TWELVE YEARS AGO…
Rounding the corner into the hospital room, I see Rylie lying in bed and immediately rush to her side. She’s hooked up to machines and oxygen, and though it’s common for her, it still feels like a stab to the gut when I see her like this.
“Riles,” I whisper, holding her hand in mine and squeezing three times. “Can you hear me?”
With a nod, she squeezes my hand back three times. She slowly tilts her head down and tries to open her eyes. The medication makes her sleepy, and she can’t always stay awake even when she tries.
“Love you, baby sis,” I tell her like I always do. She’d normally reply with, “Love you too, big sis,” and we’d both smile.
My father catches up to me and stands on the other side of her bed. “River,” he says in a deep scolding tone. “What’d I say about running?”
“Well, had I known she was in here earlier, I wouldn’t have ran to get up here as soon as I could,” I tell him, returning the tone. My father had just picked me up from school and told me Rylie was back in the hospital.
“I already told you there was no need to take you out of school. She’s just running a fever,” he says so casually as if having a fever while being treated for cancer was no big deal.
Rolling my eyes, I hide my disapproval and focus on Rylie. “What’s the doctor saying?” I read the monitors, too familiar with what the numbers represent.
“He’s running more tests,” my mother answers, walking into the room with a Styrofoam cup of coffee. She’s wearing big sunglasses, most likely to hide the bags under her eyes. Mom stresses more than she sleeps, and Dad works nonstop. It’s Mom, Rylie, and me most of the time, and even though I love my dad, I wish he was around more for our sakes during times like these.
Dad walks toward Mom and gives her a quick peck on the cheek before he starts digging around in his pockets for his keys. “I have to get back to the office; call me when there’s news, okay?”
“You’re leaving?” I glare.
“I left work early today, River. I have to finish some things up.”
“But Rylie’s sick.” I say the obvious, furious that he’d leave us at a time like this.
“I know, sweetie.” He steps toward me and presses a kiss to the top of my head as if I’m a baby, but I’m not. I don’t need his coddling anymore. I’m a freshman in high school who’s watched her nine-year-old sister battle leukemia for the past two years. “I’ll work as fast as I can,” he says before rushing out of the room.
I recognize the disappointment on my mother’s face immediately. It’s always the same thing. Rylie spends more time in the hospital than she does at home, and having him here would give us comfort, but he leaves that role to Mom instead. She always plasters on a fake smile and pretends to be strong for Rylie and me.
The doctor comes in not long after with Rylie’s chart and tells us they’d like to keep her overnight for observation. She more than likely has an infection, which triggered the fever.
“Until we locate the source of infection, we’ll keep her on oxygen and monitor her stats,” he tells us. “The nurse will move her to another floor in a bit.”
“Thanks, Doctor Potter,” my mother murmurs.
The bare hospital walls, the cold air, the cream-colored floors—they’re all I’ve seen the last three years. Rylie got sick over two years ago, and we were in the ER at least once a week until she was officially diagnosed and they started chemo treatment.
“I’m going to call your dad,” she tells me before standing up and leaving. I can see the distress and exhaustion all over her features. Mom quit her job and has been Rylie’s caretaker since the beginning. She and Dad never go out anymore—at least not with each other—and if they aren’t fighting about bills, they’re fighting about his long hours at the office. I’ve overheard some of their conversations and sometimes wonder if Dad wishes he could leave us and find another family. Mom’s accused him of cheating, and though he never denies it, he just tells her she’s crazy.
The tension is thick when things are rough like this. Before Rylie’s diagnosis, they both worked full-time but always made sure to be home in time for dinner so we could eat as a family. We’d talk to Mom about our day, and Dad would ask about homework. It was predictable, but it was nice.
How easy it is to take life for granted until it throws a curve ball and changes the entire course of it.
I hate seeing Rylie like this. She doesn’t deserve this, and I’m often angry that she’s the one having to go through it and not me. I’d take her place in a heartbeat. She was only seven, and though she annoyed me on a daily basis, I loved her so much. Mom used to tell me stories of how I’d beg them for a baby sister, and when they got pregnant, I was so excited. Growing up together wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine, but I knew I was lucky to have her in my life.
I press the back of my hand to her cheek and feel how cold it is, even with a low-grade fever. These hospitals are always cold, and I hate it. Doing what I always do when Mom isn’t around, I crawl onto the bed next to her. I’m always careful of her lines, but then, at least, I can give her some of my body heat and comfort her.
“Let me know if I’m hurting you, okay, Riles?” Even though my voice is just above a whisper, when she squeezes my hand back again, I know she heard me.
I rest my chin on top of her head and hold her close to me before closing my eyes and sending another prayer up. “Love you, baby sis.”
A nurse comes in an hour later to move her to another floor.
Once she’s settled, Mom tells me Dad is coming to pick me up soon.
“Why can’t I stay here?”
“You need to eat some dinner and finish your homework,” she says with little emotion.
“‘I’m not leaving!” I shout. “I’m staying with Rylie.”
Dad arrives twenty minutes later, ordering me to come home with him for the night.
“I’ll bring you back tomorrow. Let’s go. Now.”
I kiss Rylie’s cheek and squeeze her hand three times. When she squeezes mine back, I smile and promise her I’ll be back as soon as I can. When Rylie is kept overnight, Mom always stays, but Dad never does.
The next morning, I call Mom before school, and she says she doesn’t have any updates yet. I make her promise to call the school if anything changes so I can know right away, and even though she agrees, something in my gut tells me otherwise.
After not hearing any word from Mom all day, Dad picks me up and drives us straight to the hospital. He’s eerily quiet during the ride over. That could mean anything since he’s not much of a talker anyway, but something isn’t settling right in the air.
“What is it, Dad?” I finally ask as he searches for a parking spot in the hospital garage.
I narrow my eyes at him, wondering why he’s lying. As soon as he parks, I jump out of the car and run the entire way up to Rylie’s room. Doctors and nurses swarm in and out, all holding charts and double checking her monitors.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” I pant, catching my breath.
She’s wearing her sunglasses again, but I know she’s choking up before she even speaks. “She’s septic.” Her words barely leave her mouth before one of the monitor alarms starts going off. It’s her heart monitor. The doctors have talked about sepsis previously during other visits, so I know it’s a life-threatening complication of an infection.
“She’s flatlining!” a nurse calls out, and they all rush around.
I’ve never felt this kind of panic in my life, and I’ve had many reasons to up to this point but watching her heartbeat flatline on the monitor has me gasping for air. I can’t seem to catch my breath between the tears and screaming.
Dad’s arms wrap around me from behind, holding me tight to his body as I scream for Rylie. Hysterically, I watch as they use the defibrillator and shock her chest.
I still remember the way her hair smelled. She was obsessed with everything pink and strawberries, so anytime I smell something fruity, I immediately think of her.
Watching Rylie battle for her life was painful. During her good days, she’d smile up at me, and I swear she was stronger than me through it all. She always made sure I was okay, which was crazy because I wouldn’t be okay until she was cured. Even then, I’d always fear the worst anytime she’d get a fever or a cold.
Memories flash through my mind of everything we went through for all those years, and when it was time to choose my career, I knew without a doubt what I wanted to study. Hell, I’d been experiencing it for years. The rest was just textbook stuff that I knew I could learn, but being at someone’s side while they were in their most delicate state was something I knew I could and wanted to do.
I went to nursing school, more determined than ever to soak up any and all information. Mom and Dad fought and grew apart and eventually divorced. Our family was broken, but I wouldn’t let it take me down. Even when I failed to stay strong, thoughts of Rylie always kept me focused. What she endured proved she was always the strongest of us all.