If I’m Honest
By Katherine Verm
If I’m honest, cancer drew me to Avery. In just third grade, she had the whole school marching around the playground in her honor. She watched us from her REI canopy chair as PTA mothers offered her snacks. I stood in line to make her acquaintance and wished she could be my friend. She was swollen, bald, and the most regal girl I’d ever seen. Cancer was exhilarating and foreign and special.
I can’t remember exactly how I wiggled my way into Avery’s life after that. We shared lots of friends, and we lived in the same neighborhood, so one way or another, a friendship began. She was in remission then, and I could recognize her across the lunchroom by her gray ball cap. She wore it often, so often that the signatures of her third-grade classmates started to fade. I was always a little jealous that I didn’t get to sign it too. The cap comforted her, it kept her safe. I wanted every part of that.
Avery and I loved to play with duct tape. We made wallets and pencil pouches, purses, and little roses. We sat on her bedroom floor as we created, talking about our crushes, why we didn’t like our teachers, who got in trouble at recess, which Pop-tart matched our personality (according to Buzzfeed), where we wanted to travel and which movies we wished to live in. Her room was messy, stuffed animals and art projects were strewn about the small space. Her closet door was permanently swung open, displaying a wardrobe primarily of Justice, the shirts featuring gaudy sparkles and funny cartoon characters. The clothes matched her personality. Juvenile. Jocund.
If I’m honest, I’ve never been a dog person, but in the years that I knew Avery, I came close to it.
She sent me daily screenshots of cute dogs, usually pugs, and their disposition always matched her mood. We exchanged dog memes when we were excited or bored or sad or angry. We were young; it was difficult to express emotions; it was impossible to rationalize the world. So when our rudimentary language failed us, when we were speechless, shell-shocked, afraid, the dogs communicated what we couldn’t.
A text lit up on my pink iPod Touch one afternoon:
The cancer’s back
I’m so sorry
Attachment: sad dogs memes
“I’ll be Mrs. Williams!” Avery giggled as she wrote the last name of her crush on the whiteboard. I liked the same boy, but I wasn’t so bold about it. I admired the way Avery just said what she wanted to. I was more reserved. It was innocent; the way we dreamed about our futures together. About getting married and becoming teachers. It was naive.
We ate Kraft mac and cheese for dinner at our first sleepover. The simple (and artificial) meal was our favorite, and we practically drank it. We wanted to go back to playing. I’ve eaten Kraft mac and cheese only a couple of times since then; I’ll now go for any other brand, any other shape, anything but Kraft. When I see it, I think of Avery. I think of the way she hunched over while we taught math to invisible students, and how she didn’t make it to the bathroom. I think of frantically trying to find a bucket, frantically calling for my mom, frantically asking Avery if she was okay. I saw whole noodles on the floor mixed with the Friday pizza and pops our school’s cafeteria served at lunch. Her dad came quickly after my mom called. He poured out some pills and Avery ate them one by one, each with a spoonful of apple sauce. She ate the whole cup. Avery didn’t go home until later that night when she threw up again. We were watching a Disney movie.
In fourth grade, Avery’s mom died of a brain tumor. How do you comfort someone who is dying of cancer while she mourns her mom who died of cancer? I thought a card would be nice, but I never gave it to her. It wasn’t enough. Avery talked about her sometimes, but distantly, like her mom left long before she died. Avery showed me her mom’s college yearbook picture; their round faces and bright eyes were uncanny. Her mom went to Yale and married an aspiring lawyer after graduation. While we flipped through the glossy pages, I wondered if Avery would live long enough to do the same. Cancer was no longer exciting. Cancer was an enemy, one that steals, kills, and destroys.
In fifth grade, Avery started homeschooling, or, hospitalschooling. I frequented Mission hospital’s children’s wing where Avery received treatment. Chemo. It was a twenty-minute drive from my house. I would stare out the window as we drove past the Biltmore House and on up towards downtown, past the purple B&B and the Jimmy John’s (where an alleged hospital escapee stopped for some real food), and a final right at the top of the hill. The hallway leading to Avery’s room had hand-painted ceiling tiles, crying babies, and bustling nurses. I stayed close to my mom for the length of the hallway, like she had the power to protect me from whatever natural disasters occurred around us. Inside Avery’s room, there were letters, pictures, and drawings taped to the walls. Avery even used window markers to write notes to the outside world. Once the window begged, “Get me outta here!” So she and I devised an escape plan together.
“I’ll tie the bedsheets together and climb out the window.”
“Avery, we’re on the fifth floor!”
“Well, how else am I going to leave?!”
“Good point. I’ll bring a giant trampoline for you to land on.”
One afternoon when I was visiting Avery, Superman came into the hospital playroom. A local news reporter did too. I tucked myself next to Avery’s grandmother, Jane, as we watched the woman interview Avery and introduce her to the man in a costume. If I’m honest, I didn’t like that Avery was going to be a sick girl on the news. Her cancer became real then, an identity. I wasn’t quite ready to accept that; she was Avery, not Leukemia. At the end of the interview, Jane pulled Avery close and mumbled, “Baby you’re my superhero.”
If I’m honest, I wanted to know everything, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask Avery why she liked the blue bandanas best, why bruises decorated her arms, her hands, her legs, why a feeding tube poked from her stomach, why she had cancer, if she was scared. I didn’t ask what being bald felt like, what chemo felt like, what dying felt like. I didn’t interrogate her like the nurses; I observed, and I listened; I occupied. I distracted.
Avery loved my mom’s granola, which resulted in the kitchen constantly smelling of vanilla and almonds. We filled a giant zip-locked bag with the snack before she went to Duke for a bone marrow transplant. I brought it with me to the send-off barbeque her dad hosted. To be honest, I wasn’t originally invited; it was a small affair. I wasn’t intruding, but I felt aware that my invitation was polite, a gesture of appreciation for the food. The attendees included Avery’s best friends and their families, all residents of Kinsley Lane. They were a secret society, those five girls, and I couldn’t translate their inside jokes despite my best efforts. I followed them down the street as they played an original game, their movements choreographed, their laughter in perfect harmony.
Avery spent a week at Disney World between her failed transplant and return to the local hospital. I went to her house for a June afternoon; she told me about the rides in Magic Kingdom and how hot it was. “Oh my goodness, and this was so crazy!” she exclaimed, waving her hands and flashing me a crooked smile. I took time to memorize her as she talked. “My brother forgot to lock the wheelchair…”
warm brown eyes and a sloped nose with freckles
“… and I started rolling down the hill…”
a UNC bandana covered her head
“…so my dad ran after me before I crashed!”
A gangly smile; a beautiful smile.
We talked for a while longer; Avery rambled on about Harry Potter World and whether Butterbeer is better hot or cold. If I’m honest, I became distracted by the new episodes of Good Luck Charlie playing on the TV across the living room. My parents didn’t pay for cable, I could only watch at friends’ houses. I nodded as she spoke, but my attention was no longer on her. Time with Avery was precious and limited and I spent our last playdate watching television. I don’t want to admit to my inattentiveness, not to others, not even to myself. I am ashamed. Avery was readmitted to the hospital a couple of days later.
“She isn’t doing well. We’ll go by soon to say goodbye.”
My mom pulled into The Fresh Market and we walked in to pick out some flowers. “Something to brighten the room,” she told me.
“Which ones?” I asked as I stood in front of the refrigerated wall of plants.
She plucked a pretty pink bouquet, and at some point after paying, our eyes got watery. “Think happy thoughts,” she smiled softly as I buckled in.
“Rainbows and butterflies,” I whispered.
“It will be hard Katie, I don’t know what she’ll look like, but I want you to hold her hand.”
It was quiet in the hospital that day. I was scared to knock, but my mom’s hands were full of flowers, so I had to do it. Jane opened the door and welcomed us in. Avery’s dad, David, stood from a couch next to Avery’s sleeping body. He was rumpled and tired. The lights were off, and the room was cold. There weren’t many pictures on the walls. My mom placed the flowers in line with the other farewells. My mom guided me towards a chair by Avery’s head, and she pushed on my shoulder so I would sit. I was immobile, but I had the strongest urge to run, to get away from the coffin the five of us were in. Avery’s face was swollen, and her eyes fluttered open just barely when I sat down. She was draped in a standard-issue hospital gown and her head was bare, unadorned by the usual cap or bandana. She was unrecognizable. My mom silently urged me to hold Avery’s hand, so I placed mine as close as I could without touching her. I was too scared; it was too real. Avery had been dying for years, but I wasn’t prepared. How could I be? If I touched her, I would have started crying, and for her sake, I couldn’t. I still regret those few centimeters of separation. I tried to speak but no words came out, so I just listened to my mom talk with Jane and Mr. David, but that became muffled too. I don’t know how long I sat there before we left.
“I’ll meet you in the hallway,” my mom spoke softly.
This time I found enough air.
And in the smallest, weakest whisper, came, “Bye Katie.”
I made it to my mom before I broke. She pulled me close, and I sobbed into her shirt.
I knew before my mom told me. Her eyes were tired and sad, and they looked at me like I was the most precious thing on earth. “David called,” she whispered. “Avery passed away last night, kidney failure.” I stepped closer as she reached towards me. My mom held me on the couch for the next hour. I think I held her too. I squeezed her occasionally, so she’d know I was healthy, alive. I stared at the couch as I quietly emptied myself. I watched the way my tears changed the pale-yellow cushions to a darker, Dijon mustard color.
A couple of days after Avery passed, we took lasagna to her brother and dad. Mr. David’s Yale friends were there too. The way they looked at me—I couldn’t stand it. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” a woman whispered. If I’m honest, her words made me angry. I didn’t want her condolences. I wanted my friend to run down the stairs and grab my hand, pull me away from the adults and the pain, out to the backyard so we could swing, up to the playroom so we could dance, towards the sidewalk so we could run away, to anywhere, anywhere but that kitchen. The stranger’s eyes were full of sympathy, but I didn’t respond, the ball in my throat wouldn’t let me.
I didn’t have a black dress for the funeral. I wore my pink Easter dress instead. When I was eleven, I found it at the J.Crew outlet store. A juvenile bow wrapped around the waist of its poofy skirt, and when I twirled, it made a perfect dome around my body, like the Barbie cake my sister had at her fifth birthday party. My mom assured me that Avery would’ve preferred me to wear something bright to the funeral. But I wasn’t so sure. Avery decided months earlier that she hated pink—that it was too girly. Childish. She preferred blue.
My mom brought a whole box of tissues to the funeral. She passed me a few as we settled into a pew. It creaked below us, the sound echoing in the old synagogue. I watched as teachers filed in, classmates and strangers. My tears soaked through the tissues and began to drop on my lap. Some snot probably did too. The pamphlet in my hands had images of pugs and quotes from Winnie the Pooh. I was suffocating; the air was thick with grief and everyone’s shoulders slumped under the weight. The Kinsley Lane girls wrote poems that the priest read out loud. If I’m honest, I felt jealous that I didn’t get to write a poem too. The exclusion reminded me that I wasn’t considered one of Avery’s closest friends. My fragility felt slightly embarrassing. It felt undeserved.
A greedy August sun beat down on the graveyard; it soaked up the remaining water in my body and left me exhausted and empty. According to Jewish funeral tradition, mourners take turns placing dirt over a coffin. A shovel was passed from person to person, each using the backside of the tool. It was the heaviest shovel I have ever lifted. It’s meant to be cathartic, but the image of falling dirt haunted me for years. I buried my friend. I was eleven, and I buried my friend.
I only wore my pink Easter dress once. The tear stains are invisible, but the dress is soiled. I gave it to my sister when she was nine. My heart crumbled when she tried it on. A couple of months later, I wrote a profile on Avery. Reliving those moments, even four years later, demanded more energy than I expected. If I’m honest, I wrote into the morning, sobbing, the screen blurry as I typed. Avery was too young to die, and I was too young to watch her.
The pain of death matured with me; it persisted yet took a new form. I began to mourn myself. She was a child—her friend wasn’t supposed to die yet. She should’ve been worried about her Sillybanz collection, not what the survival rate of leukemia is. I felt a rift between myself and who I used to be. I wish I could protect that little girl. I wish she didn’t have to grow up so soon. I imagined my sister in the same position, imagined one of her friends in the hospital, imagined driving her there for visits.
I saw Ben Williams on Chapel Hill’s campus just the other day, that boy Avery and I had a crush on. He strolled by the Pit and for a second I thought about chasing after him. I wonder if he would have recognized me. He was preppy in elementary school, but it’s obvious his mother doesn’t dress him anymore. His face though, hasn’t changed one bit. When the wind tousled his hair, I was at fourth-grade recess again, swinging and listening to Avery laugh. What if Avery never had cancer? If I’m honest, really honest, I wonder if we would have become friends. What is it that connected us—fate, friendship, or cancer? Maybe all three. I’m not quite sure. What if Avery beat cancer? Would we still be friends? I see my elementary school classmates around campus occasionally, would our relationship have dissolved into small talk and pleasantries? Would cancer hang heavy in the air between our polite smiles?
If I’m honest, I don’t really care what might have been. It was. She was. We were. She is frozen in time, our friendship perfectly preserved in the recesses of my memory. I treasured her. Avery’s last moments of childhood, my last moments of childhood, are vivid; I replay them in slow-motion, in technicolor. Priceless moments. Precious and painful.
Katherine Verm is a sophomore studying biology, economics, and creative writing. Born and raised in Asheville, Katherine loves to hike and is an avid popcorn connoisseur.