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Raegan Lomanto: “Not a cancer story”


Before I start, let’s make one thing clear: this is not a cancer story. There may be cancer in the story, but it’s not the focus. The girl with the cancer isn’t even the focus. I am. This is my story. This is the story of how a bunch of little kids and a pretty girl made me see that life is short and that kindness is actually important. Oh, and they made me see that I was a complete jerk.

It was two years ago, back when I was a senior in high school, that my entire world got flipped upside down. I was captain of the Harmony Senior High School lacrosse team in Harmony, Rhode Island. I used to think it was a bleak, boring town. My whole life was just this endless cycle of repetition. I was basically numb. The only thing that brought me joy was lacrosse. Though, I don’t know if I’d call it joy so much as satisfaction. It was satisfying to play with all that adrenaline pumping. I soaked it all in: the mud, the grass-stains, the bruises, the yelling, the incredible feeling of glorious victory. I was such a numbskull, I swear. Lacrosse was all I cared about.

Until one day, when my days of being a testosterone-fueled idiot began to dwindle.

The day began normally.  Naturally, my morning routine was exactly like the days’ before: wake up, shower, shave, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to school. As I pulled into a parking spot, I saw my lacrosse buddies surrounding a really nice 1974 GMC pickup truck.

“Hey, guys,” I said as I walked up to the group. “Nice ride, Paul!”

Paul was sitting in the driver’s seat, looking like a stupid peacock with his stupid feathers out. But I was blind to this at the time. “Thanks,” he said. “My dad and I just finished fixing her up.”

The guys began to chatter about names for the car, and the conversation probably became inappropriate after not too long because teenage boys are teenage boys. But I was tuned out by then. Because out of the corner of my eye I saw something.

Across the parking lot, I saw the enormous and hairy Marvin Gulliver towering over Joey Montelongo, a freshman. I couldn’t hear, but I could clearly see that Joey was not enjoying the conversation. His face had pure terror written all over it. Marvin’s was twisted and contorted into a menacing form and seemed to be almost growling at Joey. I stared at the scene like a nimrod for nearly a minute, my mouth probably hanging open or something. And then I turned my head away. I rejoined the conversation that my friends were having and chose to ignore the scene that went on in the corner of my eye. And to this day, it makes me sick remembering that moment where I willingly chose to be a jerk.

But the day went on, as usual. Until fifth period where I got a text from my mom. It read:

Hi honey, can you come to the hospital right after school today? We need your help in the children’s wing doing some volunteer work.

And because I was a teenager back then, I argued and begged and all that crap, trying to get out of it, but it was no use. I couldn’t even use lacrosse as an excuse. Lacrosse practice was canceled that day because the field had been completely flooded. How coincidental. I bet my mom flooded the field herself.  Moms have magical powers that they use to get you to do what they want.

So, you’re probably wondering why exactly my mother asked me to come help out at the hospital after school. My parents are both nurses at the Harmony City Hospital, and sometimes they ask for volunteers to come read books and play games with the kids in the children’s wing. I had been able to weasel my way out of going every time before. Hospitals scared me, and sick people scared me even more. But I was trapped this time. I had to go.

I spent the rest of fifth period and all of sixth dreading the end of the school day, which was not normal for me. But the release bell rang, of course, and I trudged to the parking lot, the air fresh and clean from the scattered showers of the day so far. Normally, I would have liked the smell of the rain, but right then, it just made the earth seem gloomy.  And to make it gloomier, it began to rain as I got into my car.

But when I reached the hospital, though, the rain stopped. And the sun peeked through the clouds.

I walked into the hospital, signed in, and a nurse led me to children’s wing where I found my mom dragging a crate of books into a little sitting area. “Hey, mom,” I said. “Need some help?”

“Oh, no, honey! I’ve got it!” she said, beaming. My mom is one of the happiest people on the planet. “How was school?”

“Fine,” I said, sighing. “Until I received terrible news via text message.”

“Charlie, honey,” my mom stared at me sternly. “I know you’re uncomfortable, but there is no need to be rude. At all.”

“She’s right, son,” my dad said as he walked up to us carrying a tote that was literally overflowing with finger puppets.

I then, being my moody teenager self, rolled my eyes and sulked away to sit in the corner of the sitting area. My parents let me walk away and went back to gathering supplies for the volunteers to use to try to entertain the kids.  But as I was walking over to my selected sulking spot, I passed by an open doorway. I wouldn’t have given any thought to it if I hadn’t heard the faintest whisper of some serious heavy-metal music drifting from the room. Curious, I peeked inside.

I’m pretty sure this was the moment that I fell in love with her.

But not like romantic love. It was like an “I want this person to be my friend” kind of love. I think.

Because when I peeked into that room, I saw a girl with ridiculously curly black hair, dressed in a hospital gown, sitting on the bed. She was holding a bluetooth speaker in her lap, and from the speaker came the heavenly sound of rock music. Her eyes were closed, but she was nodding her head slightly with the beat of the song. She had beautifully clear skin that looked warm and smooth, and a set of dainty freckles dusted her nose and cheeks. An IV tube snaked itself from her arm to a machine in the corner of the room. An ACDC poster hung on the wall to my left. It was the most confusing and simultaneously wonderful image I had ever observed.

I wanted to say something, but I also didn’t. I sort of felt like leaving her alone. She looked peaceful, ironically. I turned to leave, but lucky for me, she suddenly said, “Hey, wait.”

I froze. Her voice had pain and joy in it, mixed together. It made me uneasy. I turned back around. Her eyes were open, blinking at me. The were electric blue.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to一”

“No worries,” she said. I started to leave the room, but she stopped me with her terrifyingly sweet voice. “My name’s Leah.”

“I’m Charlie,” I said, probably looking and sounding like a total idiot.

We looked at each other in the most awkward silence of my life. Again, I was lucky that she said something, because I would not be the person I am today if she hadn’t. “Will you be my friend?” she asked me.

I looked at her. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be her friend. I smiled awkwardly. “I, uh,” I stuttered like my brain was mush. “Sure!”

She grinned. She had perfect teeth. “I’m listening to Nirvana, if you want to join me. I’ve found that music distracts me from the idea of my basically imminent death.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I couldn’t tell if she was joking or being serious. Then she laughed. “I’m kidding,” she said. Girls are so confusing.

“So you like Nirvana?” I asked, trying to make conversation, because despite my serious want to know this girl, I was struggling to find words.

“Yeah,” she said. “I started listening to them about a month ago when I was first diagnosed.”

“Diagnosed with what?” I asked hesitantly, unsure if this was a question that I was allowed to ask a person who is sick.

“Leukemia, but it’s some weird, mutated form of it or something,” she said, casually, as if it was a common cold to her. “I’m almost used to living in the hospital.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said, like a big fat dummy.

“It’s alright,” she said. “I like the other kids here. They’re really sweet. And nothing feels better than being kind to someone.” Then, she got up, walked around her bed, and grabbed the IV machine that she was attached to. She motioned for me to follow her out of the room. I did.

In the sitting room, there was about seven kids sitting about with a few volunteers. One little girl looked up. She looked about seven years old. When she saw Leah, she shrieked. “Leah!”

“Hi, Willow!” chirped Leah. She wrapped her arms around the girl. “This is my new friend, Charlie.”

I waved to the little girl. Her big brown eyes just about melted my heart. I know it sounds corny, but I’m serious. “How ya doin’?” I asked her.

She started to tear up. And I realized that asking a sick child how he or she is doing is probably not a very good idea. “Hey, hey, hey,” I said as I squatted down so that our eyes were at the same level. “I’m sorry, Willow. Do you wanna read a book with me? There’s some really good ones in this tub over here.”

Willow slowly crept towards me. She grabbed my big hand with her tiny one, and we walked over to the box of books together. She picked one about jungle animals, and we sat on a little couch together, reading. After a while, Willow fell asleep, leaning on my arm. I looked up finally to see Leah watching me from across the room. She was piecing a puzzle together with a boy named Timmy. She smiled at me. And that was it. I was suddenly no longer the lacrosse thug that I was before. I was no longer numb. I wanted to care for people suddenly. And I did.

I began visiting Leah and the other kids in the hospital as often as I could, working around my lacrosse practices. Leah and I became best friends. I learned all the little things about her like how her favorite color is lavender, and her favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate. I found out that she was seventeen and had been homeschooled her whole life. We had long, deep conversations together about controversial topics, and we shared ridiculous stories and memories with each other. We would read to Willow and Timmy and the other kids together. We even started writing scripts and putting on finger puppet shows for them. Lacrosse was no longer the most important thing to me. My life suddenly had purpose. I suddenly felt real joy.

My parents were a little freaked out at first by my sudden change of character. But they embraced the new me without hesitation. I found myself appreciating them more.

But as my emotional health bettered, Leah’s physical health worsened. She lost all of her beautiful, curly black hair to the chemo. Her once smooth and warm skin turned pale and cold. Her voice lost all of the happiness that was once mixed with the pain. But her freckles stayed the same. And so did her smile.

Leah became my priority. I made it my business to bring her chocolate ice cream every Monday and Friday. I made it my business to bring her a new novel to read from the school library every day. I started missing lacrosse practice. I stopped hanging out with my team at school. A few of them texted me, wondering what had happened to me, but I never replied. I knew they wouldn’t understand if I tried to explain. They’d call me a weakling or something.

“You need to tell them,” Leah said one day after she heard my phone vibrate. “They’re worried about you.”

I sighed. She was right. “You’re right,” I said as I got up from my seat. “Tomorrow, I will.”

The next day, I got to school, and deja vu hit me like a truck. I saw Marvin Gulliver standing over Joey Montelongo again. But this time, Joey was on the ground, curled into a ball as Marvin proceeded to kick him in repeatedly. I looked at the scene. I heard Leah’s words in my head, “Nothing feels better than being kind to someone.” And I marched over to the two boys.

“Hey!” I shouted as I put my hand on Marvin’s gigantic shoulder. Marvin turned. He was so big, he cast a shadow over me, blocking the sun. I took a deep breath. “Leave Joey alone.”

“What’d you say?” Marvin snarled. Joey stared at me from the ground, eyes wide.

“You heard me,” I said. And Marvin Gulliver then broke my nose.

I got up off the ground to find that both Marvin and Joey were gone. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, so I just dusted myself off and walked to class.

“Being kind has definitely felt better,” I said to Leah, even though she wasn’t there.

I spent the rest of the day, planning what I was going to say to my team when I showed up at practice later. Time never moved slower. Finally, the hour came.

I took a breath as I stepped onto the field. I walked up to my team who was huddled near a bench on the sideline. “Hey guys,” I piped. They all turned and stared at me.

I was bombarded by a series of “Charlie, where the hell have you been?!”’s, “How’d you get the black eye?!”’s, and some cuss words that I probably shouldn’t share. A wave of different emotions washed over me, and I couldn’t speak. I was paralyzed as shouts and curses and questions continued. Finally, I exploded.

“Just shut up!” I yelled. Silence fell. “It’s been a helluva day, so just shut up, and let me talk.”

As silent tears rolled down my cheeks, I told them about my volunteer work at the hospital. I told them about Willow and Timmy, and I told them about Leah. I told them that Leah was dying. I told them how important she was to me.

They stared at me for a long time. And then one of them, Jake, spoke. “Man, why didn’t you tell us?”

“Yeah,” said Jordan. “Dude this really blows, you should have told us. We get it.”

They all nodded in agreement. They smiled at me.

“What on earth are you still doing here, man?” asked Arturo. “You have a friend who needs you a lot more than we do right now.”

I smiled. “Thanks, guys.” And I sprinted off the field.

I could not have been more surprised by my team’s reaction. I was so shocked, I was shaking as I walked into Leah’s room.

“What happened to you?!” she said as I stepped into her room. I suddenly remembered my broken nose.

“I took your advice,” I said.

“What?” she asked, confused.

I told her the whole story. And for the first time in the short time that I’d known her, she cried. It made me realize how strong she was. She had every right to cry every day. She was dying, for goodness sake. But she didn’t. She chose to be happy, despite her pain. And I will never be half as good as she was.

And I say “was,” because three days later, Leah passed away.

But I didn’t stop volunteering at the hospital. I felt pain in my stomach every time I passed her empty room, but the kids brought me so much happiness that I couldn’t just quit visiting them.

And when I left for college, the hardest part about leaving was being six hours away from my little friends at the hospital.

But when I come home for holidays and three-day weekends, I never forget to go say “hi” to the kids and meet the new ones. I read to them, build puzzles with them, whatever they want.

I think about Leah a lot. I miss her a lot. And I’m so glad I met her, because she made me see that being kind feels freaking amazing. There’s no better feeling in the world. My life became meaningful the instant I let go of trying to be cool or whatever idiotic reasons I had for being a jerk. And I owe it all to Leah.

See? I told you this wasn’t a cancer story. But by the way, Timmy and Willow are both cancer free now.

I’m so freaking happy.


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