I am not quite certain how I found it, but I do remember running through the woods in the cold behind the hospital until I stumbled across a small clearing with an overgrown well. My breath came raw and jagged in the cold air. The well looked new and ancient at once, like a prop from a movie that was deliberately distressed to look old — and then promptly forgotten about. The granite was chilly beneath my hands as I caught my breath and pulled away the overgrown vines, looking for anything to distract me from the nightmare behind me. I almost missed the small sign on the side, faded with age and neglect:
I am a patient wishing well
Time must pass to cast my spell
Speak your heart, and drink my brew
Ten years’ time for a wish to come true
I gripped the paper with my diagnosis, knuckles white and tendons taut with tension. The doctor’s voice rattled inside my head and I closed my eyes, unable to escape the pity in his. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Malcolm. It’s stage four pancreatic lymphoma. I’m afraid it is very advanced.”
I laughed — a sharp, bitter laugh, which did not carry far in these woods. I did not have ten months, let alone ten years. What harm could I do with a wish? Even if it worked, I would never see it come to fruition. I could wish for anything and never have it come true. I would never see another anniversary with my wife, my wonderful Helen. I would be lucky if I lived to see my 35th birthday. The absurdity of wishing for anything besides beatific joy for my loved ones in my absence was striking when I would never even see our ten-year-old twins graduate from high school.
That was it.
I shoved the paper in my coat pocket, ignoring my wife’s voice calling my name in the far distance. The rope was stretchy under my hands and very rough, sharp points making me second-guess my decision to drink questionable water from a mystery well in the middle of woods. But then, so what if it killed me? I was a dead person walking, anyway. I grimaced and used my scarf as a barrier to protect my palms, hauling the wooden bucket up foot by creaking foot. I glanced around, feeling a flush of embarrassment creep up my neck. What would Helen say if she caught me doing this?
I shook my head and used my hand to bring some of the water to my mouth. It tasted of chlorophyll and copper. I made a face and made my wish.
“I wish to see my children graduate from high school.”
The wind swirled leaves around my feet, rattling like the bones I would soon become. I waited a moment to see if something would happen. Feeling inordinately ridiculous, I left the bucket upside-down on the rim of the well so that the next terminal patient who found this place would not be stuck drinking rotten leaf water.
It took nearly ten minutes of stumbling through dense brush to finally locate Helen, who was calling my name from the parking lot. She had the patience of a saint but worried more than she let on. She pulled me into her warmth and held me tightly, guarding me against the wind and cold and terminal cancer, if only for a moment.
“I love you,” she finally whispered. “We’ll do whatever you want.”
I did not want chemo or radiation. I wanted to live while I could. True to her word, we spent the next month traveling with the girls, seeing places we had always wanted to go. The girls ate gelato by the Trevi Fountain, took selfies in front of the Mona Lisa (and pretty much every other place we visited), and gazed up in awe at the aurora borealis as the celestial fires danced over our heads in Iceland.
I died in late spring, fewer than six months after my diagnosis and two days before my birthday. The girls were in school, but Helen was by my side. The cancer had stolen my ability to speak by then, but I could still grip my beloved’s hand and watch her. I was scared, but at least she was with me.
I never did tell her about the wishing well, but I managed a small smile for her at the end.
The only organs from Sophie’s body that the doctors could salvage for transplant were her eyes — technically, her corneas. After some discussion, the girls and I decided that we wanted to meet the recipient. As it turned out, she wanted to meet us, too.
It was eight months after Sophie passed when we finally got to meet Carmen. She brought her wife, Meredith, with her to the diner the girls had picked out. Carmen’s eyes were hazel, whereas Sophie’s had been blue. I suppose it caught me off guard, even though I knew that corneas were clear. I had just hoped, for a moment, to see Sophie’s eyes again.
After a few minutes of initial shyness, we got along like a house on fire. They loved our girls and the girls warmed up to them quickly — especially Carmen. Meredith and Carmen were trying to become parents, too. We talked about the joys and struggles of pregnancy and parenthood. I talked about Sophie for the first time since her death. I told them about her skill with a banjo, her hatred of mint, and her unpublished dissertation on same-sex couples in medieval Europe. They loved that she refused to take off her bathrobe until after noon on Saturdays and that she held the family record for most number of spoons stuck to one’s face (eight). They promised to help carry on the bathrobe tradition.
What we did not know at the time was that Meredith’s body was already killing her; she wouldn’t find the lump tucked up into her armpit for another fourteen months. It would be another two years — surgery, chemo, radiation, remission, relapse, and even more aggressive chemo — before she succumbed. Carmen gave birth to twins four floors down from the ward where Meredith was recovering from pneumonia. Meredith died three months later, only briefly able to hold her babies.
Carmen and I never expected to become more than friends. I just knew how hard it was to raise twins. It was hard enough to manage teenagers; I could hardly imagine doing it without Sophie’s support when they were little. So, I came around to help out. I had all the old supplies, anyway. Her little boy and girl got all the hand-me-downs from my twins. Eventually, I suggested she move into the other half of the duplex I owned; the current tenants were moving out and it would be nice to have her close. It was good to have someone who understood the total, overwhelming grief of losing a spouse to cancer. The day she moved in, she joked that I just wanted to keep Sophie’s eyes where I could see them. There are some things you can only joke about with certain people.
It was about seven years after Sophie’s death and two years after Meredith lost her battle when I finally kissed Carmen. We sat in our shared backyard on a warm summer evening. The three-year-olds rolled around in the grass, eating bugs, while my girls debated which colleges they wanted to attend. Carmen and I relaxed on the back steps leading down from the house, our legs stretched out and a half-drunk bottle of wine between us.
“I’m so happy right now,” I said. I took her hand and gave her a quick smile, half-shy.
“Me, too.” She returned my smile and squeezed my hand, sending a thrill racing up my arm and down into the pit of my stomach. “If you were wondering if this was the moment to finally kiss me, it is.”
I laughed and kissed her, feeling the world melt away for just a moment.
“About time!” one of my girls shouted with a laugh.
Death was nothing like I expected. I thought it would be a great big nothing, that my existence would cease. I did not think there would actually be an afterlife — and I certainly did not expect that I would not fully pass over until all of me was dead. I was shunted to this place where all the organ donors went to wait for the rest of their body to catch up. People around me spoke of the joy of watching their organs’ recipients live full lives — or, at least, longer lives than they would have otherwise had. It helped to pass time in this purgatory. The problem, though, was that I had no eyes. I could not watch, only listen — which seemed an unjust reward for a selfless act.
A voice spoke inside my head at my arrival, full of warmth and the promise of home: Your sight will return when you are whole.
I wept at Meredith’s death. She and Carmen had been so good to my Helen and the girls. Their babies would never know her; at least the girls had spent a decade of their lives with me. It was not long before Meredith joined me. I welcomed her to what I privately called “the holding area,” greeting her as an old friend. She and I passed the years together. With the distance and perspective that death brings, we even cheered on Carmen and Helen’s growing relationship. Commencement came faster than I could have anticipated and I found myself preparing for the day with growing excitement. There was one thing that stuck for me, though.
“I thought I was going to see my girls graduate high school,” I whispered as I listened to Pomp & Circumstance play. I had clung to the hope that I would at least be granted vision for this, after years of emptiness and that one little wish nearly a decade earlier. My vision was as dark as before.
Meredith spoke up from beside me in gentle rebuke.
“Your eyes are there. I’ll be your eyes here.”
She quietly talked me through the ceremony, describing everything from the highly questionable linoleum floor of the auditorium to the huge variety of designs on the kids’ mortarboards. I wept for what felt like eons — at the years lost, the memories missed, and the utmost pride and joy I had in my girls.
Another year and a half passed; the girls were off at college and the babies started kindergarten. Carmen and Helen got married on a clear, bright day in October. The girls came home for the weekend. It was perfect and wonderful and I had nothing but joy for them. They both deserved this happiness. My only regret was that I could not see them. I could be patient, though, with the knowledge that I would eventually regain my vision. I stopped worrying about what I couldn’t see.
I listened to them plan their first holiday season as a married couple, smiling as they made plans for merging old and new traditions. I couldn’t see Carmen trip over the door jamb, but I heard the sickening thud of her head striking the edge of the kitchen counter, wet and final. I heard Helen’s horrified screams, her panicked call to 911, and her franticly begging Carmen not to leave her.
A clear voice rang out inside my head, chilling my body as though it were laid out on a marble slab:
I am the patient wishing well
Ten years gone and truth will tell
Is what you wished for truly wise?
She lost her love; you gain your eyes.
I opened my eyes to Carmen’s face and wept.