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The air whooshed from my lungs. Sue was Bree’s mom. The last time I visited Bree, I programmed it into her phone, and she said she wouldn’t call unless something bad happened. I placed my palm on the wall to steady myself. Something bad must’ve happened.
With shaking fingers, I dialed voicemail and slowly sifted through my mother’s messages. Would I buy her some canned tomatoes if I went to the store? Did I ever watch The Voice on television, and if so, did I think Blake Shelton was cute? Why was I ignoring her calls? Then the sound of Sue’s wavering voice filled my ear:
Molly, it’s Sue. It… it’s happening. There isn’t much time left. I’m sure you’re at work, you said you probably wouldn’t answer if you were in a delivery, but she and Zane wanted you to know when… you know. I… I just… I’ll call when it… I’m sorry. I’ll talk to you soon.
A chill washed over me. I pictured Sue standing in a hallway, much like the one I was standing in, only instead of a labor and delivery unit, she was in hospice care in Newport, Washington, where her daughter was dying of ovarian cancer. I’d spent so much time with Bree’s parents, both during my summers at Camp Chimalis, when they’d taken over for Sue’s parents; and in adulthood, when Bree and I were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings, and when I’d been her nurse for the delivery of her now one-year-old twins, Max and Maddie. I knew what Sue was doing as she left that message. Pacing back and forth, pushing her hair behind her ears again and again. She was probably chewing her nails the same way Bree did when she was nervous.
I glanced at my watch. It was four-thirty in the afternoon. Did I have time to get to Newport after my shift? It was at least an hour’s drive, depending on traffic and construction. Now that it was nearing summer, road construction in eastern Washington was in full force, demanding every driver plan for at least twenty-minutes in delays.
There was a beep, and the next message played. This time the background wasn’t as quiet as it’d been in the first message. My hand dropped and I slumped against the wall with a soft thud. This time the muffled sound of crying—multiple people crying—could be heard as Sue choked out the words:
Molly, it’s Sue again. She’s gone. She… she just closed her eyes, and now s-she’s gone. I just… I can’t… Zane said to call you. A-all three of you. I’ll call April next. Then Rachael. Bree loved you, Molly, you have to know that. I-I promised her I’d tell you so. I… I’ll speak to you soon.
Sue hung up, and the automated voice reminded me how to repeat or delete messages. Pressing end, I hunched over, suddenly light headed. Bree was gone. I’d just ushered in a new Bree not five doors down the hall, and sometime in the middle of it, my Bree left. A strangled sob bubbled up the back of my throat, escaping like a jagged cough, and sweat piqued underneath my arms and at my hairline.
Bree was dead.
I fumbled for the handle to the janitorial closet door, my palm slipping on the cold metal. When I finally managed to push it open, I stumbled in and slammed it shut behind me. The motion sensor light popped on, and I made a beeline for the utility sink in the corner. I retched up every bite of the chicken salad I ate for lunch, as well as the four cups of coffee I downed since my shift started. When my stomach was empty, I hung limply over the side of the metal basin. With one last feeble gag, I choked on a sob, burying my face in the crook of my arm to muffle the sounds.
“Oh, Bree, no. Not yet. Not yet…” I moaned into the fabric of my scrubs. I’d chosen the purple pair with little grey hearts. Purple was Bree’s favorite color, or had been, when we were teens and coordinated our outfits. Had fate stepped in and helped me pick those stupid purple scrubs? Could she see me wearing them now? Was she watching me barf all over a mop head in the filthy sink?
With a jolt, I stood upright and scanned the tiny four by six-foot space with wide, blurry eyes. “Bree?” I whispered at nothing. “You were supposed to wait for me.” Another whimper escaped, and I clamped my hand over my mouth. She joked last time I saw her, even with oxygen tubes in her nose, and sallow, greyish skin, that she wouldn’t dare croak without me being present. We sealed the promise with a pinky swear, which was the ultimate in contractual agreements between friends who’d known each other since before puberty.
When she was diagnosed with cancer at four months pregnant with the twins she and her husband Zane had so lovingly prayed for, she also promised to kick cancer’s ass and make it cry for its mama. Unfortunately, cancer had kicked Bree’s butt, and by the time she had the twins, her body was so ravaged and unhealthy, it was a miracle Max and Maddie were born pink, plump, and healthy. But Bree hadn’t cared. She’d been in her oncologist’s office three weeks later, demanding she help her combat the disease full force. She announced she wasn’t going out without a fight, that she wasn’t leaving her children.
While her new role as mommy had rescued her heart from despair, it hadn’t rescued her body from illness. The cancer metastasized, spreading to her colon and eventually her lungs. She did chemo and radiation, traveled to Seattle to stay with April’s family while trying experimental drugs, and even went to a healing shaman that Rachael swore cured her IBS. But the desperate measures weren’t enough.
By the time the twins had their first birthday, she was in a wheelchair, unable to bear her own weight. Because of her intravenous nutrition, Bree’s teeth started to decay. She was a ghost of the vibrant, confident, barefooted girl who forced me to get over my crippling homesickness at Camp Chimalis. She wasted away right in front of our eyes.
I sank to the floor of the janitorial closet, ignoring when something dampened my butt. Placing my head in my hands, I wept for the missed opportunity to hug Bree one last time, for the friend I would never see again, for the sweet parents who outlived their adult child, for the adoring husband she left behind, and for those two magnificent children she fought so desperately to live for…