Paul Vega


Julia’s lungs are so full of cancer a tube in her chest empties brown sludge into a rectangular container marked “biohazard” that attaches to the side of her hospital bed. Dr. Singh enters the room to update us. He hangs an x-ray on the wall and traces the outline of her lungs, showing us where the cancer has spread, which is everywhere. We hover over his shoulder like soapsuds drifting towards the white spackled ceiling, understanding nothing until we hear the word whiteout. Her lungs are a whiteout, Dr. Singh says. A whiteout, a blizzard, the good cells turned to permafrost. Except she’s right there in the room with us, and I can see that’s not true. She’s burning, sweating, her face glistening, turning black like the turkey we left roasting in the oven when we took her here on Christmas Day. Her pulse on the machine is fast, an urgent Morse code beating out of her. In an hour, she’s off the medicine, off the oxygen. We make the calls, arrange the details, wait for all the relatives and friends to descend, hoping there’s enough time left for them to see her. But there’s no need to worry. Her heart only beats harder, building with anticipation for the event. Her lungs are not blizzards, I think. Her lungs are jet packs waiting to give flight. As the crowd arrives, we write her obituary. We write: sister, daughter, niece, drunk, loudmouth, violent, funny, kind, loyal. And we mean it all, though none of it is all right. We write: 27 years old, and we are right. We cry, laugh, promise to keep in touch in ways we never have before. We think of her, and when thinking of her finally exhausts us, we think of ourselves. We think: How does this affect us? How will we go on? We are secretly thankful that we are not her. The closer we are to her, the stronger we feel that. She wakes once in the last hour of her life, and we look into her eyes and see she knows she’s about to die. By then everyone is gathered around her bed, the launching pad, urging her to go on without us. She looks around and recognizes her best friend from childhood, an aunt she knows just enough to dislike, my dad, my mother, myself. She tries to speak, but the sludge keeps her from speaking. She tries to reach out, but her arms are too weak. But her pulse is not weak. Her heart beats 150, 180, 200 times a minute until the reverberations leave her body and become the air we breathe, entering our lungs, scraping out our arteries on the way to our hearts, pounding, pounding, pounding, until all of us, against our wills, sweating, shaking, crying, begin to lift off the ground with her.