I waited for several minutes, and then I saw Nancy's eyes flutter open. She looked at me, perplexed.
"What happened, Mommy?"
I felt my heart leap with joy. The injection had been a success!
"You've been asleep for a long time, Nancy."
Nancy was still confused. "But when I fell asleep, I was still in the hospital. Why am I at home now?"
"Oh, Nancy." I gathered her into my arms and held her, stroking her poor, bald head. The chemotherapy had been harsh, cruel, robbing my little girl of her pride and joy, and in the end proving to have been futile anyway.
"You were sick for a long time. That's why you were in the hospital. We brought you home to make you well. Everything's going to be just fine now, Nancy. You'll never be sick again."
From the time I was a very young girl, I had always been fascinated with plants and their various uses. By the time I reached middle school, it was a given that I would grow up to be a botanist. While other girls my age were experimenting with make-up and worrying about whether or not certain boys liked them, I was experimenting with herbs and learning how to make poultices to cure various ailments. When I graduated high school, I was an expert in the field.
I was in my second year of college when I met Hans DeBoer. We were introduced by a mutual friend. Hans was majoring in psychology, and he was as dedicated to his field of study as I was to mine. I can't really say that he swept me off my feet, but we were kindred spirits, and so it was only natural that we would come together. We married after graduating from college.
For the first few years, life was good. Both of us found positions at the same university, and we bought a lovely home with a large greenhouse and plenty of room for my experiments. Our joy was complete with the arrival of our firstborn, Nancy Renee. She was beautiful, with dark hair and dark eyes, and proved to be very intelligent as well. She started talking at a very young age and soon showed definite artistic talent.
My second pregnancy was uneventful up until my last month. My due date came and went, the fetal movements decreased, and yet my obstetrician refused to induce labor. It was not until the baby was in obvious fetal distress that an emergency C-section was performed. To our shock and horror, our son had ingested so much meconium that his brain had been badly damaged. The pediatrician gave Stephen the grim prognosis and recommended that he be institutionalized. Hans refused.
"No matter what, he's still my son," Hans explained. "We may not be able to cure him, but he'll receive more love from us in our home than he ever will in any institution."
As Stephen got older and failed to reach expected milestones, I suggested to Hans that perhaps the pediatrician had been right. "After all, an institution could provide him with much more sophisticated treatment than we can provide," I argued.
Hans became angry. "They might would provide more treatment options, but would he be loved? To them he would be just another patient, another statistic, another job to be done. He's our little boy, Moira. Nobody else can love him like we can."
For me, the embarrassment of Stephen's being the child of two college professors and having an I.Q. of barely above zero was acutely painful. I flinched every time I saw the looks on the faces of the employees of the university child care facility where Nancy and Stephen were both enrolled. I wondered what kinds of things they said about Stephen, and about us, when we weren't around to hear.
It was about that time that Nancy began to develop nosebleeds and unexplainable bruises. The pediatrician ran tests on her, and then called Hans and myself into his office to discuss the results.
"I'm afraid I have some bad news," the pediatrician began. "Your daughter has leukemia. I'll be honest. The type of leukemia Nancy has is one of the most aggressive forms, and treatment for it is difficult. Also, Nancy's case is even more advanced than I had originallly feared. We will treat it aggressively, of course, but it's going to be a long, uphill battle, and I want you both to be prepared for the worst."
Later, Hans held me as I sobbed. "I can't lose her, Hans! She's all I've got! Please, there has to be something I can do!"
"The doctors will do all they can, Moira, but they're not miracle workers," he said gently. "You have to be strong, not only for Nancy's sake, but for your own and Stephen's as well."
The chemotherapy treatments commenced, and with them came the hair loss and constant nausea. Caring for both children while attempting to keep up my university duties became an almost insurmountable task. Nancy went into remission temporarily, but the leukemia returned with a vengeance almost as soon as the treatments were stopped. The pediatrician gave us little hope.
"We will try to make her as comfortable as possible in the time she has left," he told us. "Take her home and spend as much quality time with her as you can. Shower her with love. Right now, that will do her more good than any medicine will."
I heard his words and felt the cold hand of panic grip my heart. No! No! No!
I began to spend almost all my spare time in the university library, desperately searching journals and periodicals for any helpful information. Finally, while doing research late one night, I came across an article in an obscure periodical that shocked me. Fascinated, I read through the article several times to make sure that I understood it correctly. It described the preparation of a concoction that could work miracles, defy the laws of nature, work untold wonders. I thought that it was surely too good to be true, but after researching the concoctions ingredients in other journals, it began to seem logical. I already had many of the concoction's ingredients growing right in my own greenhouse, and the ones that I didn't have could be easily ordered through the mail. For the first time since Nancy's diagnosis, I felt that there was true hope.
I discussed my findings with Hans, and to my disappointment, he wasn't nearly as enthusiastic as I had hoped that he would be.
"What you're proposing goes against the laws of nature, Moira. You're trying to play God, to cause things to happen that weren't meant to happen. I think you'd best leave these things alone."
"But it's Nancy we're talking about! Our precious little girl! Don't you love her, Hans?"
"What a silly question! Of course I love Nancy! But she's dying, Moira, and we have to accept that. There's no magical formula in the world that's going to prevent it, or reverse it once it's happened."
"I love her too. Too much to just give up, like you have."
"Moira, there's a difference between just giving up and accepting the inevitable."
"It's not inevitable yet, not to me." Hans didn't respond.
After much effort, I finally had the formula prepared in the correct concentration. Now all I needed was a test subject to try it out on. Naturally, I wouldn't experiment on my daughter with a completely untested substance. I didn't have to wait long. One rainy night, while driving home from the university, I heard a soft 'thump' from underneath the wheels of my car. I pulled to the side of the road, got out my raincoat and flashlight, and went to investigate. I found a badly injured cat, its breath coming in uneven gasps. It wasn't dead yet, but I knew that it soon would be. I fetched a blanket from my car trunk and, being careful not to go near the cat's claws, carefully wrapped it and put it in my back seat.
By the time I got home, the cat had gone completely limp, and its breathing had ceased. I smuggled it into the greenhouse and lay the blanket on the floor. First, I checked the cat to make sure that all of its vital signs were completely gone. Then I prepared a syringe containing the formula with a hypodermic needle, injected the formula into the cat, and waited.
Several minutes passed, and I saw no reaction whatsoever. I sighed with disappointment and prepared to slowly go over the procedure step by step to see where I had gone wrong. Then I saw a paw twitch, and hope sprung up inside of me once more.
As I watched, the cat slowly rolled up into a ball, opened its eyes, and began to explore the greenhouse. I could barely contain my excitement. I knew that, to be on the safe side, I would need to keep the cat and observe it for a time to determine whether or not there would be any negative side effects from my experimentation. Remembering childhood mornings spent attending Sunday school at the First Episcopal Church, I named the cat Lazarus.
Nancy was thrilled to have a cat, although her failing health was such that she was barely strong enough even to stroke Lazarus' fur. Hans asked no questions about the cat, but I knew that he realized what had happened. He just looked at Lazarus and shook his head sadly, making no effort to show any affection toward the cat. Stephen was, of course, totallly oblivious to the cat's presence.
Soon afterwards, Nancy was hospitalized for the final time. I told Hans of my plan, and said that I would need his help.
"What you're suggesting is crazy," he protested. "I know how much you're hurting, Moira, because I'm hurting just as much as you are. But we can't just take things into our own hands like that. It wouldn't be fair to Nancy. She wouldn't want to live like that."
"How do you know?" I spat.
Hans just shook his head.
"So will you help me, or not?"
Hans didn't respond.
"If you won't help me, fine. But just as soon as the funeral is over, I'm going to start calling institutions to find the one that will best serve Stephen's needs."
"All right, Moira," Hans said wearily. "I'll do whatever you want me to do."
The next day, Hans and I sat by Nancy's hospital bed, watching her slip away from us.
"The end is near," the doctor warned us. "If you have any close family members who would like to be here, I suggest you call them now."
"We don't," I lied.
"Mommy, I'm so sleepy," Nancy said in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
"It's going to be all right, sweetheart," I told her, brushing her hair back from her forehead. "Everything's going to be just fine."
A few seconds later, she slipped into a coma and stopped breathing. A nurse came in, checked her pulse, and shook her head. "She's gone. I'm so very sorry," she said. Hans lowered his face into his hands and sobbed.
"I'll see you again really soon, Nancy," I promised her.
Later that evening, Hans and I arrived at the hospital in a rented hearse. Wearing disguises and carrying phony identification papers, we went to the morgue and asked for Nancy's body. To my immense relief, the morgue attendants accepted our phony badges and documents without asking any questions. I knew that it was just a routine procedure for them.
After placing Nancy's body in the back of the hearse, we drove to the parking lot of the funeral home of which we had claimed to be employees and parked in the back parking lot. After making sure that the coast was clear, we transferred Nancy's body from the hearse to our own car, which was parked right beside it. It definitely wouldn't have done for the neighbors to have seen a hearse parked in front of our house.
After hurrying into the house, I took Nancy to her bedroom and laid her in her bed. Then I injected the prepared hypodermic into her and waited for the formula to work.
"Come, Nancy," I said, standing her on the floor and taking her hand. "Daddy's in the living room. He'll be so happy to see you." It was simply wonderful to watch my daughter walk out of the bedroom on her own two feet, needing no assistance at all.
Hans was sitting on the sofa with a haunted look in his eyes.
Nancy smiled at him. "Hello, Daddy!" she said.
His expression instantly brightened. "Hello, sweetheart!" She ran to him, and he picked her up and gave her a big hug. "How's my girl?"
"I'm all better now, Daddy."
"I'm so glad to hear that, sweetheart." Hans did seem genuinely relieved.
"You must have been afraid I was going to bring back some monster from a black-and-white horror movie," I told Hans later, as we were getting ready for bed.
"I had no idea what you were going to bring back, but I honestly didn't see how anything good could have come from it," he replied.
"Well, as you can plainly see, there was nothing to worry about after all. She's the same adorable little girl she was before she got sick."
"So it seems," Hans admitted. "Of course, we'll have to go wig-shopping with her soon. I don't want her to be self-conscious when she goes back to child care." He actually smiled, a genuine smile.
"I plan to take her tomorrow," I told him.
"I don't like that stuff, Mommy!" Nancy pushed away the bowl containing the edible version of the special formula. "It tastes yucky!"
"You have to eat it, Nancy," I said calmly, setting the bowl back in front of her. "If you don't, you'll go back to sleep, and next time, you'll never wake up."
Nancy's eyes grew big, and she instantly started spooning in the mixture. She'll get used to the taste, I told myself.
Nancy did indeed seem to be her old self again in most ways, although there were subtle differences. She didn't seem to get hungry at all, gobbling down her life-sustaining nutrition with no further complaints, yet never asking for any other kind of food, or even sweets. Neither did she seem to sleep much, if at all, as she always seemed to be wide awake in bed when I went to wake her in the morning. Before she had gotten sick, she had often been very difficult to awaken.
A disturbing new development was that when playing outside, she began to dig in the ground for bugs and worms to eat. I saw dirt around her mouth on a couple of occasions when she had come back inside after playing in our yard, and then I actually caught her in the act once.
"No, Nancy, no!" I shouted, grabbing her hand and marching her briskly back into the house.
"But Mommy, they taste so good!"
"Come inside and rinse your mouth with water. I never want to see you eating bugs again!" Shuddering with disgust, I wondered why in the world my little girl had thought of doing such a thing.
We went to visit my parents later in the year. As my father lifted Nancy to sit in his lap, her shirt slipped up, and he accidentally touched her skin. Startled, he withdrew his hand and looked at me.
"Why is she so cold?"
"It's a side effect of the chemotherapy," I explained.
"Even after all this time? And it isn't just that she's cold. There's another thing that I can't quite seem to put my finger on. She feels almost...slimy." He was not quite grimacing as he said the last word.
"That's also a side effect of the chemotherapy. You'll just have to get used to it. We all have." My parents never asked any more questions about Nancy after that. I'm sure the reason was that they really didn't want to know.
We won a large sum of money in a lawsuit we had placed against the pediatrician I had used with Stephen and the hospital where he had been born. It didn't return to us the normal child we should have had, but it would provide for Stephen's needs for the rest of his life.
The children Nancy's age in the university child care center began attending kindergarten in the morning. They were all slightly taller than Nancy by now, as were many of the children who had been born a year later than Nancy. When we began to get puzzled looks from the employees of the child care center, we knew that it was time to move to another area.
Several years later, Stephen was enrolled in a kindergarten for special needs kids. Brianna, as she was now called, was enrolled in the child care center at the university where Hans and I now taught.
"Mommy, Stephen's bigger than me now," Brianna observed one day.
"He used to be smaller than me. How come, Mommy?"
"You're a very special little girl, Brianna." I struggled to find the right words to say. "You're always going to be the same size you are now. Just the right size to fit in my lap so that I can kiss your cheek."
Seeming satisfied with that answer, Brianna continued her play. She was trying to teach Stephen how to stack blocks.
"Look, Stephen, this one goes on top of the other one, like this."
Stephen whooped with laughter and knocked the stack of blocks over. Brianna sighed and prepared to start over.
Silently, I watched my two children play, one who was forever frozen in time, and one whose mind would always be that of an infant.