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The Wish
Author: Nicholas Sparks

 

’Tis the Season

 

 

Manhattan

December 2019

 

Whenever December rolled around, Manhattan transformed itself into a city that Maggie didn’t always recognize. Tourists thronged the shows on Broadway and flooded the sidewalks outside department stores in Midtown, forming a slow-moving river of pedestrians. Boutiques and restaurants overflowed with shoppers clutching bags, Christmas music filtered from hidden speakers, and hotel lobbies sparkled with decorations. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was lit by multicolored bulbs and the flashes of thousands of iPhones, and crosstown traffic, never speedy in the best of times, became so jammed up that it was often quicker to walk than to take a cab. But walking had its own challenges; frigid wind frequently whipped between the buildings, necessitating thermal underwear, plentiful fleece, and jackets zipped to the collars.

Maggie Dawes, who considered herself a free spirit consumed by wanderlust, had always loved the idea of a New York Christmas, albeit in a look how pretty postcard kind of way. In reality, like a lot of New Yorkers, she did her best to avoid Midtown during the holidays. Instead, she either stayed close to her home in Chelsea or, more commonly, fled to warmer climes. As a travel photographer, she sometimes thought of herself less as a New Yorker and more as a nomad who happened to have a permanent address in the city. In a notebook she kept in the drawer of her nightstand, she’d compiled a list of more than a hundred places she still wanted to visit, some of them so obscure or remote that even reaching them would be a challenge.

Since dropping out of college twenty years ago, she’d been adding to the list, noting places that sparked her imagination for one reason or another even as her travels enabled her to cross out other destinations. With a camera slung over her shoulder, she’d visited every continent, more than eighty-two countries, and forty-three of the fifty states. She’d taken tens of thousands of photographs, from images of wildlife in the Okavango Delta in Botswana to shots of the aurora borealis in Lapland. There were photographs taken as she’d hiked the Inca Trail, others from the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, still more among the ruins of Timbuktu. Twelve years ago, she’d learned to scuba dive and had spent ten days documenting marine life in Raja Ampat; four years ago, she’d hiked to the famous Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, a Buddhist monastery built into a cliffside in Bhutan with panoramic views of the Himalayas.

Others had often marveled at her adventures, but she’d learned that adventure is a word with many connotations, not all of them good. A case in point was the adventure she was on now—that’s how she sometimes described it to her Instagram followers and YouTube subscribers—the one that kept her largely confined to either her gallery or her small two-bedroom apartment on West Nineteenth Street, instead of venturing to more exotic locales. The same adventure that led to occasional thoughts of suicide.

Oh, she’d never actually do it. The thought terrified her, and she’d admitted as much in one of the many videos she’d created for YouTube. For almost ten years, her videos had been rather ordinary as far as photographers’ posts went; she’d described her decision-making process when taking pictures, offered numerous Photoshop tutorials, and reviewed new cameras and their many accessories, usually posting two or three times a month. Those YouTube videos, in addition to her Instagram posts and Facebook pages and the blog on her website, had always been popular with photography geeks while also burnishing her professional reputation.

Three and a half years ago, however, on a whim, she’d posted a video to her YouTube channel about her recent diagnosis, one that had nothing to do with photography. The video, a rambling, unfiltered description of the fear and uncertainty she suddenly felt when she learned she had stage IV melanoma, probably shouldn’t have been posted at all. But what she imagined would be a lonely voice echoing back at her from the empty reaches of the internet somehow managed to catch the attention of others. She wasn’t sure why or how, but that video—of all the ones she’d ever posted—had attracted a trickle, then a steady stream, and finally a deluge of views, comments, questions, and upvotes from people who had never heard of her or her work as a photographer. Feeling as though she had to respond to those who’d been moved by her plight, she’d posted another video regarding her diagnosis that became even more popular. Since then, about once a month, she’d continued to post videos in the same vein, mainly because she felt she had no choice but to continue. In the past three years, she’d discussed various treatments and how they’d made her feel, sometimes even displaying the scars from her surgery. She talked about radiation burns and nausea and hair loss and wondered openly about the meaning of life. She mused about her fear of dying and speculated on the possibility of an afterlife. They were serious issues, but maybe to stave off her own depression when discussing such a miserable subject, she did her best to keep the videos as light in tone as possible. She supposed that was part of the reason for their popularity, but who really knew? The only certainty was that somehow, almost reluctantly, she’d become the star of her own reality web series, one that had begun with hope but had slowly narrowed to focus on a single inevitable ending.

And—perhaps unsurprisingly—as the grand finale approached, her viewership exploded even more.

* * *

 

In the first Cancer Video—that’s how she mentally referred to them, as opposed to her Real Videos—she stared into the camera with a wry grin and said, “Right off the bat, I hated it. Then it started growing on me.”

She knew it was probably in poor taste to joke about her illness, but the whole thing struck her as absurd. Why her? At the time, she was thirty-six years old, she exercised regularly, and she followed a reasonably healthy diet. There was no history of cancer in her family. She’d grown up in cloudy Seattle and lived in Manhattan, which ruled out a history of sunbathing. She’d never visited a tanning salon. None of it made any sense, but that was the point about cancer, wasn’t it? Cancer didn’t discriminate; it just happened to the unlucky, and after a while she’d finally accepted that the better question was really Why NOT her? She wasn’t special; to that point in her life, there’d been times when she considered herself interesting or intelligent or even pretty, but the word special had never entered her mind.

When she’d received her diagnosis, she would have sworn she was in perfect health. A month earlier, she’d visited Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives, on a photo shoot for Condé Nast. She’d traveled there hoping to capture the bioluminescence just offshore that made ocean waves glow like starlight, as if lit from within. Sea plankton was responsible for the spectral, spectacular light, and she’d allotted extra time to shoot some images for personal use, perhaps for eventual sale in her gallery.

She was scouting a mostly empty beach near her hotel in midafternoon with a camera in hand, trying to envision the shot she aimed to take once evening descended. She wanted to capture a hint of the shoreline—with perhaps a boulder in the foreground—the sky, and, of course, the waves just as they were cresting. She’d spent more than an hour taking different shots from different angles and various locations on the beach when a couple strolled past her, holding hands. Lost in her work, she barely registered their presence.

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