THE BLUE HAT
by Linda Juliano
Allison dragged fear and exhaustion behind her like a steer straining against a yoke as she followed the dirt path around one of several man-made lakes in Golden Gate Park. Thick, cold morning fog wrapped around the tall pines, absorbing the noise of the surrounding city. The only discernable sounds came from the geese as they honked and splashed, aggressively pursuing one another across the water.
She gripped the back of one of the two side-by-side forest-green benches for balance, lowering herself with the care of someone far older than her thirty-two years. Pulling her wool coat tighter across her chest, she released a tired breath in one long exhale. The chemo treatments had ended a few days earlier, but the physical effects of the poison still lingered, as did the emotional turmoil of having been faced with her mortality. Keeping her head above water was a daily struggle, the reality of fighting for her life an anchor around her waist.
Allison shivered as the cold, bony hand of fear gripped the back of her neck and squeezed. When had fear become a constant companion, always at her back, lurking around every corner, keeping her from experiencing joy on any level? She sat up straight, yanking her coat tight around her shoulders, scowling at the geese, the water, the trees.
The paved service road was closed to through traffic on weekdays, keeping it from the general public like a jewel hidden in the open. Foot traffic was rarely heavy at this particular lake, but it was especially light on foggy mornings.
An elderly couple strolled past the lake, the sound of errant pebbles crunching beneath their feet, echoing across the water. The man looked up briefly, but didn’t seem to notice Allison.
Alone again, Allison relaxed against the hard bench, the solitude welcome. Between her devoted husband, well-meaning, worried family and friends as well constant interactions with a multitude of nurses and doctors, she hadn’t enjoyed much alone time since the cancer diagnosis.
She sank comfortably into the melodic, distant drone of the fog horn, her lips curved upward. Tilting her face skyward, something caught in her peripheral vision.
A beautiful, royal-blue, velour, vintage-style hat sat at the far end of the adjacent bench. Judging by the condition it was in, it hadn’t been there for long. How had she not seen it when she first approached the benches? Her head swiveled on her neck in search of the hat’s owner. With no one in sight, Allison bit down on her lower lip and scooted to the end of the bench, stretching until the tips of her fingers reached the hat.
She removed her leather gloves and ran bare fingers over the smooth, luxurious texture of the velour, then raised it to her cheek, drawing in the faint scent of lavender. Lowering it to her lap, she closed her thumb and index finger around the blue, satin ribbon that encircled the hat and crossed in the back before trailing down half a foot. It reminded her of her once-long, silky hair and how she used to twist it between her fingers when nervous or concentrating.
With another quick glance around and only a moment’s hesitation, Allison removed the knit stocking cap from her bald head and replaced it with the velour hat. The warming effect was instant, but what followed was unexpected. She sat up tall, shoulders back, chin jutting out. With closed eyes, she drew in a long breath. Was it possible she looked as glamorous as she felt?
For one glorious moment, Allison forgot about being bald and the dark circles around her sunken eyes, the sharp angles of a far-too-skinny frame and the haunted expression reflected in every mirror.
“I recognize that feeling,” came an elderly, female voice over Allison’s shoulder.
Allison startled, releasing a sound embarrassingly similar to the yelp of a small dog. “You scared me,” she said, breathless, pressing both hands against her pounding heart.
The woman stepped into Allison’s view, bringing a faint scent of lavender with her. Her thin, mauve-colored lips curved into an apologetic smile.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you. I came back for my,”—her milky, cornflower-blue eyes shifted to Allison’s head—“hat.”
Heat filled Allison’s cheeks. “This is your hat? I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have…” she trailed off, her hands rising to her head.
The woman touched Allison’s arm with gloved fingers, applying a gentle pressure. “Please keep it on. It suits you. And I can see how it makes you feel.” She dropped her hand to her side. “It does the same for me.”
Allison paused before shaking her head again. “I can’t, it’s yours.”
“Please,” she pleaded again. “I want you to.” The woman lowered herself onto the bench beside Allison in the same careful way Allison had earlier. “It’s time that hat finds a new home.” She smiled. “And it’s beautiful against your fair skin.”
Allison acquiesced for the moment, lowering her hands to her lap. “I’ll keep it on for now, but I can’t keep your hat.”
“We’ll discuss it later,” the woman said, with a quick, agreeable nod before extending a hand toward Allison. “I’m Sadie Graves.”
Allison glanced at the outline of bent, crooked fingers beneath the women’s glove before shaking her hand. “I’m Allison. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Graves.”
“Please call me Sadie.” The cadence of her speech reminded Allison of the unique accent actresses used to portray highly educated, wealthy, American women in old movies. An American accent with an odd British-sounding flair.
“It’s a beautiful name,” Allison said, before shifting her gaze to the lake again.
When a fish leaped out of the water, Sadie gasped then snorted before her hand covered her mouth. The two women looked at each other then broke into a giggle at the same time. Allison couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed. She wasn’t melancholy or morose, exactly, but sometime over the past few months, without realizing it, she’d stopped laughing.
Sadie turned her body to face Allison, running a brief hand over the French twist of her white hair. “Cancer?” she asked, her expression neutral as her eyes roamed over Allison’s face, pausing where there should have been eyebrows and lashes. She tried drawing brows on and wearing fake lashes once, but the lashes wouldn’t stay put and the brows looked clownish and obvious.
“Yes,” Allison said, her throat suddenly dry. Most people didn’t ask. In fact, people often appeared uncomfortable, or even fearful at the idea of speaking about cancer as if acknowledgment of the disease might lead to them acquiring it. “I just finished my last round of chemo a few weeks ago.” She glanced at her wedding band, twisting it around her cold finger a few times before pulling her gloves back on.
“Are you cancer free now?”
“I’ll know in three months when I have the CA 125 test done.” She blew out a breath, a little surprised she was sharing so much information. “It’s a long wait.”
Sadie nodded as understanding flashed in her eyes. “Ovarian cancer.” Her tone was sympathetic, but not pitying.
“That’s right. You’re familiar with the test?”
“I had breast cancer many years ago,” Sadie said, buttoning her coat up to her neck. “But a few friends have faced ovarian cancer.”
“You’re a cancer survivor,” Allison said, her voice pitched high with both reverence and the odd excitement that came with meeting a survivor. Every survivor’s story was like medicine, providing hope only the ones who’ve been there can give. It reminded her that no matter how close she came to death’s door, she didn’t necessarily have to step over the threshold.
The apples of Sadie’s cheeks lifted with her smile, deepening the wrinkles that framed her eyes. “I am. And so are you.”
The conviction in Sadie’s voice went straight to Allison’s core. If only she felt as confident about her odds of survival as this stranger did.
“I hope so,” Allison whispered, cringing at the anxiety in her voice. Where had that confident, optimistic side of her gone? She hated being in a constant state of fear and doubt, but she couldn’t seem to shake it. She’d come out swinging after her diagnosis, ready and determined to take on the challenge and win. But somewhere along the way, fear grabbed hold of her and hadn’t let go.
“I know so,” Sadie said with a sharp nod. “I see the fear in your eyes, Allison, but beyond it, the light of hope is still shining. And hope is a powerful weapon. Remember that.”
Irritation rushed over Allison’s skin like a hot rash as it always did when someone carelessly dangled hope in front of her. Her lips parted, words of rebuke hot on her tongue, but she remained silent. She wasn’t angry with Sadie; she was afraid to hope.
“I’m not blowing smoke up your ass, as the saying goes,” Sadie said with a crooked smile. “I would not treat your situation with such irreverence. I’ve been a victim of fear more than once in my eighty-two years. I’m familiar with the defeating power of fear as well as the strength of hope. Everyone needs hope. When you lose hope, you lose everything.”
Allison shivered and raised the collar of her coat against the back of her neck. How many times had her husband and mother said the same thing?
“I know I sound like some kind of Mary Poppins, but I mean every word.” Sadie pointed a crooked finger at the hat on Allison’s head. “That hat saved me more than once from being swallowed by despair.”
Allison tilted her head to one side, furrowing her bare brow line.
“My late husband, Tobias, gave me that hat many years ago. He was in the Air Force, so moving around was part of the deal, but it was tough. I was only twenty-two years old when we married, and close to my parents and my sisters. I cried for weeks after we left the country.” She stared across the water as she spoke.
“The hat was Tobias’s way of trying to make me feel better. It could have been new shoes or a pretty dress for all he was trying to do. Over time, though, the hat became more than an accessory. I wore it whenever he was away. At first, it reminded me of him, gave me comfort.” She shrugged, her smile tremulous. “I wore it after all three miscarriages, every time Tobias went away for long periods, when melancholy clouded my thoughts and when I learned there would never be any babies.” Sadie’s voice fell to almost a whisper. Allison struggled to hear her. “Somewhere along the way, the hat became a reminder to hold on to hope and optimism.”
Allison nodded, a stray tear rolling unchecked down her cheekbone before absorbing into her skin.
“It carried me through the fight against breast cancer and the death of Tobias,” Sadie continued. “But in truth, I graduated from training wheels a long time ago. I don’t need the hat. I wore it today out of nostalgia after I found it packed away in a box with some other long-forgotten treasures.”
Sadie placed one hand over Allison’s folded hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. “I’d like to give you the hat.”
Allison shook her head. “I can’t keep it, it’s special to you.”
Sadie smiled. “That’s exactly why I want you to have it. It will be special to you, too. And when you wear this hat, I want you to remember one thing.”
Allison looked down at Sadie’s hand still resting on her own before saying, “Hope.”
Allison didn’t know she was crying until the tears landed on the back of Sadie’s beige gloves.
“Keep the hat,” Sadie whispered.
Allison swiped her fingers across her cheeks and raised her eyes to meet Sadie’s gaze. “Okay.”
“Good.” Sadie pulled a piece of paper and pen from her clutch and wrote down her number then handed it to Allison. “As fellow warriors against cancer, we’re bonded now. Call me when you feel up to joining me for some tea and scones. I make sinfully delicious apple-cinnamon scones.” She stood slowly, her joints cracking and popping on the ascent. “I have an appointment and my driver has probably fallen asleep in the car. But I’ll expect to hear from you soon, Allison.”
Allison stayed seated, not quite ready to leave. She reached for Sadie’s hand. “Thank you. For everything. I’m glad we met. I needed this more than you know.”
Sadie smiled before turning, waving goodbye over her shoulder as she walked away. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”
Three months later, with the blue hat covering her short, spiked hair, Allison slid her cold hand into her husband’s warm palm as they made their way down the hallway at UCSF to Dr. Zhen’s office, Allison’s oncologist from the beginning.
They sat near the wall that was almost entirely glass and gazed at the view of the bay, neither of them speaking. Allison closed her eyes and took in slow, deep breaths to calm her nerves. She was about to learn the CA 125 test results. In spite of having recovered most of her optimistic personality and tendency to lean into hope, being inside the hospital was proving to be more of a challenge to her resolve than she’d anticipated.
When she opened her eyes, she smiled at the reflection in the window of the velour hat perched on her head. It was like having Sadie with her, whispering reminders of the power of hope. Allison stroked the side of the hat, her fingers relishing the soft material. She used to do the same thing with the ear of a worn, stuffed bunny when she was a child.
“Allison Walker,” a nurse announced, holding a clipboard as her eyes searched the waiting room.
Allison met Jacob’s gaze. “Here we go,” she whispered, squeezing Jacob’s hand.
With every step, Allison’s heart raced, her palms began to sweat, her stomach fluttered and the nerves in her fingers tingled. Just like that, her resolve to be positive and strong melted away. But by the time they were seated in the doctor’s office, Allison realized it wasn’t all fear she was feeling. There was excitement and hope mixed in the tangle of emotions.
Jacob and Allison sat in the chairs facing the doctor’s desk, holding hands as they waited for Dr. Zhen to come in. Jacob gave Allison’s hand a reassuring squeeze at the sound of the quick knock on the door before the doctor entered the room.
“Good morning. How are you two doing?” Dr. Zhen asked, her voice as upbeat and confident as usual. She took a seat in the high-backed, leather chair behind her desk, her eyes on the papers in front of her.
Allison watched the perfectly coiffed, petite women whose care she’d been under for many months, with respect. Dr. Zhen was kind, smart and honest. If anyone could save her life, free her from the destruction of cancer, it was Dr. Zhen.
Allison released the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and glanced sideways at Jacob, who turned to her and winked.
“Well,” Dr. Zhen said, looking from Jacob to Allison. Her slow smile lifted her cheeks and shone in her dark, almond-shaped eyes. “All clear. You did it.”
Jacob raised his face to the ceiling, pressing his palms against his eyes.
“All clear,” Allison whispered, sitting up straight as a board. “I’m clear,” she said louder, looking into Jacob’s wet eyes.
Jacob stood, laughing, “Yes, I heard.” He pulled Allison up into his embrace. “You’re clear, baby. You’re clear,” he whispered into her ear, pressing his wet cheek against hers.
As soon as they left the office, Allison pulled out her cell and called Sadie. Over the past few months since she’d met Sadie in the park, the two of them had shared several lunches and teas at Sadie’s beautiful home in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. Their friendship grew quickly, fueled by what they had in common as well as what they didn’t.
Sadie had barely finished saying hello when Allison cut in. “I’m clear, Sadie. No more cancer.” Her voice quivered.
“Oh, darling, of course you are,” Sadie said without missing a beat. “I’m putting the kettle on, so come on over. Both of you.” Sadie’s voice was strong, but watery with emotion.
“Thank you, Sadie.”
“For what, dear?”
“For the blue hat and everything that came with it.”
About the Author:
Linda Juliano is the debut author of Cadence Beach, a romantic suspense novel. She also writes flash fiction and short stories. Her first short fiction piece, Over The Edge, is available at Literary Juice online magazine. She resides in San Francisco, CA, a location rich with diverse individuals and ripe with endless story prompts. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and at LindaJuliano.com.