I knew three things for certain the day I met Carley Anderson. I knew that she was blind. I knew that she was sick. And I knew that I wanted to know more.
It was a beautiful California day. The sun was shining on the beach. The sand was covered with blankets and families and people enjoying their day. I was laying on the beach, on the edge of the water. I was collapsed next to my surfboard, exhausted. I had spent the first 4 hours of my day surfing. I had caught every wave I’d tried for. I’d had a perfect day.
I saw her walking through the sand even before she tripped over my foot. She walked confidently even though she was walking with a cane. She walked like she knew exactly where she was going. She walked with her head held high even though she was completely and utterly bald. She wore a black 2 piece swimsuit. It wasn’t slutty like most of the girls who spilled their almost naked bodies over the sand. Her swimsuit only showed an inch of her sunken belly. I thought “Cancer” as soon as I saw her bare head and her thin body.
I saw her coming toward me but I didn’t think to warn her before she stumbled over my foot. She landed on top of me, her legs tangled with mine and her small body pressing mine into the sand.
“Shit, shit, shit. I’m so, so sorry,” She said as she scrambled to pull herself off of me. “I’m blind,” She added unnecessarily.
I laughed. I wasn’t laughing at her exactly, more that I was laughing at the situation. A blind girl just tripped and fell on top of me, at the beach. It sounded like the start of a bad joke or something like that.
“I’m sorry,” She said again. Her face was bright red. I realized how embarrassed she was and what a jerk I was for laughing.
“No, it’s okay. I’m sorry. I should have told you I was here. I saw you coming I just didn’t think to say anything,” I said.
“I follow the sound of the waves to the water,” She said. “Most families make noise so I don’t really crash into them. You were just so quiet. I had no idea you were there.”
I loved this. I loved how she found the water. I loved how brave she was to walk all alone into the ocean with no way to see what was coming. She had crawled off of me and lay in the sand next to me. I found her hand and held onto it. “I’m Justin,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Carley,” She said. “I’m sorry I tripped.”
“I’m sorry my feet are so big and I’m so quiet,” I said.
She laughed. The sound of that was breath taking. Her laugh sucked the air from my entire body. “Carley, can I go swimming with you?” I asked her.
She looked over at me. “You want to swim with me?” She asked. She sounded shocked. “I would love to.” She sat up pulling me with her because I hadn’t let her hand go. “Okay, swim with me,” She said.
I stood up and just because she was so small and delicate looking, and because I’d never done anything like it I swept her up in my arms and carried her into the waves. She was laughing breathlessly from the cold and the shock of being picked up and carried away by a complete stranger. I set her on her feet far enough out that the waves would have come up over her head every time they came in if I hadn’t picked her up each time. We settled in to a rhythm.
I’d set her on her feet when the waves were calm then scoop her up into my arms when they broke around us. She laughed hard and free every time I touched her. After 20 minutes of this she lay on her back and floated in the waves. I stood there mesmerized by how at peace she looked in the water. I didn’t say a word I just watched her breath in and out.
Finally she swam to me and took my hand. “Justin, will you take me back to shore? Help me find my cane?” She asked.
“Of course.” I carried her again. I wrapped her in my oversized beach towel and lay her in the sand.
“Can I take you somewhere?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I need to rest,” She said.
“It’s not a good idea to rest here. You’ll get sunburned. Can I take you to your house? Or to whoever brought you here?”
She shook her head again. “No one brought me, I walked. I can’t walk anymore for a while though. My body can’t. I just need to rest.” Her voice was slowing like she was drugged, or completely exhausted.
“Baby you don’t have to walk anywhere. I’ll carry you. You’re not heavy I promise. Just tell me where.”
Her hand lifted like she wanted to point then dropped back to the sand.
“I’m the smallest beach house. The white one with the huge glass front windows.” Her lips moved slower and slower with each word but I knew where she meant. I passed that little house every time I came to surf. I didn’t say another word. I just picked her up and carried her to my truck. She was asleep by the time I buckled her into my front seat.
I went back for my board and her cane. I drove to her little beach house and found the door unlocked. I carried her out of my truck and lay her in her huge white bed. I should have left then. I should have walked out and hoped I’d see her again someday. But I couldn’t. I had to stay. I lay down next to her in my swim shorts. I draped one arm over her and I fell asleep.
When I woke up a much different girl sat next to me. She smacked my arm, that’s what had woken me in the first place.
“What the hell are you doing in my bed?” She yelled at me.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I, You, you fell asleep on the beach. You told me where you lived and I brought you home. And then I just didn’t want to leave you here alone.” Her pissed off expression fell off of her face as soon as I started rambling out my apology.
“You’re real?” She asked.
“Of course I am. What do you mean?”
She blushed. “I have cancer. Sometimes the medication I take and the tumor itself make me imagine things. But never so real as you. And never for so long.” As she spoke her hand reached out. I took it without thinking.
“So, you have cancer?”
She nodded. “I’m going to die,” She said. She said it simply. She didn’t sound afraid at all. It was just a statement. The ocean is beautiful. I can swim. I’m going to die. It was just a clear fact. I sat there not knowing what to say. Then as the silence got more and more uncomfortable she started laughing.
“You don’t know what to say, right?”
“No. I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s okay. I’m okay with it. I’m going to die. I know that.” “Why are you at the beach then? If you’re going to die?”
She smiled. “My family raised all this money for treatment. I was never going to get better. I did some treatment and it was so awful. I’ve never been so sick. So I took the money and I rented this house for 6 months. I won’t live to the end of the lease. I know that. But I’ll get an entire summer in a beach house. I can walk to the ocean by myself every day. When I get worse my sister will come stay with me until I die. But for now I wanted to do it alone. I’ve never lived alone before and since life is ending soon I wanted that chance.”
She spoke of her life ending so easily. I didn’t even know this girl and I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry for weeks because a girl who thought like she did shouldn’t die. She shouldn’t be sick. She should be swimming and laughing in the ocean. I didn’t say anything. I wrapped my arms around her and I pulled her into my lap. I knew it wasn’t right for a complete stranger to do that but I had to. I had to hold her because she was beautiful. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
She didn’t pull away. She lean back into me. I did something in that moment that could have qualified as insane. I lay back pulling her on top of me and I asked her a question.
“Can I stay with you?”
She laughed. “What?”
“I’ve never been in love before. But I think I fell a little bit in love with you today on the beach. I saw you walking out into the water with no fear at all. You were the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. The way you laughed with me in the waves. The way you fell asleep on the beach. The way you just told me you’re going to die. It’s all incredible. I want to be here. I want to watch you live until the living is over.”
I expected her to yell at me. I expected her to tell me I was insane and to get the hell out of her pretty little beach house. But she didn’t say any of that. She pulled herself closer to me and relaxed more into my body.
“You can stay,” She said. “You can be my partner in this little bit of happiness I get here and now.”
That was how my 75 days with Carley started. I changed my life very quickly. I quit my job at the ocean side cafe (where I served drinks to healthy girls 5 nights a week) that very first day. I called my roommate and I lied to him. I told him I had a family emergency, my mother was sick. I had to skip out on our apartment. He was pissed but it didn’t matter. Everything that wasn’t Carley had stopped mattering that day.
In a matter of about 20 minutes, 2 conversations, I had cut ties with everyone in California who expected anything from me. It was only about her. Carley. It would only be about her until it couldn’t be anymore. She sat in the middle of her bed watching me make phone calls with a very small smile on her face. When I was done with the phone calls I pulled her back into my lap and asked her to talk.
“Tell me your story? I’m meeting you at the end of it. I want to know what came first.”
She told it all to me. She had been blind her entire life. She had gotten cancer when she was a year old. She had been healthy her whole life, until she wasn’t anymore. “I was in school,” She said. “I wanted to be a writer. I worked so hard. I cared so much about my grades. I cared so much about what people thought of me. Then I got sick. The brain tumor came quickly. I changed my life. Stopped my life. My family wanted me to fight it. TO do treatments and get
better. But there was no getting better. I knew that. I tried. I did treatments for 6 months but the tumor wasn’t getting smaller. The cancer wasn’t being hurt by the poison. My body was. So I prayed. I asked God if he wanted me to keep living through that. The night I prayed that prayer I had a dream of the ocean. I don’t know if it was God telling me that was my heaven or not. But I knew it was God telling me I didn’t have to live in that hell anymore. So I quit. I told my doctor I wanted to stop treatment then I told my family. They were all so angry. They probably still are. But I think when your life is ending you get to be selfish. I wanted this. I wanted the ocean.”
She stopped talking then for a moment. She pressed her lips against my chest in a very soft kiss. “I didn’t know it yet, but I wanted you. I wanted to live a life that was just mine for a while. I’m 23 and all my life I had been working so that I could have my own life someday. I’m not getting any more somedays. So I took my own.”
I loved the simplicity of this answer. I also understood why her family was so angry. If this girl had been mine, if I’d been her boyfriend before she got sick I would have been livid if she chose to leave me. If I’d met a mermaid girl in the waves who hadn’t been sick, then watched her get sick, I would have wanted her to fight it too.
After knowing her for a few hours I already knew she’d changed my life forever. After she told me her story I understood some things. I knew there was beauty in the world that I had never seen and I knew I’d treasure every moment I got with her. I promised myself that first day I would make this her love story. I’d give her that someday for as long as she was with me. It’s a very strange feeling when the happiest time of your life is the ending of someone else’s life.
It was an ache that lived in my heart every single moment that I was with her. The ache was lost in the mornings we swam in the ocean. It was lost in her beautiful laugh. As the days I got with her added up, 2 weeks, one month, 2 months, the ache became more real. We fell into a pattern very easily. We would wake with the sunrise. I’d make sure she ate with her pain medication. Then we would spend every moment that she was awake in the ocean.
She played like a child. Completely carefree and happy. I would carry her back to the house when she couldn’t move anymore. The time she got to be awake, happy and truly with me, grew smaller every day. She slept more and took more pills as the days added up. In the last 2 weeks she couldn’t get out of her bed anymore.
We would lay and whisper about God and heaven. She told me she hoped there was an ocean there for her. I had not truly believed in anything before I met her. I had vague ideas of some higher power. But watching the complete faith she had in her God, in the heaven she was going to, changed my view of the world I had known. I wanted a faith like that.
Even when she was in pain she wasn’t angry with her God. She would wrap herself around me while she shook and she would whisper thank you to God for me, for the ocean, for the day. I had never seen that kind of strength. I would watch her pray and she looked at peace. The same way she did that first day in the waves.
I asked her if I should call her family when I knew her time was running out but she said no. She told me she had letters for all of them that I should give them after. The day Carley died, the 75th day I was with her she woke up strong. She sat up in bed and she shook my shoulder. She asked me to go to the water with her. It had been a week and a half since she’d been strong enough to get out of bed.
I didn’t ask her if she was sure, I just picked her up and carried her out into the waves. She swam on her own and she laughed. That night when we were in bed she kissed me. All of the days I was with her she hadn’t kissed me once aside from the small kiss on my chest that first day. This kiss was different. She pressed her lips to mine for just one moment. Her mouth fit mine perfectly. I wondered in that second why I hadn’t kissed her before right then. She pulled away too soon and she started to talk.
“Justin, I’m going to die.”
“I know that,” I said. It had gotten easier to talk about it with her. “No,” She said. “I’m going to die soon. Probably tonight or tomorrow.”
I didn’t argue. I could feel something changing in her as she spoke. “I know,” I said.
She smiled a very sweet smile. “Will you stay with me?’ I wrapped my arms around her as tightly as I could without hurting her.
“Of course I will. I’ll stay until the end.”