Sep/Oct 1999  •   Fiction

The Sunflower Girl

by Oren Shafir

Nothing, not the reprint of Van Gogh's vibrant yellow sunflowers, not the real flowers on the receptionist's desk, not even the sun shining in the open windows of the exit door, could disguise the fact that this was a hospital. There was that sterile smell, those pale white walls, that somber mood—especially here in the cancer clinic. It wasn't a normal clinic. It was some kind of special clinic. You had to have a referral. Normally, they wouldn't even take breast cancer, but Sam had used one of his clients to pull some strings. He glanced nervously at his watch. He wasn't supposed to have been here at all. He'd been at work, but he couldn't get the stupid conversation he'd had with Jeannie, which had nothing to do with anything, out of his mind. It happened in the middle of the night. She'd come out of bed and found him sitting in their little kitchen.

"Honey, what are you doing?" she asked.

"I was just getting a late-night snack," he said, although up until then he'd just been sitting there at the table.

"I'll have whatever your having," she said sitting at the table, as if she hadn't a care in the world. Then out of the blue she'd said, "I 'd like a house with a garden."


"I'd like a house with a garden," she repeated. "I mean, not right now, but maybe in a year or two."

"I don't know if I want a house," Sam said.

"Why not?"

"Well, you know, the mortgage and everything."

"So, you're making good money now. Is it better to pay rent that just goes into a vacuum?" Jeannie threw her hands in the air.

"Well besides," Sam said. "You know me. I'm like the Laurel and Hardy handyman service. And what do you know about gardens?"

"We can learn. I want to grow corn and peas and red peppers and green peppers and yellow peppers. And daffodils and tulips and sunflowers."

"Sunflowers? Where's this coming from?"

"What do you mean? You don't like sunflowers?"

"Well, yeah but...

"And besides, little kids need a garden to play in."

"What little kids?"

"You always said you wanted kids."

"Well yeah but..." Sam paused. He almost said, I think it requires that we have sex first, but he bit his tongue instead and said, "someday."

"Sam, honey, that someday's gotta come some day. I'm not getting any younger."

"I'm finished," Sam had said throwing half his sandwich in the trash. "I'm going to bed. I gotta get up early tomorrow."

And he'd left. That was it. It wasn't even an argument. But the thing was that throughout the conversation and again when he replayed it in his head all the next morning, Sam kept thinking, How do you know you'll even be alive in two years? The thought kept him riddled with guilt. He kept thinking he should be there with her, but how could he take off work? He had meetings. He had deadlines. He should be there for her now, today at the new clinic. But then, how could they be thinking about houses and the future if he just blew off work? Finally, after juggling some meetings around and using his lunch hour, he found that he could squeeze in a visit to the hospital. He left the number of the new hospital clinic with the receptionist and took off. It did feel good to get outside on such a beautiful day. He could smell the occasional whiff of spring flowers and clean cut grass as he walked through a residential area on his way to the hospital, which was only a few blocks from his work. But then he felt his stomach winding up as he entered the hospital.

Actually, the clinic wasn't as bad as Sam had dreaded. The woman across from him had a scarf around her bald head, but she seemed calm and confident reading a magazine. She might have been waiting to have a tooth pulled. She wore a yellow sleeveless shirt with huge black buttons tucked into a loose-flowing sheer skirt. She had on bright red lipstick and long dangling glass earrings that changed colors depending on how the sun was hitting them. Her shiny red toenails gleamed through sandals with thin leather straps slithering up her ankles and leading ones eyes up long slender legs. It occurred to Sam that her bald head might be mistaken for a fashion statement if she were on the street and not in this clinic.

The elderly couple sitting next to the woman didn't look especially sick either, but they were probably more like what he had expected. They sat huddled closely together, speaking in some kind of European accent - the wife doing most of the speaking. Sam was pretty sure that the man was the patient. He was balding and gray and gaunt. His wife looked about ten years younger, maybe 60 years old. The wife had long yellow hair, and was round-faced, full-figured and stout like a peasant. But her movements were jerky and nervous, and she had a pathetic look of doubtful hope in her eyes.

Then, there was the little girl. You couldn't help but notice the little bald-headed girl. Even here, she stood out. Sam tried not to stare, but with her white, almost luminous skin, huge gray eyes, little bow-shaped red mouth and bald head, she was striking. She wore a pretty dress with an abstract pattern of wild swirling yellow flowers that matched Van Gogh's sunflowers on the wall quite nicely, Sam thought. It made him think about the conversation he'd had with Jeannie the night before about the garden. It also made him think of a book he'd once read by Simon Weisenthal about his experiences in a concentration camp. In the book, Weisenthal described how every day on their way to labor, he and the other concentration camp prisoners had marched by a cemetery where German soldiers were buried. Each grave site had its own sunflower, and Weisenthal longed to have a grave of his own with a tombstone identifying him and a sunflower peering out like a connection between the two worlds. A sunflower is a strange kind of flower Sam thought, and this was a strange looking girl. Sam was just thinking that she looked like some kind of alien, a beautiful alien, when she leaned over to him and actually whispered, "I'm a Martian."

Sam almost gasped. Had she read his mind?

"What?" he asked. "Where's your mommy and daddy?"

"My daddy's working," she said. Then she lowered her voice to a confidential whisper again. "He's not my real daddy, though. I'm really an alien. My real parents live in outer space. They're coming to get me soon, maybe on Saturday."

"Oh," Sam said now somewhat recovered and bemused. "Won't you miss your daddy here on Earth, though?"

"Yes," she confided with genuine sadness, and then he wanted to kick himself hard in the shins for asking an eight or nine-year-old cancer patient if she would miss her daddy when she was gone. But then she was smiling again, "It'll be nice to be with people who look like me though," she said.

The lady with the scarf around her head sitting across from them said, "I'm sure your daddy thinks you're pretty."

"No," said the girl matter-of-factly, "he thinks I'm goofy."

"I'm sure he doesn't think you're goofy," the woman said, taken aback.

"Yes, he does. That's what he calls me—goofy."

"Well then, I guess that makes me goofy, too," the woman said smiling, but sounding somewhat insulted and touching her bald head through the scarf.

"I think you're pretty," the girl said with the straightforward and unmistakable honesty of a child.

"Well, thank you," the woman said. "I think you're just beautiful."

"That's what my daddy thinks, too," she said, "goofy and beautiful."

"Which daddy are we talking about?" Sam couldn't resist clarifying this point, although it earned him a distasteful snort from the woman with the scarf.

"My daddy here on Earth," the girl said.

"Such a beautiful child and with cancer," the middle-aged woman said to her husband, but just loud enough for everyone to hear. "It's ironic."

"No, it isn't," the girl said. "There were 8,700 new cases of children with cancer this year. It's just unlucky," she added wistfully, and Sam wondered if she really understood what ironic meant. Then, she was smiling again and said, "The children's hospital's nice, though. That's where I stay. I'm not a patient here. I just visit the doctor, sometimes. He's very handsome and brilliant. He's helped lots of people recover."

"Is that a fact?" the middle-aged woman said leaning forward, impressed, as if the little girl were the spokesperson for the American Cancer Association.

"Oh, yes. You're lucky to be here. I'm sure he can help you," she said to the couple, but looking right in the woman's eyes as if she knew that the woman needed encouragement more than her husband. The woman sat back and took her husband's arm with a new confidence. He smiled at her generously. Sam glanced at his watch again.

"What are you doing here?" the little girl asked Sam suddenly, as if she could tell he didn't belong.

"I'm here to pick up my wife."

"Hmm, that's too bad," the girl said.

"Yes," Sam said.

"What kind of cancer does she have?"

Sam paused. Could he share this information with strangers? The girl's open face waited patiently for an answer.

"Breast," Sam said finally.

"Oh, good rate of recovery," the girl said. "She was lucky to get in here."

Sam suppressed an involuntary chuckle. "Are you supposed to be walking around the hospital all alone?" he asked.

"I'm not alone."

"What do you mean?" Sam asked. "Where are your parents?"

"There's my daddy," the girl said pointing.

Sam, along with everyone else in the waiting room, looked to where the girl was pointing. But they could only see Jeannie. Jeannie and the doctor shaking hands and smiling. He looked like a TV doctor: young, blond and blue-eyed with straight white teeth and thick straw-colored hair.

"My daddy's the most brilliant cancer doctor in the whole world, and his own daughter has cancer. Now, that's ironic," the girl said pointedly to the middle-aged woman.

"Hi goofy," the doctor said beaming with pride at the little girl. "My daughter," he introduced her to Jeannie. "Isn't she beautiful?"

"Yes, yes she is." Jeannie said. "And that's my husband Sam sitting there. What are you doing here, honey?"

Sam got up and shook the doctor's hand. "I just wanted to meet your new doctor," he said.

"How long have you been here? Don't you have to get back to work?" Jeannie asked as they walked out arm in arm.

"No," he said as they exited into the sun.