Preface: This essay was written in 2008 and it remains one of our favorites. We’ve made some changes to it. We keep updating it. It is now more a short story than an essay. Every time we re-read it we are reminded of the truly important things in life. Maybe after reading it, you too will come away a better person because you have had a chance to see the world through the eyes of dying child. This essay / short story is called “A Gift From Maryanne”. We hope you read it, we hope you enjoy it and most of all we hope it touches something inside you. Perhaps by reading “A Gift From Maryanne”, you will look at today differently than you would have. Thank you so much for taking time to read…
A Gift From Maryanne
I don’t recall any shadows in that room on that late autumn morning. A gray, forlorn sky loomed and hovered over everything. There was no hint of the sun and in the dim morning light there were no shadows except for the shadows that you see only with your mind; the shadows of things yet to come.
The air was still and there were no birds singing. There was a strange and melancholy feeling in the air and you could tell it was not going to be a good morning.
Inside the house there was an eerie silence. The sound of labored breathing made me even more aware of how silent that room was. As soon as I entered I felt the morose and prescient feeling of doom. It was the kind of feeling you struggle with and try hard not to feel, but you feel it all the same; it was cloying and stuck to me. There was an awful sadness too – the air was heavy with it. It was a sadness that crawled under your skin and buried itself in your soul, and once it did, you knew it wouldn’t let go; it was the kind of sadness that came to stay.
As usual, a scented candle burned and flickered in a corner; it smelled strangely sweet to me and I didn’t like it. While the scents may have changed from time to time, it didn’t matter. The candle always filled the room with the same weak, sweet odor. But still the hungry smell of death prevailed, and the scent of the candle was pathetically weak and powerless against it.
There were other odors too, of course: the smell of antiseptics, medicines, and sickness that floated in the air and mingled curiously with the sour and sweet scent of the candle. The other smells were grim and meager compared to the morbid smell of darkness and of sad and mournful things. Once you’ve smelled impending death, you will never forget it.
I did not like the candle; I did not like that room. I did not like the way the syrupy gloom clung to me. Yet, there was something in that room that changed my life forever. It was Maryanne – a small, fragile, wonderful child who I barely even had the chance to know.
Maryanne died that morning in that sullen and morose room of odd and uncomfortable smells. She died on that gray and lifeless morning; she died on that November day, so long ago and far away.
Looking back, it seems like only yesterday to me.
I remember it seemed odd to me then, that at the very moment Maryanne had drawn her last breath – big, fluffy, snowflakes began falling from the sky. As I watched them fall through the tears that filled my eyes, I thought how ironic it was that the little girl who so loved beautiful things like snowflakes so much, wasn’t going to watch them dance through the sky anymore.
She had been ill for a very long time. In between her trips to doctors, hospitals, for her treatments, I watched her struggle to be a normal child. Maryanne would ride her bike, play with dolls, and go places with her family. Sometimes she would walk across the street and visit me while I worked outside or sat on the porch reading the paper.
Maryanne always looked right into your eyes when she talked to you. She had the loveliest, biggest, beautiful dark-brown eyes. They were the sweet, innocent, and always trusting eyes of a child. When she talked to you she looked at you with that special look of love and expectation that only a child can give you. It was always fun to talk with her – even when she was fighting for her life. Even when she was so desperately ill and dying, she had a beautiful smile and a child’s glow that always made her a joy to be near. She had a inner peacefulness that I could not understand.
I don’t recall her ever complaining about anything. She was never jealous of other children who were not sick. She used to sit on her porch, during those last painful weeks of her life, and watch the other children ride by on their bicycles or the kids playing ball in the vacant lot next door, and she always had a smile on her face. She seemed to smile a lot in those final days, but everyone knew she was suffering and in great pain.
She was a brave little girl.
Her hospital and doctor visits stopped – there were no treatments, or medicines that could help her anymore. There was nothing anyone could do for her. She was at that terrible stage of her illness where she spent most of her time in the hospital bed that her parents had rented for her.
They put the hospital bed in that room.
On one unusually pleasant November day, she was having one of her “good days”; she left her bed and went outside.
Maryanne came to talk to me. She sat down on the porch steps and told me that she knew she was going to die but she wasn’t afraid. I was startled by her words; I listened to her as she looked up at me with those still-beautiful, brown eye.
She told me soon that she wouldn’t have to be sick anymore and she was going to be with the angels soon and that her mom and dad would be with her again someday – and they would all be together again.
I fought back tears as she continued talking. She said that she wouldn’t have be sick anymore – ever again, and that she wasn’t afraid. She promised that when the time came for her to leave this world, she wasn’t going to cry. “It’s not really such a sad thing because I won’t hurt anymore; I will be with the angels” she said looking at me with those big, brown eyes.
It was so hard for to listen to her and it was even harder not to cry. I fought the tears that were welling up in my eyes as best I could. I couldn’t think of anything to say to Maryanne without breaking down and crying – so I did the only thing I could do, I just listened.
Maryanne told me that the reason it rains is so that we all could appreciate the sunshine a little more when it comes, and that the nighttime brought darkness so that the morning would be all the brighter. She told me that cold winter days only made the spring flowers look happier and more colorful.
Her beautiful brown eyes, looked strangely peaceful as she told me how she often thought about a lot of things – she wondered if the reason people became sick was so that people who were well would know just how lucky they are. She was glad she had the chance to know her mom and dad and told me she was happy that I lived across the street because it was always fun for her to talk to me.
When I asked her why, she said: “because you listen so good”.
I thought about the things she said. I imagine before she got sick I really didn’t listen to her much at all; I only pretended to listen. I was always too busy washing a car, mowing the lawn or doing something else that I thought was more important. Looking back, I think she probably knew I wasn’t really listening to her then. However it was in the past was gone. Things were different now – I was listening to every word she said and my heart was breaking.
Maryanne was so sick I couldn’t ignore her. I didn’t want to and I couldn’t. Her innocent, dark-brown eyes had grown old in the last days of her life. They were still as innocent but they were more ancient eyes – full of pain and wisdom and bereft of hope. They were the eyes of a child, but far wiser than the eyes of any child should ever be.
In those last weeks of her life, in fact, she was much wiser than me. Her experiences, her pain and her struggles had aged her soul; she was a little girl with an ancient soul.
It made me uncomfortable and curious. Her face, thin and pale, had the countenance of an angel; her voice, had a curious measured and peaceful tone. Somewhere in that small, fragile, little girl’s voice, the sound of sickness hid. It made me uneasy, yet it urged me to listen.
She walked into the yard and picked up a big, orange sycamore leaf from the ground. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said, looking up at me as she held the big leaf in her small frail hand. I told her it was very beautiful and that autumn was my very favorite time of the year. “Do you like snow?” she said and for no apparent reason. She was still holding onto that big, orange leaf watching it wave in the soft, autumn breeze. “Sometimes, I do. I really liked snow when I was a boy, but now, most of time, it just gets in my way. I don’t like shoveling it, that’s for sure.” “I don’t think I’ll be here to help you shovel this year” she said, recalling the time the previous winter when she had helped me shovel the steps and walkway. I made her some hot chocolate that day and we drank it outside on my porch and watched the fluffy snowflakes fall. I couldn’t think of any way to answer her, so I kept looking at the leaf in her hand as though I were studying it carefully.
Her hand looked so weak and small.
She handed the leaf to me and said: “You can have it. It’s beautiful. It’s orange. Save it because in the spring when the leaves come back you can look at this leaf and remember what leaves used to look like in the fall.”
I thanked her and gave her a hug. She was so tiny and frail, it hurt even to look at her. She was getting tired and wanted to go home and lie down. “Are you going to come to see me tomorrow?” Maryanne asked. I smiled at here and said, “I sure will, Maryanne”. I gave her as much of a smile as I could manage – but it was a hollow, thin, transparent smile. I’m sure she saw through it.
I took the leaf inside and put it between the pages of an old book and went back outside to finish my work. Tomorrow came and went, and of course I got busy and forgot to visit Maryanne.
Maybe I didn’t forget. Maybe I was putting it off. I don’t really know why I didn’t visit her. I certainly wasn’t too busy to visit a dying child. I honestly don’t know if I forgot or didn’t want to deal with a sick, little girl who was so bravely facing her own death.
Several tomorrows came and went before I finally went across the street to see her.
But, I never saw her big, brown eyes again; I never saw her sweet smile again; I never heard her little voice again.
I’ll never forget her. I still have that leaf she gave me. Today, I opened that book and saw the big, orange leaf right where I put it the day Maryanne gave it to me. I looked at it and remembered that warm, November day. It was a gift from Maryanne. It is just one of the many gifts that she gave me. It is one of many gifts from her that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
I wonder if she is an angel now. I wonder if she’s right here beside me while I write this. They say that when you think of someone, even if they are gone, they will come to you. I wonder if that is so. I like to believe it is. I like to believe that Maryanne is still with us – still bringing her innocent light to this world.
The leaves are green now, but I can remember how the leaves look in the fall thanks to Maryanne, I often stop and consider how short and how very precious our time on Earth is. I know so much more about life is because I knew a dying child. I know that we all die in our own time – but some die far before their time while others live far past theirs.
Thanks to a little girl named Maryanne, who all too briefly touched my life, I can watch a sunrise take away the darkness and appreciate it more than I ever would have and I try to remember that each one is precious; each one is truly a gift from God.
And when it rains I will remember that it rains so we can appreciate the warmth of the sun and the blue of the sky more than we would have; when it rains, I will remember Maryanne.
I appreciate a lot of things more than I would have. I look at life differently than I ever could have. I am a different person now because of a very special gift from a very special little girl who I barely knew.
When I think about Maryanne I smile. I am sure she is an angel now.