In Miah Arnold’s You Owe Me she describes in detail what it’s like to work as a writing teacher in a children’s cancer center. In the very first opening lines, you get a grim sense of what she goes through on a regular basis, “The children I write with die, no matter how much I love them, no matter how creative they are, no matter how many poems they have written or how much they want to live.” That’s a very powerful statement. In that sentence alone, you sense the hope that she had for those kids that they wouldn’t die; that if she tried hard enough maybe they could live. She has a very tactful style because when you’re writing about children that have died, you want to honor their memories by describing their personalities, what they liked to do, and who they were when they were alive; I think that Arnold does just that. She describes the first time she encountered a child’s death. Gio, once feeling “cooped up” became at peace when he received the news of his death. Gio in a big way became immortalized because she says, “Unlike older people, who die scared and uncertain, dying children are endowed with grace…” Soon Arnold realized that Gio’s death was the exception to the rule. Every child had a story and a personality attached to their death. She also describes a huge shift in her beliefs from being agnostic to feeling “stupid” clinging onto the faith that kids will live (at least that’s how I interpreted it). She says, “I was like everybody else, trying to make sense of what is nonsensical.” However she understands the profound change that occurs to a person when they’re in a dying child’s life. I was fine with reading about all of this until she started to describe Khalil. The imagery of his looks as being akin to Johnny Cash; “his lopsided gait and pool-ball eyes,” with the right amount of kindness to soothe the youngest children in the room and the right amount of self-assurance not to be intimidated by the presence of the older children, if he were not meant to live?” made me imagine this sweet young boy who was so beautiful on the inside and out that didn’t make it. The way she describes his personality as “wacky” and her hopes and dreams for this kid becoming president and living past 35 is heart-breaking because as a reader, I know the writer knows that this child is already dead and you catch a glimpse of Arnold’s sensitivity and how much she loves these kids like her own flesh and blood.
I finally broke down when she encounters Umberto’s grandmother and she says “I just stood outside the door and listened to Umberto laughing, because he doesn’t laugh in the hospital room. He never laughs anymore, and I thought I’d never hear him laughing again,” then she was crying and I was crying with her. Arnold has a way of transporting you as a reader into the very moment as if it’s happening right in front of you; like you’re this fly on the wall who is privy to all the gut-wrenching moments she experiences. I literally got up and went outside for some air because my heart was in my throat. The lesson that Arnold took away from that conversation was that Umberto’s grandma made her realize “how important it was for the kids not just to be in the Writers’, but to be in school.” I felt that her job was not just to teach (and I think she realized it too), but to give these dying children moments of normalcy with laughing, making jokes, writing poetry, playing games, etc.
When she talked about Amirah, “a little girl from Egypt who loves the Disney princesses and the color pink, but who is one of the most strange and grave little souls I’ve ever met. I can’t step away from her steady, stoic gaze. And when I imagine my own two-year old daughter in six years I see Amirah’s face,” it was as if she could have been talking about my own daughter Abby. The way she saw her daughter being older and being like Amirah I began to imagine her too. As a mother, I cannot imagine the pain and tragedy of losing your child to cancer; nor do I want to. But Amirah made me think of it and made it real for me. At the end, where Arnold describes Amirah as being covered in scabs all over her face and Arnold had to excuse herself to sob, I sobbed too. “I wasn’t ready for Amirah, for my little Amirah, to begin on a downturn. Not so soon after Khalil’s death. Not ever.” I thought that line was the finality of her death and this essay took the icing on the cake for depressing things we’ve read, but the last few sentences I breathed a sigh of relief when she was informed that Amirah just fell on some steps and skinned her face, “Just like any little girl could.” That last line reminds me that even dying children are like children who aren’t battling cancer; that we shouldn’t think of them as cancer patients first, then as children but as children first and then as cancer patients. It is a subtle difference, but the first implies that the cancer characterizes the child and the second implies that they are children who happen to have cancer; they are still children, first and foremost.