Amanda's photos*

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

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By Julie Rattey


Amanda, 15, flicked her eyes from her schoolbook to the clock for the millionth time that period. It was almost the end of the day at New Site High School in Mississippi, and Amanda had a tennis match that afternoon. Judging from the warm sun streaming through the windows, there would be good weather for the game. And good light for taking photos beforehand, she thought, glad she’d remembered her camera.

Amanda flashed another impatient look at the clock. The red hand seemed to stutter and stumble over the seconds. Come on! she urged silently.

Feeling her right leg, which had been tingling slightly, go numb, Amanda shifted in her seat. I must have been sitting funny, she thought. She rubbed the leg to try to get the circulation going. But several minutes later, the leg was still completely numb. Frowning, she tried moving the leg, bending it, shaking it. Nothing.

Chandra, Amanda’s best friend, gave her a quizzical look. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“My leg’s gone numb. I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”

“You must have sat on it funny.”

Amanda shook her head. Her brow furrowed. “Actually, I think I’m going to have to go to the ER and get it checked out.”

“What about the match?”

Amanda tried to hide her disappointment. “No match for me, I guess.”

***

“Have you hit your head recently, Amanda?”

The doctor, who had just been reviewing the results of the CT scan, looked grave.

“No,” said Amanda, confused. First her leg had gone numb, then her arm. Now they were asking her if she’d hit her head. What could possibly be wrong with her? Her body flushed warm with anxiety and she felt a sudden urge to leave the room. The hospital equipment that mere moments ago had seemed solidly solicitous now seemed alien and unfriendly.

When she and the doctor returned to the waiting room, the doctor caught her father’s eye. “Mr. Dixon, may I have a word?” Her father got up quickly and followed the doctor into the hall. Her mother reached out comfortingly for Amanda’s hand and settled her daughter in the chair beside her. The hallway door closed behind her father with a sad, apologetic click. The effect was as that of a switch; Amanda felt her anxiety suddenly unleash itself in tears. “Something is wrong, Mom,” she said. “Something is really wrong; I know it!”

The ashen hue of her father’s face when he and the doctor returned confirmed Amanda’s fears. The doctor’s words came to her through a haze: A mass on your brain. Possibly a brain tumor. Ambulance. Hospital. Now.

Amanda’s mother had already left the room in sobs, searching for a telephone to call Amanda’s brothers and the rest of the family. Amanda was terrified. All she could do was cry. And pray.

***

Amanda awoke on her 16th birthday in her room at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Sunlight cast a warm glow over everything in the room. Amanda gazed contentedly around her at the photos she had taken since coming to St. Jude’s. Along with holding onto her faith, and to the support of those around her, it was holding onto a camera that was helping her get through these eight weeks of radiation. There was pain at St. Jude’s, and suffering, but there was beauty, too, and Amanda was eager to capture it. She snapped photos at the hospital whenever she could, then gathered them around her bedside like flowers. With the friendly faces of St. Jude’s patients and staff, and of visiting friends and family, surrounding her, she felt encouraged and sustained.

In the time she’d spent at St.Jude’s, Amanda was beginning to think how wonderful it would be to own her own portrait studio someday. To spend her days really seeing people — gently peeling back the top layers of appearance to see what was nestled beneath, then finding ways to bring that essence to the surface and make it shine — that would be an amazing job.

I’ll make it happen, she told herself. Today I am 16, and soon I’ll be going home. Anything is possible.

***

“Chandra?”

Amanda’s voice quavered as she spoke her friend’s name into the telephone. How quickly the space of a few hours could change your life. Just last night, as on many other nights since she had returned home from St. Jude’s two years ago, she had talked with Chandra on the phone about school, sports, photography — everyday stuff . And now…

“Amanda, is everything OK?”

“I…” Amanda faltered. Somehow saying it out loud would make it all the more real. “I have
cancer again,” she said at last.

There was a deep silence on the other end of the line.

“I can’t believe it,” Chandra said finally, her voice soft and sad.
“How…?”

“I woke up this morning feeling like someone had put a heavy rock on my chest. It hurt to move. It turns out I have a cancerous mass on my lungs. I’m going to have to have chemo this time.”

“Where will you go?”

“Back to St. Jude’s.”

February passed quickly as Amanda settled back into St. Jude’s for a new round of treatment. Gazing out the window of her room, she stared at the bare, spindly branches of trees, the bare earth. Her head, too, was bare, and its smooth surface, devoid of the hair she’d smoothed and brushed and pulled into ponytails all her life, felt new and strange. But there was a comforting kind of communion in being laid bare at the same time as the earth around her: It was as though nature had decided to keep her company in her ordeal.

Spring stirred an excited impatience in her, however, and by the time June came, attending her high school graduation was nearly all Amanda could think about. When permission for a week’s stay at home was granted, Amanda was ecstatic.

 

***

 

“Amanda, how many pictures are you going to take?”

Chandra took time out from applying her lipstick to tease her friend, who was snapping away furiously on a disposable camera as she and her girlfriends donned their red caps and gowns.

Amanda replied by swiveling on her heels and aiming the camera at Chandra. Click.

“I give up!” Chandra said good-naturedly.

“OK, group picture!” Amanda commanded. Her friends gathered around her, laughing and talking. The changing room smelled of hair spray and perfume and, wafting in through the open windows, freshly mowed grass. Thank You, God, for letting me be here today, Amanda prayed.

As if reading her thoughts, Chandra gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I’m so glad you were able to come home for a week during treatment,” she said. “Graduation wouldn’t have been the same without you!”

Amanda smiled and advanced her camera to the next picture. “It feels great to be back.” CD

* based on the story of Amanda Dixon-Burcham

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.