In 1993, I was sitting on the indestructible grey carpet of my second grade classroom, while our teacher stood on her tiptoes to load a VHS tape into the TV. There were 45 of us there–girls in scratchy green and grey plaid jumpers, boys in playground rumpled khakis and white shirts–and we had been assembled to watch a movie. It was called Why Charlie Brown, Why? and it would teach me the most important thing I ever learned in that classroom.
As Vince Guaraldi’s iconic Peanuts theme began, everyone got comfortable on the floor, grabbing pillows and making sure they could see the screen. I saw my classmate Nick walk out of the classroom with one of the teachers. She had her hand on his back, six or so inches below his bald head, which was covered in temporary tattoos.
Nick had cancer, and it meant that his life diverged from ours like a stream that branches off of a river, maybe to rejoin it done the line. He would sometimes be absent for days on end, or go to the nurse’s office in the middle of the afternoon while the rest of us were in class. I didn’t know where he went, or what he was going through. That’s probably why the teachers had put the movie on.
Nick had cancer, and it meant that his life diverged from ours like a stream that branches off of a river, maybe to rejoin it done the line.
I turned my eyes to the TV, where Charlie Brown and his friends were waiting for the bus. I watched Peanuts at home, so I was familiar with the entire gang. When Linus appeared on screen, he was next to a cute blond girl named Janice. He’d been pushing her on the swings, and the two were clearly crushing hard. As they boarded the bus together, Janice hit her elbow on the railing.
“Ouch! Now I have another bruise,” she glumly moaned. She then starts cataloguing her bruises for Linus, showing dark purple patches all up and down her arms and legs, including some that hadn’t healed even from the week before.
“You sure bruise easily,” Linus says. “I never used to,” Janice responds.
A few scenes later, Janice says she’s feeling tired and goes to the nurse’s office. Three days later, Charlie Brown and Linus go looking for her, find out she has cancer, and visit her in the hospital. Over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, the Peanuts gang learn all about cancer, and its warning signs. Then the movie ended, and I mostly forgot about it for the next 13 years.
In 2006, I was living in Florence, Italy, doing an extended study abroad program at an American university. It was a crisp November day after a week-long fall break, and I was outside. Across the courtyard, I spotted Anne, one of my best friends since middle school. She taught me how to play ping pong, and I taught her about the culinary joys of putting ketchup on eggs. We wandered the mall together, sharing small bags of chocolate-covered gummy bears, and window shopping fake silver jewelry. One day, when we both happened to be home with a cold, we spent the entire day on the phone, watching trashy TV and talking. I had to call her back multiple times when the cordless phone battery died. We drifted apart in high school, but we’d somehow ended up at the same abroad program, where we became close again.
Anne spotted me, waved, and walked over. She just got back from a trip to Istanbul, she said. She started to tell me about her trip, but I can barely concentrate on her story. We both had white skin, and our summer tans are all but gone in the fall light, but she looks ashen. While she spoke, I found myself focusing on her lips. Normally pale pink, they were now almost white.
The conversation shifted, and Anne mentions that she’s feeling really tired. She’s been getting bruises lately, bruises she can’t remember getting, bruises that take too long to heal. I flashback to the Peanuts cartoon: Janice on the swing, Janice with bruises, Janice in the hospital. Anne with cancer.
I flashback to the Peanuts cartoon: Janice on the swing, Janice with bruises, Janice in the hospital. Anne with cancer.
Anne might well have gone to the doctor without me. The fact that she’d brought up her fatigue and bruises at all meant she must have known, on a subconscious level, she was sick. But I was the one who pushed her, then and there, to call a doctor. Once I made the connection between her and Janice, I couldn’t unsee the pallor of Anne’s lips, or unknow that excessive bruising can be a symptom of deadly bone marrow diseases. “You have to get a blood test, now,” I told her.
A few hours later, I saw Anne again. She had taken my advice, and gone to a doctor, who had drawn blood to test. She heard back almost immediately: her white blood cell count was almost nothing. She had to go back and meet with the doctor immediately. The next day, she was admitted to the hospital, and Anne would spend the next few months battling to save her life from a rare bone marrow disease called Severe Aplastic Anemia.
Anne wasn’t allowed out, so I tried to bring the outside to her with stories about my crazy cat, Eva Cattiva, and my ridiculous love life. I did anything to make her laugh. Then, when visiting time was done, I’d leave, getting back on the bus to wind through the darkening streets back to my apartment. I was too revved up to eat, so I spent the week baking cookies — batches and batches of them — for everyone I knew. I gave them to my roommates, the men working in the small restaurant below my apartment, the butcher next door, all the administrators at school, and anyone else I could pawn them off on. One of the teachers eyed me closely as I handed her another plate of chocolate chip cookies. “Are you okay?” her look asked.
Recently, I rewatched Why, Charlie Brown, Why? I was struck by how many details they left out, or softened. The bedroom-like hospital room that Janice stays in was a far cry from the shared room that Anne was brought to. Unlike Charlie Brown and Linus, who wore their school clothes to meet Janice in hospital, I had to wear a full-body, pale blue medical suit before visiting Anne. Also different from the cartoon: the infinite pokes and prods, blood tests, IVs, needles. The PICC line, its gruesome name matching its equally gruesome function. And I only saw it from the outside. There were a thousand jabs I never saw, and that’s Anne’s story.
That little movie is why, years later, I still have a best friend. Thanks, Charlie Brown.
But the biggest thing that was absent from the movie: the fact that not everyone survives. Thanks to a bone marrow donor in Germany, Anne received a transplant in March of 2007, and is now a healthy 31-year-old. But in 2005, the year before Anne got sick, Nick passed away after his cancer–which had been beaten into remission when we were kids–returned.
How important was Charlie Brown to saving Anne’s life in the long run? It’s impossible to say. What I do know is that when I remembered seeing that movie in my second grade class, Anne was closer to death than any of us knew. One accidental cut, from a cutting knife or even my cat’s claws, could have bled her dry. When things are that close, every coincidence, every small decision, every awareness matters. Whether a big reason or small, that little movie is why, years later, I still have a best friend.
Thanks, Charlie Brown.