competition, something she’d done since the beginning of Junior high. Her exuberance and zest for life was high, and it brought David joy to see her go.
During that week he stepped back and took a long honest look at their relationship, and he knew he was lucky to have her, no one else would ever match him like she did, but he also knew he had to keep them rooted in truth and reality. He resolved to hash it out with her when she returned, no matter how difficult or hurtful it might be. For the sake of their love and their future together.
David ran ragged through the hospital on the day she came back. They were short staffed, and the messes made by patients and medical staff were brutal. Lucy gave him a souvenir cap from the camp, but he had to toss it to the side to take care of an urgent situation with a coffee urn in the ER.
When David finished, he came back, and all the talk was about Lucy taking first place in the competition. But this year there were two champions sharing the top spot, and Lucy glowed with the victory and the congratulations.
David felt the air leave his gut, and he nearly buckled from it. He could see on some of the faces they knew the truth, but no one said anything. They just smiled and cheered her on.
David, whether through cowardice or compassion, he didn’t know, cheered her on as well, letting the lie settle in to the fabric of their experience. David was untrue to her in this way and many ways to come, living fantasy after fantasy, painfully aware that he was too stupid to fix it, unable to give himself entirely to her for the short time remaining before the Leukemia returned, unrelenting against her weakened body, and took her.
Was he a coward? Was he compassionate? He didn’t know. All he really knew, is that he failed her.