When I was 16 years old I developed a very rare and typically fatal blood kidney disease. Spoiler alert! (It didn’t kill me.) I did, however, spend much of the first semester of my junior year of high-school in an intensive care unit receiving peritoneal dialysis, plasmapheresis and sporting a breathing tube, a catheter and an oh, so sexy, NG (nasogastric) tube. Not exactly what I wanted to be wearing to the Homecoming dance. No one ever told me I probably wasn’t going to make it past Labor Day.
While I was in renal failure and coping with seizures, my classmates scribbled me gossip-filled notes they secretly passed around during Chemistry class so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing anything. While they were struggling with the periodic table, I was fighting to lower my creatinine.
It didn’t feel like an even trade. Life went on without me.
At first, the thought that I would die in that ICU bed never crossed my unkempt, greasy little head. My parents whispered and cried a lot, but I didn’t, or wouldn’t, connect the dots. My friend Gary organized a blood drive to show support, though I was certain the blood was for someone much worse off than me. Doctors paraded through my room each day to perch on the edge of my bed and chat with their “favorite girl.” It didn’t occur to me it was a ruse to check on a patient who was on the brink of losing her battle. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me wash my hair.
It didn’t take long to begin to lose track of time, the days and nights melting together in my noisy, windowless cell. It was during that muddled twilight time that a single red rose appeared next to my bed. It was there for weeks, the only beautiful thing in a room filled with screeching machines and endless nurse chatter. The rose never lost its petals, its leaves remaining evergreen. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, it was the first thing I stole a glimpse of when my eyes fluttered open. I always breathed a sigh of life when the rose was still there, when I could smell its sweet aroma. If the rose was still alive, I couldn’t have been in the hospital very long, could I?
If it thrived in my room without withering, wouldn’t I survive as well?
I never wondered or asked about the magic of the red forever flower. The rose just was – and, therefore, so was I. It gave me a reason to wake up when the promise of eternal sleep began to feel as natural and welcoming as an afternoon nap. By this time, I was so very tired. But I would turn my head, and see that damn rose still kicking, still as beautiful as the day it arrived. I began to feel a duty towards it. I looked forward to seeing it.
“Okay, rose. It’s you and me. It looks like you’re still here. I guess I might as well be here, too.”
I never learned what motivated my doctor, a family friend, to smuggle in a new stem of hope each morning during rounds – an exception the hospital made for the girl that might never finish growing up. Perhaps he felt helpless, that this was one thing he could give me, do for me, when I was losing so very much. I have never forgotten his compassion, or his kindness.
Later that year when I had recovered and was home in my room, I would write a poem about that rose. Nearly dying at the age of 16 gives a girl permission to fill spiral-bound journals with oodles of bad poetry.
“A room filled with death and one red rose
Led to the path of life I chose.”
The doctors don’t know why, or how I survived. To them, I was a head-scratcher. Treatments in 1981 for this illness were experimental. Though I would have preferred to be in Seventeen Magazine, I earned a not-so coveted spot for patients in the New England Journal of Medicine instead. I was a case study in throwing treatments at the wall to see if they stuck, or miracles, depending on who you spoke with. But, me? I still credit that rose. It provided me the courage I didn’t realize I needed and consistent hope for a better, more beautiful tomorrow. And, when we’re fighting a battle in life where we see no possible way out, sometimes that’s all that we need.