The Sweetest Song
Dana Quell

There is a poem I remember from my youth, one that my mother taught me. I'm not sure who wrote it or what it's from, but it moved me so much that I memorized it. Now, 19 years later, I still remember it. I repeat it to myself every night before I go to bed, as sort of a prayer. This night is no different.

I start reciting the poem, but a knock on the door interrupts me. It's the nurse, Mary. I don't know her last name, but it doesn't really matter. Names are just labels for people, though some of them can't really be labeled. Mary's one of them. Sometimes it feels as if she's the only one I can talk to around here, as if she's the only one that actually cares.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, especially since it looks like you're getting ready for bed," she says, "but you've got a visitor. I tried to tell her visiting hours are over, but she was insistent upon seeing you."

A visitor? I have no living family- my parents have been dead for eleven years, and I am an only child. They, too, were only children, and so there were never any aunts or uncles or cousins. As for a family of my own making... well, there was once a husband as well as a child, but they're long gone. I haven't seen them in seven years. There is no one that I can imagine might be visiting me.

I am tempted to not see whoever it is, to tell Mary to demand that she go away, but my curiousity gets the better of me. I sigh. "I suppose talking to someone else for five minutes won't hurt."

Mary smiles. "No, it wouldn't." She disappears from the door she appeared from and I gaze away from the door and out the window, hesitant to show my curiosity for pride's sake, though I know Mary knows how interested I am in learning who my visitor is.

I am almost lost in the night sky. Ever since I was five, I can remember looking out of the window at all the stars and wondering who else gazed upon them. Tonight, the sky looks as it never has before, even from this window. It is full of dark, thunderous clouds, blocking my sight to the burning pinpricks of light.

Mary politely coughs behind me, and I turn around, preparing to force a smile onto my face. There is no need to as I see a small, hesitant shadow behind the elderly nurse. A smile spreads itself automatically as I realize it is a little girl, perhaps eight or nine years of age, in the green uniform of the Junior Girl Scouts. The troupe must be touring the hospital, though I can't imagine why they would be here at so late an hour in the evening.

"Hello," I greet her as she steps forward.

"Hi," she replies, hanging behind Mary as if she's afraid to come near me. I probably look very frightening to a little child like this- what little hair I have left hangs from my head in clumps, visible because my wig is off and across the room. My form, underneath the hospital gown, is a little on the thin and emaciated side. My stomach has never had a high tolerance for hospital food, and the radiation and chemotherapy treatments I've undergone in the past six months haven't helped my appetite. I also feel older than my thirty-two years, as if I've lived nearly a thousand years and in that time have had a silent wind blow pieces of my soul away like ash and dust, and I know that feeling shows.

Mary gently shoves the girl towards me, and bravely she steps forward, into the dimly illuminated room. I must admire her courage. When I was her age, I couldn't look someone as sick as I am in the eye and stop my horror from showing on my face.

"Isn't it past your bedtime?" I ask the girl, seeing that she's too frightened of me to begin the conversation. "I know that when I was your age, my mommy never would have let me stay up this late."

The girl smiles sadly. "I don't have a mommy. Daddy says she's in heaven."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. You know, my mommy's in heaven, too. With my daddy."

"You must be very lonely," the girl states, creeping a little closer to me. Mary, seeing that the girl isn't causing any trouble, leaves.

"Sometimes. But you know, when I get lonely I just look out at the stars and then I don't feel so alone anymore." I sigh and glance up at the starless sky again.

The girl follows my gaze out the window. "What happens if you get lonely and all the stars are gone, like they are tonight?"

"Well, I... I don't know. I guess I just deal with it," I reply.

"But how?" the girl inquires relentlessly. There's something in her face that says she holds a stubborn spirit within that small frame and that spirit won't let a question go unanswered.

"Um, well..." I'm at a loss to explain how I deal with it, so I glance out the window again. Suddenly I remember what I was doing before this girl interrupted me. "There's a poem I remember, one that my mother taught me a long time ago, when I was just a little older than you. Every night, I recite it before I go to bed, so that every night I won't be lonely."

This piques the girl's interest. "How does it go?"

I see in this girl something of myself, and perhaps something of what my little girl might have grown up to be. Realizing this, I can now recite the poem that I would once have taught my child, had I the chance denied me by my husband. Smiling, I say, "It goes like this," and begin to recite the poem.

At the end, the girl smiles at me once more, hugs me, thanks me, and then promptly vanishes in a cloud of imagined dust. For a moment I wonder if she was just a figment of my imagination, a hallucination, caused by the very medicines that were supposed to make me better. I comfort myself in the knowledge that Mary saw her too.

I sigh and begin to get ready for bed once again. I say my normal prayers, as well as a new one for the little girl's mother up in heaven, and slide between the scratchy hospice-provided sheets. Try as I might, though, I cannot fall asleep. My mind is on the poem and other things, related things.

I'm dying. The doctors tell me I have no chance of survival. I have maybe two months left. They've exhausted all conventional and non-conventional treatments in the last six months that I've been diagnosed with this disease, but I still will die. I find my mind playing the past, rewinding, playing, fast-fowarding the past to my favourite parts and my least favourite. (We look before and after.) I find myself hoping that I could keep forever the good moments and change all the bad ones. (And pine for what is not.) The happy, carefree moments of my childhood (Our sincerest laughter) coupled with death of my parents (With some pain is haught.) create my entire life like stanzas of a song (Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought). I suppose one can't get rid of a stanza of song just because one doesn't like the stanza (Yet if we could scorn Hate and Pride and Fear). No, the bad times are as necessary as all the good times, even if they don't seem good for anything except for a cry. (If we were things born Not to shed a tear,) But how else would humanity appreciate the sweetest song of all-life? (I know not what true joy we ever should come near)

The last thing I see before I fall asleep is the stars. All the clouds have disappeared.