We walked into my church and hoards of men and women occupied the seats, talking in hushed tones to the people around them. My dad and I took a seat near the back and waited until Pastor Rick started speaking. Even he struggled to get out what he wanted to say, although he was usually composed when conveying bad news. This news was different though, it was worse. Then he directed us to a video that had just started playing, and there she was.
Two years previously, I met Marly at a youth function at church. My parents were leading the lesson that week, and after the lesson we traditionally had the snack. No group of teenagers could go more than two hours without eating, at least as far as I knew. We sat down to eat, my parents always brought powdered donuts and water, and I noticed Marly’s food rolling around in her mouth, some crumbling out onto the table and her plate. Why was she eating like that? I was disgusted, and it became apparent in my face. We were fifteen, and this girl was chewing with her mouth just gaping open so everyone could see the powdered donuts being crunched and mixed with saliva and then swallowed down. I turned away and grimaced at my mom and dad. They returned my grimace with a distraught look.
After our snack, we went to play hide and seek in the church, a favorite pastime of ours because the church was so large and had so many rooms and hiding spots. Amanda was it, and as she counted to one hundred I went off to hide with Zoe. We snuck into a room that we knew we weren’t allowed in and hid under a table. Once we were settled, I turned to Zoe, confidentially whispering, “Is there something the matter with Marly? Did you notice how she eats?”
I expected for Zoe to also remark on Marly’s strange eating. I thought she’d join in and we’d banter about how disgusting it was until we waited to be found. Instead, Zoe met my eyes with the same distraught look that my parents had given me previously, and at this point I was confused. Zoe looked down at the floor, and then at me and said, “Marly has a brain tumor.”
I felt terrible. I thought back to our snack and knew how disgusted I was with her eating was completely given away by the look on my face. Had Marly noticed? She definitely had. She had limited power to control how her mouth moved and I judged her for it.
Yet my lousy facial expressions and actions didn’t stop there. We went to Impact a few months later, a weekend long event where teenagers from churches go to sing worship songs and do fun activities, and still I could not look at Marly like she was a normal human being. Instead, I acted as if she was an alien, and I completely avoided her. Her talking was garbled, so I disliked talking to her. Her eating was uncontrolled, and it was still difficult for me not to wear the same look of disgust on my face. I didn’t even want to sleep in the same bed as her.
Months passed, and Marly gradually stopped coming to youth. I later found out from Zoe that her condition had gotten worse. As time passed, I forgot about Marly’s once frequent presence around the snack table.
Until the last Sunday in January, when Pastor Rick stood at the podium in front of the church and announced that on the previous Tuesday Marly had passed away. A video memorial was to be held that night, he said into the microphone, his voice quavering. My dad looked at me and told me he’d take me that night.
The video documenting Marly’s last few months of life was made by a team of Penn State researchers who followed children’s lives through and after their time at Hershey Medical Center. This particular video featured interviews from her mom and her dad. Also present in the video was Marly.
Marly’s dad spoke first, explaining the breakdown of her disease. The initial fear, the progression of the disease, and then the acceptance of what were to come. As he spoke, I broke down. Silently sobbing, my actions toward Marly flooded back into memory. Our first encounter, the knowledge of her disease, and then how I continued to avoid her. I made thoughtless, heartless actions, yet nevertheless the actions were made and could never be taken back.
Then Marly was on the screen, completely unrecognizable. Her head was larger and covered by only a peach fuzz of hair, her eyes could barely open, and she was completely incapable of moving. Her mother stroked her hair and disclosed to the camera how she was coping with Marly’s inevitable passing away. When Marly was in incredible pain one day, she looked at her mom in the bathroom and said, “It’s okay mom. I’m ready whenever God’s ready to take me.” Mrs. Watson found comfort in the fact that she knew where Marly was going, and she’d soon see her again.
A few months ago, I was at my first THON committee meeting with my OPP group, and our captain wanted to know why we decided to participate in THON. People started to raise their hands and share their stories; heart-wrenching stories that made the whole committee choke up. I decided not to share mine because although it happened three years ago, I still felt guilty.
My memoir is about a girl who I avoided until it was too late; it involves regret, and chances lost. Now Marly can’t ever forgive me, nor should she. It’s even hard for me to forgive myself. Although the pain is still raw, and it’s hard to view my time with Marly as a learning experience, I have gained more compassion for sick people because of Marly. She taught me not to fear illness, and instead to give my time to those who are ill so that in a small way I can in ease their discomfort and troubles. The exact opposite of what I did for Marly.