My vision was cloudy and memory foggy, but I remembered. I do remember, even all these years later. I'd been placed in my softly wooden furnished high chair, the lights had been dimmed and the wick of candles alternated from a thick black line to a crusty and rugged one, its life disappearing in a flash, though the sweet smell of the gingerish scent lingered long enough to make a lasting impression on the brain. I remember letting out a sudden sneeze, is been ignored for a little too long by the adults. You know how you always coo over the cutest little kid in a cafe, even when they're being mischievous? Well that day wasn't like that. My curled little bunches weren't enough to attract the attention of even Rusty the dog, he was to interested in his big meaty and mighty bone to be bothered with a kid like me. Normally he'd smoother me.
The familiar squeak of that old trolley trundling by sounded out as though it's hinges were about to become loose. I remember a sudden silence looming over the house. Even the faint sound of cars driving by on the main road had been blocked out and Rusty's whimpers of excitement as he attempted to lick his bone free of meat.
That little tube hung from her nose. That fascinating little tube. All eyes were on Aunt Hazel as she shuffled towards me, dodging the chairs pushed away from the table.
"Oh Gracie" she cooed happily. Her blue eyes accentuated by the light oozing from the candles. Like most adults, Grace clapped her hands in a slow and steady motion, with the hopes and intentions of engaging me in to her little game. I remember her reaching towards my own Mother, looking for a wipe; a childs worst enemy. But not mine, not today anyway. It was that tube and that rocket shaped thing that she carted around with her, like I knew something, even back then. Like my little brain acknowledged that something was wrong. That we'd lost all hope and this was it. Aunt Hazel screwed the wet wipe up and gently rubbed my nose with the moistened material. Exactly right. Like she knew exactly how it felt. At first I was unsure, this wasn't my Mom, definitely not. She had a gentle touch, but nothing like the comforting arms of my Mother's; almost, but not quite. As though she had no fear, her weak arms attempted to scoop me up from the chair. She'd lost hope, she couldn't. Tears glazed the whites of her eyes as Pappy rose to assist her, she looked at my Mom for approval.
"Dad" she prompted, in a gesture for him to help her get comfortable in order to cuddle with me.
"Are you sure? She's not going to be too much?" Granny questioned with a concerned voice.
"I can cope, just for a short while" she managed a smile, then she brushed her finger with ease against my wet cheek "My beautiful niece" she whimpered, her voice cracking.
Pappy scooped me up from the chair and held me close to his chest "Why don't we go on in to the lounge, that way you'll be more comfortable. Both of you."
I felt the switch from his arms to my Mother's. I'm pretty sure I felt vulnerable, like I was the only one who wasn't in on their secret. I didn't know what it was, but it had something to do with my Aunt Hazel. My Mom clutched me tightly to her chest and whispered "I love you baby", I let out a small giggle and a little smile. Maybe my world didn't seem so disorientated after all.
I heard my Father's voice and struggled to wriggle free from my Mommy's embrace. I found him working with Pappy to assist my Aunt into the other room, placing his hand on the small of her back as if guiding her in there. He loved her like she was his own sister, as much as Mom loved her, even Granny and Pappy.
I felt my Mother delicately stroke the outline of my ear. I loved that. I loved the feeling as she gently rocked me to sleep in the chair. It soothed me, it was like a comforter. My eyes felt heavy after the food I'd consumed; half of which had admittedly been spat around the room and dribbled on to my bib. I always fell tired after food, like it was my body's way of telling me that I'd had enough, that that warm piece of delicious mashed potato had been way too satisfyingly good, especially when it was teamed with gravy and minced beef.
Even now, Sundays were the same routine. We'd attend Church at 10 o'clock, the same one Aunt Hazel had attended for her group support meetings. By 1pm we were back at Pappy's and Granny's ready for Granny's weekly cooking. In the Summer, nights were spent crowded in a circle. I'd often play a game of tennis with Dad, maybe tend the garden with Granny. But on winter nights like these, we'd gather in their spacious living room and sit by the fire with mugs of hot drinks and light refreshments.
That night was very much the same, though a good few years in the past. My own Dad and Pappy had settled Aunt Hazel in to a seat of her own, propping her feet up with the aid of a small cushioned stool and positioned the trolley full of oxygen in just the right place to provide her with maximum comfort. Mom says that by this time, my Aunt had become fully accustomed to her unusual but vital accessory, almost like it was a scar. The reminder was always there, but now it was like a daily part of life. Wherever she went, the oxygen tank went, she'd often remark to it as being her entourage, to which acquaintances would simply be unrespondable to, where as her best friends and relatives would tearfully laugh and share the joke for what seemed like forever. You couldn't get tired of Aunt Hazel's humour, Dad said; he also told me she'd tried to make the best of any situation, bringing light to it, whether it was good or bad.
My Mom placed me within my Aunt's arms once she could clearly see she was at comfort, then proceeded to assist Granny in washing the dishes from dinner.
"If only your Uncle Isaac could see your beautiful little smile" she grinned, she placed her finger against my nose, "that adorable little face you make when you poop". Aunt Hazel had certainly attracted my Father's attention now. "the way you grip your Daddy's fingers", her gaze shifted from me to him and back to my toddler self. "He's as proud as your Uncle Gus would've been".
I'd never met a Gus, but I'd certainly heard a lot about him and it felt like I knew him intently. Like we were real close. And I adored Uncle Isaac, the way he delicately held me as though I'd shatter if he squeezed too hard or spoke too loudly. I hadn't understood at the time, but as I grew older I gradually began to learn about different members of the family, who they were, where they'd come from and why I'd never met certain relatives.
Isaac had been Gus' best friend from an early age. They'd potty trained together, learned how to tie their shoe laces within a week of each other and regularly held revision meet ups to study for school together. As I learnt, both Isaac and Gus had been an unfortunate pair who's both contracted different forms of cancer - they supported each other throughout their treatments and recoveries and attend a support group together; this being where they met Aunt Hazel. Unfortunately Aunt Hazel had been diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid, though with the assistance of the support group, my Aunt found friendship with Augustus Waters and Isaac, the three were inseparable and Gus and Aunt Hazel became closer and closer, falling more and more in love each and every single day.
"Gz Gz" I responded to my Aunt. She stopped, almost as though her heart was no longer beating. Then she choked a few tears, that familiar glaze overbearing in the centre of her eyes.
"Julian!" her eyes sparkled! "She knows his name! She relates to Gus!" A tear strolled down her face. I reached out to touch it, I couldn't believe that something so special and beautiful could happen, it shone, I was like a magpie eyeing up some gold. Over the bump of her swollen cheeks it went, taking a detour as it reached the middle and followed the bridge of her mouth and that's when I saw them. Those familiar tubes. I reached out my hand to tug on those peculiar objects. She laughed "Sorry baby, those aren't for playing with." Once again a twinkle appeared in her eye as Dad rescued her from a potential hazardous situation by pulling my small hands away, he left a sweet kiss at the brow of my hairline. He took a step back, for a moment, I frowned, then it looked at my Aunt's fragile face once more and gazed at her in awe. For a moment there was almost silence as she quietly cooed over me and played with my hands, forcing me to clap. I'd never understood the attraction adults had in that, until I started to giggle. Aunt Hazel grinned at me and pulled me towards her chest. "Oh darling Gracie" she whispered stroking my whispy hair. "I really hope you find someone who treasures you as much as Augustus treasured me." she found the strength to just about bounce me up and down on her knee "That darling Daddy of yours, he takes after our Jose so well. He loves you Gracie." there wasn't any trace of humour evident within her voice, she seemed to be sentimental, like she had this feeling that it was the end, like it was real close. So close that she could almost touch it like a bed of roses losing their precious scent as they wilted.
I looked towards my Mom who'd now joined my Dad, her arms tucked around his waist and nestling her head into his chest. The strength my Dad possessed back then was incredible, such agility in his body and lean muscle definition. That's when I knew, I wanted (want) someone to love me like my Dad loves my Mom. He'd opened his arms to this family, this sticky situation of a family and he could be nothing but trusted to see it through to the end, when he said 'til death us do part' I knew he'd meant every word, it was visible in his eyes, even back then, when things only declined and became worse and worse.
"Jose" Aunt Hazel whispered.
"Hmm?" My Mommy hummed softly, gently turning to see her sister.
"Make sure little Gracie has the life you never had" she almost whimpered, I could feel the disappointment in her heart. Mom must've looked at her confused, she led Dad towards the side of the arm chair. Aunt Hazel grabbed her by the hand, she let out a hard sniff "You were never able to go to Disneyland, or to go to the park whenever you wanted. Vacations were cut short and Mom and Dad prioritised my needs instead of yours. Please give her the life of an average kid."
Mom must've started crying, because she started sniffing too. "I got everything I ever needed Haze. I needed you. I have you. I had a great childhood and I'd do nothing to change that, other than for you to be free of this ..." anger grew in her voice "... this beastly illness!" Mom cried harder and harder. Dad held on tightly to all three of us, though I suspect they attempted to keep it quiet as to not attract the attention of Pappy and Granny, they didn't need the reminder that their eldest daughter was going through what she's gone through as a teenager once again.
Hazel Grace had been fourteen when the symptoms began to evolve the first time round. It had all started with a raspy voice; a raspy voice that had become more untreatable and more resilient to the meds. Then Hazel Grace began suffering neck pain and had difficulty swallowing. My own Mother had been just twelve. Just days before reaching her sixteenth birthday, the doctors had fully diagnosed Hazel Grace. Those dreaded words. Cancer. Cancer of the thyroid. Needless to say, that sixteenth birthday wasn't forgettable, it had gone from bad, to worse. By aged nineteen, Hazel Grace had been through the wars of cancer. With regular outpatient visits to the hospital and frequent inpatient trips after visiting the ER, it seemed abnormal for my Aunt not to be there. First name terms with the doctors and nurses and she knew each weekly menu for her food order. Nineteen, that exact year that exact year when she was finally free. Finally free from that horrendous illness in her body. But not from her life. No, there was still poor Isaac and poor old Augustus Waters, long gone, but never forgotten. The joyous news kept coming for Hazel Grace and the family. Pappy had been promoted at work, they could finally afford to move to a nice new home. A home that was bright and some place they could make their own. Little less than a year later, Mom met Dad. Mom met the Brinley's and Dad met the Lancaster's. The perfect match. Almost the Augustus like match. Expect, he wasn't Gus. But maybe he was perfect for their Josephine. By the time Hazel turned 23, her younger sister aged 21 had gotten engaged to the Mr Julian Brinley. A classy evening ball had been arranged in celebration and each single guest was requested that they invite a plus one, in mark of the occasion. The only problem for Hazel Grace was that her plus one couldn't be there, he'd never make it. By age 25, the joyous news had finally been delivered to them, Hazel Grace Lancaster was officially free! No more remission, no more check ups and no more reminders. Her hair was the perfect length, she wasn't too skinny or too chunky, she felt perfect. Especially for her younger sister's wedding day. But that reminded her. No matter how happy Julian made her sister, he'd always be a reminder of how Gus made her feel. Especially when he peeled his body away from hers and pressed a kiss against her forehead. Things were finally settling for Hazel Grace, she no longer felt the wrath of guilt she'd been swarmed by for the past decade. Josie had someone to pay attention to her, someone she could get away with and live her life with. She wouldn't have to be carted around everywhere her sister went. Less than three months after the wedding, Josie and Julian had a small gathering at their new house, a feast to welcome their friends and family to their married lives and a toast to announce the news of their expectant arrival. Hazel Grace almost fell about in anguish, tears of hysteria roared down her face as she showed her emotion. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined she'd meet a niece. Her niece.
A gentle knock darted its way throughout the house. I looked towards Aunt Hazel. Though tired, she beamed a projective smile. "That'll be your Uncle Isaac." she cooed. Dad shifted towards the hallway. A youngish looking man shuffled towards the two of us, his shoes leaving a muffled sound as he slowly found us.
"Where are my girls?" he called out excitedly.
Aunt Hazel held out her hand, softly reaching for his "Here honey" she called. He'd become well accustomed to his abilities by this point. "We're here honey" she called out once again, taking a firm grasp of his hand. My Father gently tucked a seat behind the legs of the man's and provided his support, delicately guiding him to his seated position.
"Now let me feel your face, little Gracie, I want to remember." Aunt Hazel took his hand in hers once again and guided it towards the bridge of my nose. He stroked it with such precise movements, as though he was making a mental picture in his mind. "I remember. That cute little button nose and those big eyes with those tight curls. Gracie May Brinley, you're gonna be a little heartbreaker when you grow up. I can just feel it, no, I know it!"
Now you can probably guess, Hazel Grace had found a plus one to Mom and Dad's engagement celebration. Isaac. The Isaac. Best friend of Augustus Waters, Isaac. Maybe it sounds unusual, the boyfriend's best friend gets violently sick with cancer and ends up fully blind. The boyfriend dies and then she finds love with the best friend. Hazel Grace and Isaac had common ground. It had been like a sign from Gus that this was right. They both dearly adored Augustus Waters, they both mourned him and they'd both experienced the excruciatingly heartbreaking and life threatening illness of cancer together. Plus nobody else wanted them. Hazel Grace lost all her friends and once she found out about the cancer, Isaac's high school girlfriend ran off. Too scared to face the truth. Too scared to fight it off.
Mom says the dynamic of her relationship with Isaac was significantly different to the relationship she shared with Gus. She was older for one thing and she felt like she had even more to lose the second time round, like the first time had been so scarring that she needed Isaac as her crutch to overcome Gus' death. She needed Augustus too, but in a different way. They supported each other because Gus had suffered cancer in the premature years of his teenage life, before it returned for the final time and he knew exactly what Hazel Grace was going through. But with Isaac, there was so much. They'd been friends for over a decade, that initial meeting aged 14 had been awkward, she'd seen that Isaac required extra support, he wasn't as mobile and independent as the rest of them. Her cancer had been bad enough, but it was like Isaac had lost so much more. Now they needed each other, they wanted it, for the sake of Gus and for the sake of themselves. Maybe they'd known that their last hopes were each other.
Pappy and Granny were quick to race into the lounge with a collection of biscuits and mugs of coffee, with pots of tea.
"Good afternoon Isaac" Granny greeted him. To Granny, Isaac had been like the son she'd never had, well and really Pappy too! Pappy took him out fishing, taught him how to reel in the rod when he'd caught a catch and how to hook the bait.
Isaac held out his arms, feeling for Granny "It's great to be with you!" He retorted, gesturing for a hug. They'd gotten over that 'it's great to see you' awkwardness the first meeting after Uncle Isaac had had his eye removed. Isaac and Pappy only chuckled about it, leaving Granny in a flush of embarrassment.
Aunt Hazel cooed towards me once again, she made funny faces that made me smile, sticking out her tongue once in a while and shimmying her nose against mine.
The arrival of my birth had caused a ruckus amongst the townsfolk and particularly amongst Aunt Hazel who'd been ecstatic about my arrival. She'd insisted on being in the delivery suite as my Mom gave birth and so the place was hounded by adults, Granny, Aunt Hazel and my Dad. Of course Dad couldn't miss this milestone, his first daughter and it was a given for Granny. Aunt Hazel feared she'd never see the inside of a delivery suite again after the first round of cancer and so Mom invited her in to become part of an anxious quartet. Mom mostly being anxious incase I came out with some surprise illness they hadn't picked up on the scans. But I was fine. A healthy baby. I cried ... a lot. But fine. Once I'd been weighed, cleaned up and checked over, the midwife cheerfully congratulated the four of them and thrust me towards my Dad, but very graciously he motioned his head towards Aunt Hazel; as far as he could see, she needed it.