We met on the track I was wearing in the hallway carpet. Pacing. Stretching my legs, ostensibly, but pacing, in truth. My brother was on the fourth hour of his third round of chemo. I was on the fourth hour of sitting by his side in one of the cancer center’s treatment rooms.
“What’s the matter with you?”
The question came from an individual I nearly tripped over as I rounded the end of my route again. It was a boy, a young man maybe, and his inquiry sounded genuine enough. Age was difficult to guess in this place. The undereye gray shadows and translucent skin beneath a knit hat could be a misleading combination. He may have been fourteen or he may have been twenty.
“With me?” I fumbled my reply, “No, nothing. Needed to stretch my legs.”
I tried a smile but my lips would neither part nor curve upward. His white-blonde eyebrows rose toward his shaved scalp, visible along the edge of the hat. He was as convinced as my smile was convincing. That is, not at all.
“Stretch your legs?”
“Stretch my legs.”
My perfectly good, functional, strong legs, I added to myself and continued walking. My mind summoned the image of my big brother, his limbs withered and wrapped in two blankets while lifesaving, toxic chemicals were pumped into his body. I walked faster.
“What you need is air.”
I slowed my feet, realizing he’d followed me.
“You know the way to the garden?” he asked.
I shook my head. The hallway suddenly felt stifling.
“There’s a garden?” I pushed the words past the stone in my throat.
He moved to the front, lifting one bony shoulder to indicate I should follow.
It wasn’t that the building was so awful. The walls and furniture were awash with soothing colors. The architecture was effectively welcoming, not to mention it was stocked with a staff deserving of an Olympic gold medal in warmth. Nonetheless, there was no way for it to be anything but a building you wished to leave.
It was also a building with a garden. My companion led me down new hallways, around new corners, and through a set of automatic doors. The doors opened on a small park of groomed grass and flower beds. Brightly painted wooden benches filled the in-between spaces and a swing set stood at the opposite edge with three rubber seats suspended on sturdy chains.
My guide sat down on the first bench we reached, which faced a fountain. In the center of the fountain was a bird that I recognized as a phoenix. The creature was painted blood red, a startling hue against the gray stone structure. Water flowed and fell from the carved pile of ashes from which the bird rose. Its wings were half-spread and its chest and head stretched toward the sky. Ready for flight.
Just us and the stone bird, still and silent we sat. I don’t know for how long. The young man’s breaths had an almost inaudible rasp. When a girl emerged through the doors, running to the swings with a woman calling caution after her, I spoke.
“Thank you for bringing me out here.” I glanced sideways and added, “I’m June.”
“I’m here with my brother.”
His eyes remained fixed on the fountain. Their shade of brown was likely quite ordinary but set above those gray shadows they were bright and bold.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
The sun warmed me through my jeans and black t-shirt, but I’d witnessed how the disease robbed a person of his internal heat. My brother was invariably cold.
Perry and I returned to silence. The hushed rasp of his breaths, the squeak of a swing set chain, and the water moving beneath the phoenix accompanied my thoughts. None of those thoughts connected. They collided and stacked on top of each other. In between grocery lists, dentist appointments, and messages I’d been meaning to answer came the repeated question: Will my brother survive? Each time that one rose to the top, I scrambled for my next thought, for one that I could answer.
God could answer the other one. Only Him. This fact was both a source of pain and a balm to the pain. Was that truth really any different for the rest of us though? Cancer or no cancer, I knew as little about my own chances of survival as my brother’s.
True enough, I conceded, but our experience of that truth is anything but the same.
Perry cleared his throat. “I’m going to get a tattoo of that bird when I’m done here. When I’m in remission, I mean. I look at the thing every day. I don’t know, but I think I’ll need to take it with me.”
He turned my way and this time I had a real smile for him, lips curved up and everything.
“It will make an excellent tattoo,” I said.
A cloud obscured the sun and my smile fell away. Perry shivered. I looked at the phoenix once more.
“I should go back to my brother. Do you know the time?”
Perry shrugged. “I don’t pay attention to time anymore, not more than if it’s day or if it’s night. When I did pay attention, I was only counting down. I got tired of counting down.”
He leaned heavily on the arm of the bench and stood. His movements and his tone that followed were suited to a man of a more advanced age.
“Come on. You’ll never find your way back on your own.”
Perry left me at my brother’s door. I walked inside and asked, “Have you seen the garden yet? It has the most beautiful fountain.”
*”A Phoenix in the Garden” was originally published in Ever Eden Literary Journal, Spring 2020 issue.