I always waited breathlessly as time crawled toward the red Xon my calendar marking the start of spring break. But this year, as February ripped through to March, dread seeped into my bones, wet and heavy. It was time to start visiting colleges. I could not wrap my head around the idea of moving away—from my home, from my friends, from my life.
At 5 a.m. on March 17th, Celine Dion crashed through my subconscious mind, crying out that her heart would always go on and on. An hour later, I was poking my brother awake as we neared Penn Station. Within minutes, I was watching my parents heaving in deep sleep, my heart thudding against my ribs. I tried to take a deep breath, but a shallow, shaky sigh rolled out. I leaned back and rubbed my eyes. Only then did I realize I was crying.
As the tears flowed down my flushed cheeks, I gazed at my parents’ faces, rocking gently with the rhythm of the train. Gray hairs clung to my father’s temples. Thin wrinkles creased my mother’s skin. It seemed like only moments ago that their young faces were rippling in laughter as they tossed my small body into the ocean. That was 10 spring breaks ago. Time was speeding along faster than the train was rattling across the border of New York, rattling into the future I was not ready to meet.
At that moment, my brother’s heavy head tumbled onto my lap. As dawn broke in the distance, I yearned to freeze the moment—all of us together, peaceful.Except me—I was terrified of leading my own life, of fighting, all alone, the war that had begun on the battlefield of my body at 13, when red blood cells began to flow out of me like dark molasses oozes out of a cracked Mason jar.
In the hospital, my body had been torn away and scanned into two-dimensional slides that revealed open wounds lining my intestines. My life was transformed in one day, by a single diagnosis—ulcerative colitis. Receiving frequent chemotherapeutic treatments, I grew accustomed to the feeling of dangling drowsily in half-sleep as drugs dripped into my body. I had begun, little by little, to let go of the dreams that had once soared through my mind. But each time I felt myself drowning in a sea of loneliness, my parents had pulled me out and held me as I stumbled in a daze, the Benadryl still clinging to my brain.
Deep inside, I yearned for the adventure of adulthood, but I knew that my past would never leave me, that I would always be Diseased. And I needed my family to help me work through this definition that branded itself like a hot iron onto my forehead. I needed my family to help me fight my own war.
Between the deafening convulsions of my chest, I heard a voice from the seat behind me. I tried to slow my uneven breathing as I listened to a young girl.
She was reading a poem—Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” I peeked through the crack between the seats, and saw a woman holding a book open for her. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” she cooed. I held my breath as she meandered down the lines. And then came my favorite part:“ Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”
Suddenly, ripples of laughter tumbled out from my cracked lips. I was stunned by the irony of the reading, of how much I had needed these words to swaddle me in the warmth of their truth. It was then that I knew that what I needed was the courage of the train, which hurtled fearlessly into new skylines, past old landscapes. I had to have faith that I was following in the direction of the destiny that had been laid out for me like the steel rails. I had a place in the world, regardless of my past, and I would always have my family inspiring me, giving me the energy to chug along, just as they were doing now, far, far away in their dream worlds, yet so close.
Divya Mehrish is a 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist. She is a senior at The Spence School in Manhattan.