The face that glared back at me from the mirror wasn’t mine. For sure, I’d never before possessed that confident chin, and the eyes that normally would be comfortable only downcast, were bright and direct. There was a healthy luster to my skin – a glow of good health, I had never before been able to muster.
It couldn’t be the haircut and color. Going from mousy brown to sun-kissed blonde couldn’t have wrought such a change. Perhaps it was a bit to do with the fact that my overly long bangs were now off to the side and lightened up considerably. But the realization I had was how much I now looked like my cousin Geri.
All through my childhood Geri and I had been as thick as thieves. She was the bold one, and I, her loyal subject. We did everything together. I was an only child and had parents who, while loving, were wrapped up in each other and their work as scientists. My parents conceived me, but Geri brought me to life.
When we played kickball with the neighborhood kids, Geri was always a captain, and she always picked me first so that I wouldn’t be last. I was chubby and athletically inept. My parents had kept me from sports because they said I had a heart murmur, and they were worried I’d die. Geri wasn’t ever so careful with me. She pushed me, and I responded. And one golden autumn afternoon, I scored the winning goal in kickball. After that, I was never picked last.
We’d slept over at each other’s houses, and those sleepovers had become permanent when Geri’s parents died on the highway one wet New England October when Geri and I were ten. I comforted Geri, and we welcomed her into our home. Geri was grief-stricken for a very long time. Eventually, the clouds lifted, and we were teenagers double-dating together. The only time I’d left her side had been during my junior year of college when I went to Paris.
As a homebody and a follower, I had resisted the junior year abroad. Geri was the spark for all our fun. How could anywhere be fun without Geri? Geri knowing how shy I was, sat me down one night and said, “Carrie, you and I are sisters in every sense, but the literal sense and I love you. That said, live a little! We can’t go everywhere together, as much fun as that would be. We have to shape our own lives. I know that it’s hard for you to make friends, but you’ve got so much to offer and so much to learn from other people. Paris is a good start!”
So, I went reluctantly. In Paris, I lived with a family with boys aged 10 and 12, on the Ile St. Louis. Since I wasn’t a joiner, I kept to myself, taking long walks around Paris, which swept me away. I found myself wanting to share it with Geri, but when I tried to describe it to her in letters and phone calls, it sounded so flat.
Then I got sick. Not really sick, but sick enough to feel like I needed my family with me. My Mom was concerned but distant, and Dad just wanted me to feel better.
Geri said, “You know, I think I know exactly what you need. I’ll have it delivered tomorrow!”
And the next day, I opened the front door, and there she was – pink bereted and patent leather booted and holding a Styrofoam container of chicken soup! That day I started to feel better, but it wasn’t because of the soup. For the next two weeks, I saw Paris through Geri’s eyes. I had been there 2 ½ months and hadn’t been in the Eiffel Tower; never sat in a café savoring café au lait, but with Geri I did.
Geri fell in love with Paris that day too, and I couldn’t get her to leave. She found a flat for us, and we were together again. Since Geri wasn’t a student, she’d had to find a job and get a visa, but those were inconsequential obstacles to her. I taught her enough French to get by, and within another week, she had a job in the office of an American magazine.
Our French life was fun, but somehow the lines began to blur. I was tired all the time, and Geri was ‘serial dating.’ She seemed to fall in love with France, one Frenchman at a time. I felt myself getting mad at her for the smallest things. I was too tired to clean, and Geri was too busy to clean. So, I’d do it anyway and resent it quietly.
I’d see Geri once or twice a day, but she never settled down long enough for us to have a decent conversation. Then one Sunday morning, I got up to start the coffee, and my feet wouldn’t hold me. I broke out in a cold sweat and collapsed on the floor. Geri, hearing the thud, came running and found me there.
Over the next days and weeks, it became evident that my parents’ worst fears had come true. I was dying. My heart wasn’t strong enough to sustain me, and I’d need a new one. Geri, scared straight, never left my side. She’d be there in the morning when I awoke and at night until I fell asleep. My parents, of course, came to France immediately but didn’t have her bedside manner. They felt better working on solutions and left the small talk and comfort to Geri.
The problem with getting a new heart is that someone else had to die for delivery to take place. I didn’t want that, and in whispered conversations, I told Geri, I knew it wouldn’t happen. I resigned myself to dying, and I told myself I’d be fine. I had no husband or children to worry about leaving behind. I had never even declared a major at college. I hadn’t planned my life yet, and maybe this was why. I didn’t want to die, but I understood it.
But in the dark of night, I’d wake up in my hospital room and have visions of writing a bestseller or traveling the world. There was a dark-haired man, who I envisioned marrying and a little girl with blond curly hair who I’d called Annabelle. In those early morning hours, I had a life that I knew wasn’t real, but that I’d miss.
I’d wake up in the morning to find Geri beside me, and she’d ask why there were dried tears. I couldn’t hide anything from her, so I told her about my fantasy family. I could tell from time to time she’d be choking back tears, but she’d rally and ask me questions about where I lived with this family and what the bestseller was about.
One morning I woke, and Geri wasn’t beside me. Mom and Dad were, and they’d been crying.
“What’s wrong? Where’s Geri?” I’d asked.
“Honey, I have some news for you. There is a heart for you – the doctors think it will be a perfect match, and so, you’re going into surgery now. When you come out, you’ll have the heart of a lion.” Mom cried through the entire conversation. Dad’s lower lip trembled, and I still didn’t know where Geri was.
But before many minutes passed, I was drifting away as the anesthetic started to kick in. Days later, when I was alert, and Geri still wasn’t there, I asked again, “Where is Geri?”
That’s when Mom and Dad told me that Geri had been seriously injured in a car accident.
“There was nothing to be done for her, my love,” Dad said. “They gave her heart to you. It was what she would have wanted.”
Today, I looked in the mirror and saw that I’d become Geri. I did have the heart of a lion, and I’d never let her regret it. I would live our life.
And so, with new confidence and good health, I left the hospital, but not France. I couldn’t leave Geri behind.
When I finally visited the cemetery where Geri was buried, I insisted on going alone. I sat for about an hour and told Geri how grateful I was for the gift she had given me.
As I turned to leave, I felt a soft breeze, and my hat blew off. As I reached to grab it, I saw that someone was already reaching out to hand it to me. As I glanced up to say thank you, I realized the person holding it was a dark-haired man, so like the one in my dreams. We introduced ourselves and slowly walked along together until we came to a café, where my new life began.