Tuesday, September 7, 2010

my voice

Once upon a time I was in a sophomore english class in college. As part of the course, we were required to write an essay and submit it to be considered in a writing competition first within the class and then the top of each class would go on to a competition between all of the other sections of the ENGL 2010 that semester. I was flattered to have my composition picked as the 3rd best in my class! In a mix-up however, mine was labeled first, and went on to place 3rd overall in all of the sections!! It was a big surprise; I didn't think I was really that good of a writer (well, obviously I can string coherent thoughts together... but you know what I mean). I am really proud of this accidental achievement though, especially because the piece I wrote is hands-down the favorite essay I have ever written. It is a small part of my story (if I can claim it as my own) and it's not a part I often tell. But the topic came into my mind the other day, and I realized that this story ought to be heard by more than just the 10 kids in my class who read and gave it a score out of 10.

And so here it is. I send it off into the virtual world to be read by whoever may stumble upon it. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

My Other Half

There is a pine tree that stands alone in the yard outside of my elementary school. The dark green boughs stand out against the faded red and white brick of the wall behind them. As I have grown, the school has seemed to shrink—the once dauntingly large 6th grade hallway seems so much smaller than it was back then. In order to walk underneath the slide that started out stories high, I now have to duck. But the tree has grown with me. Even though I have stopped getting taller, it has continued to reach higher and higher, taller now than the building it stands next to. In the grass in front of the tree, a marble plaque is engraved with the words “In memory of Melissa Fleming 1980-1990.”

I can’t recall how many times different people, after having found out that my name was Erin Fleming, would ask me if I was related to the girl that was buried in the lawn outside the 3rd grade classrooms. I would grin and explain to them that it was just in MEMORY of her, not her grave, and that yes—she was my sister. One time after I had related this, the girl asked me why I was smiling about the fact that my sister died. I suppose that since I have no memory of her, being only six months old when she died, I didn’t have any real reason to mourn her loss. But that isn’t to say that I didn’t think about her very often.

Somewhere in my early years, I began to think of Melissa as my guardian angel. When I did something wrong, I imagined that she had been watching, and felt let down that I hadn’t made the right decision. I didn’t want to let my older sister down; I felt impelled to make good choices so that she would be proud of me and the life that I was living for both of us. It was quite confusing when the story of Melissa and her cousin locking their younger siblings in the bathroom was related to me. Surely this was not the same angelic daughter, sister, and friend whose reputation I was striving to live up to. Either way, my high expectations for myself were the direct result of wanting to please her.

Melissa noticed that the lymph nodes in her throat were swollen in May of 1990. Doctors put her on antibiotics, but they didn’t seem to make any difference. She began to be constantly fatigued, and discovered that she had lost vision entirely in one of her eyes. An MRI test at the hospital showed a cancerous mass in her sinus cavity. Further tests revealed that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes—thus the reason for the swelling. Chemotherapy treatments began immediately.

My birthday should have been in July, but I arrived a month early—my mom thinks that it was probably due to the stress she was experiencing from Melissa’s diagnosis. Melissa spent one week of every month that summer and fall in the hospital undergoing therapy, and as I was still a very young “preemie”, I typically was taken along for the trip. My mom would carry me in a bassinet to Melissa’s room at Primary Children’s Medical and set me by the window to bask in the sun, since I was suffering from slight jaundice. I was a unique ray of sunshine in that setting. There were very few children around who hadn’t been given a bleak statistic for survival. My parents would put me in a swing in the doorway of the hospital room where I laughed and entertained everyone who passed down the hallway.

The fall brought a glimmer of hope; the chemotherapy treatments were going as scheduled. Melissa wrote in her journal that she was looking forward to being able to go home, and that now she would start to get better. This entry would be the last she ever wrote. Around Thanksgiving, Melissa started having trouble with her balance and during a chemotherapy session, suffered a seizure. The disease had moved to her brain and spinal cord, and when the doctors discovered the new tumors they were so far progressed that the little hope that had existed before, slipped out of sight.

In December, the doctors decided that the additional chemotherapy and radiation wasn’t making a difference and that they had done all that they could do for her. My parents brought her home to spend the remainder of her days there. A makeshift bedroom was set-up in the basement, where the hospice nurses would be able to come and check on her. I wish I could remember that winter, my first Christmas that must have been so unorthodox. Christmas morning, they brought her upstairs while the family opened presents around that year’s evergreen tree. By this point, Melissa had lost the sight in her other eye and was paralyzed from the neck down except for use of one arm. The next morning, my dad and siblings went out to the store to pick up some groceries. While they were gone, Melissa quietly slipped from this life.

When I was young, people were always telling me how much I looked like Melissa when she was my age. In my naïve mind, the most logical explanation for this was that since my life started when hers was ending, a part of her was living through me. Even her journal, containing the record of her life down to the final entries written by her own hand, was passed to me. My life picked up where hers was abruptly cut short.

I have always wondered what the polite reply is when someone compares you to a person whom you never met, particularly when the someone doing the comparing is also fairly unknown to you. The last time I was told that I looked like Melissa, I was 17 years old—an age beyond what anyone could have known what she looked like. Standing in the hall of my church building, I was telling some of the younger boys that they needed to stop being so rowdy. Their leader, who had grown up in the ward, moved away and returned when he was older, approached and told the boys to listen to me, referring to me as “Miss Fleming”. We’d never met before, so I turned to him and asked how he knew who I was. “I knew Melissa,” he simply stated and walked away. It had been a long time since anyone had mentioned how similar we appeared, and it left me in somewhat of a stupor as I sorted out in my mind that he had been able to pick out the relation after so many years.

There are only a few pictures that I’ve ever seen of Melissa, including the very few that exist of her and I together. By this time, her beautiful long hair had been lost due to extensive chemotherapy treatments, and she looks thin and pale. This version of Melissa looks nothing like the photos of her before she was diagnosed. These snapshots, however, are the best that I have to judge for myself whether I look like her or not. I don’t see the similarity.

There is one other difference that separates me from being identical to my older sister. Melissa was a natural artist. We have oil paintings in our home that are practically masterpieces, done by the simple hand of a ten year old. The closest I’ve ever come to a work of art is finger-painting. But this contrast is outweighed by the similarities. We both love nature, and we were both very active in sports. We both had double inguinal hernia repairs in our early years. It is no surprise that my mom was quite distressed when, at age ten, I started getting severe migraines that put me in the nurses’ office several times a week for almost a month. Luckily for all, I returned to normal with no explanation for the glitch in my health.

I haven’t been to the tree in years. I used to go with my dad on Memorial Day and use a shovel to trim back the grass from around the plaque so that it looked nice. I wonder if anyone is taking care of it now. I wonder if the kids at the school still talk about the girl who is buried outside the 3rd grade classrooms. I’ve learned to put on a somber face when I talk about Melissa. But those times have become less and less often, as the heartache of her passing fades and I move out into circles of people who never knew her. Even the pressure I once felt to make her proud has dimmed and vanished over time. How can the lives of two people who never had so much as conversation be so intertwined? I believe in angels, but even a skeptic couldn’t deny the presence she has had in my life.

1 comment:

  1. You neglected to preface this with a warning for needing a bath towel. I know she's proud of you.