Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.
This piece should have been submitted by November 1, 2014, for consideration for the May 2015 issue.
I was ten when my baby brother, Brian, was born. He was the younger of twins my mother hadn’t known she was carrying. Brian was just a tiny bit bigger than his older-by-four-minutes brother, so he was able to get out of the incubator and come home from the hospital first.
Since I was the oldest and already had experience babysitting my younger siblings, I felt possessive of Brian. He was the cutest baby I had ever seen. When his older brother came home, I didn’t even pay attention to him. Brian was the cute one. Bruce was the other one. And because Mom needed help when both babies wanted to be fed at the same time, I fed Brian while Mom fed Bruce.
Brian was my baby.
Because of the difference in our ages, it didn’t take long for me to leave Brian behind in favor of other interests, such as boys my own age. Ten years later, I was ready to leave home while the twins were still in elementary school. I considered them both cute by then, but they were just twerps who happened to share the same living space.
Then in 2010, my brother Brian went to the emergency room after spending a weekend at the lake with his wife and kids because he thought he had come down with a cold. He never left that hospital.
It wasn’t a cold that brought him to the emergency room. It was the early stages of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia, AML. In his case, the A could as easily have stood for aggressive as acute because just seven weeks later, Brian was gone.
He made it through one round of chemotherapy, but the remission lasted only two weeks, not long enough for his body to regain strength for him to breathe on his own. And the tube in his throat that permitted the ventilator to keep him breathing had taken away his ability to talk–but not to communicate. He used a board with letters to spell out words. Or he whispered.
During his seven weeks in the hospital, Brian taught me three things through his example. He taught me the importance of saying thank you. He taught me the importance of saying I love you. And he taught me the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.
Brian knew he was dying. He had plenty to complain about, but he didn’t complain. When the nurses came into his room to give him a shot or to take a glucose reading or to change the bedpan, Brian always whispered, “thank you,” before they left the room.
Brian had plenty to be angry about, but he never expressed anger. Whenever someone came to visit him, whether family or friend, whether the visit was one time or every day, Brian always whispered, “I love you,” before we left his room.
Brian couldn’t eat or drink anything. Tubes delivered both food and water. What he wanted most of all was a drink of cold water. And whenever a doctor or nurse asked him if there was anything else they could do for him, he would whisper, “I’d like some water, please.”
I can’t let go of Brian. His name is still in my iPhone directory. When I want to talk with his wife or his daughter, I look up Brian’s name to get the number. I have a folder in my GMail account where I keep all the messages he sent me. It also contains eight messages that arrived several months after he died, the result of someone having hacked his old account. I’ve never opened them, but the previews include statements I can just hear Brian saying, if he ever got his voice back:
“hey Sandra, I told myself to stay positive at first. . .”
“hey there Sandra, I found something that could change how you live. . .”
“hey there Sandra, I wanted to prove I could amount to something. . .”
I will hold on to those messages in order to hold on to Brian.
What are you holding onto?