My parents don't know how to tell me, but I already know.
It's 1999, and soon a millennium will end forever. I am the only child of a highly influential family residing in Tel Aviv; the end of the family line. My parents need me to grow up and have children to continue the family business; to put it in simple terms, software. My father made millions from his computer virus protection service and continues to perfect it to the day. I am supposed to take up the family business. I've been learning how to detect suspicious activity since I was a child, and I pride myself in my skill.
I'm lying here on a hospital bed, dozens of wires inserted into my body through the tiniest little holes I used to be able to feel. They are invasive, and sometimes I feel like I'm not even human because I must look more like a robot. An IV, a catheter, something to help me breathe with more structure, etc. I've been too weak to move much for weeks. I have been lying here for an unbearably long time, and we already knew that I had heart problems. My body is just failing at this point... at fifteen years old I shouldn't have a body that is failing. Doctors are baffled. Now my parents are about to tell me what I already know.
“You need a heart transplant,” they say gently. It isn't a surprise, but I still cry. Tears roll effortlessly from my eyes, and I look at their faces grow slowly more upset. Parents never want to see their children cry; unfortunately, children don't usually like seeing their parents upset. I try to stop crying so they'll stop making those damn faces...
I ask them to explain to me what happens during a heart transplant. Just so I'll know, so I'll understand how everything works, before I go under the knife. I want to understand all of the risks involved, in case there's a high chance I won't wake up. My parents remind me that every surgery is risky, but after all these years I don't really believe it. I've had so many surgeries to fix countless little problems in my body. I was born too early, and long ago I figured I would die too early. My parents don't want to let that happen; partially because I am heir of the company.
For a moment in time I envy my younger self. At about age ten the doctors thought I was doing so much better and they let me run free. I used to wear daisy-printed dresses with those long, well-exercised legs poking out. I used to have a decent tan from spending so much time in the sunlight, with little flecks of lightest brown in my hair. On especially arid middle-eastern days I would dive into the family pool in my black and white spotted bikini. My friends and I would play tennis on my court, in our track suits and short shorts. I usually won; I had always made an effort to stay athletic so my heart would be strong.
I was definitely a wealthy child. I had everything I could ever want. I would lay out in the sunshine, on unnaturally soft, green grass to contrast the dry and dusty world around me. I read vapid teenage magazines, learning the palettes of every season with a keen eye on models. Had I seen them somewhere before? Was that Kate Moss, or just some younger, newer look-a-like? I brushed up on my English, Hebrew and Arabic with ease; I was pampered, yes, but I had a sharp mind.
I always wore the floppiest hats with the widest brims possible. I had one in likely every color. I also demanded only the cutest sunglasses, which I could find anywhere especially posh in town. But here I am, now, in a mostly white room, unable to urinate on my own, much less play tennis.
My parents try to make me feel better amid hospital incarceration. My hair is now the lightest shade of bottle brown possible, and my nails are done up with sparkles and decals. They are the cheesiest shade of pink one could ever imagine having. It contrasts with the rich brown undertones in my skin; it isn't fun, the frou-frou colour, it is plain ghastly.
I am informed curtly that there simply aren't enough hearts to go around. That isn't a surprise. Unfortunately, I live in the country with the least amount of available hearts. This is due to an Orthodox Jewish practice, and we have so many of them in this country. They refuse to donate organs, so only about 10% of eligible citizens even hold a donation card. To make it all worse, my blood type is AB, the rarest of all. They don't estimate a heart arriving for me any time soon. In the meantime, they plan to make my life plenty comfortable. However, my parents and I detect what they are really saying; they are pampering me so I die comfortably.
My parents protest fiercely. Money is no object! They make this very clear, they say it several times over. They will pay double, triple, quadruple what anyone else pays! However, the doctors insist with a strange level of anxiety that there is no heart for me yet. I will have to wait it out. Meanwhile, my parents continue to pay hospital bills that are surely no burden but are no bar tips for certain.
My mother is flustered as a bumblebee who has lost its stinger. She visits me every day to swear she will find me a heart soon, tears in her eyes, a blush upon her face. Her brown eyes glare at nurses who adjust wires and poke and prod at me like a lab animal. Her thick and shapely eyebrows knit in her face, and her plump lips purse every time it's time for me to go for a walk or have a meal. She begins personally paying for a catering service so I don't have to eat hospital food for a third month in a row. They haven't exactly run out of options, but everything has the consistency of either glue or cardboard. I joke that if I wanted to eat crafting supplies I'd have boarded at a Hobby Lobby. My mother laughs without tone, her lips flat and her eyes open wide to detect the occasional nurse.
Every day I feel weaker and sometimes I wonder if I’m being punished by God for something my parents did. My mother left the Islamic faith and my father was never a part of any religion. However, it’s hard to live without the influence of faith growing up in Israel. I wonder how I never developed any beliefs.
I am staring at the ceiling, trying not to sleep all day. I have seen everything on the television and I’ve read my favorite books over twice. My mother suddenly runs in crying, and for a moment I think I’ve died.
“We’ve found a heart!”
I’ve never felt so good in my life, not even when I was ten years old. I’ve joined my private school’s modest, but tough, tennis team. My recovery from surgery was swift, and everything suddenly seems so clear. I wonder to myself if God brought me back to life to serve some sort of purpose. My parents are proud of me and I can practically speak fluent code at this point.
Summer is approaching and the heat is practically unbearable; just the way I like it. I love watching my bare feet leaving marks in asphalt and causing dust to rise from the earth with every step. I never sunburn, I just get browner and warmer to the touch. It feels amazing to be so naturally hot after months of feeling cold and weak in a hospital bed. The grass is all dead and it’s an absolute delight to dance on, especially when the stars are out. Tel Aviv is getting quieter, and I’m growing.
The moon has risen as a crescent, and stars are littering the skies. Looking up at them, and feeling a cooler breeze for the first time, I see why people feel a need to speak to Allah. Despite having no music, I stand in my back yard dancing under the skies, spinning in proud circles and swaying back and forth simply because I have the privilege. I breathe deeply, my heart beats faster without fail.
Suddenly, however, I feel my stomach churn violently. I stop dancing and the breeze chills my subtle spin. My head begins to spin, and my legs fall from underneath me. I feel the familiar sensation of saliva filling my mouth, metallic in taste. My mind races as if someone has set it on fire. I grip the dead earth in my hands, fingernails digging painfully into the dusty floor. I grit my teeth, and sit up straight. I take calm breaths, and tense my body for any semblance of control.
It’s useless. From between my gritted teeth comes a flood of black vomit. Between my pitiful screams I cough and spit as if I can simply walk away from this.
Back in the hospital. Liver failure, they say. I start wearing a hijab adorned with a detailed floral pattern; it’s stylish, and even though I haven’t found faith I want to be granted sympathy and trust. Maybe I’ll be turned. Maybe.
Once more it’s difficult to find donors. Doctors are increasingly nervous. Nurses call me “ילדת הפלא”, the Miracle Girl. This time, however, they know exactly what the problem with me is. The heart I was given had bad blood; I’ve been infected with Hepatitis C. I wonder how this could happen, given that donor hearts are supposed to be tested for such things. I count my blessings, and begin treatment which includes pills and further tests. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working, and there are few options for healing a liver as suddenly diseased as mine. My urine is dark, my stomach is always in pain, and we need to act fast. My kidneys could soon follow suit of my liver and become infected and shut down entirely.
My parents quickly inform me that they’ve found me a liver, compatible and all. I don’t feel much relief or excitement. Before the surgery, I adjust my hijab and cry quietly before I’m put to sleep. They hold a mask to my face and ask me to count down from ten. Ten, nine, eight. The nurse touches my hand, and as my body goes numb it starts to hurt. Seven, six. My vision starts to go, and everything goes green. Five, four. My brain focuses on one machine’s beeping and… Three…
I wake up with a new liver and a nasty scar. Once more, I recover like a champion and am sent home a new girl. This time, I don’t celebrate. I don’t join a tennis team. I don’t enjoy the hot weather. I don’t dance under the stars. I struggle to leave the house because I am suddenly gripped with fear.
As the scar heals over entirely, leaving a long pink line on my tummy, I start to have nightmares about Frankenstein’s monster nearly every night. When I close my eyes, exhaustion lulls me into a deep sleep. In my dreams he follows me, comprised of the pieces of many dead people just as I am.
He looms eight feet tall and lumbers after me as I run through big open fields of rough dirt that tears open my feet and causes blisters. He has translucent skin sloppily sewn over open arteries and veins. His heart beats audibly and he is nearly breathing down my neck despite my speed and agility. His lips are blue like a corpse, and bolts sloppily pierce into his skin to fire the electrodes within.
At the end of this reoccurring dream, I fall down exhausted, barely able to move. When he catches up to me he whispers in a ghastly voice to me. “They don’t understand us,” he says, “sister."
In the night I wake up screaming and when I wake up I’m afraid of the doorways. The monster will come for me out of them, his watery eyes and open mouth leering around a wall before he jumps forward in his awkward gate. I shiver. I don’t want to be his sister. There are undead things inside of me that sometimes I feel the urge to carve out.
It’s been several months now since I received my new liver and I have trouble sleeping. I’m losing my hair in chunks, and dark circles have taken residence under my eyes. I’m getting thinner and thinner. I’m up almost every night, terrified of the monster I see in my dreams constantly and afraid of my mortality. My memories startle me and my mind circles constantly around how a donated organ could have given me Hepatitis. How could that have happened? Will ever be able to get a tattoo? Have sex? Will life always be this painful?
It is 3 AM. I’m hiding under my sheets; everything below my nose is hiding. My eyes are watching the doorway, and the shadows creeping across the ceiling. They make eerie shapes. I could swear that last one was a man, a silhouette. The deprivation must be driving me crazy. Still, my eyes twitch nervously around the ceiling.
A creak at the door. I look over at it knowing that nothing will enter. I’m entirely wrong.
A man lumbers into my room, not too tall and far too thin. I am gripped by fear and I stay still. For some reason I think maybe he won’t see me, but it’s not true. A dry, struggling squeal rises from me and then I see what he has in his hand. I’m dreaming. I must be dreaming.
“I didn’t do anything,” I whisper, tears streaming down my cheeks suddenly. I’ve never been so afraid. My stomach begins to heave and shake like the temperature has dropped. Please, just leave me alone to suffer. My parents can pay you. I’m not a monster, I’m no sister, and I’m an only child and a good kid. I never did anything to deserve this. My eyes twitch wildly, but I can’t bear to look at his face. I start to urinate.
He raises his club and cracks it on my head. I’m out.
My head is throbbing, and when I open my eyes the light is dim and a little red. There are seven silhouettes standing over me, and as my eyes adjust I can make out their features. The walls are a tacky yellow, and even in this lighting I can make that much out.
I groan, and as I try to get up, I find I’m tied down entirely. I can’t move. I begin to struggle, tugging furiously at my bindings. There’s no point.
“SOMEBODY HELP ME!!” I scream as loud as possible, but no one moves a muscle. I’m being stared at methodically. Something is being thought up, figured out. A cold finger traces my almost-healed scar, and I squirm. A woman begins to explain the predicament in broken English.
“You're young, and may not have heard of this power struggle. The war, the kills. You have lived in nice world. You may not know organ trading. But your parents know everything about it. When they cannot find you a heart, they purchased one for million dollar from the genocide. You a spoiled rich girl, now you will be subject to internal your crimes. This is what they do for our children, little girl. They tied down, and cut them open, sometimes alive, sometimes not. And now we are taking the parts back.”
I scream as loud as possible, an absolute adrenaline rush taking over me. I hear the cloth on one of my wrists begin to rip as I pull with all my might, but the hand of a strong adult pushes it back down on the table. I am already losing my voice, but I no longer care.
“I didn’t do anything to you! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!!” I beg, kicking my legs and crying hysterically.
“It is only fair. They did not take our insides. They took the children first because they are more healthy and less helping. We are taking you now; your parents sinned.”
They cut into me, sharp and unrelenting pain begins splitting into my skin. I can feel their hands shaking through the knife. My jaw quivers before my tongue curls upward and a shrill scream escapes my lips. Soon, however, I feel too faint to continue even moving. I close my eyes and let myself drift off into a new place.
“I hope she is okay,” a sweet young voice says. I suddenly realize that, although in the same yellow-walled house, I’ve been transported to a new room filled with little children.
“What’s happening?” I whisper to myself. I look all around and see that the children here all have the same long, pink scar I do. Others have even more. A little girl embraces me.
“You will be so happy here,” she says, “I have never felt so healthy. All the strife of the old world is behind us.”
“We never have to feel any pain or worry about being sick,” a boy around my age adds cheerfully. I fall to my knees. My tormentors enter with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.
“If only the children could see us now,” a man says, dragging behind him my corpse. A woman laughs morbidly, wiping my blood on her already rather stained jeans. I begin to shake uncontrollably and the other children rush to comfort me, hugging and kissing me without fail.
“Don’t worry, sister,” another teenage girl promises, “you’ll never be sick or worried again.”
For the first time in a long time, everything makes sense. At the heart of it, that’s all I find really matters. I hold her tightly and weep; in her chest I sense a heart, and in mine there is none left. She was my age, and not even sick, when it was unjustly taken away from her. I feel no need to apologize after all I’ve endured.
I am at peace.
Written by Am I Still Ill?