When I tell you that I don’t like Katie McMillan, I don’t want you to think that I didn’t like her because she had cancer. I’m a bastard — I’ve admitted this on several occasions to my parents, siblings, priest and therapist — but I’m not heartless. Cancer is a shoddy thing to happen to anybody, and any body; I didn’t like Katie McMillan before her own body began attacking itself.
Katie was a serial participator and active all-rounder, and this was indirectly why I didn’t like her. Directly, it was because she somehow wrangled her way to the captaincy of the school chess team. A team of which I had dedicated my young life. The outgoing captain, Isaac Leary, had spent his year at the top using his gentle demeanour and quiet tone to encourage us to victory. To nudge us in the right direction. Katie was the opposite — she was loud, boisterous and unapologetically passionate. It was her opinion that the team needed a figurehead that intimidated the competition and inspired our own. And, like pawns, most of the team voted for her when the captain vote took place, despite my promise for more chess parties.
This was just another item on her long list of serial participations. The netball team, volleyball team, debating team, cooking team, soccer team, the band, dancing — it was a wonder that she found the time to work a part time job, to complete her homework, to breathe oxygen.
When the diagnosis came, after Katie had felt a growth in her neck, she was as enthusiastic as she’d ever been. I might add that I think she also felt relieved. Now, she had a reason to validate throttling her spare time. And not just any reason. A reason that was spreading through her lymph nodes. A reason that was treatable, but not curable, not yet. As long as it wasn’t curable, and thus confined to the realm of acceptable pain that was defined by treatable, she could continue her busy routine. For activities she couldn’t participate in anymore due to the treatment of her rebellious cells, she took up new ones. Ones at the hospital, of cancer support groups, entertainment for the younger cancer-ridden children, being engaged in online forums, and organising parties for patients whose treatments had come to an end. She did her schoolwork in her bed at the hospital, while she had rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram words of thanks, pictures of progress, drenched in desperate hope.
When she resigned the captaincy of the chess team, I was glad. I did not feel guilty. Even when I became captain, and she sent me a message of congratulations, typed with weakened fingers, I did not feel guilty.
Weeks became months, and just as a year scraped by, Katie seemed to drop off the face of the Earth.
Radio silence, on all social media channels. She stopped turning up to support groups, to any groups. You could forgive me for thinking that she was dead. But no obituary came, there were no funeral organisations being made, and no one was asked to ‘prepare a few words’ to contribute to a eulogy, as if a few words could sum up the magnitude of such a personality.
Her closest friend, Maria Valdez, was bugged at school on the Monday. Everybody asked her why Katie had gone silent. “Has she lost?” we asked.
“Yes,” Maria replied. “Hope.”
We nodded sagely. Hope was a horrible thing to lose. It was not something that might have slipped down the side of the couch.
Only then, it seemed, that guilt began to perpetrate every move I made on the chess board. Every directive I gave to the team on game day. Every instruction I issued to the individual players. Every speech I gave.
The weeks rolled on, and the pit in my stomach refused to budge. Katie maintained her silence, her hope still lost.
One day, my father brought home packages of post-it notes. He told me that he’d snared them cheap, and as the level of business profitability was based primarily off their use of post-it notes, I was not to touch them.
“You don’t touch these,” he said to me.
“Ok,” I said, my head flooding with ideas of mischief generated by the appearance of a mass of post-it notes.
“You don’t use these,” he said.
“Right,” I said.
The next day, at chess practice, I presented the packets of post-it notes to the team. In presenting them, I had touched them, and had broken a promise to my father. This made the next promise, the use of the post-it notes, as fragile as a clay urn.
“Come on,” I said to the team of ten.
“Where are we going?” they asked.
“The hospital,” I said.
When we arrived, we ascended the parking block. I dispatched pairs up to the various levels, searching for Katie McMillan’s car. A blue Honda. Sporty, zippy — perfectly suited for someone like Katie. Herb and Bronwyn found it on level three, right near the lifts. The chess team met around the car, encircling it reverently like the $16,000 car had some sort of religious symbolism emanating from its one tonne frame.
I walked around the circle, handing out a post-it pad to each person, and a felt pen.
It took us half an hour to completely cover the car in post-it notes. At the same time, the urn of my second promise fell under a large gust of wind and broke into a thousand different pieces. But unlike the pranks pulled in the student car park, that were designed to be a nuisance to the driver, the chess team wrote on them messages of support before sticking them on. Like scales, the post-it notes slowly began to cover the blue aluminium, turning it yellow. We did the window, too. Front, sides, back. The rims, even the tires. Every exposed surface of Katie McMillan’s blue Honda covered with messages of support. When the last post-it note ran out, the team left, leaving me to remain standing by the car. As my eyes ran over the paper scales, I pulled the chess piece from my pocket and placed it under the right window-wiper.
It was a Queen.
Smiling, I walked to the lift and jammed my thumb in the button.
Later that day, she broke her radio silence. Katie McMillan had found her hope again. As long as she didn’t lose it removing the hundreds of post-it notes on her car to drive home, then she would be fine.