The Olive Branch


Author: Paige Griffin – First Place Junior Division 2022

Nothing hurts more than realizing your child could be gone within months. They could be taken from you for good, in a way so unjustifiable. And you know there’s hardly anything you can do.

My daughter Grace was diagnosed with leukemia about a year ago. She was only three. She didn’t understand as I broke down there in the hospital, and—like the caring toddler she is—she squatted next to me and asked continuously, “What’s wrong, mama?”

The drive home was silent, but I could tell Grace was beginning to get anxious. She occasionally would lift her head and look at the back of my seat expectantly. I tried to focus on the road before me, but it was a struggle.

When we arrived home, I mustered up the courage to try to explain carefully what was going on inside of her, taking small breaks to swallow the growing lump in my throat. “It’s called cancer,” I choked, “but it’s nothing to be afraid of. We’ll get through it.”

The little girl looked at me. “Is that what makes me feel sick?”

I nodded. “But we’ll get you to treatment and they’ll make you all better. But if you start feeling sick, you have to let me know, okay, Honey?”

And she did a good job at it, too. Sometimes it would be unexpected waves, and others, it would slowly start.

I feel I’ve failed as a parent. I promised her she would be okay, but I wasn’t exactly sure myself.

I looked out the window above the kitchen sink, scrubbing a plate with a sudsy washcloth. My daughter, now four, was looking at a picture book under the olive tree in our yard– her favorite place to be. My husband sat next to her, pointing to the pages with a smile. I could hear their voices faintly.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“A kitty!” Grace gasped.

“It’s a big kitty; a tiger.”

“A tiger?”

“A tiger.”

I smiled feebly. It wasn’t fair that she had to deal with this disease. Kids and other adults would often look, or stare at her oddly, since we had to shave her head, until either she or I looked at them.

If I could, I would have it be me, rather than her.

I looked at the clock. It was almost three, the time Grace had to go in for her chemotherapy. I quickly dried off the dish in my hand, slipped my shoes on, and went outside.

My husband looked up, then looked back at our child and stood up. “Come on, Gracie.”

Grace stood up and trotted to me.

“You ready to go?” I asked.

She nodded and grabbed my hand as we headed towards the car. I opened the door and helped her in, buckling her into the seat and circling to the driver seat. The car rumbled as the key plunged and twisted in the slot, and we took off to the hospital.

A few minutes passed by in silence until Grace began to fidget with her fingers. “I don’t like going.”

I looked at her in the mirror sympathetically. “I know, Sweetie, but it’ll all be worth it in the end.”

“But what if it doesn’t work?” She said exactly what I had been thinking.

“It will,” I responded dryly, and hopefully.

She didn’t ask any more questions or say anything else. She stared blankly out the window at passing cars and children playing outside of their houses. I blinked threatening tears away and looked up to stop them from spilling.


I didn’t get it. Didn’t those kids get sick, and tired sometimes too? Why was I special? I couldn’t help but feel I was the one at fault for this, but I couldn’t remember anything I did or said to deserve this.

I caught a glimpse of Mama in the seat diagonally from me. She was crying again. She did it a lot, and I never understood why. I once overheard her talking to Papa about how she couldn’t bear the thought of losing me. I only giggled; it’s not like I’d go anywhere. I always imagined how nice everything would be once I finished my chemo– whatever. Mama would be happy, Papa would be happy—we’d all be happy and wouldn’t have to listen to Mama cry all the time.

I think she’s sad because of me. Is it because she hates the hospital like I do? Is she embarrassed? Because of me? I wouldn’t think so. Mama tells me she loves me every chance she gets, and she or Papa have to stay with me at all times.

Life is just really confusing.

I looked at my arm, spotting a new bruise near my wrist.

Mama looked at me in the mirror. “Is that a new bruise?” she sniffed.

I nodded. Where did this thing come from? I normally would get the purple splotches if that part of my body got hit real hard, but sometimes they’d randomly show. Same thing with bumps.

“Okay, well, we’re almost at the hospital, so I’ll let your doctor know.”

I don’t know why bruises are such a big deal. I’ve seen everyone with at least one, but they’re not rushed to some clinic.

A sudden wave of exhaustion flew over me, and my head started to droop sleepily until I snapped back up. Eventually, I let my eyes close, and I drifted off to sleep.

Mama woke me up, what felt like, a few minutes later. She unbuckled me from my seat and lifted me into her arms, propping me up so I was facing behind her. I twisted to face the other way, staring at the looming building that held a large blue cross above the doors.

As we entered, I noticed not as many people were there. Normally there were, like, a thousand humans buzzing about. But today there just wasn’t as much. It seemed a bit empty.

Mama placed me gently on the floor next to her and gripped my hand, holding me there so I wouldn’t wander. I let out a huff of annoyance and looked around. I saw a couple people sitting in chairs, staring at phones or at the ground, waiting to be told to follow a doctor into one of the scary rooms. One of the older boys looked at me and, with a slight smile, lifted his hand and waved. I only stared back, then huddled closer to Mama nervously.

After she was done talking to someone that hid from me behind a tall counter, we walked to an empty chair and sat. She lifted me onto her lap and cradled me against her chest as I nibbled on one of my fingers. “When are we going?” I asked impatiently; I wanted to leave.

“We have to wait for your doctor to come and get us.” Mama looked down at me with a weak smile.

I looked at my right hand. The lady that did my treatment always had to stick a needle into the back of it, but it rarely hurt, and when it did it was just like a little pinch. But it was worth it, since I got to pick a piece of candy from the bucket after each session.

I began to grow impatient and kicked around with my legs out of sheer boredom. Mama pushed them down gently and said, “Just a few more minutes, Grace.”

I hoped that was the case, but I also didn’t. Chemo typically would last anywhere up to four hours, and sometimes overnight.

Finally, a tall familiar man poked around the corner. “Grace.” He looked at me with a kind smile, and Mama stood up with me in her arms.

He led us down a dim hallway, past open rooms and closed rooms, and into the room he normally would take us into.

Mama positioned me on the bed, which wasn’t even that comfortable, and stood beside me.

“So, anything new with her?” the doctor asked.

“Well, she has a new bruise, and has been sleeping more than usual. Slept on the way here.” Mama stroked the top of my head.

The man adjusted his glasses and wrote something on his clipboard. “Alrighty. We can schedule another scan if you’d like. Just to see how the tumor is doing.”

Tumor? What is that? I was told I just was sick with some cancer thing called Luke or something. Maybe the tumor’s name is Luke.

“Sure,” Mama replied.

“Okay. We can do that just before you guys leave here today.” The doctor opened the door and winked at me. “The nurse will be right with you guys.” The door shut behind him and his footsteps silenced down the hall.

The room was quiet. “Mama,” I looked at her, “what’s a tumor?”

“It’s a mean lump that’s growing on your brain, causing your leukemia.” Leukemia. I’ll never remember that.

“How did it get there?”

“I’m not sure. But your grandpa had one too.”

“Grandpa Mike?” That was Papa’s dad.

Mama shook her head. “No. My dad– your grandpa Tim.”

“I don’t know him. Have I seen him before?”

“No. He got really sick.”


Mama looked sad again. I don’t think she likes it when people are sick.

She began to tell me stories of when she was younger, and when they found out he had cancer. He sounded like fun, and I wish he was here so I could meet him.

After a few more minutes of a painful silence, the nurse entered. “Hi, Grace,” she greeted cheerfully. I smiled at her, and not just because she was holding the treat bucket. “Are you ready to start?”

I nodded, even though I wasn’t. Sometimes, you just have to lie. I wanted to get this over with, as fast as possible. Sometimes, we’d have to stay overnight. Not often, though.

But I didn’t really mind it, if it stopped my sickness. It was a bit odd. I feel as if it gradually began to worsen. I’d been sleepier, more bruises and lumps showed on my skin, I felt sicker a lot more, migraines, fevers and random moments of coldness, and I even lost feeling in my hands and feet a few times. I thought this was supposed to stop all of that. But Mama told me it should get worse, then better. I don’t get why, but I believe her.

The lady unraveled a small tube next to me and propped up the pillow on the bed. I squished myself against it, and laid my hand flat so she could put the tube in.

“Okay, you’re going to feel a slight pinch,” she said gently.

I winced as the needle-tip was inserted into the back of my hand, but the sudden pain diminished as quickly as it came. There was still a slight stinging sensation lingering, but it was bearable.

The nurse carefully dragged a stand that hung bags of liquid closer to me. I never understood what that was. Water? It was clear. I wonder if it tastes good. But the pipe that latched onto my hand was also attached to a machine and those bags, so it probably wasn’t safe to drink.

The woman ripped a piece of tape off of a black dispenser and strapped it over the tube and onto my hand. She did that two more times until it was sturdy against my flesh.

Now for the boring part; waiting.

Normally I’d sleep through the whole thing, but I didn’t exactly feel tired. I kinda ruined the feeling since I napped in the car.

Moments passed. Very slowly. The nurse had left, so only me and Mama remained in place. She didn’t say a word, either. She stared blankly at the floor and picked around her thumbnail.

It took about thirty minutes for me to grow extremely bored and sleepy. I would rather feel sick every now and then than sit here for hours on end.

I began to doze off, my head bobbing every time I’d snap awake. I officially repositioned myself and fell asleep.

* * *

A bright light dragged me awake. My eyes opened and I started to worry, since my vision was blurred. I sat up quickly, not sure where I was, which was a mistake. I got dizzy and sat there until my sight cleared.

Eventually it did, and I was relieved to know I was still in the hospital room. I looked around. Mama had also fallen asleep in a chair by the wall. I giggled. Somehow, it reminded me of the various times I’d fallen asleep against the olive tree in our yard. It was my favorite place to be.

I can’t place why, though. I don’t like olives. Maybe it’s just magical? Majority of the time, when I feel sick or upset, I go sit by the tree and I feel better almost instantly.

The door opened, and the nurse quietly snuck in, assuming I was still sleeping. She straightened when she saw me upright and smiled as she closed the door and came closer to the bed. “All done,” she chirped in a blissful tone. She lightly stripped the pieces of tape off of my hand, and slowly tugged the tube away. She wiped my hand off and clicked a button on the large machine. Then she picked up the bucket of sweets and displayed it before me.

Thrilled, I grabbed a large chocolate bar, and looked at it hungrily.

Mama woke, and after a few yawns, she stood and lifted me off of the bed. We made our way to the front, where Mama talked to the counter lady again, and left.


Grace didn’t say much during the car ride home; only when I asked her a question. I didn’t mind the silence, since I was still being dragged by sleepiness, and was barely able to keep my eyes open. I almost didn’t realize my daughter drooping forward. “Gracie,” I called, trying not to startle her. But she started to startle me. “Grace.” Her head lifted quickly, and a wave of relief flooded over me.

She looked at me with confusion, then put her head against the car door.

“Before you fall back asleep, what do you want to eat?” I yawned.

It took the girl a moment. “I’m not hungry.”

Odd. She always had the same answer when I asked that question: spaghetti. “Not hungry?” I repeated aloud, astonished.

Grace shook her head. “I’m tired, Mommy.”

“I know, Sweet Pea. But if you sleep now, you won’t sleep tonight.” Maybe she would. My daughter said nothing else, but her eyes would occasionally open, then close once more.

Once we finally arrived home, my husband greeted us and lifted our child out of the seat.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked her with a grin.

“She’s not hungry,” I explained, exiting the car.

It took him a minute to fully process what I had told him. “Really?”

Grace nodded. She held her head up weakly and looked at the fence that caged our house. “Can I go sit by the tree?”

“Sure, Honey.” Her father lowered her to the ground, and she quickly stumbled away with her little legs.

“Maybe it’s just the chemo,” I suggested. But that probably wasn’t it. Chemotherapy effects took a while to appear.


We both walked inside, and I sat at the kitchen table. “Chemo is starting to get expensive,” I sighed, pressing my hand to my cheek.

My husband looked at me. “Hasn’t it always been kinda pricey?” “The cost has been going up.”

“Well, I can get another job; one that’ll pay decently.”

“Then you’ll be gone for almost an entire day. You already work eight to five. I don’t want Grace to grow up only seeing her dad late at night on weekdays.” I grew up hardly seeing my father. He worked all day. When he retired, I was already twenty. And then cancer overtook him.

“What are we supposed to do, then?” My husband asked, sitting across from me. “I don’t know. Some type of fundraiser? Put up a GoFundMe page?” “We’ll figure it out. Everything will be fine.”

It better all be fine. The risk of losing our only daughter had risen within a year. I couldn’t even imagine what I’d do if she lost this battle. I looked out the window. Grace was picking flowers that were shaded by the tree’s branches and leaves. The sun behind her began to slip away slowly, and the sky was turning pink and purple. “I’ll get started on dinner,” I mumbled.


I smiled at the cluster of flowers in my fist. Most of them were yellow, and the others were white and pink.

Papa came outside and walked up to me. “Those are such pretty flowers,” he complimented. I handed them to him. “How about we put them in a water jar inside?”

I nodded, excited about the idea. Papa took my hand, and we went inside. In the kitchen, Mama was working over the stove. “What’s that, Mama?” I asked quizzically.

“Pasta.” Mama’s tone sounded upset.

I loved pasta, but I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t want to make Mama even more upset, so I’d try to eat as much as I could.

Which only ended up behind a bit less than half of what was put on my plate.

“Can I be done?” I groaned.

My parents looked at my plate. “Not hungry?” Mama asked.


“Okay, Honey. Go wash your hands and put your jammies on. Dad or I can help you brush your teeth when we’re done.”

I stretched one foot off of my chair and onto the ground, then the other. I quickly went into the bathroom, grabbing the white stool and dragging it by the sink. I turned both handles and stuck my hands under the water, rubbing soap on them and rinsing the suds down the drain.

After I finished and put the stool back, I went into my room. Pictures of me, Mama, and Papa lined the walls, along with drawings I had made throughout the years. A smaller-sized bed with pink and purple bedspread was pressed against the corner, with a closet containing toys and a dresser mirroring it. I walked across the white, fuzzy rug that was sprawled in the center of the room and pulled open a drawer from the wardrobe. My dog-speckled pajamas dropped onto the floor next to me, and I changed into them.

Before I could leave my bedroom, Mama walked in with my toothbrush in her hand, holding it horizontally so the toothpaste on top didn’t drip onto the floor. She knelt down and started to brush my teeth.

When she finished, she gave me a kiss on the head and said the usual, “Goodnight.” I heard Papa call it from down the hall, too.

“I love you,” she cooed before standing up and turning on my nightlight.

I crawled into my bed and snuggled under the warm blankets, thankful, since I was beginning to get the chills.

Mama clicked the light switch off, and my room went dark, except for a dim glow that showed itself by the door.

I was so tired, yet I was having trouble sleeping. I felt sick. Not only that, I just felt awful in general. I felt weak and shaky, and my bones and joints felt sore. I closed my eyes and imagined a sheep leap over a fence. Then another. Then another. Soon I had counted up to twenty sheep and gave up. Suddenly, when my eyes opened again, I felt even worse. I felt as if I couldn’t move. I was trembling so badly I was beginning to wear myself out. It’s probably just the chemo stuff working, I told myself. I wasn’t sure if that was it, but it felt good assuming that.

I closed my eyes again and imagined the olive tree outside. I imagined myself running outside and into the comfort of the tree, huddled under the branch that jutted out of the front. Then it started to feel real. Too real. I could feel the grass blades skimming across my feet.

I felt awful. The worst I’d ever felt before. As I squished myself against the tree, eyes jammed shut as I wished the feelings away, they immediately faltered. I didn’t feel sick. I wasn’t in pain. I felt amazing. I opened my eyes. I was outside, feeling the best I’d ever felt in my entire life. I turned to the tree and wrapped my arms around it in a hug. “Thank you!” I cried. It had once again saved me from the sicknesses.

I sat there for a while, staring up at the night sky. But when I tried to open my eyes again, to wake myself from this dream, it didn’t do anything. They were open. And they were staring at the sky.

All of a sudden, a shrill scream echoed out from the house.

I stood up quickly and ran inside. I ran down the hall and to my room, where I saw Mama kneeling over my bed with her head pressed against something. A body. “Mama?” I went up to her, but she ignored me. I looked at the body. It was me. I giggled, even though I was confused. “Who’s that?” Maybe Mama got me a twin, or some life-sized doll of me.

Mama ignored me again. Her sobs grew loud, and she screamed a few more times as she shook the limp frame. Papa darted into the room and sat beside her. Eventually, he began to cry, too.

“What’s wrong?” I repeated, louder.

No response.

I grabbed Mama’s hand. “Mama, I’m right here.” She continued to ignore me. I started to cry. Mama was beginning to worry me. I’d never seen either of them so sad.

“Don’t cry,” an older, frail voice echoed behind me.

I turned around. An old man stood in the doorway. He had no hair, and glasses. I’d never seen him before. “Who are you?” I sniffed.

“I’m your grandpa Tim, Grace.”

My crying had stopped. I thought he wasn’t here?

The man’s arm extended, outstretching his hand to me. “Come on. We’re all waiting for you, little one.”


Months had passed. Many months. The house had grown quiet, and neither me nor my husband could make it even halfway down the hallway anymore.

Grace had left us for good; on a night where she seemed fine.

I felt numb. I knew I was never going to see her again, but part of me still had hope.

Hope that she wasn’t dead, and she was still here. And maybe she really was still here.

Because sometimes I’d still see her.


My daughter.

Sitting under the olive branch.

Comments are closed.