Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 2, 2011

When I became a puzzle piece

Brush with death makes me appreciate life

By Marissa Neeley
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — I've always been a quiet girl and I can't say I've always fit in with the other girls. I was, however, a very good student and a known member of the community. I was "known," but I didn't feel as if I were an important part of something bigger; I was just a number.

A year ago, in January 2010, something was amiss. I hadn't eaten much, hoping less food would ease the knifelike pains in my stomach. My head hurt too, but I guess I wasn't surprised, I'd been feeling like this for more than a month.

I had been avoiding a trip to the doctor's office and was convinced I could tough this one out. Besides doctor visits were pricey, and I could hardly stand asking my parents for inexpensive necessities. My dad, always more nurturing than my mother, took me with empty pockets to the Crystal Lake Clinic in downtown Frankfort.

Four needles later they were able to tell me I had small veins, a low blood count and a lack of iron. On Thursday my dad called and they told him the hospital was probably a better place for me. On Sunday my mom took me to Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital where they pierced me with 10 needles to find that I had lost another 70 percent of my red blood cells.

The doctor spoke to my mother loud enough to hear through the door, so I edged a little closer to hear him better.

"There isn't much we can do. She's dying."

My heart sank, and it sank, until it could sink no more. I have never been so scared in my entire life. I remember lying, petrified, on the hospital bed, hearing the crunchy, plastic sheets and feeling the silent tears escape down my cheeks. The doctor returned, and instead of telling me I was hopeless, like I expected, he told me I could be helped, but since I was only 15, I'd have to be shipped down to the Helen Devos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids.

I was in an ambulance within 20 minutes.

I mostly just thought. I thought about my friends and my family. I thought about working at Momentum and making all the tourists laugh. I thought about Frankfort Beach and how a prettier sunset couldn't be found. I thought about swinging on the beach and feeling invincible.

I wondered what dying would be like. Would I be alone? Would it hurt? Or would I just not wake up in the morning?

It was lonely in the hospital. The nurses all loved me and talked to me, but I missed my friends and family; I even missed the people I didn't like. I became depressed; there was a mountain of homework on the rise that my dad brought me, and a gorgeous snowcoming dress I didn't get to wear because the dance had already passed.

Besides all of this, everything the doctors tried took us back to square one.

The first flowers came from Mr. Stapleton, my wonderful principal, on behalf of my school. The vase, in a cute little box, was filled with stunning purple flowers that I could smell across the room. The smile across my face was inconceivable when the nurse brought in the little gift. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning waking up to a tree full of presents.

Another gift arrived from my basketball team, a group of girls I was terrified to talk to. I was afraid they would be mad at me or think I skipped out on my team so I just didn't say anything. Then Maggie Miller said "Hi" on Facebook. Maggie's always been nice and she assured me my team wasn't mad at me and I was surprised at how much better I felt.

On Feb. 13, I was diagnosed with a treatable, but not yet curable, condition and released.

We pulled into the gravel driveway of my little house and being outside smelled right. Pine trees and clean snow filled the atmosphere, and walking was amazing.

A little later that evening, after taking a minute to breathe in my room, I went to a friend's birthday party. I barely made it through the door when I was swung around in a hug. That Monday I took note of the sun rising over Betsie Bay when I crossed the bridge into Frankfort. The oranges and the pinks brushed across the sky were displayed in a rippled mirror over the lake. I walked through the double doors of my high school and was still taking in the scent when a good friend caught my eye and enveloped me in his arms; this happened repeatedly throughout the day.

I was silly to be afraid of my team and was overjoyed to be sitting on an uncomfortable, bumpy bus to Benzie Central for the season's last game. That week I learned I was cast for a part I hadn't even auditioned for.

Slowly I was falling back into place; I was starting to fit into the puzzle.

My memory of Benzie County isn't being sick, or being scared or eating gross hospital food, it isn't about not fitting, or having a place, because I already had one. My memory of Benzie County is finally realizing that I'm a part of it; a part of something bigger.

Marissa Neeley's essay won third place in the Bruce Catton Historical Essay Contest.