Last Wish by Valerie Howard

Thin wisps of smoke wafted into the air, clouding my view of the party guests. Superficial smiles anchored below sad eyes told me what everyone there was thinking. My mother’s tight lips and glistening irises echoed the sentiment.

Eighteen candles. Eighteen little wax sticks so easily snuffed out.

Story of my life.

As the slices of cake made their rounds, coupled with a generous scoop of strawberry ice cream– my favorite– everyone took the obligatory plate. No one waved the dessert away, citing a diet or an over-full stomach. Not this time.

“Miranda, what did you wish for?” My youngest cousin tugged on my loose shirtsleeve and looked up at me with innocent blue eyes.

An awkward silence dampened the room’s mood further. My friends and family studied the brightly colored frosting smeared on their plastic forks. My acquaintances looked away. Someone pretended to cough. They thought they knew the answer. They thought I’d wished for a cure. For more time.

They were wrong.

“Ella, you know she can’t say it out loud or it won’t come true. Remember, that’s how wishes work.” My Aunt Cindy shooed her five-year-old away from my chair, obviously flustered and uncomfortable.

That had been happening a lot lately.

As the low murmur of party noises resumed, I thought back to that day four months ago. It had been the summer before my senior year. I was looking forward to graduation, senior prank day, prom, and receiving that first college acceptance letter.

It was supposed to be a routine checkup.

Then I failed the doctor’s “follow my finger with your eye test” and confessed how many headaches and dizzy spells I’d had over the summer months, even though I had promised myself not to bring them up. I figured they were just a result of my stress over the upcoming SATs.

I was wrong.

Two weeks later, I had further testing at a specialist’s office. When the doctor went over the results with my parents and me in that tiny little room with sailboats painted on the wall, I thought I was going to pass out. Or throw up. Or both.

After the words, “inoperable”, “second opinion”, and “quality of life” echoed off the walls of that cramped room, my entire world shattered into dismal little pieces. I blocked out the rest of the conversation and stared out the narrow window to the beautiful, blue, cloudless sky. I remember wondering why it wasn’t raining. It didn’t seem fair to receive miserable news on such a nice day.

A happy giggle brought my attention back to the party. My birthday party. My last birthday party. I remembered my wish and wondered if it would come true in time. Wondered if it was even possible. Time was a commodity that I was rapidly running out of.

 

***

 

The next afternoon, I sat propped up on the couch, my almost worthless legs tucked neatly under the blanket my grandmother had crocheted for me when she heard the news. It was bright yellow, and she said the color would bring a piece of sunshine to every day. I smiled and smoothed the soft yarn over my jeans before returning to the task at hand: my journal. Mom had brought it home from the store the day after we decided I wouldn’t be returning to school. She knew I’d need something to keep my mind busy when my body couldn’t do much else. I stared down at the three big questions I’d written over the past few weeks. Questions I felt I needed answers to more than I needed air to breathe.

            Is there a God? Is there life after death? How do you get into Heaven?

As a child, I hadn’t given much thought to these weighty matters, but now I was an adult– a rapidly dying adult– and I had a responsibility to figure some things out before the inevitable occurred.

I laid my head back on my pillow and closed my eyes.

            Is there a God? I’d always assumed there was something out there bigger than me, something or Someone who had started all of this. But, I never thought that Someone or something would have much interest in me or my life. Now I hoped I was wrong. I wanted that whatever-it-was Being to see my suffering, to hear my heart wrenching cries at night, to answer my burning questions.

Is there life after death? If there was a God, there was a good chance of some sort of afterlife. I read the third question again. How do you get into Heaven? I’d never put much thought into Heaven before, but now that I was close to traveling there myself– or not– I needed to think more seriously about the topic.

Where could I find the answers I craved? I’d tried reading the Bible last week online, but the book was so lengthy and ancient-sounding, I couldn’t muddle my way through much of it. If only someone could help me make some headway. I needed some peace of mind, and fast.

My cell phone vibrated at my side. I grabbed it and saw I had a text. Maybe Brittany or Kelsey, asking how I was holding up. I didn’t get many calls or visits anymore. I guess being this close to death wasn’t exactly popular.

My eyes flitted over the screen. The message was from Austin Miller, a friend in my class who had always invited me to youth group. He had texted and called off and on throughout my diagnosis asking how he could pray for me. At first, I asked him to pray for a cure, or pray that I’d been misdiagnosed, even though I doubted prayer was the answer to my problems. Lately, I’d just been asking him to pray for strength for me and my parents, hoping that if there was a God, Austin would be able to bend His ear.

I squinted at the tiny text bubble.

Hi. Been praying for you every day. Do you need anything? A visit? A call? A puppy?

The corner of my mouth tugged upward. About to decline his offers since he’d just come over for the party, I stopped myself. What could be the harm in another visit? Sure, I hadn’t bathed yet, and my hair most likely resembled a bird’s nest, but maybe he could help me with my quest for answers. I called to Mom who was cleaning the bathroom. “Mom? Can Austin come over for a visit today?”

She popped her head into the hallway. “Of course he can, Honey.” She wiped her forehead. “Anyone you want to visit can come over any time, you know that.”

“Thanks, Mom.” I brought the phone close to my face and texted what I hoped was, I would love a visit. Have some big questions for you, so bring your Preacher’s Kid self right over here.

Double vision could be such a pain.

My phone buzzed again.

            Be right there.

I dropped the phone by my side again and asked Mom if she could bring me my hairbrush. As I tried to untangle my dirty blonde curls, I thought of Austin Miller. Taller than me by about six inches, he towered over most of the boys in our class as well. Although he was muscular, fit, and athletic, he never fit the jock stereotype. He was smart, funny, kind to everyone, and often gave of his free time to volunteer at the soup kitchen in the city center. A lot of girls I knew had tried to attract his attention, but he was notoriously picky in that area. I wondered what kind of girl he was looking for if the hundreds he’d met at school hadn’t yet piqued his interest.

When a knock sounded at the door, I stashed my brush behind the pillow propping my head up. I smiled and waved awkwardly as Mom let Austin in the door and pulled a kitchen chair into the living room so he could sit by the couch. After he’d declined the standard drink offer from my mother and she had returned to her household chores elsewhere, Austin leaned his elbows on his knees and inhaled.

“So, you have questions?”

I laughed. “Not much for small talk, huh?”

“Nope. My good friend has questions, and I’m here to help her find the answers. Lay ’em on me. Number one?” He lifted his eyebrows and grinned a lopsided grin as his chocolatey eyes bored into mine. A girl could get used to such undivided attention.

“Okay, okay, lemme think. I guess my first question is about God. I think I believe He exists, but what does He want with us? With me, specifically?”

Austin leaned back in his seat and crossed one leg over the other. “Wow, great question. Starting right in with the heavy stuff. I love it.” He threaded his fingers together and rested the back of his head in the palms of his hands. “It won’t surprise you that the place I find answers about God is the Bible. I mean, who cares what other people think about God, they could be totally off base. I want to see what He says for Himself.”

He paused. It seemed logical to me. I nodded to assure him he was making sense.

“And the Bible says that originally, God made man– Adam and Eve– to live in a perfect world and have fellowship with him. But, then they both messed it up pretty bad for themselves and everyone else when they rebelled against Him. They brought sin into the world, and that’s why God cursed everything. Why we have death and disease.” He pointed at me with his chin as if to indicate my condition.

I nodded again for him to continue.

“But, God wants all of us who have sinned to be forgiven and be able to have fellowship with Him again, so He sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross and take the punishment for our sins on Himself.”

Putting my hand up to stop him, I sighed. “I’ve heard all that before, but it still doesn’t make sense to me. How can a guy dying 2,000 years ago have anything to do with me today? How could Jesus have anything to do with me?”

Austin nodded. “Another good question. Jesus was man and God, and He didn’t have any sin transferred to him genetically since He was birthed by a virgin, so He was the only one who qualified to make a sacrifice for everyone. God the Father poured out His wrath for your sins and mine on Jesus so He could pay for them instead of us. Then Jesus rose from the dead three days later to further prove He was God.”

I shrugged. “I guess that makes sense.”

“So, to answer your original question, that’s what God wants from you. He wants you to turn away from your sins and trust in Jesus’ sacrifice so you can have fellowship with Him in Heaven forever.” He leaned forward again. “I know it’s not easy to just believe something without seeing any evidence, but there are multiple books and thousands of blogs and websites that are dedicated to showing the historical accuracy of everything I just told you. It’s not something you have to believe blindly, that wouldn’t be fair. God wouldn’t ask that of anyone. The whole account is in the Bible too, especially in the first books of the New Testament, if you don’t want to take my word for it.”

Seeing the intensity in Austin’s gaze made me realize how seriously he took this religion. I knew he was a pastor’s kid, but I had never seen that fire in his eyes before. I wished I could believe in something as firmly as he did. I was sure he was sincere in what he was saying, I just didn’t know if he was sincerely mistaken.

“It’s an interesting story, Austin, but I’m not ready to convert or anything. I’d like to do some research, skim some of those blogs and books you mentioned.” I averted my gaze, hoping he wouldn’t see the deep doubt etched into my features.

“Of course. I can bring some materials over tomorrow and I’ll write down a list of websites for you to browse while I’m in class. In fact,” he swung his face closer to mine, “if you’d like, I can come by every day after school and help you sort through all of this. I know it’s a lot to take in at once, but I know you’ll want to settle on some answers as soon as possible.” He bit his lower lip, no doubt wondering if he should have alluded to my impending doom. I didn’t mind, though. He was right. I had a burning desire to know the truth, whatever it may end up being. The sooner, the better.

“That would be amazing, Austin, if it wouldn’t be too much for you to take on. I know you must have better things to do than hang out with a sick girl.”

He waved my concern away with a flick of his wrist. “Miranda, this is important to you, and it’s important to me. Besides,” he winked and tapped his palm on my blanketed knee, “I’d like to be a pastor someday like my dad, but my parents can’t afford to send me to Seminary any time soon. This will be the next best thing– real life practice. You’d be the one helping me out. And I couldn’t ask for better company.” He gave my knee a little squeeze, and I couldn’t help but grin.

Austin texted me a list of websites so I could do some research between his visits and said he’d see me the next day so I could grill him some more. “Nothing’s off limits, okay? Ask me anything, and I’ll help you figure it out. We’re in this together. I got your back. Understand?”

I managed a wavering smile even though a tear was threatening to spill out of the corner of my eye. “Thanks, Austin,” I whispered. He stood and gave me a clumsy stooping-down hug before he left.

After the front door clicked shut, I knew. I knew how my birthday wish would come true.

 

***

 

True to his word, Austin came over every day after school, and every evening on the weekends for two full weeks. I asked him every question I could think of. I challenged every belief he held dear. I grilled him like a witness on the stand, trying to unlock the mysterious key to his unwavering faith.

Finally, one night long after he’d left and I’d been tucked into my bed, everything became crystal clear.

“It’s not a blind faith, but it is faith. I either have to take it or leave it. Believe what God says or disbelieve. It’s that simple,” I whispered into the darkness.

I’d done my research, I’d proven to myself that it wasn’t silly to believe that there was a God, or that the Bible really was written by Him through men He’d chosen, or that Jesus really could have been divine and alive again. Now, all it came down to was this: Did I believe it? Did I believe I was really a sinner who needed God’s forgiveness? Well, I knew I wasn’t perfect. I’d disobeyed my parents a lot as a child. And I’d pretty much ignored God for 18 years until I was slapped in the face with my diagnosis. If that didn’t qualify as needing forgiveness, I didn’t know what did. Did I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection could really save me and secure me a place in Heaven when the time came? I didn’t see why I shouldn’t believe it. If God said He’d accept Jesus’ sacrifice as payment for my sins, who was I to disagree?

Not being able to think of any more objections or questions to draw my decision out further, I nodded to my ceiling.

It was time.

I closed my eyes. “God?” I squeaked out. “Dear God, I believe. I believe Jesus died for me. I believe I need Him because I’ve sinned against You. Please forgive me and let me come to Heaven when I die.” I cleared my throat and suppressed a sob. “Which, You know, will be pretty soon. I’m sorry it took so long and something so drastic to get my attention. Thank you for sending Austin to help. Thank You for his friendship. Please help my parents believe someday soon too so I can see them again. Well, umm, goodnight.”

I opened my eyes and took a trembling breath. Nothing in the room looked different. My overstuffed chair still sat in the corner with dirty clothes draped on both arms, my laptop’s power light still blinked twice every five seconds, and my journal still lay on the floor where I’d dropped it earlier. But something was different. Something inside me was different. I felt different. I felt lighter, like a burden that I’d been carrying around for my entire life had suddenly rolled off my shoulders. I’d found the answers to my questions. I was right with God now. I took a cleansing breath, closed my eyes, and fell asleep with complete peace flooding my soul.

 

***

 

“Miranda, I’m so happy for you!” Austin grabbed my left hand in both of his and brought it to his chest. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. I’d love to see him this happy every day. He returned my hand back to my side and I shivered in the absence of his touch.

“I guess this means you don’t have to drag yourself in my door every afternoon anymore. You’re free from my pestering. My questions have been answered.” I bit my lip. What would the days look like without Austin’s visits? I’d gotten used to having him by my side. Inwardly, I chided myself for caring so much. I didn’t need to get too attached to anyone at this point. It wasn’t fair to him, and it wasn’t going to make things easier for me, either.

“Not so fast, little girl.” He shook a finger at me. “I’m not planning on dropping you like a hot potato. Now more than ever we’ll have something to talk about. You’re not going to get rid of me that easily.” He tapped me on the nose with his extended finger.

My heart skipped a beat and I released a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “Who are you calling little? I just turned 18.”

“Ahh, yes, but I’m 19, remember?” He playfully nudged my shoulder with his fist. “So I’m allowed to call you little.” His brown eyes sparkled with amusement. A girl could get lost in those eyes.

I realized I was staring and began to blush. Goodness, what had gotten into me? I couldn’t think of him as anything more than a good friend. Time wouldn’t allow for anything more than that. I needed to stay focused on that thought and not let his good looks distract me.

“So, what do you want to talk about?” Austin looked even more amused at my discomfort. “Heaven? Angels? Prophecies? Prayer? The end of the world? Nothing’s off limits.”

I cocked my head and thought for a moment. “I guess Heaven,” I said simply. “Since . . . you know.”

He rubbed his palm over his cheek where a bit of a scratchy beard was starting to form. “All right then, Heaven it is.”

 

***

Austin only missed two days of visiting for the next two weeks. Once was to help an elderly couple from his church fix a few shingles on their roof. The other was because he’d previously committed to help at a youth group event after school.

Even though my health was declining rapidly, and I looked and felt more zombie than a human being most of the time, he never made me feel self-conscious about what my illness was doing to my body. He never hesitated to take my frail hand if I needed comfort, or look into my blurry eyes to emphasize a point. He never treated me like I was less than human just because I was sick. I appreciated that about him, and I told him so.

“Thank you,” I said weakly. “Thank you for seeing the me that’s trapped inside.”

“You are not your illness, Miranda.” He swiped a strand of hair out of my face. “You are inside this cursed shell, and soon enough you will be given a new glorious body that will match the real you. I never thought it possible that anyone could handle such a burden with as much grace as you have shown so far. You’ve taught me so much about trusting God with whatever He gives you, and here I thought I was supposed to be helping you.” Austin laughed quietly, then leaned over and brushed a kiss on my forehead before I knew what was happening. It was so subtle, I almost couldn’t feel anything but his warm breath on my skin. He sat back in his chair and lowered his eyes. “Sorry, I–”

“Austin, don’t apologize. If things were different–”

“Yeah, I know.”

But things weren’t different.

After a few moments of silence, I decided to change the subject.

“I have something for you.”

He gave me his signature grin. “You do?”

“Yes, but you have to make a few promises first.” I clutched the envelope hidden under my yellow blanket.

“Fine, I see how it is. What do I have to promise?”
“Number one, promise that you’ll wait to open it until after I’m gone.”

Something undecipherable shot across Austin’s eyes. “What else?”

“Number two, promise that no matter what, you’ll accept.”

“Accept what?”

“You’ll see.”

Austin rubbed his chin and looked down at me, probably trying to gauge how seriously he was supposed to take these promises. I tried to assure him with my stern expression that I wasn’t playing around. “Alright then, I promise.”

“In that case, here.” I handed him the crisp white envelope, knowing he’d be true to his word. I didn’t need the stress of worrying that he’d open it before it was time. He took the paper with a curious expression, but didn’t ask any questions. I sighed and worked a kink from my neck.

Last mission accomplished. Nothing stood in my way.

I was ready.

 

***

 

Austin hung up the phone with unsteady hands and reminded himself to breathe. The call had been expected eventually, yes, but no amount of preparation could have prevented the ache that settled into his heart like a thick coat of icy cold snow. After standing in the kitchen for a full five minutes, waiting for the shock to wear off, he went into his bedroom, shut the door, and reached on top of his dresser for the envelope Miranda had handed him two days ago. The outside was marked simply with his first name. He tore through the sealed flap and read the short note written in wobbly penmanship.

 

Dear Austin,

            A few days after my diagnosis, my parents agreed to let me donate my college fund to a worthy cause. I’ve decided that worthy cause is you. I want you to go to Seminary and study to be a pastor as soon as you can. I know you might not accept this if I were still alive, so in a way, I’m glad you can’t argue with me. I expect to be meeting lots of people in Heaven that you’ve taught about Jesus, so don’t let me down, you hear?

            At my birthday party, I blew out my candles and made a wish. Everyone probably thought I wished for a cure to my ailments, or maybe for a longer life. What I really wished for was this: I wished for my death to have a purpose. I didn’t want to die in vain. If I had to die younger than most, I wanted it to count for something.

            Funny thing is, because of God’s grace and your selflessness with your time, I’ve been granted both a cure and eternal life in paradise. When you go to Seminary, I will have a purpose assigned to my terminal diagnosis. If my death helps you minister to more people and teach them about the love of Jesus, then it was worth it, I will consider my wish granted.

            I can’t think of anything I’d desire more at this moment than for you to use my memory as a springboard for a lifetime of sharing the good news about Jesus with others.

            Thank you the laughs, the discussions, and the support until the very end.

            Thank you for everything.

            Love,

            Miranda

 

Austin lowered himself onto his bed, tears trickling down both of his cheeks. He wiped them away, then nodded with determination. He’d do everything in his power to see that her request came to pass. No matter what it took, he’d see to it that her death was not in vain. He would go to Seminary and study hard. He’d put his heart and soul into his future ministry in her honor.

Austin placed the letter back in the envelope and stood up to wash his face.

He’d see that her last wish came true.

 

 

This story is copyrighted by the author. Shared here by permission.