My life has been defined by one thing for several years now: cancer. It controls what I can and can’t do, where I can and can’t go, who I can and can’t be around. Before I was diagnosed, I traveled the country with my parents and little sister, Jordan. I even had one of those maps where you could scratch off the states you’ve been to.
But that doesn’t matter now. It’s all about chemo treatments, radiation therapy, and bald heads. I’m only 14 years old, and my life is centered around a disease- no sports, clubs, traveling, or friends. All cancer. It’s all about cancer. And now, my death is going to be all about cancer, too.
My mom hasn’t stopped crying since we found out the news: the treatments aren’t working and I have five months to live. Five more months of cancer-filled life lead to a cancer-filled death. Great.
We are all in the car on the way to Jordan’s soccer game. Jordan has a normal life with soccer and friends. No cancer.
“Alright. June, Jordan, your mother and I have something to tell you,” said dad, looking into the rearview mirror.
“What? Do we get ice cream because I scored a goal?” said Jordan, admiring the newly formed bruise on her shin from where she was kicked by a player on the opposing team.
“Not exactly. Are you both listening? Good. Alright. We’ve decided to take a trip. Just us girls,” said mom. “Dad has to stay here for work, but we’re going to go somewhere.”
“Cool!” Jordan exclaimed.
“Where?” I asked, finally contributing to the conversation.
“Anywhere!” said mom. “Remember your scratch map, June? Where have you not gone?”
“Florida. We haven’t been to the southeast coast,” I said, looking at the reflection of my bright pink beanie in the car window.
“Perfect! We’ll go there, then. Start packing, ladies. We leave the as soon as school ends!” said mom, right as we pulled into the driveway.
A few weeks later, Jordan, mom, and I are piled into the van with so much stuff that, to an outsider, it looks like we are moving.
The plan is to drive from Oklahoma through Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama down to the beaches of Destin, Florida. I haven’t left the state since I was diagnosed, so the whole vacation is strange.
“Bye, dad! Love you!” I call out the window, and Jordan and I continue to wave until we can’t see our dad anymore.
“Don’t drink too much water, ladies, because we aren’t stopping for a while!” calls mom, glancing back in the rearview mirror. I’m sure she’ll be doing a lot of glancing my way during this trip.
I plug in my earbuds, hit shuffle on my favorite playlist, and eventually drift off to sleep.
I don’t wake up until we reach Louisiana for a bathroom break and then hop right back in to the car. Mom drives for hours on end while Jordan and I watch movies and play games in the back seat. We stop at a hotel for the night in Alabama and drive the rest of the way to Florida in the morning.
We arrive at the motel- which looks more like an apartment building- and head straight for the room to change. It’s already late afternoon, and I am wasting no time here when I could be at the beach. As I change in to my swimsuit, I inspect my stomach in the mirror. There is one, long scar running from the bottom of my ribcage to my belly button from my first surgery a few years ago. After I was first diagnosed, I did chemo treatments, then radiation, then had surgery to remove the tumor. A year later, the cancer came back and is continuing to spread rapidly.
After the surgery, I stopped wearing two-piece swimsuits because of that scar. For the first time in years, I will be wearing a two-piece, and I’m terrified. I’ve always been self conscious of my body, and that scar made it impossible to wear a swimsuit.
I put it on and hear a knock on the door. Mom walks in, sees my suit, and smiles.
“I haven’t seen that suit in years, June,” she says, admiring the floral pattern. Jordan bounds in after her, her perfectly toned, scar-less stomach showing in her adorable white swimsuit.
We start to walk out the door, and one step out, I realize I can’t wear a beanie in the water. Since I had to have my head shaved, I haven’t been in public without a hat on. I’ve never thought I was pretty, but most girls don’t have a bald head, which made me more self-conscious.
Just as I was about to ask, mom notices my hesitation, and says, “I bought a swim cap for you. It’s in here with the towels if you want it.” She holds up her beach bag.
I nod gratefully and pull the cap over my head. We reach the beach and see that it’s crowded with tourists and locals alike. I reflexively reach down to touch my scar, then realize it, and quickly move my hand away. After being smothered in sunscreen, Jordan and I run to the water. Or, more accurately, Jordan runs, and I walk as fast as I can without falling.
We splash around for a bit, relax in tube floaties, and even build a sand castle, or at least attempt to. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun in one day. When it starts to get dark, we meet up with mom and start to dry off. Just then, I see a group staring at me. They look away when I see them, but I know they saw my swim cap and scar. I wrap the towel around my stomach as we leave.
Mom, Jordan, and I go to a fancy seafood place for dinner. Our waitress was bald, too! She asked about my hair, so we told her my story, and she told us hers. She had cancer four years ago and had to go through chemo treatments. The treatments got rid of her tumor, but she decided to never let her hair grow out in support of others like her. She and I even took a picture together before I left the restaurant.
I’ve never met a girl who chose to be bald. The waitress was very pretty, even with no hair.
We arrive at the Destin Harbor Boardwalk a little before noon the next day and immediately head to the docks. We play games, get cool t-shirts, eat at a Mexican place with strange water for lunch, and so much more. Jordan looks adorable in her new pink sundress that we bought specifically for this trip. I’m wearing a new yellow top with white shorts. I can’t even remember the last time I went anywhere that I needed to wear shorts. Most of the time, I’m at the hospital or our house. I’m even homeschooled during the school year. Jordan goes to public school, though.
When it comes time for the dolphin cruise, Jordan skips to the boat, and mom and I follow along at my pace. I wish I could still skip.
I’ve never seen a dolphin before, but the man on the boat promised we’d see some. He also said that the seagulls like Cheetos, though, so I’m not sure how much he can be trusted. Coincidentally, we brought snacks, and happen to have a bag of Cheetos, so I will be testing the man’s words.
I’ve also never been on a boat before, so when we begin to sail away, I am taken by surprise. Jordan lets out a cheer when she sees the first dolphin. Unfortunately, I miss it. We get further and further out to sea, and several people have seen a dolphin or two, but I have not.
“Look, June, there’s a group of dolphins to your left!” Mom calls. I turn just in time to see one of them jump into the air. Finally!
I pull out the bag of Cheetos to test the seagulls that are currently circling the boat. I open it and pull out the first one. The seagull nearest me eyed it and must have called out to the others, because soon enough, there are dozens of seagulls attempting to eat the Cheeto. They can’t fly that close to the boat, though, so I throw it. One of the birds catches the Cheeto in its mouth. I guess they really do like Cheetos.
“June, The Seagull Whisperer! Mom, we could make a movie!” shouts Jordan as she giggles and dances on the deck of the boat. Mom laughs along with her.
The other tourists begin to film me, the bald girl with cancer, throwing Cheetos at some birds who catch them in their mouths. I guess I really can be normal.
After the cruise, we are all very tired from out long day of touring, so we head back to the motel.
As mom tucks us in to bed, she leans over and whispers, “I don’t remember the last time I saw you as happy as you were tonight, Junie Bug. I love you so much.”
“I love you too, mom. See you in the morning,” I say. I kiss her on the cheek. She says goodnight to Jordan and leaves.
“June?” said Jordan.
“Yes, Jordan?” I said.
“I’m going to be really sad when you go to Heaven.”
“I’m going to miss you, Jo. I love you,” I say, as I roll over in my bed.
I haven’t really thought about what it will be like in Heaven. I haven’t thought about what’s going to happen to Jordan and my parents when I’m gone, either. It’s strange to think about going somewhere without them. I’m really going to miss them.
The next day, we decide to go back to the beach across from the motel. I wear a two-piece swimsuit this time, too, but I decide not to wear the swim cap. If seafood restaurant waitress can look pretty with a bald head, I can be brave, too.
We get to the beach. Several people stare at me, but I don't care. It’s a part of me. I need to accept it.
“Junie, you look so beautiful without a hat on,” said Jordan.
“I second that,” said mom as she slathers sunscreen on my back.
“Thank you,” I say, eyeing my scar.
Mom must notice where my gaze is pointed, because she steps in front of me and kneels down.
“Your scar is beautiful, too. It’s what makes you you, and I wouldn’t have you any other way. I love you, June Bug,” she said.
“I love you too, mom,” I say as I look up at her eyes. I kiss her cheek and head toward the water. I make it halfway there, and then I get very tired. I can’t walk anymore. I sit down in the sand.
“June?” Jordan calls.
“It’s okay. I’m just… tired…” I lay down. “Tired. Very…”
“Mom! Help” Jordan yells toward the beach. “It’s June!”
I stay awake just long enough to see mom running towards me while on the phone. And then, I sleep.
I awake in a hospital bed with my mom leaning over me.
“Mom? What happened?
A tear falls down her cheek. “You passed out at the beach. It’s the tumor… it grew faster than the doctors thought it would. Sweetheart, you’re… you won’t be alive for very much longer.”
“What about Jordan and Dad?” I cough out.
“Dad’s here. He flew while you were asleep. He and Jordan are in the waiting room,” she says, brushing my hair out of my face.
“I- I don’t want to die now, mom. I want to be normal. I want to have hair and friends and play sports like Jordan.”
Mom lets out a sob. “I know, baby, I know. But, how many other kids can say they fed seagulls Cheetos on a dolphin cruise? Not many can say they battled cancer for years. Your scar is just a mark. It’s a chapter in your story- a beautiful chapter. Do you remember the bald waitress? She wanted to remember that chapter in her life, so she decided not to let her hair grow, and she was beautiful. You are beautiful, too, and have a beautiful story.”
Dad and Jordan come to the door. Now it’s my turn to let out a sob. “I don’t want to leave,” I cry.
“I know you don’t, baby. But, we’ll see you in Heaven someday. I know it. I know we’ll see each other again,” said dad. He kisses me on the forehead. “I love you, June. I always will.”
“I love you Junie. You’ll always be my favorite sister-” Jordan chokes on her words. “I’ll miss you so, so much.”
“Watch over us in Heaven, will you?” said mom. She leans over and kisses my cheek.
“I… love you. All of you,” I say. I’m really tired. I want to sleep now. I’ll… I’ll see my family… in Heaven.
It is in that moment that I see their faces clearly. I remember all the times dad took me to see a movie, and the times mom took me out to lunch, and all the times Jordan and I played with Barbie Dolls. I remember all the times just like this one- where I am lying in a hospital bed and they are all saying their goodbyes before surgery, but I have a feeling this is the last one.
I remember all the times I covered up my hairless head and my scar, always afraid of what others would see when they saw me.
I wish that I had accepted those things. I wish that I hadn’t taken for granted the time spent with my family. I wish… I wish I had more time.
And with that final thought, I sleep.