In Natasha’s Room …

By Suzanne Leigh

  • There’s an undershirt folded in her T-shirt drawer with the words, “Reach for the stars.” It was never worn.
  • There’s a deep drawer so stuffed full of hats, it’s hard to open. It contains soft pastel beanies from her infancy and a cotton cap with leaping lion cubs. Then there’s a more eclectic selection of headgear to shield the hair-pillaging ravages of chemo and radiation that she underwent at ages 8, 10 and 11. There’s a tweed trilby with silver buckle, a brown beret, frayed baseball caps and an elegant cloche, its brim accessorized with ornate buttons that she sewed on herself until her disease eroded her motor skills and hand-eye coordination. There’s a look-at-me turquoise cowboy hat and a bowler with a polka dot ribbon. Those she only wore on good days –- never in the last two years of her life. “I like your hat,” people would often say when they first met her. And I would wince (can’t you think of another article of clothing to comment on?), but Natasha would offer a polite thank you.
  • There are class pictures of Natasha from kindergarten to sixth grade (she was too sick to make seventh-grade’s picture day). In kindergarten my little minx is smiling broadly, her tousled hair framing a still-toddler face. By second grade, just prior to diagnosis, she is noticeably more mature; her smile is steady, she is composed and serene. In third grade, her olive skin has blanched; her head is smooth save for a few stray strands of hair. She looks painfully vulnerable. In fourth grade she dazzles, eyes bright and hair regrown, the tribulations of Cancerland apparently behind her for good. In fifth and sixth grade, her pictures depict a tenuous smile and eyes that have witnessed the second ghastly maelstrom of cancer.
  • There are books from the early days. “Baby Beluga,” “Goodnight Moon” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” are books that I would read to her, or sing to her, again and again. I keep them as a reminder of innocent times from toddlerhood and infancy, when a crisis meant earache or flu. And then there are those other books that were written to prepare her for the tumultuous teen years of awkward encounters, extreme emotions and physical transitions that she never got to experience.
  • There’s her cellphone –- a token of her passage from elementary to middle school. Sometimes I dial the number just to hear her announce her name on voicemail. Sometimes I scan her texts and emails.  There are fervent declarations of devotion to friends, entreaties to “let’s see each other soon!” and requests for information about vacations and fun events that she was too sick to take part in. At times the silence of her phone, which once buzzed with texts and emails, pierces my battered heart.
  • There’s a delicate silver bracelet with a crucifix dangling from its clasp. Her sixth-grade teacher gave it to her on behalf of an anonymous classmate. “Perhaps it was from a boy,” Natasha had mused.
  • There’s a note written to her sister just days before she passed: “I ♥ you!” she wrote, her handwriting shaky and uneven, so different from her once impeccable penmanship. She signed it, “Your proud big sister.”
  • There’s a picture of an exuberant sunset, done days after her diagnosis at age 7. “Beautiful Day,” is its title. We so wish you had had more beautiful days, Natasha.

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