The picture was taken during our trip out West. I was fifteen, and my best friend Misty eighteen. It was taken the same day we thought we were both going to drown. Our backdrop is my family’s ancient, dust-crusted, black conversion van. Our arms are folded with my shoulder tucked beneath her own. Our faces are frozen in the moment between attempted sultriness and uncontainable mirth. Misty’s face is shadowed by the brim of her Cody, Wyoming cowboy hat she bought at the rodeo the night before. The pucker of her pout is the only thing truly perceived. I am wedged into Wranglers I have owned before I knew puberty was even a word--apparently, I do not care to breathe.
Our cowgirl gear makes us adventurous; our bravado like a rodeo clown’s dodging the horns of a thrashing bull. For the past five days, our eyes have been drawn to the crater-like mountains that arch over us with as much mystery as the dark side of the moon. The only thing that lies in the way of our Lewis and Clark exploration is a seething river that slices through the untamed terrain. With my parents and younger brother in town, we are deafened to all rationality by our clanging excitement. We pick our way down to the river and realize we’ve got company. A lone cowboy from a distant ranch with a name I cannot remember and a camel-like face I cannot forget, reassures us in a low twang, “If anything goes wrong with you girls, I’ll fish ya out for sure.”
With this, we are encouraged to begin. Clasping hands, we solemnly nod before wading into the depths of the Grey Bull River. After only three steps, the water sloshes against our thighs, wobbling our weight as our feet strive to find placement on the smooth stones. Misty moves in front, each step taken on slow shutter speed. My fear heightens as the water rises and pounds against my thundering heart. Each step I take, I am sure will be the one that sweeps me downstream as if I am nothing more than a leaf.
Without turning, I yell to the cowboy, “You can swim, right?”
His long pause causes me to angle my head to watch him out of my peripheral vision. He takes off his battered hat and scratches his scalp with dirty nails. “Well, I can’t say I can swim, but I can come getch ya if ya need it.”
Misty and I stand stock still. The water growls as it surges around us. Misty glances behind her and our eyes lock. Fear glows there as if she is watching her life flutter by, carried by a current.
“Let’s go back.”
Her words are whipped into whispers, but I understand.
Slowly, ever-so-slowly, I turn around. My new Timberlands slide and shiver over the rocks. My mind and body feel numb. The cowboy squats stupidly on the bolder-speckled shore, picking his teeth with a piece of straw. I glance behind me to watch Misty’s progress. She moves with as much trepidation as I do. I begin begging the Lord to let us live to a ripe old age. I pray that He’ll let us sit on white-washed rockers on our front porch, sipping tea while we fondly reminisce about these adventures instead of joining Him early because of them.
Unable to find my footing, I falter and clatter over the stones. Suddenly, Misty is there, her palm against my spine, buoying me up, giving me the strength to continue. She holds me up, yet I give her something to lean on. Together, we make it across the treacherous torrent and collapse onto the shore.
Misty swerves across four lanes of Nashville traffic, her green Honda lurching over the hump in the concrete. She moves forward to park but shifts into reverse after reading the “For Patients Only” sign.
“I don’t want to park here...at least for today,” she quips.
I try to smile, but find it too difficult. My hands are shaking as I unfasten my seatbelt and grab my purse. A shuttle for chemotherapy patients careens to a stop in front of the American Cancer Society entrance.
The driver is smoking.
Inside, a glass partition separates one department from another, hiding nothing of what is transpiring within. Rows of patients with shadow-rimmed eyes and gaunt cheeks sip carbonated beverages while poison seeps into their bloodstream. They flip through magazines and watch daytime soaps until the cresting waves of nausea overwhelm them with as much force as a tsunami.
It is then that I must turn away.
I stand close to Misty to feel her radiating warmth, to know she is still there. She asks the nurse, “May we look at the wigs, please?”
Like a hostess leading us to our table, the nurse smiles and chatters while maneuvering us through the corridor. The colors are mauve and cream, the lighting low. There are no pictures on the walls. Maybe the patients would become bitter if their time here appeared normal when it so obviously is not.
The nurse makes a sudden shift to the left, wedging her key into the lock. She twists the knob and thrusts it open with an ample hip. For but a moment her slice of smile falters as Misty and I file inside. She glances between the two of us, calculating who appears the healthiest. I feel like shouting, “If you knew her before you could tell!” I feel angry but I don’t know to whom I should direct my anger. My best friend’s twenty-three and has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Those are things that happen to characters in Nicholas Sparks’ books and Lifetime movie heroines, not to your best friend who's more like your sister.
Misty can sense the nurse’s embarrassed stare. She raises a hand as if she knows the answer to the question the teacher does not want to ask. “I am the one with cancer.”
The nurse nods, her brown eyes melting in tears. “You’re so young,” she whispers. It is too much. I turn to my right and grip the back of the salon-style chair.
“It’s okay,” Misty soothes.
Patting the cushioned seat, the nurse says, “Come here, then.” Misty plops into it and spins around to face the mirror. The nurse runs her fingers through Misty’s thinning red hair.
“It is such an unusual color,” she states more to herself than anyone. “Such a shade may be hard to find.”
“It’s all right,” Misty chuckles. “I’ve always wanted to be a blond.”
I laugh with her, in nervousness more than anything, “We’d look like sisters for real, then.”
The nurse opens the white double doors to the cabinet and takes down three decapitated mannequins with hair in shades of strawberry blond not resting within God’s color spectrum. The nurse peels the monstrosity from the mannequin’s foam head and tenderly places it over Misty’s hair. The wig’s Doris Day cut and Lucille Ball color cause me to smile despite it all.
“Whatdaya think?” Misty asks, puckering her lips and raising a pale eyebrow.
“Beautiful,” I retort before we both bathe in the healing Balm of Gilead. Laughter.
Today, I again sort through my pictures and spread them across the carpet. I smile as I watch these shards of my life falling into place, a mosaic of beauty. There is a new one amid the pile. It is right above the one of Misty and me with our backs to the camera as we sit on the wave-lapped shore of Lake Ontario. The sepia-toned print was taken during our trip to Land Between the Lakes the week before I returned to college for my junior year.
Loading my Jeep with camping supplies and jugs of water, we roll down the windows and prop open the sunroof, letting the wind tease our hair and our laughter. On the dashboard with her slender piano fingers, Misty thumps out the syncopated rhythm to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, number nine. We talk of our dream backpacking trip to Ireland, try to answer the question regarding who will be our husbands, one day becoming neighbors who live on vast acres of land with waterfalls and who share sucanat instead of sugar.
But we do not talk of cancer.
We glide down deserted, pebble-layered roads. A nimble deer leaps in front of my car with the fluidity of a dancer. Yellow birds swoop and dive, making us feel as if we are in a tropical paradise rather than Western Kentucky. Once we arrive at Piney Campground, we unpack our things and lace up our hiking boots. Journeying deeper and deeper into the pulsing heart of the forest, sweat nestles against our spines and our feet begin to burn. A red-tailed hawk spreads its mottled wings and soars. It is enough to make you cry.
The trail curves and opens to reveal a sun-seared, shimmering lake. Crawling down a lip of earth, we toss our backpacks to the side. With our backs to the lake and the shifting sun, we pause a moment and Misty holds the camera. We angle our baseball caps so that my sweaty, freckled face can be pressed against her own. Misty wraps a strong arm around my back. She is there holding me up, and yet, I am offering her something to lean on. Once again we have traversed the treacherous torrent and made it to shore. With this knowledge, we smile with every fiber of our being -- threaded together as best friends, almost sisters -- the way it was meant to be.
She then snaps the picture.