She didn’t know how she had gotten here. She didn’t understand how one simple phone call could bring a person to their knees, drowning in a reality too difficult to grasp. The air surrounding her seemed sour and plastic, similar to an inescapable, repetitive nightmare that seemed too real to wake from. The call had been cold and heart stopping, leaving her in an insecure state of vulnerability. The call had made her quickly throw clothes into a bag and objects of importance into her purse as tears washed her still, pale cheeks. The call had brought her to the dark October streets until she found her way home, hugging those around her with confusion seeping into her veins. The call brought her to the hospital and to his bedside, her hand tightly wrapped around his as the monitor behind her sang high pitched sounds and painted neon colors across the screen.
The call may have brought her to Baltimore and to her sickly brother, but it brought more truth than anything else – a truth that reality threw at her when her back was turned. A truth that no one saw coming, like an unimaginable, cruel war. However, she knew this war more than many did – this war was cancer.
The stroke had been the trigger that brought him to Johns Hopkins, doctor’s later discovering Melanoma swimming intently through his blood, brain, lungs and stomach. The cancer was on a mission, a mission that no one could stop or interfere with – the disease was after his heart. He had never been one to admit to pain, whether it be a broken limb or the flu. He ignored any symptom and continued moving through the day without an ounce of worry or panic. His face had always been colored with strength, a defined courage that only a sister could admire. He brought forward his passion for prose and art, which brought forward her own enjoyment for the craft. He made her laugh when all she had was pain in her throat and made her angry when he made her admit to being wrong.
He was a big brother, a hero and superman in her eyes.
His left side was paralyzed and an oxygen tube climbed deep into his throat as she waited for his eyes to twitch open or a sound to jump off of his tongue. Occasionally, he would lift his right hand and she’d curl her fingers around his and press her forehead against his cold, sickly hand. She’d whisper stories from their past when he would surprise them in the middle of the day with a visit from Florida or playfully beat them up until tears were streaming their cheeks. She mentioned how he once had her convinced that he permanently bent an old tree because he sled into it one winter, even though now she knew better. The stories made his grip on her hand grow tighter, but it didn’t move a muscle in his face or allow him to breathe on his own. The only sounds the room carried were from the life support machine behind them as it monotonously beeped and the medicine as it slipped through the IV tubes and into his poisoned veins.
Looking at her brother, his body still and the wires climbing out of his skin like angry vines, she couldn’t help but wonder – was this how she looked when she suffered from the same disease?
When she returned to classes until the weekend arrived, her focus was broken and she was constantly on edge. Her cell phone was always in her lap and every time it went off during class, she quickly left the room and answered it – hoping it wasn’t bad news. Whether it was her father, my mother or one of her sister’s, the hall became gray and hazy and tears dampened her eyes. Since she had last kissed her brother’s cold hand, it seemed as if the cancer was getting closer and closer to overtaking his heart. Doctor’s had begun radiation, but it was no use and a waste of time. The cancer was too fast moving and too difficult to capture, no matter what treatments were experimented with.
When she was told that he had three months left to live, she fell to the cold ground and cried into her hands, dropping the phone by her side. The words began to burn her insides and her stomach curled and twisted inside of her. She didn’t believe it and wouldn’t believe it. Even as the weekend grew closer and they drove through the golden and crimson leaves on their way to Johns Hopkins, she couldn’t imagine him gone.
When she walked into his room for the second weekend visit, his hand wouldn’t curl around hers. A tracheotomy had been placed into his throat and every once and a while it would make a hollow noise, reminding her that he was still pushing to survive. She whispered to him, apologizing for never calling him back on her birthday two days before his stroke. She apologized for yelling at him as a child when he embarrassed her in front of her peers or when she forgot to introduce him to friends at her high school graduation. She didn’t know if he could hear her, and in truth she didn’t care. She just wanted to be with him as he fought to live one day longer in a world where death occurred every minute.
She didn’t want this minute to be his last.
That following Monday, she received a call from her father before rushing out of the apartment to class, her clothes disheveled and thoughts jumbled beyond belief. She lifted the phone to her ear and listened as his dead, tired words spoke. Her brother had less than a month left to live and the cancer had taken over his kidneys and intestines. The doctors had told him there was no use in trying any more radiation or even beginning chemotherapy – there were simply too many tumors and they were not going to stop multiplying. The following day, she woke to another call from my father. He said that her brother had one week left. Lying in her bed, she threw the covers over her head and tried to close her eyes, knowing that it was no use driving to classes when her concentration was not there at all.
At nine twenty the next morning, her father called. Lying in bed, she stared at the phone and watched as the call stopped and the ‘missed call’ sign appeared on the front screen. For another moment, she stared at it – watching the red light blink and the screen light wear away. Clutching the phone in her hand, she called him back – the tone sounding louder and longer than ever before. The tone ended and she could hear her father breathing on the other end, no words being spoken. As the air between them became thicker and uneasy, she took in a breath and closed her eyes.
“Dad?” she asked. Another few seconds went by without a word, only the sound of his raw breathing. She pushed her head further into the pillow and her fingers began to tremble as her father’s breathing tensed up and he spoke.
“He’s gone, Jen,” he whispered. Then, she couldn’t feel the rest of her body and all she wanted to do was scream.
No one would ever be able to wash any memory from the past twenty-six days from her mind. She could still smell the chemicals that filled up her brother’s darkened room in the ICU and could feel his fingers as they pressed against hers, hoping to never let go. She could see his silent, still body as it lay motionless on the cold cot and hear the nurses as they quickly moved up and down the hallways, trying to keep one more life alive. She could picture the faces of her young nephews as they tried to take in the truth that their uncle was now an angel, floating alongside them day after day. She remembered how she promised her brother she would live everyday for him and find a way to help families struggle through such a heartbreaking disease.
She had never expected life to be easy, but she didn’t dream it could be this hard. She had suffered through disease, but had her brother, her hero, by her side during treatments and surgeries. As a child, she was constantly on his heels, asking questions about the ocean or his latest poem or short story. He was always the one she could confide in and he was always the one to tell her the honest and frightening truth regarding education, family and relationships.
Without him, her life looked rugged and flat, leading into a haze of unknown territory.
However, she knew what she had promised him and that promise was one she could never let go of. She would live each day with his identity on her shoulders and their bond in her heart. She would push for her dreams, even when hardships and pain interfered. She would find a way to capture his essence in every move she made and every word she spoke. Every breath she took was more important than the last because not only was she breathing for herself; she was allowing her brother’s persona to live on.
She didn’t know how she had gotten here. She didn’t understand how one simple phone call could bring a person to their knees, drowning in a reality too difficult to grasp. Yet, when she fell heavily to the ground, she would look up and see him standing there, reaching out a hand to guide her back to her feet.