South Africa, 2002
I'm seventeen. He's staring at me. Not knowing whether to look away or allow him to see me staring back, I hesitate. We're on opposite sides of the room, and our eyes are locked on one another. I don't know why I'm so nervous. What etiquette is expected in the playroom of the oncology ward? The boy smiles at me. He has a gentle face: prepubescent, innocent and open. He's new, the oldest of the kids I've seen here. I smile and avert my gaze to focus on my cousin who's sleeping with his head in my lap. Tommy's been asleep for about ten minutes. I can tell from his rhythmic breathing. It's hot in here. Tommy's thinning blonde curls are matted against his forehead. He's getting bald patches, a consequence of the chemo. Tiny beads of sweat roll down the gentle curves of his cheeks. They look like tears. I trace the shape of his face, my fingers caressing his eyelids, his lips and his button nose. He's barely four years old and he has leukemia. I scan the rest of the playroom.
As they play with puzzles on the floor, flip through books while sitting on parents' laps, I see their balding heads, steroid-bloated limbs and the IV drips crawling out their skins like vines. I notice their smiles, tired but steadfast. I focus on the man in the corner of the room. He's staring out the window while rocking his baby girl. She's tiny, can't be more than six months old. As I wonder what type of cancer she has, I feel the familiar ache at the back of my throat, the lump that warns me before I'm going to cry. I blink a few times, swallow my own spit to wash the sadness away. My eyes move to the couch on the other side of the room. The boy's still there, still watching me. I put my hand up and wave, wiggling my fingers slowly to say hello. He wiggles his fingers back, smiling. His teeth shine brightly against his dark lips. He's definitely the oldest in the room: a teenager, or on the cusp of being one.
He doesn't speak English. I find out from a nurse that he and his mother are from the Ivory Coast, that he's eleven years old, that he has stomach cancer and can only speak French. With modest school-learnt French rotating in my head, I approach him. He's sitting on the same couch I first saw him on.
"Hi. What's your name?"
I stick my hand out and he shakes it. I feel his overwhelming vulnerability through the gentle squeeze he gives my fingers. He looks at me shyly, unaccustomed to talking to anyone but his mother. None of the nurses speak French, and I learn that although they requested a translator, no one is available.
"Serge" he says. "You?"
He nods politely and folds his hands in his lap. There's an awkward moment of silence. We're staring at each other.
"You aren't sick, like me?"
I want to touch him, hold his hand. I don't.
His head droops slightly. Although we can communicate, he dismisses me as another person who doesn't understand him. How could I possibly know what he's going through?
"But, that little boy there..." I point at Tommy, who's flipping through a book with my mom, "...is my cousin. He lives with us, so he's like my little brother."
"Your French," he says, "it's not that bad."
I roll my eyes and he chuckles.
Serge looks at Tommy whose moon-face lights up while my mom reads to him. "How old is he?"
He shakes his head slowly, closes his eyes. "I'm eleven, and sick in my stomach. I have cancer."
"I know," I say. "I'm really sorry."
"Me too," he says.
He moves his hands from his lap and holds his stomach tightly, bending over. I touch his shoulder."Serge?"
He pulls his legs up and hugs his knees against his chest. He moans painfully. Panicked, I look toward the nurses' station across the hall. "Help!" I call out. "We need some help in here."
A nurse runs in. "Serge, what's wrong?" she asks.
I feel like running away but at the same time, want to sit next to him; pull his small frame close to mine. I want to love him, to save him, to tell him that everything will be okay. Instead, I stand, my feet planted to the ground. I watch.
"Je suis mal au vente," he gasps. He begins to cry.
The nurse looks at me.
"He says his tummy hurts."
She takes his hands in hers and pulls him into a standing position. He's still doubled over like an old man. Other children start staring, sharing his pain.
"Time to go to your room, Serge," she whispers. She guides him through the long corridor. As he reaches the door of his room, he turns back and waves at me, the same wiggle of fingers that I gave him at our introduction. He knew I'd still be standing in the same spot, still watching.
Tommy's tugging at my jeans. Mom finished reading to him and is now talking to one of the parents in the playroom.
"Hey Big Guy," I say. He beams at me, blue eyes shining.
"Hey Big Jessica," Tommy says.
I look up again but Serge is gone.
The next time we visit Tommy, I bring a French/English dictionary. Travis, my brother, brings his old Gameboy. We hover in the doorway to Serge's room. His mother's sleeping in the chair beside his bed. She lives in this chair. Her family saved enough money to fly the two of them to South Africa for better medical care. Now she can't afford to rent a place to live, so she washes in the ladies bathroom and sleeps in this chair while the nurses turn a blind eye.
Serge is lying in bed, staring out the window. Machines hum above his head, lights flashing green and red. I don't know what any of them do or what they mean. He turns, sensing someone nearby. I step into the room, Travis follows. Serge smiles. The afternoon sun trickles light through his gauze curtains and the room glows gold.
"Jessica," he greets me.
"Salut, Serge," I say. I introduce my brother.
Travis walks tentatively to the side of his bed. He extends an arm, offering his old Gameboy with the Super Mario Brothers game.
"Pour toi," Travis says. For you. His eyes go wide. Serge's mom opens one eye, but says nothing. She smiles and closes it again, allowing her son this pleasure.
"Merci!" Serge says. Thank you!
Mom is knocking at the door. "Time to see Tommy." We wave goodbye.
"A bientôt," Serge says as we walk out the door. See you soon.
We read French comics together; try to speak but end up chuckling at the hand signals we resort to using to understand each other. His mom talks to mine. Tommy learns his name, and waves hello each time their paths cross. We all learn to smile again, for real. Then time runs away. I write my end of year exams, finish swim team practices. I haven't been to the hospital in weeks. The December holidays are here. I go with Mom and Aunty Nor when they check Tommy out the oncology ward. He's growing stronger, responding well to his treatment. He's allowed to come home for Christmas. He smiles with blonde brilliance, swinging my hand with his as we wait for our moms to finish talking to the nurses.
Serge is not in his room. I learn that he's taken a turn for the better and that he was checked out for Christmas as well. His mom befriended another woman in the oncology ward and she and Serge were invited to join them for the holiday. I feel the lump in my throat again but this time I let the tears flow freely. They're tears of joy.
Christmas Eve is my favorite night of the year, but this time it's hard to smile. Aunty Nor already lost one child in her life, and coming so close to losing another one, she's broken. It's Christmas dinner and she records everything: Tommy eating roast chicken. Tommy drinking apple juice. Tommy laughing as his brothers pinch each other. After dessert, we hear the pre-recorded tape my parents made: Jingling bells, stomping reindeer hooves and the hearty "Ho ho ho" of Santa's visit. I loved this as a kid. Part of me still wants to fall for it. The rule is we have to sit on our dining room chair and let Santa finish his milk and cookies - We can't interrupt him as he has a busy night ahead. Once we hear him say, "Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight," we know he's gone and we stare at my mother with pleading faces until she nods. Then it's a race for the living room to exchange presents.
Aunty Nor films Tommy as he giggles in excitement. He's squeezing his brothers' arm, and the little boys look at each other with smiles so wide they look like they'll crack. "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night," Santa's voice echoes from down the passage. The adults exchange grins, watching as the kids stare at my mom, giddy with anticipation.
She nods her head. Tommy's brothers disappear in seconds. My siblings, Travis and Lauren, feign disinterest, adolescence aching for independence as adults. (They still beat the adults to the living room). Mom helps Tommy from his chair and holding his hand tightly as he needs support for his hefty frame (the steroids made him gain weight), waddles with him down the passage.
The family gathers and again, the camera films every smile and shriek of delight as Tommy rips open his gifts. The fear of the unknown and strength of disease plague our minds as we kiss and cuddle him; selfishly savoring his soft skin and sweet scent.
It's early in the morning of January 1st. New Years Eve champagne has popped and we've retired to our rooms. I'm lying under the covers. My light's off and I'm silently watching the glow from the ornament my boyfriend gave me (a piece of etched glass -two hands holding a heart- on a light orb that projects different colors and patterns against the wall). It flickers blue, purple, green, red; changing my mood and my thoughts. The battery's running low, so each color projects fainter and fainter in the dark room.
There's a knock on my door. Mom turns the handle and slips in, leaving the door slightly ajar. The passage light leaks into the room, illuminating her silhouette as she sits on the edge of my bed.
"Jessie," she whispers.
"I don't know how to tell you this," she says.
I sit up, pulling my knees and blanket to my chin. "Uh huh," I say.
"We got a call from the hospital."
I suck in a deep breath, hold it in my lungs and wait for them to burst.
"Serge was brought into the E.R. tonight. He. Well. Jess..."
I exhale loudly, the sobs breaking my breath. She turns to me, cups my face in her hands and kisses my forehead.
"He's gone," she says. "He died tonight, about an hour ago. The nurses knew how much you meant to him. They thought you should know."
She drapes an arm around me, pulling me closer to her. She tells me she's sorry, tries to save me from the hurt; she loves me and tells me that everything will be okay. The light in my room flickers blue, purple, green, red. The light stops and we're immersed in black. The battery died.
Tommy went into remission a few months after Serge died. He is now a happy, healthy teenager. He lives in Greytown, South Africa with his parents, two brothers and three dogs.
Jessica DeFeo wrote "Serge" to honor the boy who smiled at her from across the playroom of the Oncology Ward, as well as to honor and celebrate the life of Tommy (and all other children -- along with their families -- braving the battle of cancer). Jessica received an MFA degree in Creative Non-Fiction Writing from Hunter College (CUNY) in 2010. She grew up the daughter of a South African diplomat and loves to read, write, travel and explore different cultures. She currently lives in New York with her husband.