I originally wrote this six years ago.
It took me a long time to publish it, but it has to be said.
I was woken early, by the sound of my mother getting dressed in the hallway outside our room. When she noticed, she motioned me back to sleep, and said that she and Dad were going to the hospital, because there had been a phone call about John.
I went back to sleep, but it was not for long. I awoke again, and since it was cold, I did not get up. After a while I heard the front door open, and that was all. Normally there would be the low murmur of their voices as they discussed John's condition or the things they had talked about with him. Today was different, there was only silence. I sensed something was wrong, and sat up. As I heard my mother's hurried footsteps on the stairs, I moved towards the end of the bed. By the time I had reached it, she was at the door. "John is dead" she said, as she reached down to hug me.
That was thirty six years ago today.
My memory of my brother is growing thin. The short time he was with us, combined with my young age at the time, mean that there is not much in my memory to retain. John was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was six, and I was only two. He spent much of his time thereafter in the hospital, or resting in his room when he was at home. I have only one clear memory of us ever playing outside together. As a result of his long periods of bed rest, John had read a lot of comics, and was considerably specific in his knowledge of warfare and weapons as portrayed in them. Since that was the only warfare we knew of back then (television was scant, movies were a rare treat), to me his knowledge seemed expert. I remember, one time when we played soldiers together in the large garden of our house, being almost frightened as he described in detail the effects of the imaginary bullet wound I had received from our imaginary enemy.
We lost him while we, his siblings, were still too young to understand that loss, and for that reason we were not allowed to go to the funeral. I vaguely remember staying at an aunt's house that morning, then being taken home to a house full of people with drinks, sandwiches and biscuits; sombre neighbours and silent relatives.
Later on, I grew to know him better through the artifacts he had left behind; the comics, the books, the photos. His clothes, his glasses, the wig he wore when the chemotherapy took his hair, and even the wooden cross that stood over his grave until the permanent headstone could be prepared, and which lay in the rafters of the garage for a seemingly interminable time; painful to keep, but too painful to throw away. All of this was a reminder of a person who was no more, but we kept it with us, as if he was not really gone, just ... away.
I felt there was a strange taboo about these things in our house. As if to ask about them would stir up old memories and open old wounds. And to throw them out would sever the ties that none of us wanted to let go of. After his death, we would visit his grave without fail on Sundays after mass, and on Christmas day, laying a wreath as his only present, and standing in silence in front of a stone that told nothing of his story, only when it began and ended.
As we grew older, my brother, sister and I became less consistent in our attendance, maybe because our memory of him was less intense than that our mother and father held, or maybe because we had our own other ways of remembering him. I don't think my mother missed a week until the illness that eventually took her made it difficult for her to go anywhere. She was the one who saw the most of him during his life, visiting the hospital probably everyday while we were at school, caring for him when he was at home.
I often read the comics and books he left behind, with his handwriting in the margins, and wondered what he was thinking when he wrote those words. Did he have dreams for the future, or did he know of his eventual fate? I sometimes wonder where he would be now if he had survived, what he would be doing, what kind of a person he would be. Would he have gone to college? What would he have studied? Would he have been the first among us to move away from home? I also wonder if his presence might have changed the course of my life somehow. I am sure it would have, in as much as his death changed the course of my whole family's path through life. Had that event not taken place much could have been different.
My mother took it the hardest, devoting herself to gardening to fill the time she had spent tending to John's needs. My father, as far as I can recall, did not show his loss as publicly, only referring to it on occasions such as John's anniversary or Christmas, but as I am now a father too, I know how deep it must have been.
Every day, I thank my children for being healthy, (even though we have had some scares,) and pray that they will stay that way. And I hope that John, wherever he is now, is watching over them. I
will never forget him, and I think that the imaginary bullet wound he gave me will never really heal.
Copyright (C) 2011 A.Keyes All Rights Reserved.