Tuesday 7 February 2012

The Empty Desk #dosomethingyummy - Writing Prompt Week 2

I was stunned at the response to my first article in this series. Thank you to all who read and commented. This week Nickie at Typecast has three new prompts. I have adapted one of them. This is very loosely based on an experience I had at school, names and the situation have been altered somewhat. What happens to a family when a child is diagnosed with cancer?  How do siblings and parents cope? I have altered this to what happens to their classmates.

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Sunbeams dance on the dust particles in the classroom. We all look clean and fresh, new shoes, new uniforms, ready to start another school year. The classroom that has been shut for the summer holidays smells musty.  Grade 3, half of us are still only seven, the other half eight years old already. It seems weird how much everyone has grown over the summer the boys seem so much bigger than me.

As we sit down at our named desks, one is empty. There is a gap where Anna should be. Everyone looks, and goes quiet. Children start to natter, where could she be? Maybe she’s gone home, someone whispers, she’s not from Australia, somewhere else....Holland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, no one seems to remember. Rumours start to circulate; maybe her dad has taken her, has anyone seen her sister?

Our teacher walks in, and very quietly sits at her desk. I have met her before, a kind, gentle teacher. She looks at us all, commanding us to be quiet but without saying a word. Finally she speaks “Good morning children”. We all chant back “Good morning Mrs B”. She reads through the roll call. She doesn’t call Anna's name. Yet her desk has been set up, pens, paper everything where it should be. We all look at one another. 

We can see the teacher seems uncomfortable. She coughs. She gazes out the window at the playground, a eucalyptus tree waving in the breeze, if you concentrate, you can smell its scent through the open window. We are all silent. 

Very slowly and quietly Mrs B speaks. “Children, over summer Anna has not been well. It isn’t easy to explain this to you, but she has leukaemia. Anna is having a treatment called chemotherapy and will be in hospital for a long time”. We are shocked. A boy puts up his hand “will she die?” Mrs B chokes back a tear and says “We don’t know. She might die, this is true, she is in the best place and having treatment we all have to be strong, be positive and support her anyway we can”.

Mrs B gets out lots of paper, and coloured pens, and glitter. We make cards. Butterflies and smiling faces, a few days later we read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The girls all get together and start folding beautiful cranes out of pretty paper that one of the Japanese parents has brought in.

School life goes on. Towards the end of the year, Anna comes back. She looks different. Cancer treatment has taken its toll. She wears hats, beautiful, colourful hats. Sometimes baseball caps. The boys steal them and hide them, making her cry. We are all angry with them. We have endless talks from teachers on bullying and caring for one another. Anna is wrapped up in her friends love. We protect her from the bullies. We report them. They are punished. No one can touch Anna, we love her.

Anna tells us about her treatment, months in isolation. That a lot of the time she is not allowed many toys, or craft items. She is bored. This is long before sophisticated computer games, even video is still somewhat of a novelty. She describes endless days of treatment and doctors. She tells us that of her treatment group, all her friends have died. Anna is the only one left. We are sad, but we are grateful, she is here, she is alive.

We learn, so young, the fragility of human life. The way childhood can be snatched in an instant but a disease so unpredictable, so vile, that we are scared to speak its name. Our own health feels fragile at times, could it be us? Could we get so dreadfully ill?

Slowly but surely as years pass; we don’t talk about it anymore. It’s over, for Anna. Every year though, her mum throws a party, a remission party, the family marked for ever. By cancer.

It’s over thirty years now, Anna is in remission, with children of her own.
Anna  -1 Cancer - 0


  1. Beautiful, heart-wrenching story, I'm welling up. Life is so fragile yet so mighty at the same time. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Wow. What a beautifully written piece, and I love how you closed it.

  3. This is a beautiful piece of writing, and I am so glad that your friend got through this. xx

  4. Funny, I was thinking about her just yesterday, my perspective changes on it now I have a grade three girl of my own.

  5. Hard to read (emotionally not stylistically) but very beautiful piece. I am glad that Anna won her battle.

  6. Very heart warming piece to read - I think that we read about so much death that often people don't want to give money to cancer charities.

  7. What a wonderful post- you have captured such vivid memories. I'm so glad of such a happy ending.

  8. That's the second week in a row you have had me crying over your posts :) Beautifully written and thankyou for sharing such a personal and impactful time in your childhood. #dosomethingyummy