by: Rebecca Taylor
Concerned faces and whispering voices surrounded Ashlyn Williams in the hallway of an intensive care unit at Hamilton General Hospital. She stood peering through the window at her boyfriend Jeremiah Hanover. She could see the lines on the machines he was connected to and hear the beeping sound they made. His chest rose and fell with each breath and she kept praying that he would wake up soon and tell the hospital employees that he wanted her beside him. Because Ashlyn wasn’t officially family; she wasn’t allowed to enter his room. Her face was pale and she was shivering, her black sweater pulled close to her. She looked at it and wondered if this would be the night she lost her best friend. Jeremiah’s sense of humour had helped her overcome her shyness and he had chosen to stay with her when her mother didn’t accept him as being part of Ashlyn’s life because his skin was black. Ashlyn’s parents thought she was at her friend Cathy’s studying for a science exam. Cathy was the only one who knew where Ashlyn was, and she hoped it stayed that way.
After hours of standing watch at the window, Ashlyn had to go home, the last place she wanted to be. In the parking lot she was overcome by the quietness of the evening and sat down on a cold wooden bench to cry. She tasted the saltiness of her tears as they fell into her mouth. Their flavour reminded her of the day she and Jeremiah went to the ocean together. It was a memory that would forever be engraved in her mind. Her heart physically ached as she wondered if she would have a chance to make more memories with him. Her hands felt like ice as she walked to her car. She sat behind the wheel for a long time before she turned on the ignition. A whiff of the alcohol hand sanitizer she’d used caught her off guard. She hoped that her parents wouldn’t notice and think she’d been drinking instead of studying like she’d told them.
At home, she parked the car and headed into the house through the garage where her father greeted her.
“How was studying?” he asked.
“I’m ready for the test,” she lied hoping that her face didn’t betray her.
“I saw Jeremiah’s aunt at the grocery store tonight. She told me you were at the hospital.”
“You didn’t tell Mom did you?” asked Ashlyn looking from the cement floor to her father. She twisted her hands in anticipation.
“No, your secret is safe with me, but I’m here if you need me,” he said as he took his daughter in his arms. Ashlyn started to cry, out of fear and relief that she didn’t have to face the nightmare of her boyfriend lying in a hospital bed alone. She trusted her father and hoped that her mother would not find out.
The next day after school, Ashlyn drove back to the hospital and resumed watch outside the window of the ICU.
“How are you, honey?” asked Jeremiah’s mother coming out of his room when her allotted fifteen minutes was up.
“Is he any better today?” she asked.
“He’s still holding his own, but the doctor says his vital signs are improving.”
“I wish I could hold his hand and tell him that I love him,” answered Ashlyn, “I miss him.”
“He knows you love him, and the blanket you brought is on his bed.” Ashlyn nodded. Jeremiah had given her the blanket for her seventeenth birthday. Even though she couldn’t be with him, she wanted him to have a part of her with him. “You make my son so happy, Ashlyn. I’m sorry the hospital rules don’t allow you to be with him. I know he wouldn’t want you to be out here worrying about him.”
“I can’t sit at home knowing that he’s here fighting for his life. When I watch him breathing, I know he’s still with me. I don’t want to think of the alternative.”
“He’s going to get better, it’s just taking time. You’re pale as a ghost, honey, have you been looking after yourself?”
“I’m okay, I just haven’t been sleeping, and I’m tired of lying to my mother about where I am because I love my boyfriend.”
“Is she still having trouble accepting that her white daughter might like a black boy?”
“Yes, when she was growing up, they didn’t go to the same schools, they didn’t interact, she doesn’t understand that times have changed for the better. How come you’re so understanding of our relationship?”
“I just want my son to be happy. I went to a black school, and I always wondered what the white people had that I didn’t. Then, I became a nurse and I saw that white people bleed red just like the black ones. We all feel pain, our hearts have the same beats and we all need to be loved. Jeremiah loves you and because he does, you are part of my life. I’m proud to call you family.”
“Thank you,” answered Ashlyn tears running down her cheeks.
“Go on home and get some sleep; I’ll call you if anything changes. If you get sick, it won’t help my son.”
“Alright, but I’m going to come back tomorrow after school and be here whether he’s awake or not.”
“I know you are, but you’ve been standing here for two hours. There isn’t anything else you can do tonight.”
Ashlyn nodded and left the hospital, glad of Jeremiah’s mother’s love but feeling helpless. When she got home the door hadn’t finished closing before her mother was yelling at her.
“I drove by Cathy’s on my way home from work; your car wasn’t in her driveway.”
“We were out, we had to get some stuff for school,” answered Ashlyn hoping her quick response would end their confrontation.
“Can I see the bills for the stuff you bought?”
“I don’t have them. Cathy got the stuff.”
“Stuff – what stuff would that be? Because Cathy was in her driveway with that nice Thompson boy that lives near the school.”
“Listen, mom, I had something I had to do. Please, just leave it.”
“I will not leave it. I will not tolerate being lied to.”
“Fine, I was at the hospital. Jeremiah’s in intensive care.”
“I thought I told you to find yourself a suitable boyfriend?”
“You cannot tell me who I can and cannot love. I will be with Jeremiah. In three months I will be eighteen and that means I can be with whoever I want wherever I want. You have a choice mom, accept that he is a part of my life like Daddy has, or lose out on finding out what is happening in my life.”
“How dare you lie to me?”
“Yes, I lied, but I’m not sorry that I went to the hospital and stood outside his ICU window and see that he is still breathing. I’ve been standing there for days, mom, watching his chest rise and fall and hearing the sounds of the machines keeping him alive as he recovers from a lung infection. Someday, I’m going to marry him and we’re going to have a family together. We’ve going to teach our children tolerance and love and we’re going to be happy.”
“You deserve better than what he can give you.”
“What’s better than love? That’s what he gives me. Whatever we do to make money to support each other is second to that.”
“You’re not living in the real world, Ashlyn. You’re my only child; I know what’s best for you. We’ll find you the right man to marry.”
“Jeremiah is the right man for me. That’s the end of it.”
“How dare you defy me?”
“Yolande, stop,” said Ashlyn’s father coming into the room. “Our daughter’s in love. She’s happy and she’s scared. She’s old enough to make her own decisions.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” answered Ashlyn giving him a hug.
He was about to answer when Ashlyn’s cell phone rang. She answered it and after a brief conversation hung up.
“He’s awake,” she exclaimed, “I’m going back to the hospital.”
“I’ll take you,” said her father.
“I can go myself.”
“No, Ashlyn, I want to be there for you. You’ve been dealing with this too much on your own.”
“I’ll see you when you get back,” said her mother quietly. Her daughter’s outspokenness at the situation and her excitement at the news had humbled her.
At the hospital, Jeremiah’s mother patted Ashlyn’s shoulder and ushered her into Jeremiah’s room. She sat in the chair beside his bed, tears brimming in her eyes.
“I love you,” she said, her voice shaking as she brushed her fingertips across his cheek.
“Me too,” answered Jeremiah taking her hand in his.
Outside the room, Jeremiah’s mother watched with Ashlyn’s father as their children reunited after a long week. They knew what was under the colour.