A Theory of Whiteness

I had a theory about white walls. White is a sterile color, unfeeling and void of emotion but not meaningless. The hospital walls were strategically colorless because memories don’t stick to something so bland. It is a mechanism to help ease the healing process, to try and alleviate the grief and mourning of the families who had lost so much. It is a futile but understandable technique. No one should be tormented by the memories of the aseptic rooms and hallways that were paced as the results of life altering diagnoses were awaited, the ghastly silence of the waiting room, or the last breath of the person who had once been filled with so much life. But not even the bleached walls can prevent the inevitable pain and vivid memories.

White is intended to be crisp and soothing. Maybe the white walls do help the healing process, their lackluster appearance ensuring that the memories of sickness and pain do not stick so forcefully. Maybe it does bring some peace to those who are awaiting God’s divine hand to release them from their suffering. But for me, I am blinded by the aggressive white walls. My mum thinks I’ve turned into a cynic, but these walls mark my time spent secluded from the world a twenty- one year old should be living in. I don’t find peace here. These walls that surround me only serve as a reminder of what my life has turned into—a medically induced existential crisis. I had been a college student approaching the end of her junior year, and now I was death’s ambassador, representing the fate that was hanging delicately before me. It was a fate my parents tried to ignore, or rather a fate they tried desperately to change through faithful prayer, as if their bartering could save me from the threads of human destiny. We already knew my thread was probably going to be cut before I reached my twenty-second year; the Fates had already decided my destiny.

** *

I was in little pain the first day I met him, a miracle in itself. I had just finished my weekly meeting with my doctor and was waiting in a hard-plastic chair while my parents had their turn. It was the beginning of August, so a soft wave of heat caressed my face every time the automatic doors slid open, infiltrating the cool interior of the hospital. I was absorbed
in the tangle of headphones sitting in my lap when a little boy whizzed through the doors. His small hand was clamped around a wooden plane that he was flying animatedly over his head as he wound his way around the waiting room.

“Ronan, please sit for a couple of minutes while I talk to the lady at the front desk.” A woman with dark hair coiled into a knot at the nape of her neck was pointing at the chair next to mine.

“Mummy, but I need to fly my plane,” the little boy pleaded, rocking up onto his toes.

“Not right now, here take this.” She gently directed him toward the chair and handed him a small bag. “Daddy will take you to the park later to fly your big plane, okay?”

With a pout, he folded his arms across his chest and let the bag fall from the chair. A half dozen books slid across the floor around my feet. I could see the mother turning back towards her son as I leaned down to retrieve the books.

“Ronan.” Her voice was firm but tired.

With a little huff, Ronan jumped off his seat and joined me in picking up the books. His hair was a soft brown color and curled neatly at his neck. I grabbed Amelia Bedelia Hits the Trail and smiled

“I used to read these when I was little,” I told him, gathering the bag and placing the book inside.

“Amelia Bedelia? How old are you?” He glanced up at me as he swept the rest of the books into the bag and returned to his seat.


“Wow,” His brown eyes widened significantly. “You’re four whole hands.”

“Plus one finger.” I laughed, holding up my index finger. “How many hands are you?”

With a quiet nod to himself he counted his fingers out before holding them out towards me proudly. “One hand and one finger. I’m six! Daddy got me a real plane for my birthday. It flies so high I have to be careful it doesn’t touch the sun.”

“Woah, it must fly pretty high. Are you a good pilot?” I leaned back in the chair, resting my head against the wall.

Ronan’s face lit up and he smiled, revealing a gap where his front teeth were supposed to be. “Daddy says I am the bestest pilot he’s ever seen, and he flies all over the world.”

I smiled to myself and let my eyes close as Ronan reached into the bag to grab a book. My body was heavy with exhaustion. There was no chance that I was going to make it the whole twenty-five minute ride home without falling asleep. I let the sounds of the hospital lull me into a half-sleep.

I felt a soft poke on my shoulder and rolled my head towards Ronan.

“Are you sleeping?” He peered up at me innocently with his wide brown eyes.

“No, just resting my eyes.”

“That’s funny my mummy rests her eyes sometimes too, especially when she’s watching the football game with us.” Ronan imitated his mother, closing his eyes and folding his hands across his chest as he leaned back against the chair.

I shifted the hospital bracelet down my arm. “I bet that’s what I looked like, too.”

Ronan’s eyes flickered down to my wrist. “Are you sick? Why do you have that bracelet?”

“I am sick.” I laughed as he grimaced and slid to the far side of his chair. “Not that kind of sick, you won’t catch it. The bracelet just lets the doctors know who I am.”

He looked fairly skeptical but inched a little closer to the center of the seat. “Will I get one? Mummy says I have to get a kitty scan for my head. Have you had a kitty scan?”

I chewed the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. “A CAT scan? I have had one before, it’s not scary I promise. If you’re extra brave they might even give you a lollipop.”

Ronan tipped his head towards me as if about to tell a secret. “A red one?” His voice, though soft, emanated excitement.

“If you ask nicely, I bet they will give you a red one.” I poked his cheek.

“Ronan, honey, come with me please. We’re going to go meet your doctor.” We both looked up at the sound of his mother’s voice. She was standing next to the front desk, a handful of paperwork held to her chest and a hand extended outwards towards her son.

“Okay, Mummy, I’m coming.” He gathered his bag and airplane and slid off the chair, his feet landing with a small slap on the linoleum floor. “It was nice to meet you, Mrs.—”

“I’m not that old,” I teased, handing him the forgotten book. “Its just Elsie. Good luck today, I bet you’ll be brave.”

His little chest puffed out as he marched over to his mother, pausing once to turn around and wave at me. I waved back, and his mother smiled at me.

“Elsie told me that if I’m good the kitt—CAT scan workers will give me a red lollipop.” His excited chatter tapered off as they stepped into the elevator.

** *

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I saw Ronan again. My mum and I had just gotten into an argument about whether or not it was overly optimistic to plan a family vacation to the seaside for the following summer. She said it would be something to look forward to. I told her it would be a waste
of money because the chances were high that I wouldn’t be
in attendance. She had burst into tears. I went for a walk to clear my head, swallowing the egg-sized lump in my throat as
I closed the door to Room 416 behind me. I had a hard time dealing with my parents’ grief, not because I was cold-hearted but because I felt so personally responsible. What they don’t tell you about being terminally ill is the guilt that eats away at your heart as you watch your parents die with you.

I was still blinking back the sting of tears when I reached the hospital’s food court three floors below. Untucking my journal from underneath my arm, I flicked through the worn pages until I reached my bucket list. I didn’t like to
dwell on all the unchecked boxes (like graduating college and skydiving), rather I tried to focus on everything that I had done. I was determined to pick one of the activities off my list to bring back to my mum, offering the chance to do something together as a forlorn apology for what I was putting her through.

“Mummy, look—Mummy! It’s Elsie, my friend who told me all about the red lollipop.”

It was Ronan and his mother. I peeked up from the pag- es of my notebook and gave him a small wave. He was wearing corduroy overalls and a bright red t-shirt that matched the small plane clutched in his left hand. His mother looked more tired than she had the last time I saw them, I felt a pang of recognition in my chest. I knew that look; I had seen it so many times on my parents’ faces when they thought I wasn’t looking.

“Mummy, can I sit with Elsie while you get our lunch?”

“Honey, I’m not sure she wants company.” She looked at me apologetically, her hand moving to Ronan’s shoulder.

I was about to apologize and say I was just on my way out when I caught the utterly dejected look on his face that had replaced his huge smile. “I don’t mind, really! It’s always nice to have someone to talk to.”

His mother introduced herself as Elena Grey and thanked me for humoring her son’s request as Ronan pulled a chair up next to mine and placed his plane on my notebook. His legs swung freely above the ground and his hands were clasped neatly on the tabletop as he waited for our conversation to end.

“I was really brave, and the doctors gave me two lollipops, but there was only one red so I had to have a purple one too,” Ronan stated proudly as his mother left.

“Two? You must have been extra brave if they gave you two.”

“I was.” He nodded his head fiercely. “Mr. Doctor told me that my brain has a bee-nine thing on it and that was why my head hurts so bad all the time.”

I felt my stomach tighten instinctively. “Benign is the nicer kind.”

“I know that, Mr. Doctor told me. What is that?” His attention had quickly turned to my journal.

“It’s a bucket list,” I told him, pulling it out from underneath his plane so that I could show him.

After explaining the premise of a bucket list (and convincing him that it had nothing to do with actual buckets), Ronan decided that he wanted to make one of his own. We ripped a page out of the back of my notebook and got started, me as the scribe and him as the spokesman. He decided it
was of utmost importance that he try each chip flavor in the vending machine, so thus was our first entry. I ended up sitting at the table while Ronan and Elena ate their lunch, the three of us adding to the list until it was rather extensive.

In the months leading up to the surgery to remove Ronan’s benign tumor, we began to pick away at our list. Our visits to the hospital overlapped more often than not, and
on the days that it didn’t, I would occasionally get pictures (both real from Elena and hand drawn from Ronan) of the “real world” bucket list activities Ronan and his parents were doing (i.e. going to a plane showing a couple towns over from their house, an absolute out of body experience for Ronan). But most days we fulfilled the pursuits that could be easily accomplished in the white walled hospital

4. The ultimate slip and slide

Hospital life meant that our supplies were limited and that actual slip and slides were strictly prohibited. So, we made do. The ramp outside of the food court was exceptionally long and slightly steeper than normal, and when the floors were freshly waxed it was slippery as hell. Armed with a fresh supply of hospital socks and the permission of the hospital staff (as it was a rather quiet morning), Ronan and I made our way down to the first floor, Ronan holding his little plane and me holding the socks.

“I bet I’ll be as fast as my plane,” Ronan spoke quickly, the excitement building in his voice as he spoke.

“You might be even faster,” I offered, holding the elevator open as Ronan shuffled out.

“You think so?” He tipped his face up towards me with a smile.

I lifted my eyebrows. “We’ll have to see, right?”

The hallway leading to the food court was empty with the exception of the occasional doctor or nurse. As we approached the ramp I handed Ronan his pair of socks. With a giggle he plopped himself onto the floor, his plane placed gently to his right, and pulled off his sneakers. I watched as he tugged the oversized socks over his feet.

“Hang on a second, bud.” I stopped him as he bounded up to his feet. “The sticky part on the bottom will keep you from sliding. You have to put the tops on the bottom, like this.” I fixed the socks so that the patterned grips faced the ceiling rather than the floor.

“You know everything, Elsie, don’t you?”

“I don’t even know half of everything.” I laughed as I replaced my shoes with socks.

I made him hold my hand as we carefully made out way up to the top of the ramp. At twenty-one it was little more than a ramp, but for Ronan it was an adventure. The slope of the ramp was like a mountain just waiting for him to slide down.

“You promise to be careful?” I asked, looking down at Ronan as we reached the top. “I told your mum that I’d bring you back in tip top shape.”

He nodded eagerly, pulling at my hand until I let go. “I’ll do it just like you showed me upstairs.”

Small hands knotted into fists, he did a little jog before letting the momentum pull him forward. He didn’t move very fast but you would never have known that from the peals
of laughter that bounced off the walls. His happiness was infectious, something that I had learned in the short time that I had known him.

After doing a few slides of my own, I opted into pulling Ronan down the ramp. He held my hands tightly and leaned back so that his body was slightly angled. With my back to the base of the ramp, I maneuvered with a cautious quickness that made him squeal as his feet slipped and slid beneath him. Some of the nurses would smile as they walked past, watching the way his face lit up each time we made the trip. When I stopped to rest my hand gently against the white walls, steadying my uneven breath, he would lean his head against my legs and squeeze my hand in time with my breathing.

One of the many beautiful things about Ronan was that he never asked about my illness. I was his friend, and
as far as he was concerned that was all that mattered. He knew, of course, but it was only in his small gestures that
he acknowledged that I was sick too. There was something relieving about the fact that I didn’t have to talk about it. It wasn’t that I was getting significantly worse because I wasn’t, but I also wasn’t getting any better. I was frozen in a medical standstill whose outcome I already knew the answer to. Each day was gifted to me by the tiny pills that sat by my breakfast each morning, but there was going to come a time where not even they could delay my fate any longer.

7. Beach day

“What about that one?” Ronan’s hand was lifted towards the sky, his index finger indicating the small fluff of clouds that circled ominously close to the sun.

It was late October and our “beach” was the small playground by the parking lot. We were both bundled in warm clothes and swaddled in a thick blanket, at the insistence of both of our parents. My mum and I had brought two beach chairs from home, so it was in those that Ronan and I were reclined on the edge of the grass and mulch.

“A pirate ship,” I told him after observing the cloud for a couple of seconds. “What about that one?”

I watched as his eyes followed my hand. “That one’s Mr. Doctor!”

“You know, you’re right. It does look like him.”

“What is he doing up in the clouds?” Ronan giggled, his pink cheeks rising above the edge of the blanket that was tucked beneath his nose.

I reached over to fix his blanket. “On his lunch break, I would think.”

He sniffled quietly. “I like Mr. Doctor. That one looks like your car.”

“Hey, Ro. We should probably head back inside before the tide comes up and washes us away with the sea,” I stated, noting his runny nose.

“Aw, but Elsie…”

“What would our parents do if we floated out to sea? Huh?” I tickled his side, smiling as his laughter filled the crisp fall air.

1. The Chip-capade

A couple of days after Ronan’s surgery—a very successful surgery, might I add—I came to visit him in his hospital room, laden with an overly packed grocery bag. He smiled as I opened the door. His parents, who were seated next to his bed, looked exhausted but happy. They had made it to the other side so long as the tumor stayed gone, which the doctor said was highly probable. It was a side some families never got to see.

“Elsie!” Ronan clapped his hands together as I pulled a chair up to the bed opposite his parents.

“Look at you, you little mummy!” I joked, referring to the bandages wrapped around his head.

“It’s not even Halloween, but I have the best costume! I bet I’d scare Gigi and Papa, don’t you think, Daddy?”

His father laughed and agreed that he would. At his insistence, I helped him pose for a picture to send to his grandparents who were on their way from New Hampshire to see him.

“I brought you a treat,” I told Ronan after he had settled back against his pillows.

In a quick motion I dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed. A dozen bags of chips scattered across the blankets, slipping down the slope of his legs and onto the mattress.

“Our list!” His eyes were as wide as saucers as moved his legs, the movement sending some of the bags cascading onto the floor.

We spent the better part of an hour trying every chip from the vending machine. Some Ronan liked and some he spat out into his mother’s hand. I had saved his first choice for a special occasion. I stayed with him after the last of the chips had been discarded of, his parents moving downstairs to pick up dinner.

“You’re the bravest person I know, did you know that?”

I told him, my elbows sinking into the mattress as I leaned forward until I was at his level.

His eyes crinkled as he smiled, his cheeks pink with pride. “What’s going to happen to you now that I’m better?” The edge of his bandage slipped over his eyes as he spoke.

“I’ll still be here, promise you won’t forget about me?” I teased as I lifted the bandage away from his face so that I could see his eyes.

“Pinky promise, I’ll come visit every day when I’m better,” he said solemnly, hooking his pinky onto mine.

Ronan didn’t visit every day, not that I imagined he would (even pinky promises are broken sometimes), but his checkups were often enough that I still got to see him. A few months after his surgery his visits became more frequent, and then, one day, I became the visitor. The blurry blob had returned to the CAT scans, but this time it wasn’t the nice kind. Our delicate hope had turned to ash. On the last day I saw him, he was sitting up in his bed, his brown eyes tired but alert. He still smiled when he saw me, though his diagnosis was slowly taking its toll. I left a small piece of my heart behind each time I looked into those beautiful brown eyes.

With my head on his pillow we watched the clouds outside his window, murmuring softly as we picked out our favorite shapes. Even in pain his happiness shone through, though dimmer than it once was. I was staring out into the sky, a heaviness weighing in my chest, when he squeezed my hand.

“Elsie, will you keep my plane safe until I can go home?” Ronan asked me, his voice was soft and his hand cold in mine.

“Of course I will, Ro.” My voice was barely audible, but he must have heard me because he nuzzled his soft curls into my neck and squeezed my hand again.

I was right about the walls, they don’t make you forget. I see him everywhere. He’s in the clouds that float listlessly above my head, the hospital socks on my feet, and the little red plane that sits on my nightstand. But I’ve found that I don’t want to forget because he brought life to the white walls that surround me.