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Girl with no hair

by Patricia Karwatowicz

 I’d been moaning and groaning about spending my vacation with Grandpa and my 10-year-old cousin, Bela. To me, a city girl, spending time at a dude ranch in the mountains of North Carolina, without games, TV, DVDs, cell phones, and friends, didn’t sound like fun.

“Nina, it’ll be a chance to look at life in a new way and have some time to think. Give it a shot,” Grandpa encouraged.
I just wanted to stay home. I’d never ridden  a horse before, and I knew Bela had ridden horses three times. She’ll be a pain, I thought.
Our van chugged over rocky roads and through deep canyons until it came to a stop   up the mountain at Clear Creek Guest Ranch. I got out and noticed that some kids were fishing with bamboo poles in a pond.
Grandpa grinned at me. “Think you can do that, Nina?”
“I’ll . . . think about it,” I answered grudgingly.
At the riding stables I saw how big a quarter horse is. Rebel, the horse I got assigned to ride, looked huge. I noticed that Bela lucked out; she got assigned to ride a little white pony named Maude.
 One of the wranglers, Chuck, gave us basic riding instructions, and before you could say “Giddyup,” Grandpa, Bela, and I clippity-clopped out the gate.
Pine-scented air, blue sky, and streams flowing merrily along—it was all pretty cool. Two points for Grandpa. Then, in two shakes of a horse’s tail, my mega-steed sized me up and veered off the trail for a patch of green grass, lurching to a stop that nearly catapulted me over his ears. My not-so-trusty steed was obviously in need of a snack, as he proceeded to gnaw off mouthfuls of grass, ignoring my steering requests.
Wrangler Chuck rode up next to me. “Keep Rebel on the trail with the rest of the horses, pardner. Kick him and show him who’s boss. Think you can?”
“I think I better.” After a tennis-shoe kick, ole Rebel took off at breakneck speed.
Chuck rescued me again and sent me to the head of the class. Riding behind me was a girl a little older than me, wearing a bandana tied around her head. It slipped down, and I saw that she had no hair.
 “Hey!” she called to me. “I’m Lizbeth. Isn’t this a blast? Is this your first ride? It’s not my first ride, and it better not be my last!”
“I’m Nina.” I patted Rebel to keep on his good side—the top side. “Why would it be your last? Aren’t you here for four days?” Before she could answer, Lizbeth rode to the head of the line.
At the cookout I noticed that Lizbeth sat with the Camp Sunshine kids.

Whispered words caught my ears. They were cancer survivors from the nearby cancer treatment center  spending time at the ranch for rest and recreation.
Something to think about

The next morning I joined the Camp Sunshine kids on the big porch. Lizbeth motioned for me to have a seat beside her.
“Hi, Lizbeth . . . I’m a little new at talking to girls with no hair.”
Lizbeth laughed and adjusted her bandana. “Like I’m so different? I run cross-country and play soccer, I read interesting books, I shop, and, oh yeah, I collect monkeys. I just happen to know a lot about hospitals and chemo treatments. Years of it.”
“How do you survive?” I asked. My cheeks felt hot.
“It’s OK,” Lizbeth smiled. “Life can be scary, but it’s still fun.”
“I think it must be totally hard.”
“What I think is that God never gives me more than I can handle! My family and friends are really inspiring and supportive, and that helps a lot. So, how was your first ride? I assume it was your first ride. I think riding a horse is like life.

You push your heels down, gallop fast, feel the wind in your face, and hang on for dear life!”
“Nina!” Bela ran to us. “Everyone’s going tubing this afternoon!” 
“Meet my cousin Bela. Want to ride the rapids with us, Lizbeth?”
“Can’t. Don’t have enough energy for it right now. I take lots of meds for my lymphoma.”
“Oh! My aunt has that. I’m sorry,” Bela said.
“I’m not embarrassed. I’m too busy seeing what God has planned for me—today!”
Before tubing, Bela and I headed to the pond for some fishing. We were both glad we had plastic worms for bait.
“Lizbeth has worries—big-time—yet she smiles and has fun,” I said as I swung my pole and the fake worm plopped onto my foot.
Then Bela said something cool for a little kid. “Our worries are nothing in comparison.”
I didn’t catch anything, but Bela caught a shiny, little fish she called a rainbow trout.
“I’m thinking, Bela, there’s no way I can help you take that squirmy thing off the hook.”
“I know how.” And she did. Little kids never fail to amaze me.
Another thought-provoking day
The next morning everyone rode their horses up the highest trail. Rebel wasn’t hungry for a snack, mainly because I kept showing him who was boss—no more free rein.
Lizbeth trotted past me. “Hey, Nina, they’re having tamales for dinner tonight—my fave!”
Grandpa sidled up next. “How’s the thinking going, Nina?”
“I think—” Rebel took off!  Lizbeth’s words flooded my thinking: “Push your heels down, gallop fast, feel the wind in your face, and hang on for dear life!”
Chuck didn’t have to rescue me. Ole Rebel and I rambled back in line.
After chowing down a fab Mexican dinner that evening, I trudged, bowlegged and stuffed to the gills, down to the fish pond. The sun, all golden and pink, lay close to the horizon. Lizbeth leaned on the corral.
“What’s up?” I called.
“I’m writing some poetry. It helps me savor the moment. Want to hear my latest?”
I nodded yes.
“A Fancy Word, by Lizbeth Pilita:
  It changed my life completely.
  I found out the hard way.
  When the doctors told me,
  I didn’t know what to say.
  It couldn’t be me.
  I asked myself, Will I die?
  All I could do was cry.
  I lost my breath thinking about death.
  But now I see it’s part of me,
 The part of me that makes me me
 No word is fancier
 Than that dark word called cancer.”
“I think . . . that’s amazing, Lizbeth!”
“Thanks. Someday I want to be a poet oncologist and help kids with cancer.”
I leaned on the corral, chewing on a piece of straw cowboy-style, gazing up at the big North Carolina moon. I had a lot to think about.
Patricia Karwatowicz writes from Naperville, Illinois. Lizbeth is in the hospital waiting for a bone marrow transplant.


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