But that was how I met Jenny, who was then only a couple of years older but a head taller. She walked with her head held high even though her hospital clothes hung loosely over her body, so pale and frail she was you’d think a strong wind might take her away. Though none of that made any difference, as she greeted me with a smile I've never seen before when I was hiding my face under the covers crying, scared of the dark and hurt from being away from home in that cold hospital bed.
The children's ward was on the fourth floor and our room had ten beds, five on each side of the room against the long walls. Most of the beds were occupied that night and I heard crying but not the loud screaming kind, just some quiet whimpers you could only hear if you weren't talking or crying yourself, and were listening intently for steps in case somebody was coming to pick you up. But there were neither footsteps nor unscheduled pickups; instead I heard whimpers that made my heart tighten. Then all the sobbing sounds dwindled into one, and when I touched my face without thinking I realized it was mine.
The girl next to me turned around and slid off of her bed without much noise and remained quiet until I was curious enough to stop crying to see that she was keeling next to my bed.
She smiled a toothy grin with a tinge of shyness when she saw me lookup, so sweetly that I couldn't help but wanting to crack a smile also, though I only managed to choke out another round of tears. She reached out and touched my forehead the way mom always did to make me feel better: "It's OK, little sis. What do you have?"
“Pneu… pneumonia...” I could hardly finish the word before tears started streaming again. A few coughs escaped and I was a mess of water works all of a sudden.
She smiled again, with relief this time. "Oh, that is not so bad, you will be better in no time. You won't even have a chance to get to know all the kids here, hehe…”
Her laugh was the sound of a baby bell, a muffled chuckle rolling off the back of her throat. Like her, it didn’t have the kind of silliness girls her age are full of, as a thoughtless giggle would. It developed into a gentle sigh that melted away my fears, just as the moon had finally risen above the thick tree lines and its light giving everything a silvery iridescent. I stared at her moonlit face and saw a familiar serenity too; one that I thought I had left me behind that morning. The sound of children crying was fading away as I started telling her about my family. But soon my eyes grew heavy, my tongue sluggish and I drifted off into a nice dream about going home soon.
The next morning I stayed in bed until the nurse came by to give us a daily check up. When it was her turn I saw she was skin and bones with her ribs protruding. Then she turned around and I nearly gasped. She had large patches of bandages covering her back, and when the nurse opened one to change it, I saw scars that shouldn’t belong there, not with her. I got scared and ran, joining some of the other kids in the courtyard for a game of songs and hand claps. But soon my curiosity won out and I came back in to find her lying on the bed resting.
"So what is your name?" I asked as a way of breaking the ice, though I had told her all about my family and my friends by then.
"We don't use names around here. You know how they call you the pneumonia? That's what everyone goes by." This was the script they all had been reciting to me.
"But I have a name, and I know you do too. Can you tell me your name please?"
I looked at her with my eyes pleading, and she sat up with a wry smile and said: "just call me Jenny on the side, because soon you will be out of here and you will forget all about me, just like putting a toy aside when you’ve had enough of it."
I wanted to tell her I only had one toy - a black haired doll since I lived with my parents and I'd never cast her away. But I couldn’t say a word as my chest tightened again, like someone was reaching in and squeezing my heart and lungs shut. I strained to hold back tears by taking in deep breaths and letting out a heavy sigh. Jenny didn't look at me again, but said she was tired and needed to take a nap.
In the afternoon, my parents came to see me and brought loads of treats, a rarity even for a sickie as I'd never seen a banana before then and the pint sized cake without frosting was what I had only dreamed of. I gingerly brought the goodies back shouting "Jenny" all the back, wanting to share them with her, and show her off to my parents at the same time. What a lovely thing that would be!
But Jenny was nowhere to be found. It wasn't until dinner when we all returned to our beds that I saw her dragging back, paler and wearier then ever.
"Jenny, guess what? My parents brought a cake this afternoon. I saved half for you. Where did you go anyway?"
"No save it for yourself. Not everyone's parents visit this often. Oh, I went to play with the heart murmur girl from bed #14".
"Don't look at me like that. I would rather play with you, but I know soon you will be out. I will have to play with her then so I might as well get used to it."
I couldn't think of anything to say. Maria, or the heart murmur as they say, was the only other kid our age in that big room, but she was kind of mean. In fact I couldn't stand her. She acted like a princess and was always trying to get others to "serve" her. Jenny, the oldest of the younger kids in the room, knew how to handle her but I could tell she didn't enjoy being around Maria either. I wished then I had a more serious illness so I could have stayed there longer.
That's when it occurred to me I still haven't asked what Jenny had, and she hadn't told me yet either.
"Jenny, what do you have? Will you be here real long, like a month?"
She laughed. A hearty one this time that made her whole body shook and her head rocked back and forth a while before she stopped and looked at me in the eye.
"I have been here since about a year ago. I don't know when I will be out, I don't know that I ever will..."
I felt all the air had been sucked out of my lung and my mind went blank for a second.
"Wha.... what do you mean?" I managed to say.
"I have a heart defect, they have to keep monitor my heart and give me injections everyday or I will die."
It was the first time I had heard the word said out loud to me, especially by a kid roughly my age. Yet I didn't see any tears, fear, or superstitious gestures as expected. The only thing I saw was what I would call a calm acceptance on Jenny's face. It made everything seemed almost OK, even though my mind had become marsh just a moment ago, seeing her like this made it somehow untangled, and I could tell pain from joy again. The joy of seeing her here, cool as a cucumber and lovely as the evening primrose. The pain of thinking her gone, cold as that sheet of paper with our names written on it, even though no one would ever read or used them.
There is a first time for everything so that was the first time I felt my heart ached for someone other than myself, for a night and more, as I drifted off into exhausted sleep, thinking and hoping. Hoping and thinking, surely there must be a cure?