Published on February 20th, 2024 | by Jessica Phillips Lorenz


Still Blasts

People below move quickly, in straight lines, going the way they are going to the places that await them to do the things they have planned to do. Agency and autonomy transform them into moving dots, dedicated to the doing. At least that’s how it seems from up here.

Nine floors above the grid, the pace is slower. People here go up and down in elevators and to and fro down the hallways, past large rectangular windows in the corridors and rooms that face the city. From a window in one room, with chin on chest, the moving dots below can be seen. An East River bridge and some actual sky is also visible, but the smell of the sky is sealed off. Is it hot or cold out there? Not sure. It is not raining. Maybe. The lights in here don’t quite hum because everything is hushed, even the color of the walls.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

For a place that is dedicated to kids, it sure is quiet. Brightly colored murals and curated craft projects have been framed and sanitized to evoke “the child.” Plastic toys are plentiful at-the-ready. But there are no clomping feet or squeaking sneakers on the perfectly polished floors. Instead, there is the muted sound of wheels. Wheels on strollers, wagons, wheelchairs, and gurneys. Keyboards click, and Velcro cuffs rip, and of course, there is the sound of beeping. Endless and varied codes of beeping. One sequence for “line occluded.” Another for “infusion complete.” And yet another for the poetic and foreboding “power supply.” But the noise of kids being bold and joyful and cruel and confused and silly and daring—there is none of that noise. Of course, there are the other kind of kid sounds but I don’t know that you want to know about those. Do you? Because other sounds do come from behind the curtains and the doors.

Let’s not listen to children screaming in pain or begging “Please no. Please stop.” It’s too much for you. If you are up for it, there’s the sound of a man’s voice on the phone in the hallway, seeking medical marijuana for his 8-year-old son with leukemia. There is the sound of the same man saying the words “end stage.”

Nine floors above the grid of moving dots and doers doing, is the short stick pile. Everyone here has drawn the short stick. And every short stick is different. Ours is a pile of swirling timelines, prognoses, and treatment protocols. Everyone we run into at the coffee machine is a short stick pulled out above that grid of moving dots. This is what they are doing, now. And this is maybe who they are now. Is this who I am? I don’t know. But I do know, that if down there is the grid, then up here the sticks have been set up and scattered, thwacked around again and again. We don’t know where we are going to end up. Most of the time we never know what happens to the sticks we run into at the coffee machine.

For instance, I don’t know what happened to the kid whose parents were telling the doctors, “We just want to get her back home.” I think they were from California or the Netherlands, someplace blond and foreign. The younger siblings were playing in the playroom, but “play” isn’t quite the right word for it.

I do know that Jayson died. His dad told me. He told me that even after salvage chemo and transplant there were still “blasts” in Jayson’s blood. Still blasts, that’s exactly what this is. The absence of an explosion. The negative space left by cells that just won’t quit. Overachievers, those cells. Some other kind of dots moving off-grid, maybe.         

Photo by Katie McNabb on Unsplash

I know that Chloe died, too. She and my daughter shared a room for a few days. One afternoon, they were both feeling well enough for a short walk at the same time and so they held hands. We were the two moms walking behind pushing IV poles, “tubies” trailing like veils in some kind of processional. It wasn’t quite affection between the girls as much as purpose. With their little bodies they were saying, “We are first graders. We know what to do in the hallway. We hold our partner’s hand.” Another time we could see Chloe in her hospital bed from the other side of the building, across a bridge hallway. The windows face windows—the grid of moving dots buzzing below. My daughter called her name and waved. Somehow Chloe saw us. She waved back, too. Or I like to think so. She died that spring.

Yesterday, five years later, I accidentally called someone I had often wondered about but never dared to reach out to because what do you say, “Hi. I remember you and I remember your kid—are they still alive?” (I hung up, but they texted back; that kid lived).

We crossed paths with so many short sticks up there, nine floors above the grid, and they either lived or they died.

Every so often, still, we go back. And now, we get to leave again. We take the elevator past the ”child art” and go down the nine floors and back out into the grid. We have things to do. The automatic doors open, like magic, and we step outside. My daughter lifts her chin up to the sky. It smells like rain.

real names have been changed

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About the Author

Jess Phillips Lorenz is a playwright, essayist, and childhood cancer advocate. She has performed several original solo plays throughout New York City including Drawn about her family connection to cartoon icon Betty Boop. Jess’s work has been featured in many publications including ChalkbeatInsiderRomperReal SimpleParents.comMUTHA Magazine (Pushcart nominee), and a theatre festival for babies in Northern Ireland. Most recently, her monologue, Permission, was selected for the upcoming PlayGround Experiment’s Faces of America Monologue Festival #5. In 2023, Jess was awarded a writers’ residency with The Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois and her latest play, BEST PARTY EVER! was granted a workshop production with Piper Theatre’s Playwright Spotlight Series. Jess is a member of Emerging Artists Theatre, Piper Theatre, The American Childhood Cancer Organization, and Momcology. Jess lives in Brooklyn with her children, husband, and pet snail. IG @playpracticenyc

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