The Casket And Wonderland


“At reception, the odor of disinfectant could control malaria in a third world country.” ~Nancy Bachrach, The Center of the Universe

I remember the day we met. She was sitting alone on the school bus, looking out through the window, lost in thought. Some of the other children were casting uncomfortable glances in her direction. They weren’t doing a very good job of hiding snickers and whispers behind their open palms as I made my way down the aisle between rows of well-worn leather seats. I sat in the vacant seat beside her, and she turned to look at me. I smiled. She smiled back and told me her name was Marcie.

Her hair reminded me of soft clay. It was an odd color, not quite blond, not quite brown. The closest I can come to describe it is muddy blonde. She was a pretty girl, with swimming pools for eyes beneath her perfect bangs. We hit it off immediately. I was in the fifth grade, and the year was only half over when my family moved to the neighborhood from Italy. Marcie and I were the same age, and I discovered that she lived a few houses down from me.

She had a warm personality, but there was also something fierce about her. Marcie could be intense. She wasn’t timid like me. As we were getting to know one another, she told me she had two younger siblings, a brother and a sister. I told her my brother was older, and we agreed that siblings could be a pain. Her dad was in the Navy, like mine, which is how both of us wound up living on the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, South Carolina. I learned that we shared similar tastes in music and liked doing the same kinds of things for fun. I also learned that she had cancer.

The doctors had removed all of the muscles from Marcie’s right shoulder, so her right arm was held close to her body with a slight bend at the elbow, causing her hand to hang in a feminine-like gesture. Chemotherapy had caused all of her hair to fall out, and she was wearing a wig, the reason behind the snickers and whispers that surrounded us. I had never met anyone with cancer before, but I wasn’t frightened by it. I was more curious than anything and didn’t understand how the other kids could be so cruel. We formed our own little bubble of friendship that all the ridicule in the world couldn’t penetrate. We were inseparable from that day forward.

We got lost together in an eleven-year-old’s fantasy world. We spent our days role-playing. We would play dress-up in her room, and Marcie’s favorite character to become was Marilyn Monroe.  She said she had Marilyn’s legs. I would play her agent on her quest for fame. We would hunt ghosts in the graveyard after dark and pretend they were communicating with us.  Sometimes she would play the ghost. We’d go down to the shore behind the Captain’s house and look for items washed up beneath the sand.  We imagined they were remnants of a sunken ship or missing treasure.

We used to walk along the top of a huge pipe that ran over the water on the edge of Mallard Pond and pretend we were lost in a swamp, surrounded by gators. Back then we didn’t know it was called Mallard Pond. We called it Alligator Pond. We weren’t really lost, but we were surrounded by gators & marshland (I found out, years later, that they put a gate up to prevent people from going out there after I moved away).  At dusk, we’d look out to the horizon and see the silhouettes of the alligators swimming to shore; that was our queue to go home.

Pitching a tent in Marcie’s backyard was one of our favorite weekend adventures. We’d stay the night out there and make up new lyrics to songs we liked and sing them into my hand-held tape recorder.  My brother liked to sneak up and scare us in the middle of the night. We’d pretend he was a bear in the middle of the woods, and there was  no one around to save us.

Marcie had moments when the reality of what was happening seemed to hit her like a brick wall at a hundred and ninety miles an hour. We went to the school dance when we were in sixth grade, and I remember her suddenly becoming very sad. I sat with her on the floor against the wall and tried to comfort her. There was a slow song playing, and young couples swayed awkwardly against one another on the dance floor. I believe she realized in that moment that she might never experience what it felt like to fall in love. I think that’s when the gravity of her situation really hit me.

Up until that moment, she kept most of those kinds of feelings to herself.  She acted out scenarios in our role-playing that were generated from her fears, but it was always done with a playful spirit. That was her way. I hardly ever saw her confront her fears head-on. She didn’t have the luxury of time to spend her days being depressed. She wanted to make the most of whatever time she had left, but sometimes she got hung up.

I walked into her room one day, and she was laying on the floor. She was on her back, facing the ceiling, and her eyes were closed.  She wasn’t moving, and when I spoke to her, she didn’t answer. I started to panic. Her chest was still. She wasn’t breathing.  I ran to her and kneeled beside her.  I started shaking her and begging that she wake up, but she didn’t. Her body was limp. I don’t know exactly how long this went on. It’s one of those moments when everything seems to be in slow motion, but suddenly a long breath erupted from her, and she let out a tremendous guffaw. I sat there in shock, just staring at her. She stopped long enough to look at my face and started laughing even harder. I didn’t know whether to hug her or hit her. Later, when I asked why she had done it, she said she wanted to see what it would be like if someone walked in and found her dead. I wanted to hug her then, and never let go.

My dad started preparing for retirement when I was in the seventh grade. My parents bought a house in a new neighborhood, and we moved from the Naval Weapons Station. I was forced to change schools. Marcie and I talked on the phone a lot and begged to stay at each other’s houses on the weekends.  It got to a point where Marcie’s mom would never let her hang out with me, no matter how much we pleaded. I think she was afraid to let Marcie out of her sight, and as much as I wanted to at the time, I couldn’t blame her. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for her, knowing she could lose her child at any moment.

Marcie called me from the hospital one day, and asked me to stay the night with her there. I was finally getting a chance to see my best friend. I missed her so much. My mom dropped me off, and we stayed up the entire night. Her medicine was fed through IV’s attached to medicine bags hanging from a portable stand that she could roll around with her if she wanted to go for a walk or use the facilities. She named the stand “Freda stair”,  or “Fred” for short. When we would get up to walk to the vending machine or wander through the halls of the hospital, she’d say, “C’mon, Fred!”.  We played and laughed all night, and it felt like old times. The next morning she told me it was the only time she didn’t get sick from the treatment.  She thought it was because I was there with her, and I’ll never forget it. That was the last time I saw Marcie alive.

Marcie and I called each other often to give one another updates on our lives. Marcie wanted to be an actress, so she was very excited when she called to tell me she received the role of Alice in the play, Alice In Wonderland. She was twice as excited when she told me that the Make-A-Wish Foundation was granting her wish for one-on-one dance lessons with Paula Abdul. One day she called because she thought she was dying.

We talked for two hours, and when I got off the phone with her, I went running to my dad in tears. He tried to comfort me as much as he could, and then told me that I needed to accept reality and prepare for the inevitable.  I know now that he was trying to soften the blow. She was having a panic attack that night, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be for real next time. There was a reason for her panic attack, and the reason for it was nearer than I thought.

Marcie called me sometime after that to let me know she was going into the hospital for heart surgery. The words “heart surgery”, just the words themselves, sounded so foreboding. I wanted  to scream, “No, you can’t!”.  My thoughts were completely irrational, I know, but I had never been closer to anyone in my life, and I loved her.  I couldn’t conceive someone deliberately opening her chest and cutting into her fragile heart.  She assured me that she felt good about it and that everything was going to be fine.  She wanted to call before she went to the hospital, because she didn’t know if she would get a chance to talk to me before the surgery. She didn’t.

I was on pins and needles the entire next day. Every time I called they said she was still in surgery. Then, they told me she was still there, but they didn’t have any information for me or they couldn’t give me any information. Another night passed without any word, and I was a nervous wreck. I called the hospital  as soon as I woke up.

“She has been released,” the lady on the phone said.

Released? From surgery?  What do you mean released?

“They sent her home.”

She’s at home?  When did they release her?

“Last night,” the lady told me.

I was beyond excited. If she was at home, that meant that she made it through the surgery, and it must have gone so well that they decided to send her home early. I hung up and immediately dialed the number for Marcie’s house. Her mother, Pam answered the phone.

Is Marcie there?

“No, she…” she paused for a moment. “I’m sorry she isn’t here.”

Oh, okay. Well, I just called the hospital, and they told me she had gone home. I wanted to check on her. Will you tell her that I called?

“No, she isn’t here baby.  She died this morning after we brought her home….”

I didn’t hear much of what was said after that. I was in shock. I don’t know if Marcie’s mom was still talking when I dropped the phone. Suddenly I couldn’t breath. I had to get out of there. I had to go anywhere. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t true.  It couldn’t be true!

I remember running out to the garage, with my mom and dad at my heels calling after me. I don’t know what they were saying. I just had to get away.  I grabbed my bike and started peddling as hard and as fast as I could.  I peddled past all the houses and kept peddling when the houses ran out. I peddled until the road ran out and hit the trail until there was nothing but a field of weeds and a tree-line of forest in front of me. I peddled as far as I could go, and then I stopped. I was on the backside of the new neighborhood we lived in, and there was nothing and no one around. No houses, no pavement, no people. Just me.  I screamed out an ocean of tears that carved a river of scars through my heart. I screamed until I was hoarse and cried until the tears would no longer come. This was my first brush with death. I was fourteen years old.

I had never been to a wake before, so when I decided I was going to Marcie’s, I didn’t know what I was in for. Don’t get me wrong. It was beautiful, as wake’s go. I remember seeing Marcie’s mom, but I don’t remember anyone else. I know other people were there, but I couldn’t see them. I saw the display of flowers when I walked through the door, but the rest of the room faded away when my eyes fell upon the open casket. There she was. There she wasn’t.

It looked like her, but it didn’t. There was no color in her cheeks, no life in her features. That was her body, but she wasn’t in there. Her body was an empty shell. My friend was gone. The image of her (shell) laying there in the casket, Alice In Wonderland book folded neatly into her lifeless hands, will forever be etched in my mind.

To this day, the hospital scent of disinfectant takes me back to the last time I saw Marcie alive.  This, in turn, opens the floodgates to a strange mixture of some of my most treasured memories and things I can’t seem to forget no matter how hard I try.

~Written In Loving Memory Of Marcia Dawn Cheatwood,

A True Friend & Fighter To The Very End~

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